There are times when we know we have to count on other people for our own safety and well-being. But what happens when you’re stranded, alone, with no phone, no idea where you are, and surrounded by complete and utter black night, forest, and highway?
I had just moved to Austin, Texas about a year earlier. I was a poor, gigging musician, taking whatever feeble-paying gigs happened to stumble my way. On this particular scorching, mid-summer Saturday, I had landed a wedding gig in Concan, TX; a place I knew nothing about, playing with a band I had never even met before.
I packed up my drumkit into my 2004 black Honda Accord 2-door and, armed with only a printed map and a tank full of gas, I started the 3-hour trek to the gig. I wasn’t sure what to expect on any level.
As I got further out of the city, things got less civilized. The road got narrow. I noticed fewer buildings and more dense forest. At one point I even came to a river crossing where, after a rainy season, the swollen river was actually crossing a few inches over the road.
Against the odds, I pulled in right on time. I met the band, and for just playing together for the first time, we followed each other extraordinarily well. There’s something about musicians; after awhile, you don’t even have to tell each other where to go or what to do next. You start to sense it, almost like you’re relying on another part of your brains to communicate with each other unconsciously. Intuition guides you.
Not knowing what circumstances were about to befall me, that type of thinking was going to be especially helpful on my way home. By the time the gig was over and I packed up the drums, it was already 11 pm and I had a full three hours alone awaiting me. And I wasn’t looking forward to the drive. I’ve had many late night drives home from gigs in other cities, and it can be tricky. Imagine going to the gym for three hours, outside, in the mid-summer Texas heat, then having to fight your own internal sleep timer that’s telling you it’s time for bed.
So, I was anxious to get back.
I said goodbye, got in the car, and started the drive. Now, that same road back from Concan was not some 18-lane superhighway; we’re talking a dinky, two-lane, occasionally paved road that was felt more like an obstacle course at times.
I was about 45 minutes into the drive when I noticed something strange. It was almost like a knocking sound. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I happened to be going through another small town at the time and pulled into a deserted gas station to check things out. Seeing nothing under the car, I figured it was nothing and got back on the road.
About 15 miles later, I heard it again. “Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick…” Again, I let it go.
I focused on the road, my two headlights the only thing lighting up the otherwise pitch black path ahead of me. My eyes started to glaze over a bit from the exhaustion…when suddenly the “check engine” light flashed on the dashboard.
A flash of panic shot down my spine. “What does that mean?” It could have been anything.
Another dashboard warning light came to life. Then another next to it. But the car was still moving.
And there I faced a decision. I was 15 miles away from the last town, and no idea how many excruciating, completely dark miles until the next one. I could try and retrace my steps, or keep lumbering on with my quickly-sinking ship and hope for the best.
I decided on the latter. My white-knuckled hands steady at 10 and 2, I stayed alert and focused as I could. After about 30 seconds, dashboard lights came on, one after the other like awful fireworks. My headlights started to dim, like a setting sun slowly giving way to black night. And with what little light was still remaining, I noticed a continuous cloud of white smoke starting to seep out of the cracks of the hood in front of me. The steering wheel became rigid, like trying to turn an oil tanker, and the gas pedal went limp.
Control, in any regard, was gone.
Not knowing if my car’s engine was on fire or if it were about to explode, I reached the point where it was obvious that I had to take action. With barely a glow left from my headlights, I found a desolate driveway on the right side, perfectly perpendicular to the highway. I was able to amble the car completely off the road, stop, and get out.
With shaky hands I pulled out my phone. Nothing. I was in the middle of nowhere, and I don’t think they’d even discovered electricity yet, let alone installed cell phone towers.
I was completely stranded, in darkness, with no way of contacting anyone.
At that moment, I had reached a literally crossroads. I had never felt this overwhelming sense of panic in my life. I had no idea where I was, no clue how to find my way home, and knew nobody. If it hadn’t been for the gig money I had in my pocket, I would have barely been able to afford a box of Tic Tacs, either.
I realized that I had two choices in that moment. I could let fear and panic overtake me. I could sit in the car, hope that this was a bad dream, and then somehow the car would magically fix itself and drive me back to Austin so I could wake up in time for Sunday brunch waffles.
Or, I could accept that, these were my circumstances. And that, despite the overwhelming adrenaline and fear that were coursing through my body, I had the tools and smarts to take care of this situation and get myself home.
As the driveway ahead of me could have easily gone several miles, I knew my best bet was flagging somebody down on the highway. I opened the trunk and rifled through the pounds of drum gear to see what I could use to get attention.
I found a pack of flares that I had stuck in there a couple years ago. The only problem, I had never lit a flare before. And with no light, I couldn’t read the directions. Again, that voice of my higher self started echoing through my head: “You will figure it out.”
And I did. I lit the flare. And after a couple cars, an angel woman in a old pickup truck happened to stop. She called the police, they got a tow-truck out there and my car and I spent the night in the next town (which, ironically, was equally as far as the last town — I had broken down almost exactly right in the middle of the two).
That told me something. Maybe fate had decided I needed a test. There was no right answer. Looking backward to what was behind me, or looking ahead to the future; neither one would have yielded a solution. My problem was happening right there, in front of me. In complete darkness, with no obvious answers.
But once I got past not knowing how to answer the question, and getting the past the fear of whether or not I could answer it, I realized that I had the solution to everything I needed, right there, in my head. No matter the problem, or the circumstances; the useless phone or the sinking ship of a car or the black night or the tiny highway or the confusing flare or the smoke that clouded what little I could see; the answers were there. I just had to realize that I could find them once I had enough faith in myself to start looking.