Author’s note: I have relived the events that unfolded this fateful day thousands of times in the three decades since it occurred. I have shared the story with countless friends along the way. I have written about it only one other time, in high school, when the essay assignment was to write about a life changing event. However, in sitting to write this entry, I have had two panic attacks and have stopped and started a number of times. There is much more to come, but these are the actual events as I recall them.
My last visit to Colorado was when I was eleven. My brother was 15 and had just gotten his driver’s permit. My mother and younger sister were due to join us that summer as my sister was old enough to come out. I remember talking to my mom from my great uncle’s black rotary telephone in the kitchen. It seems that we’d check in with home about once a week. I imagine it was expensive to place those long distance calls. So, instead of calling, we’d often write letters home. This particular summer I remember that my brother and I wrote letters to my mom and sister expressing our excitement that they were coming and letting them know all we’d been up to since we’d last seen them. Because the ranch was so remote, there wasn’t direct mail service. Instead, we would drive out the dirt driveway from the ranch to where it connected with a long, sometimes winding dirt road, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, that took us to the paved highway. Down the highway a bit was a store where we could mail our letters and pick up a soda.
It was always hot and dry at the ranch in August. My great uncle had a big silver, 1970’s pick-up truck. I remember it was always dirty and dusty and the truck bed had stray straws of hay, dirt clods, some tools, and the spare tire. There was a bench seat in the cab of the truck. If there were seat belts, they were tucked away in the seam where the bench met the cushioned back. The speedometer was broken. The truck lacked suspension and I remember always bouncing along whenever we went on an outing.
My brother was allowed to practice his driving on the long dirt driveway that stretched from the ranch house to the connector road and back. He was always supervised by my uncle or grandma who joined him in the cab. None of that ever stopped him from pleading with them to take the truck out alone but his request was always denied.
And so it was, on August 9, 1977, that we were ready to mail our letters home. My brother and I were ready to go, but my grandmother had a headache and wanted to take a nap. My brother asked if he could just take the truck and go the post office with me. “We’ll go and come right back”, he said. My grandmother said no and went to lie down. My uncle was taking a bath so my brother knocked and asked through the door if it was ok for us to run down to the post office in his truck. I am unsure if my uncle gave his permission, said no, or simply didn’t answer, but before I knew it my brother and I were bounding out the front door, keys & letters in hand, and hopping into the truck.
The drive to the store was uneventful. It was hot and dry outside and the dirt road kicked up quite a bit of dust. We made it to the paved highway and down to the store. We didn’t pass a soul on our way there. We gave the clerk our letters to mail and bought Dr. Peppers for the drive back to the ranch. We drove back up the paved highway and turned onto the dirt road for the long and winding stretch back. My brother, and avid Star Trek fan, decided to scare me by speeding up. I remember him saying, “Warp One! Warp Two!” as the truck sped down the road. I begged him to slow down; I told him he was scaring me. “Warp Three! Warp Four!” and I made the sign of the cross, began to recite the Hail Mary, and started to cry hoping he would see how scared I was and slow down. “Warp Five!” and we came upon a sharp left hand curve in the road by an area used as a landfill. The truck began skidding out of control and my brother tried to compensate by turning the wheel hard to the right. I remember the sound of gravel being kicked up by the spinning tires and into the wheel wells. Our speed, the dirt and gravel road, and the hard turn to the right caused us to lose traction and the truck hurled off the road, became airborne, and began to roll over. One revolution, two revolutions, three revolutions and the truck came to rest upside down on the roof of the cab.