Sunday, April 9, 2017

Reconciling Terror and Trauma

“It could happen to anyone.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“Thank god you are safe.”
“At least you’re safe.”
“It will take a while to process.”

Have you ever felt like an outsider looking in at your life? As I type one handed with my non dominate left hand, my reality doesn’t feel entirely my own.

I would so much rather be posting about the Spring Festival and the birthday party that we attended in San Juanico two weeks ago. But I have to write about this. I suppose it’s cathartic in processing the entire event and days proceeding. I'll tell you about the festival and birthday next week, when we have safely returned to the rhythm of our life in San Juanico. 

The Jardin float for the Spring Festival Parade
Little Zoe's sugar coated 5th birthday party!
I’m different now. I am not entirely sure what’s different, but something’s changed and I can only hope that change is for the better. It’s hard to say at this point.

I was in a severe car accident less than two weeks ago. I shake my head as I type the words “less than two weeks”, because it’s feels more like a lifetime ago. I’ve struggled with feelings of exhaustion, disbelief, shame, and guilt since it happened.  I think I'm just now beginning to come out of the stupor of shock that has shaken me to the core. All the stitches will be removed before I know it, and the bruises are already turning from purple to yellow, but something is definitely different about me, I just don’t know what.
The day before we left San Juanico. If I had only known...
The night before it happened I awoke from a dream where I was flying off the road. Like most unsettling dreams; I woke with a start, blinked my eyes, pushed the dream from my mind and went back to sleep. It’s funny, because now every time I close my eyes I relive it, the reality of it. Me, flying off the road, accepting that it was happening and praying for the safety of myself and my children. All of that comes back when I close my eyes. I’ve gone over what happened a thousand times and am sure I will go over it another thousand, but I don’t know if it will ever feel like reality.

When I think about the heavy burden of dealing with the Mexican insurance and if the truck will actually get covered, buying a new truck or the fact that we had no real home to return to in California. That all feels like a messed up reality, but the accident, no; it doesn’t feel real.

But it’s something that happened, that’s behind me, that I have to recover from. I mostly just want to crawl into a cave, lick my wounds, rest and not deal with any of it…But I have no choice, I am a mom, wife, daughter, and friend and I have to keep keeping on. Though I confess, I haven't been so present these past weeks.

Highway One of the Baja Peninsula begins in Tijuana and ends in Cabo San Lucas. It is notoriously dangerous. Narrow roads, high ravines, pot holes, washouts, livestock, and no shoulder. Anyone that has adventured it has a highway one story. The road is riddled with remnants of accidents. Around nearly every bend there are skid marks from accidents, shrines from where people have died, dead animals that have been hit and rusted parts of cars left behind from old and new accidents. They act as reminders that you can never be too safe when traveling this highway. It’s one of the most adventurous and beautiful drives that you can make. It’s a wonderful road that leads to unforgettable memories. It’s also inevitably dangerous. In fact, just two days ago, USA Today coined it as one of the world's most dangerous roads.

Why can't they build a shoulder on this road?
Livestock in the road. All too often you hear of people hitting horses and cows
One of the breathtaking but dangerous views of Highway One
I know Baja well. Someone once called me a Baja Snob, and I took it as a compliment. Baja feels like home to me. I have been traveling highway one for twenty-five years. I had my first driving lessons on it and have driven the highway too many times to count. Given the reputation of the road, I am not surprised that I crashed, but I can’t believe it either. Does that even make sense?

Before we decided to move to Baja in December, we purchased tickets to vacation in mainland Mexico with my mom. We couldn’t change the tickets to fly out of Mexico, so we decided to keep the tickets. That meant driving back to Orange County so that we could fly to Mexico from LAX. It was a strange situation.

Due to my husband’s work schedule, we decided that the kids and I would drive up. I was excited about the drive. I hadn’t done it alone since before the kids were born. It was an adventure! There are two ways to get to San Juanico. There’s the south road, which is paved; but if you’re heading North, it adds an extra four hours to your trip. The North road, saves you the four hours; in exchange you drive three and a half hours on dirt roads and salt flats.

Wild flower lined roads of the North Road
Moon Scape

Despite the reputation for crazy quick sand like mud that gets your car stuck and ample opportunity for flat tires, I opted to drive the north road. It was awesome with wild flower lined dirt roads and moon scape views of the salt flats. We rocked out to Bob Marely, Queen and Justin Bieber as we left a trail of dust behind us. When we arrived to the oasis town of San Ignacio, we celebrated by washing our feet in the lagoon and sharing a pineapple. Then we connected to Highway One and headed North.

More from the beautiful North Road
Watching the birds and washing our feet in Laguna San Ignacio
I had to pull over a lot to help the kids with this and that and did my best to keep my eyes on the road and not glance back at them. I was aware not to speed, because my husband and I got a ticket last summer for speeding just north of Vizcaino. It’s a long four hour jaunt between the pueblo of Jesus Maria and El Rosario. My goal was to get to San Quintin, which totaled about five hours. I fueled up in Jesus Maria, plugged the kids into a movie and made my way down the road. I passed a big rig that signaled to me that it was safe to go around him. I happily focused on the road as I drove. The song Natural Beauty by Neil Young played as I steered along the narrow, but built up highway with nary a shoulder. I was likely driving 65-70 mph. It was a straight away and no cars in sight.

I can’t quite grasp what happened next. One minute everything was great and the next, I was crashing. I am fairly certain the front passenger tire went flat. Everything happened so quickly. With the tire flat, the truck veered off the highway to the right, I panicked and turned the steering wheel to get the truck back on the road. It was then that I realized that I had lost control of the truck. We were spinning in the middle of the highway. As we came around I thought that maybe I could straighten out, but we were going too fast. The truck went flying off the road and I was faced with the same terrifying perspective that had awoken me from my dream the previous night. As we flew through the air and then hit the dirt, I thought maybe it would be okay, but when we hit the dirt the truck began to roll. We were crashing and there was nothing that I could do to stop it. It rolled four times. It probably all happened in under a minute, but those four rolls were the longest, most violent thing I have experienced.

Thankfully the truck landed on the tires. We weren’t suspended upside down or anything. There was dirt and glass everywhere. I could hear my son crying, but my daughter wasn’t making a sound. I didn’t think, I slammed by body against the door until it opened and rushed to the other side of the car, where my daughter was strapped into her car seat. As I rushed to her, I flagged down the semi-truck that I had passed earlier. He stopped and came running. My daughter was moaning now and my son was asking me what happened. I will never be able to erase the look of terror in his eyes as I watched tears run down his dirty cheeks.

A photo from the tow yard.
“We crashed baby, we crashed. I am sorry. I don’t know if Layla is okay. Are you hurt? Are you bleeding?” I said to him as I willed my daughter to open her eyes. He promised me that nothing was hurt on his body as I searched her body. There was a goose egg above her head, I didn’t see anything else, but I couldn’t figure out where the blood was coming from. As I removed her from her car seat, I questioned if it was the safest thing to do, but I did it anyway. The trucker asked me in Spanish what he could do and I made a prayer of thanks that I speak Spanish. I told him to remove my son from his seat and sat down in the dirt with my daughter and cooed in her ear that everything would be okay. The trucker deposited my son in my lap and I inspected every inch of them. Aside from the goose egg and a cut on my daughter’s finger, they were okay. There was barely a scratch on them. It’s a testament for how good Diono car seats are. I am crying as I write this sentence, those car seats saved my kid’s lives.
My kids will be sitting in these 5 point harness seats until they are 57" and 80lb
By now at least five cars had stopped to help. These were the kindest, most thoughtful people I have ever encountered. They wrapped my kids and I in blankets, washed the dirt off our arms and faces, gave us water to drink and collected all of our things that had flown across the desert when we crashed. They asked what we had of value and made sure that my computer, phone, ipad, passports, wallet and anything else of value was next to my person, while I held my kids and talked them through what happened.
I was terrified of possible concussion or internal injuries and so I talked non-stop to the kids. My daughter kept repeating the same questions to me and my son kept nearly falling asleep; both behaviors terrified me. As soon as I would answer questions from the people helping the kids would go into states of shock. I was panicked that they would fall asleep, so we counted over and over to one hundred, first in English and then Spanish and then in English again and so on. Over and over. By now, I realized that my right arm was broken, my left hand might be broken and the blood that I had noticed earlier was coming from a wound on my head. My hair was matted in blood. I was tired. I wanted to sleep too. But we continued to count as we sat next to the remains of our truck.

There must have been at least ten Americans that drove past during this time. I even eerily made eye contact with one women as I held my babies and counted, and they slowly drove past. Not one American stopped to help. Not one. Would you have stopped? I ask myself that everyday now. I don't know if I would have before all of this. I didn’t need them. I speak Spanish. But it sure would have been a comfort. I still can’t believe that so many Americans drove past and not one stopped.

A cop showed up at some point and began filling out a report. He informed me that an ambulance was coming and would be there in an hour. He tried to put my things in his truck and told me that he would hold them for safekeeping. But the people helping wouldn’t let him do it. At one point, a woman named Claudia with bright green eyes, drew her face close to mine and said, “no tengas fe en esta policía. ¿Me entiendes? No puedes dejar tus cosas con la policía.”

“Do not have faith in this police. Do you understand me? You can't leave your things with the police.”

And so I nodded my head and asked someone to follow us to the hospital. It was a jumbled up mess, and they moved my stuff between the police truck, the ambulance, and the two other cars. I had no idea where everything was and I really didn’t care.
Jesse thanking the Bomberos/Firefighters who helped us.

The firefighters were amazing. They took our vitals and cheerfully continued to count with us the hour drive to Guerrero Negro. They promised me that the three of us were okay. We finally got phone service and I called my husband. I started crying as soon as I heard his voice and he told me to breathe and stay calm for the kids. Someone had already called him and he was heading to us. The hospital was amazing too. Nothing like the states. No paperwork. No questions about insurance. The nurses and doctors did a once over on all of us, gave me stitches in my head, made the kids a sandwich and told me, my left hand was just a hematoma and to see a specialist for my arm. They then sent us on our way for under $90.
The emergency room
Am beyond impressed with the efficiency, affordability, and the kindness of the healthcare workers in Mexico

The firefighters came back to the hospital with almost all of my stuff and gave us a ride to a hotel, where we waited for my husband to bring us home.
We never found the cop that took some of my things for safekeeping. I think the most valuable thing he came away with was our sleeping bag, a really cool folding shovel I gave Jesse for Christmas, and the vehicle registration. We went to all the police stations in a five hour radius and none of the stations had an accident report or our stuff. Our truck sits in a tow yard in the middle of Baja. Thank the lord, all those wonderful people helped me and made sure my things were with me. The police would have taken all of it!!

It was a brush of luck that our friend, who is renting our house, happened to be out of town for a week. Turns out that I fractured my right wrist in three places and needed surgery. We were able to stay at our house for a couple of days. It was weird and emotional that our home was no longer our home. We felt displaced and I feel guilty because I did the displacing by moving to Baja and renting our home. My cast and stitches on my arm will be removed next week and we will return to our dreamy little life in Baja.

Broken wrist. Ouch! Would have never thought something could hurt so much!
We spent a week in the Palm Springs area for me to recover. The stitches in my head were removed today, the hematoma in my left hand is nearly gone and bruises are healing. I am resting, recouping, and processing in an air conditioned hotel room and the kids are happily playing in mineral spring swimming pools with their dad and Grandma.

Desert Hot Springs reality shift
Alive and only a little broken on the outside. 
I am lucky.

I am alive with fairly minor injuries. My kids are alive without a scratch on them. It’s a miracle. I should be walking on sunshine and feeling joy. But it’s been hard. I am an emotional mess. Up until this post, I have barely talked to anyone about the accident. I feel guilty and embarrassed that I was responsible. When the truck began to roll, I had to accept that my kids and I were about to die. It was terrifying. Life just keeps going forward and everyone I know are just living their lives, but I am different now. I am not sure how I’m different, I am going to have to meditate on the accident as a whole and try to understand the sentiments that I have wrapped around it all. I am going to sound like a crazy person; but I feel so detached, even now, that I have moments where I wonder if I died and this is some kind illusion. I find myself squeezing my kids and inspecting them over and over to make sure they really are okay.

My best friend told me that it’s emotional trauma. That even though the kids and I are fine, my head went there and accepted that it was all over. That I really believed that all of us were going to die, so now I have to heal from the trauma of where my brain went.

I don’t know how or why we survived the insanely violent experience of flying off the road, rolling and crashing our truck in the middle of Baja…what I do know, is that I look at my kids in utter amazement and am so very grateful for those Diono Radian RXT seats and how strong our truck was. A friend of mine, who has five-year-old daughter like me, just died of cancer last week. And a Facebook friend just lost her husband under horrible circumstances. I have a lot to be grateful for...yet, it's work trying to find that gratitude within the shock.

I have a lot to process and a lot of work to get to a place of understanding and acceptance for what happened. Life is short my friends, live it. You never know how or when it might severely change or end. Through the hazy shock of this experience, I see that I need to move forward from the accident with kindness and gratitude in my heart, but in that, I also need to stay true to myself. We shall see what other perspective arrives as the accident becomes more of a distant memory. I do know that hind sight is 20/20.

Thank you so much for being part of my healing by sharing my experience through reading my words. If you connect or relate please comment and share! Let's hope next Sunday's post is a little less intense.

Hasta entonces, mas tarde,



  1. Wow Sarah! This definitely IS intense & it's very raw & honest. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I'm so sorry you experienced this. The only thing I can think to say, as cliche as it sounds, is that something good is going to come out of it. Keep looking. I cried a lot reading this because your descriptions were so vivid. I could imagine it all and put myself in your shoes. You are so brave and such an amazing mom. Your kids are so blessed to have you and I admire you even more than I already did now! Big big hugs to you and I'm sending you love and strength on your journey of healing. Xoxox Amanda Jerome

    1. Thanks so much for the wonderful message Amanda! Lots of love to you! Can't wait to connect!

  2. Hi Sarah, as you very well figure I do not know you personally just happen to came across your blog while in front of the screen. First off allowed me to say "I thank all the powers of the universe for yours and your kids lives" I am a Baja native and in my 60 years I have seen many a change in our world and personally I dislike very much the fact that we are becoming so disconnected from our fellow human beings and for that matter I pray (In my own way) that the powers to be enlighten us with the simple state of mind that dictates that "We are all in this together" I sincerely hope that the future for you and your loved ones brings lots of love and mental balance.
    Fernando Navarro.

    1. Thank you your message Fernando! And thank you for reading! I have only recently started blogging, but I love how it connects me to others. I feel so connected to the people of Mexico, who are so kind hearted and also always there to provide a helping hand. My accident only strengthened my love for Baja and I count the hours until we cross the border back into Mexico. Thank you for your well wishes!

  3. Hi Sarah, thank you for sharing your experience. I don’t imagine that I’m the first to say this, or at least I hope I’m not, but the feelings you are describing after your accident are those of a person who is experiencing PTSD. You went through a life changing event that affected not only you, but those you are responsible for. It makes perfect sense that you are feeling the way you do. And considering that your accident happened just a few weeks ago, I’m amazed that you already found the physical, and mental strength to share what happened to you, with others. That’s always a good sign.

    After many years of driving up and down the peninsula, I’m still in awe of its beauty, as well as of its dangers. And to this day, I count myself lucky that I haven’t had an accident. Unfortunately, I have had the opportunity, if you can call it that, to stop and assist in several accidents, and as you pointed out, the kindness and willingness of Mexicans to help complete strangers can bring you to tears. And while my experience with Americans who have stopped to help has always been positive, it saddens me that your experience wasn’t the same. I hope it’s not because of a lack of caring because that would definitely mark a break with tradition, and the end of an era.

    I hope you continue to recover both physically and mentally, at the pace your body and mind call for.


    1. Hi Tony! Thank you for reading! And also, thanks so much for your comment, both here and on Baja Nomad. I am so grateful the Don Jorge created that post, because, if nothing else, those who read it...will at least think about it next time they see a situation like mine. While most said lovely things on Baja Nomad, I could only shake my head at those who failed to take the time to read the blog and consider the situation before commenting. It was heart warming to read that many others have received help from Americans and Mexicans alike.

      I wouldn't say that my experience from the accident was necessary negative. I mean it was traumatic and terrifying. Surgery and having to wait 7 more weeks to surf so that I can heal sucks. Not having our truck anymore is a bummer. But I think the goodness of the people who helped and the fact that we all survived relatively unscathed outweigh the bad! As far as those American cars not stopping to even roll their window down and shout, "hey! Are you okay? Do you speak Spanish? Can we help?" Well, that small part of the entire experience will always confound me. Unfortunately, I do think staying out of stuff has become a regular MO for many Americans.

      I agree about the PTSD. Thank you for seeing that. We are healing slowly...and we are so lucky to be in San Juanico to do so. For me, I am able to articulate myself best with a keyboard and so my writing is my therapy at this point. The kids saw a therapist a few days after the accident, which I believe was helpful. They astound me with their resilience!

      Highway 1 is a beast and so beautiful and alluring. I look forward to many more adventures driving her length.

    2. Hello again,
      I try to stay away from posting anything negative, or confrontational simply because I want to give people the benefit of the doubt. After all, sometimes the written word doesn't quite convey our true meaning. But,reading that comment about you being a woman and therefore...blah, blah, blah, I felt like saying something. Unfortunately, if someone feels that way, my comments, definitely a tad snarky, will probably not accomplish much.
      I think what bothered me about some of the replies is that they come from people who claim to “know Baja.” And if that were the case, they should have immediately grasped the meaning, and purpose of your post, which was to identify with your situation, not to editorialize, or compare it to some similar experience they’ve gone through. From where I sit, the best way to describe your post is by saying that it was deeply personal, and immensely universal, especially to those of us who love, respect, and sometimes fear Highway 1.
      Keep on writing!