December 22, 2018
Originally published in Appalachian Heritage.
Kelly A. Dorgan
The youngest of three generations of women, my friend Ann resided with her mom and grandma on a sprawling rural homestead. The property itself served as testimony, a structural reminder of the Appalachian kinship-ways disappearing in our community. The long-dead patriarch’s home loomed at the center of their land, decaying, abandoned, and flanked by two smaller homes. We waged our Dungeons & Dragons campaigns during the 1980s in one of those smaller homes, a two-story clapboard farm house with creaky wooden floorboards and mysterious nooks and crannies. We’d tuck ourselves away at the top of a steep staircase in a long, narrow bedroom, a kind of birth canal for our pubescent dreams and fantasies to enter the world.
Ann’s family property snuggled up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, a scenic highway stretching some 400 miles through the mountains and plateaus of North Carolina and Virginia. The parkway offers drivers jaw-dropping views of time-worn ranges, rocky peaks impaling the sky, lichen-covered boulders, and plunging waterfalls. Summers brighten the roadside with the pinks and purples of phlox and chicory. In autumn, the rolling ridgelines are a heady mix of scarlet maple, golden poplars, orange sassafras, and green conifers.
Then, there’s winter. Storms swoop in, drizzling ice until backroads transform into satin ribbons, black and slick. During the day, mountains shimmer with frost, but as the sun slips behind the swollen terrain, temperatures fall, and lingering wet patches ice over on shaded pavement. By night, if there’s no cloud-cover, sparkling stars appear overhead like diamonds spilling across a jeweler’s ebony velvet display pad. The world muffles, transforming the parkway into an intoxicatingly beautiful place, enticing to behold and indifferent to human life.
Out there, in the silence and solitude, it’s easy for chilled drivers to crank up the heat, enveloping themselves in a delicious cone of warmth. It’s easy to be lulled—just a bit, only for a moment.
Sitting in the backseat, I’d sulked, mentally reprimanding Ann’s grandma for her sluggish driving. She was the kind of woman who’d disregarded speed-limit signs, resolutely going even slower. Back then, she had made me crazy, but she’d also been my ride to my weekend D&D sessions with Ann and Steve.
That night, the parkway was a deep-dark, the color of a decaying plum. No city lights, no streetlights, no illumination, nothing but our headlights. Our car crept, the dipping temperatures leaving the road riddled with patches of black ice, making the drive to the farm house dangerous. To me, time elongated, a sensation magnified by the parkway’s otherworldliness: temperate forests, a diverse mix of deciduous and coniferous trees, rendered by nighttime into eerily simplistic shapes, no more than charcoal lines against the pitch-dark sky; behind us, the desolate road lit by bloody rear lights.
Suddenly, around a bend, came flashing. Hazard lights, and a car stopped in the middle of the road, bisecting the snaking strip of pavement. A figure waved, a rhythmic insistence. Ann’s grandma rolled to a stop.
Less than five feet tall, I had to shift and wiggle, struggling to see around the silhouetted figures of those in the front seat. Finally, peering through the windshield, I got a glimpse of a man, coatless—an oddity given the winter landscape.
All passengers climbed out, me included, planting our feet on the frozen parkway.
Only then did I see her.
Her acorn-colored hair remained strangely tidy, smooth and flowing, even though she had been cast to the roadside. She was small, my height, but unlike me her body was slight, almost elven—like the female D&D characters I favored playing.
Without thinking, I crouched beside her, reaching for her cheek and finding it cold, rubbery to the touch. Her face took on a porcelain luster in the headlights, her skin unblemished, unmarked—details that would haunt me decades later.
A young man stood over her, over me. His body, tall in stature, shrank. His shoulders sagged, and he looked to be collapsing from the inside-out. He was the fiancé, her fiancé: I learned that at some point, but I don’t remember exactly when. Later—days, weeks, maybe months (I never recall precise measures of time related to this night)—I heard he had tried committing suicide. That would happen in the future, however. On this night, he stood, a vigilant guard with unfocused eyes and drooped shoulders.
At times, my friend Steve stood beside the fiancé, at times by me. Mostly, he faded into the background, drifting in and out of my attention, in and out of my recollections. Ann’s grandma drove off to get help, taking Ann with her (I think). Like Steve, Ann faded that night, as did the man who’d waved us down. In my memory, I was left alone with the fiancé—and her, the one I would know only as the roadside girl.
My back ached, and my thighs cramped as I squatted by her. Somehow, I came to learn that she had been struck by a car. I would have to wait to hear the rest of her story, my teenage brain preoccupied, vomiting up lessons and warnings from my first aid training.
Violent trauma. Possible neck, spinal injury. Don’t tilt the head. Could kill. Could paralyze.
Tentatively, I took her jaw in my hands. I lifted it forward, hoping to open her airway, wishing I could revive her with the cold mountain air. I wanted to cover her mouth with mine, to breathe myself into her, but I was terrified of doing more damage. Instead, I pulled out my just-in-case lighter—the kind that every good mountaineer carries when on a winter backroad. Thumb to the lighter’s ribbed wheel, I flicked it, the sharp metallic edges biting into my ungloved skin. A warm stream of fire erupted, blue at the base, morning-sun yellow at the top, brightening her face. In her stillness, she looked to have simply fallen asleep at the road’s edge.
Before my lighter flame flickered out, I saw her billowing exhalation, warm breath fogged by the cold. Deep down, however, I knew what I’d seen had been a trick: my fabricated vision the child of Hope and Desperation.
Her fiancé waited for an ambulance. I let him wait. I let him be a moment more without the burden of my newly gained knowledge:
Cradled by the wilderness, the young, supine woman would never rise again, never take another breath.
As we waited together, the fiancé spoke softly, his voice little more than the pitter-pattering of frozen rain on dry leaves. Standing vigil over the cold, tiny body of his beloved, he mumbled a disconnected story of love and hope.
College students at the local university, the couple had been looking forward to graduation, and their lives after that. They had gotten engaged recently and had been preparing to marry after earning their undergraduate degrees. That night, he had been driving on the parkway, she at his side, when they’d hit black ice. Their car had spun, careening off the road, fortunately, stopping on a slope. Really, the couple had been fortunate in so many ways. Somehow, the car had gotten snagged, just over the road’s shoulder, instead of plummeting down one of the many steep drop-offs or vanishing into one of the thick rhododendron groves along the parkway; those groves have hidden crashed cars, shielding dying drivers from rescue. But their car had stopped roadside. Fortunately.
Shaken but uninjured, they had climbed out and began the long walk back to civilization.
As the fiancé sputtered out his story, I stared up at him, and I imagined: how relieved the young couple must have been when they had spotted approaching headlights. Just as they made their way to safety, an off-duty officer headed in their direction, driving on a road, slick and dark as black satin ribbon.
After the impact, one that had slung a young woman dozens of feet, the off-duty officer had parked his car in the middle of the parkway. He had flipped on his hazards, and waved down an oncoming vehicle, one that contained a grandmother and three teens on their way to play a fantasy game and hoping that their characters didn’t die.
I continued playing D&D for years after that incident on the parkway. The characters I created remained the same: elven females with cascading hair and remarkable strength, and they all died—but they all returned to life too. Eventually, I left role-playing games behind altogether. I lost track of Ann and Steve, and I have no idea how they would tell this story or if that night remains coiling-uncoiling inside them.
Admittedly, I lost my gleaming dreams of magic on the side of a frozen road; once I’d encountered death—real death—there would be no undoing what had been done. Unlike in my role-playing games, there would be no potion to heal the heart of the off-duty officer who hit black ice at the exact moment a young couple made their way to safety. There would be no scroll or amulet to reverse the fiancé’s agonizing loss. And there would be no spell to resurrect a young woman struck down early in her life.
To this day, I refer to the three strangers as: the off-duty officer, fiancé, and roadside girl.
They have names. I wish I knew those names.
They have stories. I wish I knew those too.
For over three decades I have carried these three strangers with me. I have blended a batch of vibrant, swirling images, then frozen them into a tragic, beautiful, and haunting mess. Privately, I have rehearsed my story, telling and retelling the happenings, and I have fallen in love again and again with the off-duty officer, fiancé, and roadside girl.
Here, I have made small verbal offerings about their lives and have woven these offerings into a tale of death and loss. But it’s also a love story of sorts, one helping recover those who have been lost, one helping to resurrect, if only in the telling.