A few miles East of Ellensburg, WA, on the long winding descent into the Columbia river gorge, the little car, too small to run smoothly in both sets of the deep ruts that the semi trucks had worn into the pavement of Interstate 90, rolled from groove it had been following on the left side of the lane and dropped abruptly into the groove on the right. The lateral movement of the car within the lane was not great, maybe a foot or two, and I accounted for the motion with a simple counter of the steering wheel as I speed steadily along through the dark winter night.
I had not owned the Geo Metro long, just a few weeks, and so far it had been a positive experience. It was a cheap, tinny little car and to be sure it was no power machine, but with my lead foot and the car’s slick 5 speed transmission it could be speedy enough. Even now it was moving along effortlessly above the posted speed limit.
Another corner approached, this one a wide sweeping right hander and I turned the car in as smoothly as possible. The car responded a little sluggishly and, again, rolled up out of the groove in which I had been running and jerked into the parallel rut. With a sudden jolt the back tires broke traction and rear of the car swung wide. Surprised at the car’s motion, I responded with an equally sudden counter steer. The back end of the car snapped back, but again failed to find the groove and went wide right. Again I corrected with the steering wheel and the car responded at once, snapping back again to the left even more violently and demanding even greater correction with the wheel.
Like a pendulum swinging back and forth, the car was fishtailing wildly now and the back and forth cycle was growing ever more violent with each change of direction. I took my right foot from the gas to cover the brake but held it over the pedal without pressing down, brakes wouldn’t help I knew, they were the last resort. The car pitched again to the right, now fully 90 degrees to the lane of travel and I knew the next swing back to the left would be the most violent yet. When the car swung left, I corrected naturally but to no effect. The front wheels finally broke traction and the front of the car swung around and entered a full spin. I knew it was a lost cause and hammered the brakes as I threw an arm across my girlfriend, still asleep in the passenger seat and fully unaware of what was about to happen.
I had purchased the little Metro for the same reasons that everyone purchases small, fuel efficient cars and safety was not at the top of my list. In the fall of 1995 I pretty much had it all, a decent job, a beautiful girlfriend and I was even making slow but steady process towards my college degree. I had graduated from community college and enrolled in a teaching certification program being offered in the evenings by Western Washington University through Seattle Central Community College.
Since I lived a good distance outside of Seattle, the Geo Metro fit the bill perfectly. Its tiny three cylinder engine would sip gas and save me money. Even better, the buy-in price for the base model with no options was ludicrously low. A test drive confirmed the car was exactly the no frills transportation I needed and soon the little car and I were cutting our way through the traffic to Seattle and back three rainy nights each week.
Sometime in January, my girlfriend who was a year behind me in Community College, announced that she was thinking about finishing her four year degree at Washington State University. WSU, however, was almost 300 miles away on the extreme eastern edge of the state and if we were going to stay together it was going to mean frequent road trips. Still, I supported her decision and when she said she wanted to take a trip to see the college I volunteered to take her.
It was late when we rolled through Ellensburg but, with minimal traffic on the interstate, I pressed on in the hopes of getting just a little farther before stopping for the night. As we headed up, Ryegrass Summit, the last hump before the road dropped into a long, winding descent into the Columbia river gorge, I gradually wicked up the speed to around 70mph. The fact that there was black ice on the road never occurred to me.
The car was now fully out of control, spinning and pirouetting like figure skater as we slid across the ice. I fought for control, but it was a futile gesture and we were still doing around 50 MPH when we left the road. The right rear tire bit into the soft shoulder first and I heard the roar of pebbles as the car snapped violently around to the right. A fraction of a second later we were stopped, my headlights shining up through the branches of a leafless bush, their brightness lost in the starry sky overhead.
As adrenaline poured into my system, time slowed to a crawl and I took in the situation in an oddly calm and orderly way. The engine was silent but heater fan hummed steadily along and the radio still put forth its stream of tinny AM talk. My girlfriend sat beside me, silent but as wide awake and focused as I was. Thank God she was OK. We both were. Then I noticed that the airbag had not deployed.
I turned the ignition key and the engine scratched to life. I slipped the gearshift into reverse and noted the sound of crunching gravel as I backed the little car up a small slope onto the hard shoulder of the interstate. Leaving the engine running, I slipped the car into neutral, shot the parking brake and got out to assess the damage.
Outside, I could feel the isolation of the place. The canyon walls towered up on either side of me, the face of a cliff just two lanes away across the eastbound lanes of the interstate. On the far side of the canyon, perhaps a half mile away, the westbound lanes of the interstate worked their way up and out of the valley and between the two roadbeds flowed a small creek. Over the centuries, this creek had eroded away the surrounding rock walls, widening the canyon and creating a flat, sandy plain. That sand was our salvation.
A slow hissing sound drew my attention to Metro’s front tire. In the car’s final spin, some small pebbles had forced their way between the tire and the rim and their presence was enough to cause a slow leak. Otherwise, my car appeared to be absolutely unscathed.
Noting the twinkling of lights down the valley, I resumed my place behind the wheel and headed for civilization. As I ran up to a much more cautious 40 mph, I heard the rattle of pebbles being flung from the bead of the tire and I realized the leak was sealing itself. Slowly, we made our way to the closest town and, with no gas stations open, checked into a hotel.
We continued our journey the next day without incident. Two days later, as we headed west through the gorge on the homeward leg of our journey, I strained to see the place where we had left the road. There were no tracks, but the place itself was obvious. A small single oasis of sand in a place where the slope flattened just enough to allow the small stream to slow and meander. A hundred feet in either direction there was nothing but steel guardrails and the hard, exposed rock of the canyon wall.
Somewhere, further up the slope during our eastbound descent, the rear wheels of my little Metro had broken loose and I had begun a struggle for control. I can’t say how far that we traveled during that fight, but by the time that physics had won we were in the only place for miles where we could have emerged unscathed. To this day, I can’t explain how that happened. Perhaps it was just incredible luck, I don’t know, but maybe, just maybe, it was the guiding hand of God. As a person of faith, I would like to think so.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself