When the tule fog struck Highway 99 that night, it swallowed the world. The shoulder disappeared. Lane lines disappeared. I squeezed the steering wheel and leaned so far forward that my forehead nearly touched the windshield and I still could barely see past my hood.
This was outside of Madera, California in the rural San Joaquin Valley. I was doing sixty in a ten-foot U-Haul, towing my small Toyota on a rattling trailer hitch. I’d heard about tule fog. It formed here in winter and was renowned for its ability to cut visibility down to a few hundred feet, sometimes to as little as a foot, in the span of seconds. Equally legendary were the pileups it caused.
On November 3rd, 2007, on this very highway, over one hundred cars and eighteen big-rigs slammed into each other in a fog bank between Fresno and Fowler. The crash killed two people and injured thirty-nine. In February 2002, two more people died in an eighty-car pile-up on Highway 99 between Selma and Kingsburg. Then there were the five people killed and twenty-eight injured in 1997 on Interstate five south of Sacramento.
Adrenalin surged through my chest as I released the gas and held my foot above the brake. My headlights turned the moisture into a flat iridescence that smeared across my windshield like dirty wiper fluid. No mile markers. No trees. No sign that I was moving except for my speedometer’s fall.
I unrolled the window. Somewhere an eighteen-wheeler rumbled. Cold wind wet my face as my speed dropped from fifty to thirty to twenty.
The National Weather Service suggested travelers postpone their trips until the tule fog lifted—usually by late morning—but I was only a few miles from my hotel. I’d driven nearly 700 miles from Phoenix, Arizona. I just wanted to get a room and sleep. I coached myself: Be brave. Hang in there. Then the competing voice weighed in: Driving without visibility—that’s not courage; that’s recklessness. Pull off the highway. Play it safe. Wait it out.
I was scared and overcompensating. Not about the fog, about life.
I’d just escaped my bleak life in suburban Phoenix. I’d waited four years to move back to Portland, Oregon, four long, patient years. I didn’t want to die before I got there, but I didn’t want to postpone my arrival anymore either. I was starting over, resetting the clock in a state far from my native one, with no job and little money and a tiny rented room at two friends’ rented house, clinging to possibly delusional hopes that I would eventually find a job and girlfriend and my own place, and that everything we adults worry about would all somehow work out. I was thirty-five and no longer knew what I was doing.
If someone had said to me that I was trying to relive what life felt like in my late-twenties—the boundless energy, hope, baseless exhilaration—that wouldn’t have been untrue. I was terrified of aging, unsure of my future and our unstable world, afraid I’d never meet the right woman and fall in love, or ever be happy in any vague sense of the word. And in my frightened state I was racing back to the place where I’d once felt happy and secure, a comfortable place, the city where I spent my late-twenties. The move was reactionary, a blur of impulses and plans as hazy as the dull light smeared across my windshield, but the idea of clarifying the details didn’t appeal too much either. I didn’t want to think. I wanted to drive, to speed and look straight ahead down the long, flat highway with its clearly defined lines and regular mile markers, as predictable as a sunrise and reliable as a map, for those of us who no longer knew where we were going.
A faint halo appeared beside me and a single car emerged from the mist. Materializing like a hesitant phantom, the car braked then sped up, flashed its high beams once and then fell back into the mass of undifferentiated white.
My exit sign appeared before I could react. Riding the brake, I drove on toward the next exit, watching for it carefully. After two agonizing miles, it emerged. I eased onto the off-ramp, squinting for the stop sign. Once there, I looked both ways countless times but it was pointless. I couldn’t see either direction. So I honked and pulled out, hoping for the best.
—Photo credit: emdot/Flickr