For our Week Seven issue, I did not want to write a column. I planned to cover the Mavericks Surf Competition that shook Half Moon Bay last Saturday. When I embarked early Saturday morning, I already had a rough outline written in my head: the 45-foot waves, the perfect conditions, the unparalleled competition from around the world, the local Santa Cruz underdogs and hometown heroes.
I knew it could be the experience of a lifetime. But what I got was a reality check instead.
“You really are pretty lucky,” said the good Samaritan from the driver’s seat of her parked car, as she turned around to look at me and my photographer, Morgan, in the rear. “You probably don’t realize it, but you are.”
But I wasn’t paying any attention. I was staring right past her, through the cold, clear windshield at my wrecked gold 1995 Saturn and the broken headlight on the ground. The pieces of glass and plastic were scattered across both lanes of Highway 1. It had all happened so fast.
Like I said, it was not the morning I expected. We were on our way to cover one of the largest big-wave surf competitions in the world. I couldn’t wait to set sail on the media boat with our digital voice recorders, notebooks and our telephoto lens camera — not to mention a flock of professional journalists.
When I left Santa Cruz with Morgan and my reporter Mitch on Saturday morning, I had a lot on my mind. In my early-morning haste, I had forgotten to run to the bank and pick up some cash. I left my sweatshirt and video camera at my house. One of my photographers failed to wake up in time. Everyone was a little behind schedule. When I picked up Mitch, I switched over to the opposing lane where he was. That way, he could get into my car on the left-hand side in order to make up for lost time. I just didn’t want to be late.
Speed was the only thing on my mind. As I sped up Highway 1 that morning, I focused on two separate news stories I was writing at once. My mind raced as my thoughts jumped back and forth between my different responsibilities and various lives. In hindsight, it wouldn’t have hurt to slow down.
One car accident, two flat tires and 30 minutes later, I had other things on my mind. I sat behind the wheel of my car, wondering what just happened.
I had been driving on a blown-out tire and didn’t know it. All of a sudden, I found myself swerving from side to side, then from lane to lane. I spiraled 180 degrees, smashed into the side of a cliff and found myself facing southbound back toward Santa Cruz — not that it made any difference, my car wasn’t going anywhere.
I picked up the cell phones, batteries and cassette tapes that had taken flight across the car. Meanwhile, Morgan, Mitch and I tried to collect our thoughts.
When the sheriff showed up, he told me the wet, slick roads probably hadn’t helped any. Yeah, and the fact that I was traveling at 70 mph up Highway 1 probably didn’t help either. Why hadn’t I stopped to take a closer look at the car? Why hadn’t I just slowed down?
The rear passenger side of the car spun into the cliff first and suffered the most damage. Thankfully, nobody was sitting there — we had an open seat because one photographer failed to wake up that morning. It was the seat Mitch would have been sitting in if I hadn’t driven into the opposing lane 30 minutes earlier to pick him up on the wrong side of the street.
Maybe the good Samaritan woman was right about us: we were lucky. No one was hurt. No one except my car.
We didn’t make it to Mavericks that morning. We didn’t get to go out on the media boat with our telephoto camera lens and the big-name newspaper reporters. We didn’t get to see Santa Cruz local Shane Desmond take second place. But I learned that wasn’t important. Mitch, Morgan and I will go on to tell other stories.
And I didn’t mind getting a break and having one less story on my mind. I had been working on two stories at once for two local newspapers. I was falling behind in my classes. I needed to slow down. That night, I went home and slept for 12 hours. My own bed had never felt so good.
The lesson I learned that day was so simple, so visible. It would have made such a difference if I had taken just a few moments to stop and make sure I was on course. Maybe I wouldn’t have lost control.
If you ever find yourself swerving out of control from one lane to the next on your journeys through life, slow down.
You just might be driving on a flat.