A Simple Stretch of Highway

Brett Ortler



You memorize landmarks first. It doesn’t take long to gauge your distance based on the bends in the road or the ramshackle barn with the DIY wind turbine and a convoy’s worth of vehicles rusting in a fallow field. Then there’s the wildlife—the eagles, usually overhead at least at some point during the trip, but once in a while they surprise you from the shoulder of the road, perched on top of a dead doe that’s been there since November, but thawing out now. The other things you notice later—the lost dog signs that an owner keeps putting up all across the county, long after it’s clear the miniature corgi is either dead or stolen. As time goes on, the signs practically beg for information about Rajah, miniature corgi, who is pictured dog-smiling and wearing a visor.

But more than anything, you notice the roadside memorials. It’s usually because of the signs—rectangular, and hammered into the ground, they look like garage sale signs at first, just tucked into a ditch. When you get closer, it’s clear they a religious—crosses or hand-painted signs proclaiming bible verses, but sometimes the displays are more subdued—live bouquets that are replaced every few weeks, or a few potted plants perched near cattails, but kept up throughout the growing season. Sometimes, there are even balloons, which deflate quickly but remain tied to a down, in a ditch, as if to advertise the worst birthday party imaginable.

Once you notice one, you start to see the rest, and you learn just how many there are.

Eventually the memorials become a matter of internal geography. You cross 328th Avenue, then 329th before you hit Dahlia street, where you spot the little village of crosses, flowers and bible quotes: that’s where someone died. On my route, which I drive almost every day—there are four. It’s just 37 miles. That’s four lives gone, four people just like you, who died doing exactly what you’re doing.

When you drive a route long enough, everything you see becomes a passenger of a sort, and you end up thinking about them—at least for a moment—on almost every trip. On my rides to and from daycare I’m accompanied by eagles, and Rajah, and of course, the dead.


The kid’s name was Clint. I stopped to read the signs after the assemblage kept expanding. The dedication behind the memorials that was impressive—someone had been maintaining a memorial for years running, and they’d been expanding—like a tiny building site. When I stopped last, there were two potted plants, a cross, a wind chime, a sign with the “I can do all things through Christ” quote from Philippians, and a strange eye-like figure with a crown on top, which is seemingly a Christian symbol but one I couldn’t identify. The Donate Life sign—bright blue and the size of a miniature flag—was the latest addition; easily visible from the roadway, even at speed, it really got my attention, as it made clear that someone didn’t just die at this site, it’s where a 23-year-old kid was conscientious enough to choose to be an organ donor. According to his obituary, he helped four families, and his body was donated to science at the University of Minnesota.


Roadside memorials demarcate a fairly common occurrence. People die all the time. Globally, 53 million people die each year—that’s almost the combined populations of New York State and California, vanishing, and 151,000 people die each day, which is the equivalent of the entirety of Kansas City, Kansas, disappearing. (Of course, births outpace deaths more than 3 to 1—131 million people are born each year.)

Still, if Google Earth marked each death with a pin in real time, the world would seem to bloom with departure. On a day-to-day basis, the locations of most deaths go unmarked. Consider the house or apartment you’re living in. Most single-family homes in the U.S. are around 35 years old, but some areas—especially on the East Coast—have houses that are much older, 50 or 60 years on average, with outliers built 100, or sometimes 200, years ago. People died there, just like they have died nearly everywhere else—the park you visit over lunch, an office building, the local clinic where someone coded after a bee sting or a heart attack. We often ignore the sites themselves where death occurred, instead choosing to memorialize at cemeteries or crematory urns. Maybe it’s out of convenience—when death is sequestered to a cemetery, it’s easy to pretend it doesn’t exist. When death’s right in front of you, though, ignorance isn’t much of a defense.


Her name was Diane. I’ll never forget the sound of her voice. I’d never heard anything like it—it was a high pitch, constant whine. It took me a minute to realize it was coming from a person. It sounded like she was giving birth, except her voice was raised a few octaves. In between her wails, she’d pause say It hurts, and then staccato repetitions of I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. I don’t wait to die. Then she lapsed back into pain.

I asked for her name—she told me Diane—and I talked to her, I told her I could hear the sirens approaching, which was true, and that she would be OK, which was a lie. As I talked to her, I kept asking the other dozen or so men standing around why we just didn’t lift the truck off her, but another bystander pulled me aside and said, “We can’t, the axle’s inside of her.”

When he said that, I looked down at her, and the overturned truck, and I was struck by how hopeless I felt. In almost any situation, there’s something you can do, if you’re creative, but when death is swooping down like a peregrine falcon in its stoop, the only choice you have is to leave, or watch.

It had rained the week before—I’d hardly had any customers at the driving range across the street where I worked—so the ditches had water in them, and the water near her was a wan red. I want to think I tried to hold her hand, but I’ve thought about it so often, I’m not sure if that’s true.


I remember going to the other side of the truck—it was yellow—and checking on the other passenger. He had been belted in, but had hit his head pretty good. He was bleeding fairly heavily, so I took my green Mickman Brothers shirt off, the only thing I had, and tried to stanch the bleeding. The man moaned, and I talked to him, though I don’t remember him saying much, maybe his name. (John.) That was about when the ambulances arrived—so I went back, shivering without my shirt, and I found another in my car and closed up shop. As I turned out the lights, I heard, then saw, a helicopter land on the highway as an ambulance screamed away into the night.


When the EMS showed up, I left, but I remember looking down the road at the car that had struck the truck carrying Diane and her companion. From a distance, their car looked OK, but as I wound my way past the debris on the road, I sidestepped a constellation of beer cans. She died while in the air. He survived. The driver was drunk. The whole time, the truck’s car radio was still blaring, but there was no poignant final tune. I only remember hearing commercials.


The memorial impulse is long-standing; according to a famous study, a Neanderthal grave was found with conspicuous clumps of flower pollen above it, and the archeologist, absent other evidence, argued that it proved that Neanderthals not only buried their dead, but did so by leaving flowers on the grave. Like us. As it turns out, the supposition was wrong—later research found a handful of gerbil-like critter mounds in the area, and they happen to sock away flowers in their burrows for later consumption. So it was probably a coincidence. Then again, at the same site, the same archaeologist, Ralph Solecki, found something that everyone agrees upon. The site included the burial a 40 or 50-year-old Neanderthal—almost impossibly old for the time—and he was blind in one eye, had a partially amputated or withered right arm and likely walked with a pronounced, painful, limp. The injuries had occurred earlier, then healed (you can tell this much from the bones), so someone (maybe even a group) must have kept him alive, at least for a time, even though Neanderthals usually hunted large, powerful prey, where strength and fitness were probably essential. Archaeologists have speculated that perhaps he was valuable in some other way—as a shaman of sorts, or a prophet, though it’s not that farfetched to wonder if the Neanderthals too were familiar with that combination of intransigence and determination that comes with real love.


In an average year more than 30,000 people die in car crashes in the U.S.; according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in the two decades from 1994 to 2014, 745,090 people died in traffic accidents. We’ve fought wars for a tiny fraction of that total.

Car crashes have something else in common with combat; in both physics is loosed. At highway speed, it doesn’t take much the kid’s lunchbox to turn into a potentially fatal projectile. At 60 miles per hour, a car travels 88 feet per second. It takes the average driver somewhere from 1.5 to 2.5 seconds to react to stimuli on the road. In that time, the car travels 132 feet. If braking begins immediately, it takes another 180 feet to stop, for 312 feet in all. That’s about 50 feet short of a football field.

That’s if everything comes to a stop without contact. When it doesn’t, the math is astounding. From what I heard about the crash after ambling across the highway, the oncoming car was speeding. Somebody said he was “flying.” The highway in question has a speed limit of 65. I still drive it today, and among folks sipping their morning coffee, 70 and 75 aren’t uncommon. At night, ginned up, 80 or 85 isn’t inconceivable.

The car that hit them weighed around 2800 pounds. If it hit them straight on at the speed limit and stopped moving in 3 feet, it would have delivered 65 tons of force. At 70 miles per hour, 76 tons. At 85 miles per hour, 112 tons. Now none of those are quite right, because their truck was moving too, maybe 15 or 20 miles per hour, and it was hit almost perfectly square. Whatever the physics involved, it was enough to take a 4,000 pound truck, flip it over, and roll it three or four times until it was perched in a ditch 80 or so feet away.

The human body has trouble handling simple falls—they are the leading cause of death by injury for Americans over 65—and without safety restraints, we hardly stand a chance when subjected to the pure violence of a crash. We may not think it, but every one of us is damn fragile.


The strange thing about car crashes is not only how common they are, but how much we treat them as a natural occurrence, no different than deaths due to tornadoes or typhoons.

Of course, most car crashes are preventable, due to alcohol use, inattention, or dozing off, and none are natural. Perhaps the ubiquity and necessity of the automobile in a vast country like ours plays a part in fostering this thinking, and the notion of car accidents as being inevitable has produced another side effect: despite the incredible toll of auto accidents, aside from the happenstance roadside variants, there are no national memorials, solemn spaces, no pillars and marble anywhere for car accident victims. Part of the problem is that you’d need markers everywhere, from the lonely gravel backroad tucked into a state forest in Minnesota to the busy interstates bisecting Atlanta.

Still, it doesn’t seem right not to memorialize these many dead, somehow, but perhaps that would make us take the problem more seriously.


There is at least some hope for the future—the self-driving car, for all its other benefits, will save thousands of lives if widely adopted. The technology will no doubt have its drawbacks—it’s likely to obviate tens of millions of jobs—but as a parent of kids who will be driving in a decade or so, it cannot get here soon enough.


I’ve been thinking about that night ever since; partly because I felt guilty. It wasn’t exactly survivor’s guilt—but I felt ashamed I wasn’t prepared enough to help more. I tried to rectify that; I now have a car kit with surgical bandages and gauze, and I’ve stopped at a few crashes since, but thankfully everyone was unhurt.


From what I understand, John is still alive. I don’t know what happened to the driver, despite some efforts to track information about him down.


I don’t know why I feel compelled to write about this, but I keep coming back to it despite that it’s something I’ve been trying to let go of for years. Maybe that’s why; perhaps to let something go, you need to write it away. I suppose that’s why I wrote this piece, and this one:

Disappearance in Flight


Her pleas had a lilt to them, a pause
before the last word in I don’t want to die;
it was a sudden tilt, meant for all of us,
and not just the six or seven passersby
gathered like mourners around the truck,
the EMTs and their empty stretcher,
the cops muttering about bad luck,
and the radio no one thought to turn off,
the whine and static erupting in sudden squalls,
like hearing an argument through an apartment wall.


I went home, as there was nothing left to do,
the truck’s axle inside her, most of her blood gone.
As I left, they loaded her onto a chopper,
which settled down by the wreck
like a scavenger.


Later, I thought of her among the blown-out tires
when I found a house finch in my furnace,
its wings wound into the motor,
feathers scattered amid neatly-tied wires.


When I think of her now, I see her
framed by leaves and trash in the half-flooded ditch,
quiet, but staring hard, as if trying to determine
which of us had betrayed her and led her there,
Then she pleaded, as if we had the power
to wash away that sudden red,
as if one of us could lie down
and take her place instead.

                            For Diane