In Montana They Plant Crosses by the Roadside

I’d like to be writing about the two weeks I spent in Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. About how I rolled out of bed one morning, picked up the binoculars, and spotted my first two bears of the day across Swiftcurrent Lake. About the herd of bison that trooped past the front door of Old Faithful Inn like a busload of tourists. I’d like to be writing about that, but instead I am haunted by this.

U.S. 89 north of Gardiner, Montana, a town snuggled against the north entrance to Yellowstone, is two lanes and fast. As fast as you like, actually. For in Montana most of the highway outside towns and cities—that is, most of the highway in the state—has no daytime speed limit. “Reasonable and prudent” is the guidance the signs give you. Traffic was light that late Friday afternoon as I drove down the valley through the ranch country toward the park. The road ran mostly straight and curved gently. I set the cruise control at 65. I didn’t pass a single vehicle; several passed me.

A dozen or so miles from Gardiner, the brake lights on the truck I had been trailing flashed on. I punched off the cruise control and let the car slow, then lightly braked as the truck came to a stop. Something dark lay in the middle of the road up ahead. My first thought was that someone might have hit a deer or an elk.

A moment later, the truck driver got out of his truck, so I turned off my engine and stepped out as well. I could now see, just ahead, a red car resting in the middle of the road. The front was smashed in, the windshield shattered.

As I walked forward, the scene began to unfold, piece by piece. A man staggered along the left side of the road and collapsed to the ground. He lay on his back, arms wrapped around his chest, pushing himself through the weeds with his heels. The front of the car was crushed, as though a giant foot had stepped on it. Spider webs of cracks in the windshield on both the driver and passenger sides. The front seat empty. Debris strewn across the road. Luggage, record albums. I stepped over one of them. “Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits.”

Then I saw a woman, also lying on her back in the grass to the left, bleeding from her mouth, motionless except for the movement of her head. Then, a little farther beyond, on the right side of the road, a dark green car overturned in the brush.

I walked closer, and the scene just kept getting worse. Someone beside the overturned car was speaking through the window to a person or persons still inside. Someone else had found a victim inside the red car: a man, facing backward, draped like a limp doll over the rear seat.

All those episodes of “Rescue 911” that I’d watched on TV had failed to prepare me for this. Other people who had arrived on the scene moved slowly about like me, through air that seemed thickened by our disbelief. Some knelt down by the injured, whispered words I could not hear, everyone shocked at having come across this carnage in the middle of an open highway on a sunny summer day.

I began to wish I had learned CPR or first aid or something to help me deal with what I was seeing. I turned back and asked a woman standing by her car if anyone had a phone. She said someone had already called for help. Still wondering what I could, what I should do, I walked back toward the accident.

The truck driver was bent down in the tall grass along the right side of the road. He had found yet another victim. He stood and stepped away from the man in the grass. “I don’t think he’s gonna make it,” he said, his eyes fixed beyond me, his expression grave.

I remained standing where I was, where all I could see were the victim’s boots. “Do you know how many are in the green car?” I asked.

“There’s a woman trapped in there,” he said.

“Is there anything we can do?” I asked, hoping this older man would know, would take charge.

“We need more doctors,” is all he could say.

I walked back to my car and stood there for a few moments, then concluded that I should leave. I hadn’t witnessed the accident. Others were now tending to the injured. A number of young men had begun to direct traffic around the wreck. I thought the best I could do if I couldn’t help was to get out of the way before the emergency teams arrived. A sheriff’s car pulled up just as I was leaving.

A short distance up the road, with the accident scene still visible in the rear-view mirror, something in my chest began to tighten like a knot. I began to shake. Then I broke out in sobs. I had to pull the car over to the side of the road and stop. I sat there trembling, as a steady stream of emergency vehicles from Gardiner and Yellowstone screamed past.

*   *   *

I checked into my cabin at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone, and then took a long walk among the steaming formations to clear my head. I was able to forget, for minutes at a time, what I had seen, but for the rest of the evening my thoughts kept homing back to the crash.

My reaction to the accident bothered me deeply. I had walked around in a daze, reluctant to look too hard or get too close, afraid of not knowing what to do or say, afraid to face the horror I might find. Part of my reluctance may have been the queasiness I’ve always felt in the face of injury or pain, or uncertainty, in these days of AIDS, how one could safely assist. But the crux of the matter to me was that, unlike some others at the scene, all I could do was stare. I began to wonder how much of my anguish resulted from grief over the plight of the victims and how much from guilt over not having tried to do anything to help them.

In Montana they plant white crosses along the roadsides to mark where people were killed in traffic accidents. I spotted no crosses on the road to Gardiner, but all along the 60-odd miles of rural two-lane between Three Forks and Helena, I saw cross after cross on both sides of the road, sometimes a pair or a triple, too many to keep track of.

When you see all those crosses you think, how in the world could all those people have perished along a road like this? The answer is terrifyingly simple. All it takes is a mistake in judgment or a momentary loss of control while going a little too fast or after having too much to drink. And in the instant that follows, the courses of any number of lives are brutally, senselessly changed.

When you come across the aftermath, as I did, a sick feeling fills your gut, and you can’t help but think, “There but for the grace of God, but for a mile or a minute or so….” All the obvious morals come to mind—about seat belts and airbags and the insanity of unlimited speed. You vow that you’ll drive more carefully from now on. But no one is a hundred percent alert every moment they’re at the wheel. Each of us makes mistakes, or drives too fast, or acts rashly out impatience now and then. And when you have a close call, you mentally wipe your forehead and swear you won’t do that again. I consider myself a safe driver, but I know I’ve made my share of mistakes, taken needless risks. So have you.

*   *   *

That night I stepped outside my cabin for a rare look a pristine, starry sky. It was a night to treasure, if only for being alive and safe. I picked out constellations I learned long ago and thought I had forgotten, star patterns that were somehow comforting in their predictability and changelessness.

But the constellations of crosses under Montana’s big sky keep growing. If other states marked the sites of their roadway fatalities as well, traveling down America’s highways would be like driving through a cemetery. If you etched in stone the names of those who died from traffic accidents, you would need a wall nearly as large as that of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington just for the victims in a single year.

The day after the accident, an article in a local newspaper reported that the Montana legislature was debating whether to reinstate daytime speed limits, due to the sharp rise in highway deaths since the speed limits were abolished.

A week later when I left the park, I looked for the spot where the tragedy had occurred but couldn’t find it. It was as though it had never happened. The wreckage had been cleared away. I couldn’t find any skid marks. And if any of the five victims had died, the crosses had not yet been planted.

A few days after returning home, I began looking into CPR and first aid classes through the local chapter of the American Red Cross.

David Romanowski, 1999

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