There came a time when I found myself needing to drive from Boulder, CO to Taos, NM. My friend Jack kindly offered to go with me, which was welcome company, and extra-convenient since he had a car and I did not. It’s a 315 mile drive and takes anywhere from 4 to 6 hours depending on things like traffic and how much you speed. I prefer to make the trip at night because there are fewer cars on the road. Turns out there are more horses though, and all it takes is one horse to upset a perfectly good road trip.
We were probably minutes from the New Mexico border, but around 15 miles from the nearest town, when there it was, casually ambling left-to-right, across our lane; a grayish, brownish, roughly nighttime-colored horse. Jack was driving, but I spotted the interloper before he did. “Gah-uh-ah,” I said helpfully, waiving my hand in its direction. “Ah, yes,” Jack probably calmly thought, as he carefully and with great skill jerked the steering wheel too hard to the left. Realizing his mistake as we careened at highway speed towards the brush on the opposite side of the road, he thoughtfully slammed on the brakes and wrenched the wheel back to the right. My suddenly overactive neurons just had time to signal, “No, that’s too far,” before the car started to roll.
I had vivid and distinct impressions of each of the four stages of our single revolution.
“Oh, we’re sideways,” said my brain, sounding quite relaxed, and frankly unimpressed at being suspended in the air above Jack.
“Upside down now, eh?” it yawned next. “Huh.”
“Oh, and sideways again? How original.” Out of sheer boredom it knocked itself against the car door.
But the car had one more trick up its proverbial sleeve. As we returned to the upright position, my brain was actually slightly taken aback by the shower of dirt which now found its way inside the car and, subsequently, my mouth, nose and ears.
Jack and I sat silent for a moment, waiting to see if it was over. When the literal dust began to literally settle, it seemed reasonable to assume that we had stopped moving, so we started to cough and splutter, and check ourselves and one another for injury. Once satisfied that we were fine, it was time to take stock. We stumbled from the car, which was surprisingly still mostly car-shaped, minus a rear window, and suffering from two blowouts and some cranial damage. Unfortunately the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night is really damn dark, and our knowledge of our surroundings was limited to what we could make out in the car’s headlights. We could hear the horse snickering at us, somewhere off in the blackness, but we didn’t even know which way the road was until another car happened to come along some minutes later. It turned out that we had come to rest about thirty-five feet off our own side of the road, pointing back in the direction we had come from.
Jack’s phone didn’t have service, but mine, which had jumped to the back seat in all the excitement, did. We called AAA, and after some back and forth we found ourselves waiting for a tow-truck from San Luis (that town I mentioned that was about 15 miles back. Population 631), and one of the two active state troopers. Two troopers. For the entire state. Anyway, while Jack talked to various people on the phone, I chatted with a somewhat less helpful, if entirely well-meaning individual. The driver of the car that helped us find the road was also good enough to stop and check on us. He was a burly gent in a burly truck, and he sipped from a burly cup of soda while he asked me what had happened. When I explained that there had been a horse in the road, he said “Hmm. Probably an elk.”
I assured him that it was, in fact, a horse.
“There are a lot of elk around here this time of year,” he said. “Doe elk look a lot like horses.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well this was definitely a horse.”
“I’m sure it was an elk,” he said.
It became clear to me that there was no point in explaining that I a) was not an idiot, b) had actually seen both horses and elk in my lifetime, and c) was pretty sure the latter didn’t whinny. I just shrugged and thanked him for stopping.
“You want some soda?” he said, offering me his giant cup.
“No thanks,” I said. Fortunately, at this point Jack rejoined us with the news of help on the way. We thanked Burly again for stopping but assured him that we would be fine until the others arrived, and he needn’t delay his own trip on our account. He didn’t need much encouragement, and soon we had almost forgotten where the road was again.
The tow truck arrived in about half an hour but, since this was an accident, he couldn’t do anything until the law okayed it. The three of us waited another hour for the state trooper, who was patrolling the northwestern quadrant of the state that evening. When he arrived he gave the tow truck driver the go-ahead, and asked us a few routine questions (how fast were we going, had we been drinking, etc.) before explaining that free-range horses were pretty common here-abouts, and we were certainly not the first motorists to run afoul of them. Take that, Burly! The tow truck took us, and the car back to town where the proprietor of the San Luis Inn Motel got himself out of his bed to provide us with a couple of them. After we got the dirt out of our hair and teeth and whatnot, we found ourselves still too flush with adrenaline to feel very sleepy. We crawled into our beds anyway, and compared notes on the events of the past few hours. After approximately three minutes, we passed out.
The next day, after replacing the flats and tweaking the alignment, the gentleman at the auto shop had us on our way. We drove the last 60 miles to Taos where we taped plastic over the rear window and went about our visit. When the time came, we drove the car all the way back to Boulder, too, where it was totaled out for structural damage, and bid a fond farewell. The only visible injury sustained in the crash was a dime-sized bruise on the back of my right hand. It’s not that I recommend rolling your car, but all in all we came out okay, and given the choice between colliding with a horse and colliding with the ground, I’d choose the ground every time. So, if you find yourself up against a horse, on a lonely highway, at night, this is my advice to you: let the horse win.