One of the highlights on the drive from Dallas to New Orleans is crossing the Mississippi river on the Horace Wilkinson Bridge going into Baton Rouge on Interstate Highway 10. It’s also a lowlight, because the traffic through Baton Rouge is usually awful and it is often stop and go all the way back over the bridge.
This trip is wasn’t so bad. Now that I think about it, the last two drives I made to New Orleans were over Mardi Gras… and there were a million other folks doing the same thing. Also, there is so much construction around Baton Rouge – after Katrina a lot of people fled the Big Easy a few miles north to the capital, which sits on ground a few feet higher… at least it’s above sea level. Interstate 10 and the feeder roads are being rebuilt and that makes for slow going.
Like I said, this trip wasn’t so bad – no stop and go, only a little slowing here and there. There were no full closures due to construction, but there was still a lot of work going on. Out of Baton Rouge and into the swamps was all narrow, crowded, and fast – speed and steel.
There is no choice. You are rapidly carried along by the inexorable stream of metal, rubber, gasoline, and flesh. Bumper to bumper, going seventy five miles an hour, with cars closed in on both sides, lanes narrowed by construction cones, equipment belching diesel fumes flying by only a few feet away… that is life in this best of all possible worlds. So I am being as careful as possible, concentrated, both hands on the wheel, staring straight ahead.
So I saw it. Had a really good look at it, for a slice of a split second.
It was about the size of my head.
When it appeared from under the giant eighteen wheel truck in front of me, I saw the round shape rolling and I hoped that it was a chunk of Styrofoam, but I knew it wasn’t. I knew it was concrete.
At seventy-five, more than a mile a minute, there isn’t much time when there is something in the road right in front of you like that. It is amazing how much goes through your mind in the tiny bit of time before the collision.
I knew I was looking at a hunk of debris abandoned by the workers alongside the highway and somehow flung out into the shooting line of speeding vehicles. I fought my first reflexive urge to swerve – I knew there were cars right alongside me in both lanes. Avoidance would be suicidal. At that speed a hit on a tire would probably flip the car – certain death again. My unconscious lizard brain quickly found whatever knowledge it had of the stuff under the car – drive train, fuel lines, and exhaust system and came up with the impression of hunks of strong steel about a third of the way in from the tires.
Of course, I can remember thinking this afterward – but didn’t know I was thinking it at the time. There was not enough time. It was pure survival reflex. A tiny adjustment of the steering wheel to put the chunk right there… and it was gone.
At first there was the sound. A tremendous thump as concrete met steel. The amount of power involved at those speeds is almost unimaginable. We all drive that fast all the time – I have to purposefully will the physics involved out of my head – otherwise I would freak out. Along with the sound there is a feeling of a punch as the car jumps… and that’s it, we’re past.
I glanced at the rearview and saw with horror as the concrete, now a spinning blur, jumped up about six feet into the air. The car behind me took a little swerve, as I did, and the missile missed its windshield and then disappeared. That was it… I have no idea what happened behind me. The past is over and done before you even know what hit you.
Then there was the smell. Awful. The sharp acid of vaporized iron and a burned odor of concrete pulverized into lonely molecules. It filled the car immediately and was as frightening as the sight of the projectile itself.
There wasn’t much I could do right away. As the odor dissipated I began to test what I could. I moved the wheel a bit back and forth and tapped the brakes gingerly. All seemed to be fine. I smelt for gas from a ruptured fuel line and looked for brake fluid on the road, but saw nothing.
At the next exit I pulled off and rolled into a little rough grassy lot. I crawled down and peered under the car. The plastic boot on the front had a nice new crack and, looking from the front, I saw a line of fresh scars running down the heavy steel support beam. It was scratched, but unbroken. I had hit the thing exactly right, it had rolled along the almost indestructible beam, avoiding any of the valuable or vulnerable organs across the belly of the car.
We climbed back in and finished the drive to New Orleans.
I don’t like to think about stuff like this too much. I mean, I know I should be thankful it wasn’t any worse than it was. But I can’t help but think about how lucky we were – what if the concrete was a little bigger, or had hit a tire, or smashed a steering strut. I really don’t like to think about that bouncing rolling ball of death that kept going down the crowded highway behind me.
But in the end, you have to do what you have to do. I do have to thank the lizard brain stem that can out-think a chunk of concrete the size of my head at seventy-five miles an hour.