Baby Bison, don't tread on that pretty flower...

Baby Bison, don't tread on that pretty flower...
Custer State Park, SD; June, 2010

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Columbia, TN, United States
I am a Christian, married over 43 years to my gorgeous first wife; in 13th year as professor of education at Martin Methodist College in Pulaski, TN; 4 children and 9 grandchildren.

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

My Next Blog: Angels among us? Or perhaps the hand of God!

It seems that “My Last Blog” was NOT destined to be my last, thanks to a guardian angel, God’s hand, or just plain luck. You be the judge, but if you pick the latter choice, I won’t buy it for a minute.

Right now it’s 2 a.m. on the morning of Day 14 of my two-week road trip out west in May, 2010. I had thought I’d be writing about the many highlights of the previous 13 days: perhaps the incredible photos of wildlife – bighorn sheep, moose, bear, elk, coyote, deer, pronghorn, and others – the most prolific of my now 15 trips to the Grand Teton/Yellowstone Nation Parks area of northwestern Wyoming. Or how about the views of snow-capped mountain peaks, red-walled canyons and arches, cascading streams and rivers, roaring waterfalls, many-colored sunrises and sunsets, the varied faces of thunderstorms in the distance and snow storms close up, or the glistening ice-covered lakes and intricately moist cave formations. But those memories and photographs generally tell the story of the first 12 days of my road trip. It was Day 13 that became the theme of this “next” blog.

Our first sunrise in Yellowstone National Park (YNP), three days before the accident:

Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River in their "Grand Canyon":

A majestic bull elk just off the north Grand Loop Road in YNP:

Bighorn sheep with full rack near Tower Junction in YNP:

Young grizzly just outside the Northeast Entrance to YNP near Cooke City, MT (the pass just beyond is still closed to traffic because of snow and ice):

A snowy wonderland along the Grand Loop Road in YNP the day before the accident:

A snow-covered bison just off the East Entrance Road within 10 minutes of the accident:

Day “13” could’ve been an unlucky day – though I’ve never been one to worry about that number or paths crossed by black cats, circumventing walking under ladders, throwing spilled salt over my left shoulder, stepping on sidewalk cracks or not, contemplating seven years’ bad luck from breaking a mirror – the list could go on and on... No, the number 13, while not a favorite of mine, has never really bothered me. I can even stay in room 1313 on the 13th floor of a towering hotel without getting too anxious. Day 13 of my road trip put a different perspective on the word luck – good or bad.

We were heading home. After six days of incredible weather variations and wildlife viewing in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, Day 13 was to take us to our last scenic area – the Black Hills and Badlands of western South Dakota with Mt. Rushmore’s stone-etched presidents, the Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer State Park’s photogenic wildlife (bison, bighorns, and burros), and other attractions near Rapid City. As it turned out, that experience was never going to happen…at least not this May.

It started with an earlier-than-planned departure from the Yellowstone River Motel in Gardiner, Montana, less than a mile outside the North Entrance Arch of Yellowstone Park. We had enjoyed our third night at this chosen base camp for wildlife photo safaris and were ready for an early start toward South Dakota and then home. By 4:35 a.m. we were packed in my 2009 Nissan Sentra and headed across the park for the final time and then out the East Entrance to Cody, Wyoming and South Dakota. We even contemplated a quick side trip to Devil’s Tower. Before exiting the motel I made one last call to the Yellowstone Park road conditions hotline. What I got was the same message I’d heard late the night before. The professionally competent, ranger-like voice indicated no road closures except Dunraven Pass from Tower to Canyon. The last revised update was from 1:30 p.m. the previous afternoon. While this seemed a little strange, we had no reason to doubt the normally carefully-kept and accurate warning message system. I didn’t realize until later that “all” park rangers had been assisting with an emergency rescue in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River area the day before which found them exhausted and working until the wee morning hours of this Day 13. This meant that the road report and possible need to close the soon-to-become dangerous South and East Entrance roads were assignments neglected until later that morning. We were apparently the first to have needed that task completed efficiently.

After about 1½ hours driving slowly over snowy but as yet not slippery roads averaging, according to my car’s computer info, 34 miles per hour (with nary a slip or slide) from Mammoth to Norris to Canyon to Fishing Bridge on the Grand Loop Road, we began making our meticulous way out the 26-mile East Entrance Road across Sylvan Pass. Even had we been able to get cell phone service and call one last time for a road report, it wouldn’t have mattered since no update had been forthcoming to the hotline. Only later did we realize just how dangerous the eight mile downward grade from the top of the pass to the entrance had become…God didn’t let us make it that far.

Little did I know that I would soon relinquish control of my Sentra to a third party. I’m not sure if God himself, his Spirit, his Son, or one of our guardian angels guided those last moments before we plunged through the snow-plow drift and down the 10-foot embankment into a tributary of Cub Creek at a fortunate 20 mph, but I am convinced that the power of my Lord steered us and made those seat belts protect us from the sudden, jolting stop of our striking the earth. The thousands of dollars of front-end damage to the Nissan and the fact that Tyler had to find by glasses which had flown from my head landing unscathed near the accelerator pedal (“Don’t move your feet, Kerbe!”) attest to the dramatically jarring nature of the abrupt cessation of forward and downward motion. We were shaken but not stirred…too much. In fact there seemed to be no injuries whatsoever. Amazing! The next day I did feel a slight soreness in the back of my neck which I will have checked out this afternoon by my wellness physician in Brentwood, Tennessee. The trauma of the sudden accident would cause me to look back over those last few seconds and relive them in my mind for the next several hours.

As I was rounding a hair pin turn to the right, I felt the car begin to slip for the first time that morning. With Tyler’s help later, I remember my verbalizations and/or thoughts going something like this: “This is not good. This is not good! I’m losing it! God help us! We’re going over!” A bare few seconds later the front end of the car, no doubt slowed somewhat by having just plowed through several feet of snow, struck the ground hard but somewhat flat and stopped instantly. The air bags were not deployed. They were unneeded and might’ve even caused us some serious injuries. The next two hours were an additional testimonial to God’s greatness and the not-necessarily-unlucky nature of a Day 13 event that could’ve turned out tragically…but didn’t – costly, inconvenient, stressful, even harrowing – but not tragic.

The rest of the story in a moment... First, it brought to mind that climactic locker-room scene from the film Facing the Giants. After the amazing come-from-behind and against-all-odds victory, the football coach asked his players one-by-one what was impossible with God. Each affirmed, “Nothing, Coach!” Whether attributing victory in a sport or protection from injury in what could’ve been a fatal accident, I refuse to believe that luck, chance, or fate had anything to do with our Day 13 story. You may disdain my guardian-angel theory or ridicule the possibility that God actually reached out and steered our vehicle straight over that embankment. We didn’t plunge 50 or more feet downward at another of those many potentially disastrous points (even into the ice-covered waters of Lake Yellowstone along which bank we drove for several miles); neither did we strike headfirst into a boulder or tree which were prolifically nearby. We didn’t slide sideways flipping over into the icy waters of the deeper and swifter Cub Creek a very few feet away. We didn’t strike the guardrail causing who-knows-what metal-on-metal sparks to ignite any of the flammable liquids in the vehicle enveloping us in a fatal fireball. Now you may think I’m getting a bit flamboyantly melodramatic. All I can say is, “You had to be there.” We missed that guardrail by a foot and landed in a relatively safe place. Did I mention that neither of us have even the slightest injury? Nothing is impossible with my God; but that was just the beginning of sage.

My 2009 Nissan Sentra off road at Cub Creek in Yellowstone National Park:

Through the snow-bank, missing the guard rail, straight in:

The first of three tows from Cub Creek to Cody, WY:

Slipping sideways around the turn, I do remember consciously thinking that you should steer into a skid like we were experiencing. Somehow I was able to straighten the car just before we went airborne and off road. I’m absolutely convinced that I didn’t do that…only God could and He did! Then what? I turned off the engine and Tyler retrieved by glasses telling me not to move my foot to ensure I didn’t step on them. We thanked God and assessed the situation. We had heavy coats on the back seat and blankets in the trunk. The ice chest was stocked with plenty of food and water and we weren’t too far off the road. I turned on the emergency flashers, we retrieved the blankets from the trunk, and we hunkered down to wait for God to fetch help. We were about 10 miles from the East Entrance and 16 miles from Fishing Bridge. This could take awhile. Within 15-20 minutes a minivan spotted us and stopped. He was a bread-delivery driver heading to Fishing Bridge. He had not room to take us but would notify the rangers as soon as he got near civilization. Did I mention there is no cell phone service around Cub Creek (we didn’t even have service at Fishing Bridge and had to use a pay phone and calling card to communicate with my insurance agent)? Within 20 more minutes a second vehicle stopped – given the conditions and 7 a.m. early hour, there wasn’t much traffic going over Sylvan Pass on May 25, 2010. This was a SYSCO 18-wheeler equipped with snow chains. My little Sentra didn’t have a chance. The driver checked on us and promised to send help – no room in his cab either. We thought God sent this as a backup plan just in case the minivan wasn’t able to get help quickly. So, Lord, what’s next?

Within another few minutes a couple from Long Island, New York, in a rented car came by heading to Cody, Wyoming, for the day. They stopped and immediately decided not to try the pass. We had our lift back to Fishing Bridge…very slowly. Within a few miles we waved down the Yellowstone Park tow truck heading to the scene. To make an already-way-too-long blog just a little shorter, suffice it to say the car was gotten out of the creek, towed to Fishing Bridge, then towed to the East Entrance where Eagle Recovery took over and towed us to Reno’s Collision Center in Cody. It seems the park tow trucks are not allowed outside the park and the Cody or other town wreckers are not allowed on the park roads. Lots of courteous, efficient God-sent messengers helped in various ways during those hours. I’m convinced it all happened precisely as God planned it.

So here we are in a comfy room in Cody Motor Lodge that Tyler’s wife had found at a great price on the Internet. It is now 3:10 a.m. on Day 14. In a few hours we will stop by Reno’s and drop my large ice chest and a few other things in the Sentra to stay here until I can retrieve the repaired auto in mid-June. You see, the further evidence of God’s handiwork is the rest of this story.

The dollar estimate for repairing the car wasn’t the problem. State Farm and our Dave Ramsey-induced emergency fund had that covered. The problem was the time involved. Cody, Wyoming, is apparently not the hub of the automotive parts distribution world. This was Tuesday afternoon and parts could be expected not sooner than Thursday afternoon. Work to begin Friday would be interrupted by the extra-long Memorial Day weekend. The estimated completion date for repairs was June 7. That would be followed by a long two-day drive home to Columbia, Tennessee. The challenge was that I was set to leave on a mission trip on June 5th. God, what can you do about that? In my semi-depressed state of mind, my faith waned. It was rather like when Abraham lied to both Abimelech and Pharaoh about Sarah being his wife/sister fearing for his life even though he had just previously received what Harding University Bible Professor Dr. Neale Prior called the three-fold promise of seed, lands, and nations. Oh, me of little faith! I went ahead and paid for three days of rental car and three nights in this motel room. Guess I was trying to help God out; at the same time still vaguely hoping for another miracle on part’s arrival and speed-of-light repair service. I didn’t really intend to be out of Cody by the weekend, but was setting myself up just in case that best-possible scenario came to pass.

Why not fly home? Too expensive! At least give God another opportunity to show what is possible. My somewhat befuddle brain tried to do a quick computation. Let’s see, with car rental, motel, and meals for at least 10 days that was…Tyler to the rescue, “$1500!” If we could find one-way tickets for about $500 each, I could return after Mission Lazarus about the middle of June and retrieve the car and the expense would be no more than staying in Cody for the next 10 days. Better yet, Delores and I could both fly out to Cody and then drive south to New Mexico to be with our daughter Kara and our grand-twins before helping them make the trip to Branson, Missouri, for the June 27 beginning of our family reunion there (three of our four children and several other extended family members committed to that time – we’re still hoping for the 4th child and his wife to be able to join us there).

With both of our wives searching the Web for cheap, next-day airfares, Tyler decided to call Delta directly. Meanwhile, with the philosophy, “Pray as though everything depends upon God and work as though everything depends upon you,” beginning to join my usually proactive self, I talked with Avis and the motel proprietors who both agreed to give credit back to my card for days two and three if we found tickets to fly out on May 26. Tyler found fares for $647…total for both of us at 12:55 p.m. the next day – not $500 each as I had hoped. Thanks again, Lord!

So here we are… Tyler is snoring and I’m composing this blog to publish when I return home. It’s approaching 4 a.m. on Day 14. We fly home today via Salt Lake City arriving in Nashville at 9:19 p.m. I bet God already knew that would give out wives time to go to Wednesday night Bible study at church and still get to the airport to meet us. Don’t tell me there is anything impossible with my God! He proved that over and over to us in the last day or so; and don’t even hint at 13 being an unlucky number…though it’s still not one of my favorites.

God's rainbow accentuates an osprey in its nest south of Jackson Hole, WY, several days before the accident:

Think I’ll try to go back to bed and get a few more hours of sleep before this very lucky Day 14 dawns. Not sure if sleep will come, but I can always doze on the plane. Can you say, “Flight attendant, a pillow, please.”

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