In the spring of 1985, right before I moved out of my parents house, I had a job logging for a guy south of Darby Montana. The job wasn’t easy. I limbed and bucked timber on the landing for that company, and those trees were solid limbs from the ground on up. I was 18, 5’11’, probably weighed 145 lbs on a good day, and I was always, always, tired. I had to be on the job at 5:00 in the morning, which meant I needed to meet my ride in Darby at 4:00, which meant I had to leave the house at 3:30. Oftentimes I didn’t get home until 8:00 at night. That didn’t leave much time to sleep. After showering and eating it was usually about 9:30 before I went to bed, and it took a few minutes to unwind and fall asleep. I probably wasn’t actually sleeping until 10:00 or so. Six hours of sleep or less isn’t enough for most people, and it certainly isn’t enough for a still growing 18 year old kid working an extremely physical job. I was constantly tired.
My parents had a 1975 Olds 88 that they let me use to go to work. It was silver, had a black, peeling, vinyl top, and was about 19 feet long. The interior was a soft, red, kind of velour looking material, and it was built for comfort. It glided over the road like glass, smooth, silky, and deceptively fast. Every morning I climbed into that car and settled into the seat…and fought to keep my eyes open from the minute I left the driveway until the minute I pulled into Darby and met my ride. I remember staring at that black highway, the yellow dotted lines in the middle whipping by, the headlights illuminating brush and trees off the side of the road just enough that they caught my vision, it was hypnotic. I slapped my own face, screamed, sang at the top of my lungs, rolled the window down and stuck my head out. All those tactics worked for a few seconds, and then I’d feel my eyelids drooping again, like they were being pulled down by weights. In seconds I was dangerously tired again.
One morning I was in that same familiar battle with exhaustion. It was still dark, I had tried everything I possibly could to stay awake, including self administered slaps. I thought, after a few of those slaps, and holding my head out the window for a half mile, that I’d be good. Within a minute I found myself staring at the dashes the yellow line made, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, as they zipped past me, the trees off to the side of the road a grayish blur out of my peripheral vision. I began to notice the road was a little rough, then more rough, then violently rough, jarring me. That’s when I opened my eyes. I’d fallen asleep and was driving down the borrow pit at 65 miles an hour. I somehow corrected it, and got it back on the road without any damage, it was a miracle really. I thought, NOW, I’m awake, that won’t happen again…but I was wrong. Within three miles I was fighting to keep my eyes open once more. Fortunately, I made it to Darby without anything else happening.
I’ve thought about that morning a lot of times over the years. That could have been it for me, the end. No family, no kids, no work or hobbies, no Christmas mornings, no grandchildren, just a little gray headstone somewhere saying that I was once around for 18 years. In the decades since that happened I have never once blamed the road for not following me, never once said, if there were really roads, would they have let me drive off like that? Never once said, I can’t believe in a road system that lets bad things happen to innocent people, never once. No, I have realized the folly of my actions. Instead of trusting the road to get me there, believing that the road was solid and had a path for me, I decided that 5 hours of sleep was enough, that in order for me to get to work on time it was okay to not pull over and sleep and take the fallout. Instead I trusted myself. The road never left me, I left it.