Where the Highway Splits


Where I’m standing now, State Route 58 is a four-lane highway separated by a twenty-foot-wide, deep ditch. Farther down the road, about a mile from Boron, California, the ditch disappears and the two lanes join together.

I figure the accident probably happened where the highway splits. The drunk driver probably mistakenly continued into the wrong lane, driving into oncoming traffic. I don’t know for sure, but that’s where I decided to park my car, since it’s close to where the accident report said it occurred.

The first thing I notice as I stand on the side of the road is that nothing looks familiar. The landscape is flat and brown and dotted with tumbleweed bushes, scrub sage, Russian thistle—dark green spots on tanned earth. It’s desolate and windy. I’m within ten miles, probably much less, in one direction or the other of where it happened. Saddleback Mountain is to the north, as is Boron Correctional Facility. Haystack Butte is to the south.

I feel nothing. I think: What an ugly place for it to happen.

I call it The Accident. I didn’t hear, or see, or feel any of it, or if I did, I stored it somewhere irretrievable even to me. Decades later, as a grown woman, I remember none of it. Even now. It’s a chasm so deep I’ve never seen the bottom. On one side of the rift, it’s 1993 and I’m a seventeen-year-old foster girl on summer break before my senior year of high school. I’m crawling into the middle seat of a powder blue, 1988 Dodge Caravan next to my twelve-year-old foster sister. I’ve just bought soda pop from the convenience store where the van is parked.

At seventeen, I’ve slipped the clutches of a ghastly childhood, just put a baby up for adoption, and am on track to graduate high school and go to college. I’m going to be someone, maybe an artist. I am going to live in New York or Los Angeles. I have a perfectly beautiful body free of scars and metal pins. Yet, in mere seconds, none of that will be true.

It’s 1993 on that side of the rift and we’re two and a half hours east of I-5 on our way to Barstow, California, a fanciful destination where I’m supposed to meet my biological father. Where I’ll put a face to the name Dad. A face that could overwrite the other monstrous images that claim the word. A word that tastes like the electric end of a nine-volt battery.

This dad and I have exchanged letters. When I found out he, not the piece of garbage on my birth certificate, was my biological father, I located him in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Barstow and told him the truth. He said, “Well, I’m really glad you found me here, because I could use a drink.” We both laughed—a genuine moment of connection between two lost people. This dad, Gary, seems nice—at least in the letters we’ve exchanged so far. My mom says that he was a safe, gentle port in a violent storm during the brief time they were lovers. I’m not sure what I’ll find when I meet him, but I feel a deep sense of hope that it won’t be shitty.

In the convenience store where we stop on the outskirts of Barstow, I spend twenty minutes plunging quarter after quarter into the payphone and dialing The Dad, who never answers the phone. Finally, I buy a can of soda pop, climb into the middle seat of the minivan, and tell the people who’ve driven me all this way that our detour is a bust. The last and final moment of an irretrievable before.

On the other side of the rift, darkness and suffering await. The image of me at seventeen with the soda pop crawling into the middle seat of the van loops like a stuck film reel when I try to remember what happened before the world was cleaved in two. There I am, in black shorts walking from a convenience store, soda pop in hand, on a 110-degree day, toward a minivan full of non-family, but now-family. Then, the chasm, dark and vast. Then, minutes later, there I am again—a non-self, now-self, suffering-self.

I’ve spent twenty years searching for the girl in the black shorts with a cold can of soda pop in her hand as though going through the steps of locating a lost wallet. I concentrate on where I was the last time I saw it until I lock onto the place I left it and can feel the relief of knowing it’s there, it’s retrievable. Only, in this case, I’ve never found the metaphorical wallet or any of the identification inside. Its last known location has brought me here: to this stretch of highway in the middle of nowhere. Ground zero.

I try to mentally reconstruct the events, but my memory of that day and many of the days and months afterwards are like disconnected scenes in a movie I saw once, years ago, while intoxicated. Between accident reports, conversations with others, and tiny, memory-like vignettes, I’ve been able to piece together most of what I experienced. Still, I want to get the minutiae right. It’s important to me somehow to understand the scene exactly. I wonder how hot it was that day. How long did it take the EMTs to get here? Did they come from Boron or Barstow?

These are the facts: In June 1993, I was returning home to New Mexico from a two-week vacation in the Napa Valley with my foster family when we took an ill-fated side jog off the I-5 and over to Barstow, California so I could meet my biological father, Gary. On our way back to I-5, on State Route 58—the outskirts of Boron—a driver with a .28 blood alcohol level struck our vehicle head on, killing my foster mom immediately. The drunk and his passenger also died instantly, either on impact or as a result of their truck exploding. I was sitting behind my foster mom, unrestrained, and was thrown into her seat as it came crashing back onto me. I was wedged between my seat and hers, and the side of the van folded in on me. When emergency crews arrived, they assessed me as a three on the Glasgow Coma Scale, which means I could open my eyes in response to voice, could utter inappropriate words. My arms were bent inward on my chest, my hands clenched into fists, my legs extended, and my feet turned inward.

Emergency crews extricated me with the Jaws of Life.

A medevac helicopter airlifted me to Loma Linda University Medical Center.

On the helicopter, my lung collapsed. My heart stopped beating and was defibrillated. When I arrived at the hospital, I yelled of pain in my left leg. I knew who I was, when asked, but I didn’t know where I was or how I got there. I repeated “What happened?” and “Where am I?” over and over. I had a six-inch laceration from my left temple to the crown of my head and my scalp flopped away from my skull when I leaned forward.

With me in the powder blue Dodge Caravan were my foster mom, her husband, her two children, and her nephew, The Cousin, who had joined us at the end of our vacation. My foster mom died the moment I was crushed under her seat. She died on top of me. Her children never saw; they were knocked unconscious, too. Her husband survived without a scratch.

The Cousin calls it The Crash. Years later, when we reconnected briefly, he filled in the gaps for me. He was in the far back of the minivan playing a slapping game with my foster brother, on his way to New Mexico from Northern California for the rest of the summer. He didn’t know why he was on the road to Barstow, something to do with me, his new friend, the foster kid, the one who was on vacation with his aunt and her family. They were at a convenience store, then they were on the highway again. Aunt Lisa said, “Oh my god” and then there was the sound of an apocalypse—crunching metal, screaming, a truck exploding, windows being blown inward. And the pain of his spine snapping. The van seeming to spin like a fan blade set to high.

Then there was silence.

The Cousin tried to move, but couldn’t interact with his body below his shoulders. To his right, his aunt’s son, my foster brother, was crumpled over in his seat, breathing but unmovable, caught awkwardly in his seat belt. His girl cousin, who was just in the middle seat moments before, was now on the floor on her side, convulsing. He couldn’t see the me, the foster kid, but he could hear me moaning and screaming somewhere on the floor in front of the middle seat. His uncle up in the passenger seat was awake and looking around with wide animal eyes. All he could see of his aunt in the driver’s seat was her hair. The wind was blowing her hair and she wasn’t moving. He watched her long blonde hair blow freely in the hot desert wind coming through the shattered driver’s-side window and he knew she was dead; her hair blew like a dead person’s. Before that, he didn’t know there could be a difference between how a dead person’s and an alive person’s hair blew, but now he knew. He’d never be able to forget.

He doesn’t know how long he waited. His uncle got out of the car to flag down help and he was left alone to endure the smell of fuel and burning, the smell and weight of the dry, oppressive heat, the terror of watching the truck that struck their van and the people inside burn, and the nonstop wailing of the foster kid.

He called my name, “Gloria!” But I didn’t answer.

He doesn’t know how long he waited, but he does know that I screamed and moaned and he couldn’t get to me. All he wanted was to get to me. To make the horrible noise end.

Eventually, people approached the van. Strangers. People who had been driving by. One man reached through The Cousin’s disintegrated window, grabbed his hand, and gave him his last rites. Then, he went around and one by one gave everyone left in the van their last rites, even the dead aunt. And all the while, The Cousin waited for my screaming to stop.

I suffered a traumatic brain injury in the accident, a fact that was overshadowed by torn-up guts, a crushed leg, a walker, then a cane, then a years-long limp. No aftercare. Homelessness and drug addiction. Babies and adoptions. My erratic behavior, violent mood swings, impulsiveness, and acting out were explained away by even the most well-meaning people. “Poor Gloria. She’s been through so much.” Only the acute, persistent memory loss was credited to the massive blow to my head.

But this was wrong. The side effects of the head injury were the self-harming behavior and the rage, in addition to the memory loss. It was all one in the same. Yes, I’d “been through so much,” but no one had any idea of the turmoil going on inside of me, as a non-self, as a robot or a zombie or an empty shell trying to collect the particles of a ghost that swarmed around me like a nucleus cloud. It was all one thing: the desperate attempt to be human again and the anger and frustration and fear that it would never happen.

Though my disorientation to time and place was no more than a side note in the admitting paperwork at the hospital, the questions “Where am I?” and “What happened?” dominated my every waking moment for years, lost inside the looping film reel. They were joined by other questions: Who am I? What is this? How do I do this? What’s wrong with me? Why? Why me?

My life ended and began that day. Not in a church tent revival kind of way—there were no hands laid on me. No hallelujah. My head was split open with a thousand pounds of force and, rather than the Holy Ghost entering my body and filling me with a new life, my old life and my spirit poured out of the hole in my scalp along with all the blood. I was left emptied.

When I say that I died, I mean that I had to be given six liters of someone else’s blood because mine had run out of my ruptured head and guts. I mean that without the intervention of other humans—people whose names and faces I’ll never know—I would have perished on a helicopter when I was seventeen.

But I also mean that I lost myself. Whoever I was before that moment in time—the moment when a drunk driver careened into my foster family’s van at 70 miles per hour in the middle of a hot afternoon in the Mojave Desert—I’ve never been her since. I mean that for many years, I was no one.

This is what I know: The Dad—the one I was meant to meet that day—came to visit me in the hospital. I’ve tried and tried but never can recall his face as he sat next to my hospital bed with his bombastic wife. “Gary got thrown in the pokey! That’s why he wasn’t available that day!” The Wife told me with a chuckle. But The Dad sat there quietly looking at me. I was absent, though. The me in the black shorts was dead on State Route 58, forty miles west of Barstow, a ghost wandering the tarmac with my dead foster mother and a dead stranger and a dead stranger’s friend, both of whom were probably still drunk, even in their ghostly forms, as they had been when they plowed into the powder blue 1988 Dodge Caravan at 70 miles per hour.

The thing in the bed trying to see over the enormity of the loud and chuckling wife to the face of The Dad wasn’t real. It wasn’t me because I wasn’t alive. I was neither the woman I’ve finally, impossibly become, nor the dead girl on the highway. I was an empty machine recording fragments of information I would play over and over again for the next two decades, hoping for a linear scene. Hoping that someday, it would all come together and form its own cohesive whole and I’d finally remember where the hell it was I’d left that girl in the shorts with the soda pop that day.

Standing here, I notice that it’s a busy highway and am curious if there were big rigs. Did they have to slam on their brakes? I wonder if the man who hit us crossed the grassy median that divides the two sides of the highway or if the accident occurred where the highway splits and merges farther down. If he crossed the median, why didn’t my foster mom have time to veer away? I count about four seconds between two opposing vehicles as they pass—from the time they’re about fifty feet away until they’re parallel. It’s like an SAT question: how long would it take to jump the median, accounting for the ditch, which is about twenty feet wide, and end up in the other lane? I do a quick mental calculation and guess it would probably take no more than ten seconds. I wait for more questions, more mathematical equations that can make the nebulous word Catastrophe more precise, but none come.

The traffic rushes by in screams and whooshes. I wonder how loud the collision was.

I begin to catalog the debris on the side of the highway: broken tires, an Igloo cooler, gift wrapping, food wrappers, a floor mat. I worry that our van went crashing into the barbed wire fence about twenty feet off the shoulder. Did we break it down? Did a farmer have to cover the cost of the repairs? For a long moment, I’m concerned about the farmer and I begin a new calculation: what was the exact monetary cost of the accident, including all incidental and unconsidered expenditures?

I wonder what I’m trying to figure out. I’ve imagined being here countless times and what did I expect? To find myself lying in the road, I suppose. To walk up and collect me off the highway and resume the life I was living.

Instead, what I find is a shitty wasteland of a desert highway with garbage strewn along the shoulder of the road. That’s it. That’s all I find.

I’ve spent twenty years telling the story—the before-the-chasm and the after-the-chasm story. I never remember the details of the just-before clearly. I was with my foster family—six people in the middle of a nowhere desert, one of whom was hoping to fill a Dad-sized hollow. The others were there for me and my Dad space and had no other reason to be there. That’s the last thing I know about the before, my last memory. Five people drove hours out of their way on the return trip of their family vacation I’d gone along on so that I could meet a Dad I’d only just found out about.

The Dad was supposed to meet me when I called to say I was in town, but never answered the phone.

The Cousin calls it The Crash. I call it The Accident. His word for the apocalypse is active and specific, like his memories of that day. Mine are vague and passive. He still wants to save me when we meet again years later. He needs me to stop screaming. He needs to be able to move his broken body in my direction and shut me the fuck up. He needs action. But twenty years gone, and I’ve finally left the highway in the middle of the desert forty miles outside of Barstow. My head got smashed open, I went into a com,; and I never remembered a single thing after walking out of the convenience store with my disappointment and a can of soda pop, and getting into the middle seat of the mini-van. I’ve suffered for this—for the not knowing. The truth lying just below the edge of consciousness.

The accident hollowed me out, leaving a space free to fill with something new. All these years later, I’ve built a new, impossibly good life as someone other than who I was about to become the day my Dad didn’t answer his phone. The day James Robert Copeland spent the afternoon drinking at a bar with his buddy and decided to make the long haul home, killing himself, his friend, my foster mom, and some girl I share a name with but who walked, talked, thought, and sounded different than I ever have. A girl whose memories I can still access and whose heart still beats in my chest.


Rumpus original art by Luna Adler.

Gloria Harrison is a storyteller raising teenage twin boys and building administrative infrastructures for small businesses. She's originally from the desert southwest and hopes to return to sunnier climes someday. She spends a lot of time with her beloved cat, Lump. You can read and hear more of her work on The Nervous Breakdown, This American Life, The Weeklings, Fictionaut, Other People with Brad Listi podcast, The Manifest Station, and Sweatpants and Coffee. She's also had the honor of telling her stories live at Back Fence PDX, The Moth Story Slam, and YARN. In January, 2017, a short film adaptation of her story that appeared on This American Life, "Let's See How Fast this Baby Will Go," was released by Australian director Julietta Boscolo. It is currently playing at film festivals around the world. If you’d like to read one woman’s existential mediations on life, love, pain, and children, you can follow Gloria’s blog, Excerpts from Ally Sheedy’s Purse. Gloria also has a Twitter page. More from this author →