Inertia. Or Why I Left Helena, MT

This weekend, I noticed the camera tripod in the back seat of my car. I’ve seen it there almost every time I’ve gotten out of the car for the past few months. I last used it when I shot the video of Trish and Andy’s wedding in June. Why is it still in my car 3 months later?


Inertia, identified by Sir Isaac Newton, is physical principle that says objects at rest will stay and rest and objects in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon by an external force.

A lot of things in my life are like that. I fall into a routine, and inertia keeps me in that routine. Without a reason to break the routine, why would I? I’m not a big fan of change, although usually the most disruptive events in my life are also the most positive ones.

I’ve been thinking a lot about 1989 to 1995 -- the years I lived in Helena. I graduated from Carroll College in 1993, and really had no major desire to leave the area. I had friends there. It was inexpensive. And Western Montana is the most beautiful place on the planet.

But I wasn’t growing anymore. My career wasn’t moving forward. I knew at some point I would have to leave the $250/month house I was renting and try something new. But the inertia kept me there.

Until one night in March of 1995.

I traveled with my debates team to the Oregon to judge some competitions. On the drive back, I was one of 5 or 6 people in a 15 passenger van. We were pulling a U haul trailer filled with luggage and debate supplies. I drove from Eugene, OR to a rest stop between Ritzville, WA and Spokane, WA. Another driver took over at that point, and I sprawled out on one of the bench seats to get some sleep.

I woke up several hours later, feeling unusual and awkward G Forces. I though we were taking an off ramp too quickly. Then we stopped and an odd angle. I popped my head up to the driver asking everyone if they were okay. I look out the Window and saw the hill side closer to the window than I expected, and the interstate facing the wrong way. There was no off ramp.

Apparently, we hit a patch of black ice and started fishtailing. The trailer and back end of the van whipped around front, and we went off the road. I don’t know how many times we swung around, or if we did just a 180 or 540 on our way off the road. But we came to a stop in the ditch off the shoulder of Interstate 90 about 20 miles west of Kellogg, ID in the middle of the night, with a flat tire.

Some of the passengers were shaken, but no one was hurt. We crawled out of the van and began slipping all over the black ice covering the shoulder and the road way, and we contemplated our next step in the chilly mountain air.

A logging truck rumbled over and stopped. It towed us out of the ditch as though the van were made by Nerf instead of Ford. Seeing the truck pull the van out and lifting it 5 feet off the ground like it was nothing is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen.

Eventually we called a tow truck after several futile and shoulder aching hours trying to change the tire.

I caught a ride to town in the tow truck. About a quarter mile down the road we rounded a bend, and instead of the hillside the van spun into, the road dropped off into a valley. Had we gone off the road here the van would have rolled. Probably several times. None of us were belted in and likely would have been ejected in a crash. Several of us would have been severely injured or worse.

By just a quarter mile.

And that thought stuck with me for days.

I had previously promised myself I wasn’t going to die in Montana, but I realized then that declaration didn’t include North Idaho.

A week later, I turned in my resignation at Blue Cross and Blue Shield and began the job hunt and bi-weekly trips to Idaho that would eventually lead to my new life in Boise.

I hated to leave Helena. In fact I was angry as I drove the moving van out of town several months later. But it was time to go. And all it took was a van crash on a lonely, icy interstate for me to see that.

Today, I got out the car in my Seattle garage. And I paused at the back door. I looked at the tripod sitting on the floor of the back seat. I opened the door, picked it up, and looked at it for a few moments, thinking about life in Helena. I laid the tripod across my shoulder and headed up to my apartment.

1 comment:

Jon Clarke said...

Nice. I remmeber this story but it was well told.