Tuesday night, as I drove home from work along Highway 9 in the Santa Cruz mountains, I passed a dying man lying at the side of the road. I couldn’t know at the time that he was dying, although I thought it likely, for his kind die weekly on our roads during the summer. He was surrounded by his friends, and there was nothing I could do, so I drove on.
But the next day, on my way to work, I knew his fate, for where he had lain were the spidery orange lines of spray paint left by the Highway Patrol investigator, and some hyacinths planted in the embankment, surrounded by cut flowers still in the florist’s plastic sheaths, there in the deep shade of a redwood forest where such flowers never grow, much less bloom, except on the occasion of violent death.
* * * *
He was a young man, I suppose, for his hobby is not for the old. Or, rather, those that persist in it usually do not reach a great age. He was a café racer, or so we call them here in the mountains, naming them for the low-slung motorcycles they ride. If you drive the mountains, you will have seen them, blurred harlequins in their riding leathers flashing by, hugging the center line or even crossing it, impatient with the slower pace of four-wheeled traffic. Theirs is a dance of the physics of rubber and asphalt, the fragile vector between the inertial ghost of centrifugal acceleration and the pull of gravity, first one knee and then the other almost brushing the rushing road beneath them as they follow the highway’s weaving path in an ecstasy of speed that has no teleology but the moment.
But this is a mountain highway used by many. No one saw what happened. His friends found him missing and turned back to find him as I saw him, lying on his back next to his bike, relaxed, as if asleep. Perhaps a passing car had leaked a bit of coolant, slippery with ethylene glycol. Or perhaps someone hurrying home took a curve a bit too fast, drifting onto the shoulder for a moment and scattering a bit of gravel on the road. It takes very little to upset the café racer’s dance, only the briefest interruption of the hard kiss of rubber and road is needed for the triumph of inertia that transforms the acceleration of a curve into the straight line of disaster.
In a different place, his leathers might have saved him from the worst of it, the savage abrasion of the asphalt that would otherwise strip him to the bones–although, lacking talcum or the slippery second skin of panty hose, the leathers themselves can inflict awful tearing wounds. On a friendly straightaway he would spin along like a hockey puck, sprained, concussed, perhaps bone-broken, but nothing from which a young and healthy body cannot recover.
But there the road was not straight, and his leathers could not protect him from the 100-gravity deceleration inflicted by the embankment he hit. When the paramedics arrived only minutes later, there was nothing they could do for a young man whose liver, momentarily weighing more than twice as much as his entire body at rest, had tried to batter its way through his abdominal wall; whose heart, almost as heavy, had torn loose from its sanctuary and pulped a lung. The next day I spoke to the man who ministered briefly to him, and saw again in his eyes the look the young man’s friends saw that evening as he straightened up and shook his head. That man has seen many like him, and he never gets used to it.
* * * *
A minute later, ten miles or so away in Santa Cruz, the blades of a helicopter whickered down to silence. It was no longer needed. Next to the road, under redwoods painted lurid by flashing lights, the paramedics, obedient to the ritual that spares us from us the face of death, put the young man on a gurney and pulled a plastic sheet over him. Not long after, even as so brief a life is measured, the road was empty again.
* * * *
His friends came back later, after visiting the liquor store in Boulder Creek a few miles down the road, where they found flowers to commemorate him. Such shrines are common in these mountains. Perhaps his friends will return again to plant a cross, as is often done, perhaps with a photo of him smiling on his bike. In the shade, the photo may last longer than others I have seen, if this they do. For a time they may even return to replenish the cut flowers, or water the ones they planted.
But memory fades, and the road calls. The flowers will die, sere stalks suggesting bones or ashes; the photo will curl and discolor until first the smile and then the face and then even the figure is gone. The spidery orange lines left by the investigator will vanish when the rains of winter wash them away. And this winter, or the next, or the next, the cross, if cross there is, its support finally eroded, will tip into the road and go spinning away under the wheels of a car, reproducing momentarily the fate it commemorates.
And now I wonder, as I pass that place, each weekday morning, and each weekday evening, how many other spots I pass where such a death has been forgotten, and I drive a little slower. For a moment.
This post was originally posted on my personal blog on August 16, 2002. There was to be no cross, and the flowers are of course long gone.
The Darcy Chronicles will return next week, with The Gifts of Dog for the People of Dog, plus news of Darcy’s new life on a ranch in Tehachapi, with a family of rodeo ropers and a serious shot at Schutzhund 3!