So it’s Friday night and we’re driving home from Northern Virginia. It’s an ordinary night in most ways. Like any other Friday night after we’ve dropped the kids off for a visit with their father. We didn’t go straight home; instead, we stuck around in Northern Virginia for a few hours afterwards. Picked up a few riders for Uber. Paid for our gas I suppose. And stopped at a casual but brilliant restaurant in Vienna that served up light shrimp tacos with a panache and brilliance that delighted me. The tacos only cost $4 apiece, and that made me happy too.
A little later, we’re driving on Route 66, heading westward. We’re at about exit 43, right between Manassas and Centreville for those of you who are familiar with what exit corresponds with what neighborhood in the I-66 corridor. I’m a little sleepy. It’s about 10:30 and it’s been a long day. With an almost absent-minded glance, I checked Facebook messages. I spotted a text from my neighbor Jen, who lives three houses down from me. It’s somewhat unusual to hear from Jen this late at night. I thought to myself, Hope she’s okay.
Then I click over and read her message.
“El, you need to come outside right now!”
“Um, I can’t, I’m 45 minutes away from home.”
“Okay, there’s a van crashed in your yard.“
“Come again?” Now I was reading aloud from my spot in the passenger seat. “There’s a van crashed in my yard?”
“Yes, it flipped a few times and it’s stuck in the side yard.”
“Have you called the cops, the ambulance?”
I almost didn’t need to ask this question. Jen is an Air Force mechanic. Our other neighbor Scott is some sort of officer, I believe in the Air Force. And in general, these are mountain people, and they’re accustomed to emergency situations. Still I asked. And she replied:
“Yes, been called.”
“Okay, is the driver okay? Is the house okay? What about our cars?”
“He’s okay, he’s bloodied, concussed but walked from scene. Obviously had been drinking, didn’t want us to call cops.”
I smiled to myself. Thinking, Jen called the cops anyway, as she damn well should have. Whether the fellow was drunk or not, he needed medical assistance. Then I go back to reading her messages, which are brief and calm.
“The van is in the side yard. The only thing damaged possibly is your septic tank. Car’s okay. House is okay.”
“Okay, I’ll be home in 37 minutes, eta is 11:15.”
We made it home at 11:10 by taking the back road, which is called Massanutten. It’s a poorly-maintained private road that leads into our development. It isn’t paved and it experiences frequent rock slides, but when it’s passable it saves five minutes off our commute. And our Jeep can handle pretty much anything it throws at us. Fortunately that night the Massanutten’s tricks did not include any broken walls or rocks piles.
At 11:09, We pulled up to a light show. There was a fire truck, an ambulance and a red tow truck parked on the side of the gravel road that overlooks our side yard. After I ran inside to grab warmer gear, I made a quick assessment: there was in fact a van situated in the middle of our side yard. This was a fact in evidence, undeniable, incontrovertible. An avoidable fact—and a problem, I thought to myself. There was no more avoiding it than there’s avoiding a death that involves someone you care about—and again, I gave thanks that I already had some sort of warning. The note from Jen reduced the shock of seeing it.
It’s hard to explain the emotion you feel when a van’s sitting in your yard: fear, confusion, astonishment, or simply that feeling you get when you’re given a puzzle in elementary school and asked to identify an object that’s out of place. A van in the yard is not quite as inopposite as, say, a dolphin swimming in your living room—but it nonetheless makes a jarring appearance. An interesting one as well. You’re driven to figure out how and why it got there.
After I pulled on a hat and warm gloves, I climbed up the driveway and looked for Jen. She was dressed in extreme weather gear and was standing beside her husband Rob as well as three of our other neighbors: Missy and Scott, who live next door to us, and A.J., who owns the house three or four yards down from where the van driver lives as a renter. Everyone started talking at once, just about the same time the tow truck driver asked if I was the homeowner, and the fire truck gunned its engine and drove to the end of the street looking for a place to turn around, and the ambulance wheeled into a driveway and executed a sharp U-Turn.
Jen explained the accident scene to me. “Here’s where he started to slide, then he over-corrected, and he rolled down to the right, hit the septic tank, then rolled in the other direction.” She pointed to a spot on the road, which is gravel with dirt shoulders, and then used her hands to demonstrate the route the van took.
“And he’s been picked up by the ambulance, you say he’s okay?”
“He’ll be okay,” A.J. volunteered.
Someone there added, “Said he’d only had a few drinks.”
“Don’t know how he walked exactly, he didn’t want me to call an ambulance, but he was bleeding, obviously concussed,” Jen said.
“Yeah, Scott had to pull him out, he was bleeding, couldn’t get out without help,” Rob said. He was holding a cigar, and as we watched the scene, which was never the same from moment to moment, we talked about his recent motorcycle accident, and how he was recovering from it. A few months back, he crashed his bike up right good and he’s gotten back on the horse, so to speak, and has ridden again, but he’s still struggling with possibly permanent damage to his neck.
Meanwhile, my husband stood beside me, and we watched and chatted and waited for the tow truck to make its first go at pulling the van out. Since it was dark out, it was hard to get a good visual of the van. As far as I could tell, it was a busted up ancient nondescript gray or light blue van, but A.J. later explained that the driver had just bought it a little while back to help with his moving business. Later I would identify it as a four or five year old Honda Odyssey, which is a top-of-the-line minivan, but from the top of our ravine, it just looked battered and old.
A.J. kept talking about the renter. I picked up bits and pieces that I needed. Like: “He was saying the other day that he took out an extended warranty on it, I know he loved that thing.”
Good, I thought, then he’s insured.
At this point, a scraggly-haired young man approached me. He was with Henderson Towing. Had a bright yellow jacket atop a burly frame. In fact, I’ve never met a tow truck driver who didn’t look somewhat like this guy: tough, brawny, fast-talking, competent. “You’re the homeowner?”
“I’m thinking of pulling it out from the bottom, otherwise we’ll have to pull it up over all those rocks.” The tow guy gestured to our yard, which is covered with scores of massive boulders and too many trees to count. One day, my husband and I tried to count the trees, but we got bored and quit at 100. So there’s a lot of trees, and there’s even more rocks, peppered throughout our acre of land. There’s so many rocks, in fact, that the prior owners built three rows of almost English or Irish-style rock walls in the main yard, and the bottom of these serves as a sort of retaining wall. To protect the house from, you know, vans that crash into the yard.
“So you’d have to come down the driveway?” My husband had his hands in his pockets, as did I. Unlike me, he was not shivering from the cold mountain air. At this point, it was about 20 degrees.
“Yeah,” I added, “If you do, that’s fine, do we need to move any of our trucks?” I was referring to our two SUVs, a Ford Expedition and a Jeep Commander.
“Yeah, I want to go down your driveway, nope, don’t have to move anything,” said the tow truck driver.
“Okay,” I said.
Our neighbors were still talking, except for Jen, who went inside because the driver was safely departed and she had to get some rest.
My husband and I walked down the hill and stood at the bottom of our driveway between the Jeep and the Ford.
What we ended up watching was something like a circus, or roller derby absent the bang-ups. Despite his confidence and ability, when the tow guy pulled his 550 into the yard and tried to go uphill, he hit icy patches on the grass. He begin to scissor sideways and down, and all of this was noisy, because he kept gunning his diesel and the tires were screaming and the engine was growling and he was hollering I think through it all . . . and that’s when he came to a resting position about five feet from the ravine that waits at the bottom of our back yard. I don’t know what it waits for, other than sleds that run too fast or SUVs that slide out of control down the icy driveway; all I know is that the ravine’s almost the sum of all my physical crashing fears.
The tow truck driver then got even busier. He winched his 550 to a tree, and called down one of his assistants to help back the truck out of the yard, using the winch to guide it, until they could turn it around and drive it back to the top of our hill. That took about fifteen minutes. We watched and tried not to smile. Not mean smiles. We were rooting for the tow guy. But the whole thing was damn near as exciting as watching a roller derby. Meanwhile, the young man, the tow guy, he talked with me a little. Said he was 30, lived pretty close, up one on of the other mountains, and he had a wife and three kids, all of them under six. Then he said he was calling his boss. “We need Big Bird,” he said, and explained, “Big Bird has a 650.”
“I like its name,” I said. “Big Bird.”
“But you might need a helicopter,” I said, and I giggled.
He shook his head grimly and climbed up the driveway.
It wasn’t over yet. I had to talk to the police officer. He was slim, had a pencil-thin mustache, and he had a kind way about him. He got my name and number and gave me the case report. Told me everything would work out okay, and I told him I was grateful he was out here in the cold, taking care of our mess.
“It’s my job,” he said.
“Nonetheless I’m grateful you’re here to do it,” I said.
Some time passed. We were still waiting for Big Bird, which pulled up after another half-hour. I was running out of words, so was my husband. The other neighbors were still talking, especially A.J. and Rob. Missy was her usual sweet self. She was the one who helped me when I got locked out my first night here, but that’s another story. And Scott was quietly sweet. Amid all this, the temperature was dropping.
My husband and I went inside to warm up for a few minutes, and that’s when we heard a lot more noise.
“Hmmm, wanna go see?” I stood up sleepily from the sofa. It was almost one a.m.
My husband shook his head and chuckled. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
So we pulled on coats and hats and gloves and climbed back up the hill. At this point, there were two cables attached to the front of the minivan, anchored to two of the tow trucks. And slowly, almost glacially, the minivan was getting dragged up the hill backwards. It was noisy, and the lead tow truck driver got into the minivan to try to steer it so that it didn’t come up over the largest rock in its path. He even took his jacket off, and was sweating. A lot of things fell off the minivan on its final journey up our side yard. The front bumper tore completely off, and at one point the side door looked like it might fall off, but two of the Henderson guys managed to manually slide it shut.
The minivan pivoted towards our house once it reached the apex of the hill. That’s when I got a good look at it. Saw that all eight of its airbags had deployed, and all four sides of it had taken a beating.
“Rolled at least once,” the officer said.
“Won’t be driving ever again, that’s for sure,” Rob or A.J. said.
“Yep, totaled,” I said.
The Henderson guys got the van up on one of their lifts. And that’s when we said goodnight to everyone. We didn’t stand at the top of our hill and watch the trucks drive away. Instead, we waved goodnight, hiked down our driveway one last time, and stumbled into bed. It was 1:30, and all I could think was how long a night it was for the responders, the police officer, the EMTs, the tow truck guys, my neighbors who helped the driver, and how grateful I was that there were good, reliable people who took care of oddities like vans that end up crashed in your side yard.