It will never happen to me.
They’re normal thoughts that inevitably cross our minds when we encounter or hear of a tragedy, accident, or unfortunate event that happens to someone else.
As I was driving home to Wisconsin Rapids on Tuesday, November 22 for an extended Thanksgiving weekend with family my mindset on how loosely I use and feel about the rather emotionally packed word, “thankful” completely changed-just in time for the true value of the term to sink in the hardest it ever has before.
I knew it had been raining for the good part of the afternoon and the forecast called for more rain into the evening hours. I checked the weather outlook, the temperatures appeared to be well above freezing (abnormally warm for this time of year). So I decided to hit the road as planned after I finished on air in the six o’clock news. The highway was fine from La Crosse to Tomah, as I pulled off I-90 and decided to go through McDonald’s for a burger and fries after realizing my hunger needed to be met before the rest of the trek home. I scarfed down my burger and snacked on my fries as I got back on the road, shortly there after turning onto Highway 173 towards Babcock. If you’re at all familiar with this road, you know that it’s built on a former main line for the Wisconsin Valley Railroad, traveling through central wetlands, and seemingly never ends. I always joke that my biggest fear is breaking down, running out of gas, or getting into an accident on this stretch because (1) I’m afraid of the dark (2) It’s practically a scene straight out of a horror movie, but I never imagined something would happen.
About 10 minutes into that long, desolate stretch of highway, I called home to let them know my whereabouts and talked to one of my younger brothers, Ridge. I joked about being stuck behind a semi truck (which always seems to happen on that road) and told him I should be home in about 30 to 40 minutes, even though I was most likely further out than that (I always underestimate just how long it takes to travel on that stretch and then make the drive from Babcock, through Nekoosa to Wisconsin Rapids). As I hung up and set my phone back down into my cup holder, I had this odd, eerie feeling as if something wasn’t right. For a fleeting moment I thought “What if I don’t make it home?” I know it sounds so peculiar, but now, reflecting back it was as though God was trying to warn me.
For a few minutes I thought back on my fairly decent track record with driving and my one accident as a junior in high school that wasn’t my fault. Those thoughts were fleeting as my attention quickly turned to how excited I was to get home, surprise my 17-year-old brothers with an early Christmas present tickets to the Badger, Gopher football game on Saturday, and to spend time with my loved ones.
I was driving under the legally marked speed limit off 55 miles per hour, had both my hands on the steering wheel, was not using cruise control, had my seat belt properly strapped across my body and buckled tight, and was singing Dan + Shay’s new song, “How Not To,” when the unthinkable happened. I hit a slick spot on the road, catching slush under my tires I began to fishtail.
I remember trying to turn my steering wheel in an effort to straighten myself out on the narrow roadway while gentling pressing the break as to not make matters worse, but the situation escalated nonetheless. My jeep slid sideways into the other lane before tipping into the ditch on my passenger side and flipping upside down. Someone asked me if I was screaming as that would be their initial reaction, but the truth is I can’t remember exactly what was said other than “No!” I know as I began sliding I started to say, “No…no…no…” and as the ditch became more apparent my tone, volume, and urgency escalated into a yell and a slight cry as I put both my hands up to the ceiling to brace myself against the roof of my vehicle. As I felt myself flipping and heard the crunch of my vehicle against the quiet marsh ditch, my only thoughts were, “Please God, let me make it home to my family.”
It all happened so fast, but rather slow at the same time. The thoughts that passed through my mind in that fleeting moment and the images of those I cherish most that flashed before my eyes are things I will never forget. Before I knew it, I was upside down, looking around my vehicle in a state of shock I reached for my phone that was now lying on my windshield (thankfully) still plugged into the outlet charging (keeping it from shattering or flying around my vehicle to an unreachable spot). I immediately called 911, letting them know I was somewhere in the middle of Highway 173, had went off the road, and that I was okay. While talking to dispatch, a light abruptly began shining through my driver’s window. Shaking, I stretched out to roll down the window. It was a man who had been traveling behind me and watched the accident unfold, a UW-La Crosse student. He tried to open my door, but was unsuccessful. Thankfully, he was able to open my back passenger door as I unbuckled my seat belt, crawled into the back seat and texted my dad, “I went off the road on 173, I’m fine. You’re going to want to come.”
I turned to look at the front seats to see items that were sitting beside me just minutes ago floating in water. I began grabbing bags and handing them to him, as I attempted to calm myself down and embrace the fact that, “I’m okay, I’m okay.” He told me to take my time as I attempted to joke about how I over packed and now it’s an inconvenience in more ways than me making multiple trips out to my car to leave my house. He helped me carry my bags to his car as we sat in the heat attempting to warm up, waiting for police and first responders to arrive.
When fire fighters and responders arrived on scene they checked to see if I was okay, I just kept saying, “Yes, I’m fine,” looking over at my vehicle in disbelief that I was indeed, fine. They left, calling for a tow truck, leaving me with a local first responder as I continued to wait for police and my dad. I sat in the truck, tearing up on and off as I attempted to wrap my head around what had just happened. I was texting my best friend, roommate and dad when they arrived on scene. I relayed to the officer what had happened, watched the tow truck flip my Jeep over, pull it out of the ditch, and up onto the bed of the truck as I saw my dad pull up behind the officers I walked over hugging him and both my brothers as tight as I could.
My vehicle was towed to Rapids and aside from my engine being waterlogged and a few minor (barely visible) dents on the roof and passenger side it’s fine too. I’m still in disbelief and rattled at what happened and most likely will be for quite some time, but the important thing is just how thankful I am that I am okay. A variety of outcomes could have followed the incident and I’m grateful for the way things unraveled that evening (and for my incredible guardian angels that were watching over me). The scare of the unknown allowed me to reflect and realize just how incredibly thankful I was in that moment and am over this holiday season and at this point in my life, not just over Thanksgiving. I have a loving family who are truly my best friends, incredible friends and connections scattered throughout the state and in different parts of the country, and a job I love that allows me to meet new people, share stories, and positively impact the community I’m blessed to still call home.
Whatever God has in store for my future or for your future is unknown, that’s why it’s called the future. While it’s nice to plan, dream, and wish for things you want to accomplish and obtain, sometimes it’s best just to stop and appreciate what you have right now, in this moment-your life. Personally, there’s countless goals I hope to achieve, places I want to travel to, new adventures I would like to try, and certain people who I pray to have by my side through it all. But the truth is, who knows if any or all of those things will actually happen. Trials and tribulations have a way of showing us what really matters and guiding us in the direction we’re supposed to go. Learn from mistakes, find the strength to move forward from hardships, and trust in His plan. I may not know with certain what’s going to happen from year to year, monthly, hourly, or even from minute to minute. However, one thing I do know for sure is that this moment is something you can’t get back. Listen closely to others, create new memories, cherish old memories, hug your loved ones tight, and love unconditionally in the present because things can change in the blink of an eye.