Dec. 31. Snow is falling gently. It’s nearly midday, and I’m wearing a bathrobe over my pajamas while I set the table for our New Year’s Eve dinner party. My mind is caught up in the particulars of the upcoming meal and on the reflections of another year gone by.
A sickening boom breaks my reverie. Outside my living room window, giant slices of picket fence and boulders are airborne. It looks like a tornado.
A car had slid on black ice up the road and went careening through our fence and rock wall. If it hadn’t been for the Catalpa tree and a steel girder behind a fence post, the car would have ended up in my living room. It’s unnerving enough to see the battered rear bumper 12 feet from my bay window.
I stare at the wreckage, stunned. It reminds me of the scene from ‘€œThe Wizard of Oz’€ when Dorothy’s house lifts off the ground and splinters. But this is not a bump-on-the-head dream. It’s a nightmare ‘€” one I’ve been expecting.
Miraculously, no one is hurt, but the driver is pinned in the car. Crazed, I storm outside, still in my bathrobe, and rail at the police officer writing up the report. (It will take two hours to get the driver out of the car and to haul the car off our property.)
Raw with terror, freezing in slippers, tears rolling down my face, I harangue the officer: ‘€œI told the police this would happen. I’ve been telling the town for years this will happen. This is negligence.’€
She glances at me briefly and goes back to writing her report.
‘€œAll you do is write reports and collect your salaries and benefits,’€ I continue, hysterically.
When the officer threatens to arrest me, my husband tugs me by my bathrobe sleeve back to the house and tells me to stay inside.
Three days before, I had called the police and urged them to get the highway department to salt our treacherous mountain road. I couldn’t reach the highway department directly. The police were indifferent, as usual. ‘€œEr, ma’am, it’s only 40 degrees outside,’€ the dispatcher said. ‘€œGotta wait for the temperature to drop below freezing. I’m sure [the] highway [department] will be there.’€
Every winter, cars skid on that road. For four years since I’ve been here, cars have been moored in ditches, lodged in stone walls and crunched up against a guard rail at neighbors’ houses.
Until now, we had been lucky.
I knew there was a risk when I bought an 1850s farmhouse close to the road on a mountain pass. However, the real problem began four years ago, when a developer built a faux castle across the street and created a running river down his impervious, vertiginous blacktop driveway. The water leaves the driveway and courses onto the road. You could ride a canoe down it after a heavy rain or snowmelt.
Then, when the temps drop below freezing, the road turns into a sheet of black ice.
I’ve begged my town’s highway department, building inspectors, environmental regulators, the town attorney and the police to fix the runoff problem. I’ve written letters, pointing out that one day someone will get killed.
Why does it take a dreadful event to get town officials to respond to problems? It’s an age-old question ‘€” the classic case being the installation of the traffic light after a child is knocked off his bicycle and killed.
After the crash, I sent a fresh round of letters urging town officials to fix the problem. Two weeks later, we rebuilt our fence and stone wall.
On a late January day, I hear the thump-slap of an earthmover. I can hardly believe my eyes: A highway department crew is installing a trench drain across the faux castle’s driveway.
Maybe we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.