Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Thin Line Between Heaven and Hell

The last thing I remember before my helmet hit the pavement was my husband's profile superimposed against a backdrop of black roadway as we fell to the right. The last thing I remember hearing was his voice shouting, "We've hit oil, we're going down!"

My first reaction was disbelief.

We'd ridden our 2011 Harley Davidson CVO Street Glide 20,000 miles safely in the United States - California to both Washington D.C. and Washington State without so much as a close call. We rode 600 miles across Texas in one day enduring 110 degree temperatures with nothing more than a sunburn.

Now we live in Italy. All of our friends envy us. We're supposed to be living the dream. It's supposed to be Heaven here. Dammit.

We're going down.

When the cracking sound of your own head on asphalt is something you actually hear and remember afterward, it's a good thing. As I looked up from my prone position on the A-1 Autostrada, I knew I had survived, and thankfully, had not lost consciousness. I could feel my helmet was intact but blood was dripping down my nose.

I wasn't dead. I could see. But what I saw were the blurred images of cars headed right toward me.

Facing backward, I had slid on my back away from the oily surface where our bike had pitched out from underneath us. Lying on the center line, my mind quickly went to the irony of surviving only to be hit by a traffic.

It was the first time I felt fear.

I heard my husband yell somewhere behind me, asking if I was alright. That meant he was, and I felt relief. We were both alive. I yelled back that I was OK, but honey, get us out of the road. Like Bambi staring at headlights, I couldn't move.

I felt Scott dragging me under the arms across the pavement. He propped me up against a rock wall and begged me to tell him over and over again that I was OK. A combat medic with training to handle injuries on the battlefield. I could tell he was panicked. I wasn't a soldier, I was his wife, and he was desperate.

We were OK. We'd gone down at maybe 65 miles per hour, and we were staring at each other incredulous that one or both of us wasn't dead. Looking around in a daze, I saw the Street Glide on its side far down the Autostrada on the right shoulder. Scott ran for the first aide kit and I yelled after him to retrieve my camera from the tour pack.

We needed pictures.

Pictures of this Hell. The hell where a journalist on assignment for three publishing clients is sitting on the side of the road with blood on her nose and oil on her boots, realizing everything has just changed in a flash of bad luck.

We were the accident causing a traffic jam on two lanes of the A-1 Autostrada northbound at Florence. Our destination had been Brescia, Italy, the starting line for the historic Mille Miglia race. For five days and four nights we were slated to be the first Americans on a Harley Davidson press bike following and photographing the race for American publications.

It had been a dream for years to see the Mille Miglia - covering it for clients was an added bonus and riding it on a Harley was the dream gig. My version of Heaven. Not a bucket list entry for most women - but certainly near the top of mine. So what the hell had just happened?

I would find out.

Setting my camera down next to me, my overwhelmed husband was dabbing at my wounds, eyes wide with fear. An Italian woman in a black Mercedes stopped and was calling the Italian version of 911. Cars were still roaring by us, but the police had also arrived and were keeping traffic away from the shoulder.

It was chaotic.

I asked the Italian woman to photograph me with my camera.

I tried to reassure my husband that I was OK, then asked him to do exactly what I knew he didn't want to do - leave me and go do my job, which was to photograph the scene. Never try to dissuade a reporter when they smell a need for information. Reluctantly he walked back a hundred feet and was shocked to find an entire lane and half of another black with oil.

Like the husband of a photographer, he shot it from every angle, just like he'd watched me do at car shows, races, rallies and events.

Sitting on the shoulder inert, I felt gratitude for the kind woman who had stopped. While she spoke rapidly in Italian on her cell phone, I looked down the road at our bike still lying on its side far down from me on the shoulder, and up the road toward where Scott was shooting.

It was a long distance.

How long? I guessed two football fields. Maybe more. Maybe 300 yards.

The ambulance arrived and four people tried to load me into it and hurry off to an Italian hospital where I knew more hell awaited. I live in Italy, so I know. I knew I'd arrive taped to a backboard only to wait and wait some more. There would be confusion, delays and frustration. I would be in a hospital in a foreign country without a phone, a passport or anyone who speaks English.

I wouldn't go.

They kept insisting that we must leave. I demanded that we wait. I wasn't leaving without my passport, my husband, and dammit, I wanted my iPad. It has a translation app. They were frustrated, but arguing with them took time, which is good. Italians like to argue, and they like to take their time.

I was winning.

During our debate the Polizia had joined Scott in photographing the oil spill. Suddenly a road construction worker in an orange vest appeared and confided to Scott the oil is a product they put down first when resurfacing the road with asphalt. A large truck full of it was bumped and spilled dozens of gallons on the roadway earlier that day.

They left it. No signs, no warning, no cones.

Why? Because it's Italy. Italy where it's "Va Bene" if you sideswipe a car and "Domani" if your basement is flooded and you need a plumber. It is the Italy of my dreams and the Italy of my nightmares. A country where people are passionate beyond reason about minutiae - and don't care at all when they should.

Finally my husband, my equipment and all our belongings were piled into an ambulance that seemed to bounce over cobblestones for an hour after exiting the Autostrada. Inside the hospital, it was everything I anticipated it would be and worse.

It didn't matter at all. We were grateful.

Sitting in our hospital room that night, we thanked God and agreed that there must indeed be a heaven. A heaven where adventurous angels live. Some of them must love to travel, because we are sure two decided to ride shotgun on a motorcycle in Italy just for fun, and we each carried one on a shoulder. Their wings must have been beating pretty hard to keep us safe when we hit the ground.

It's rarely visited, but we've been on that fine line between Heaven and Hell.

#Italy #Harley Davidson #Motorcycle #Autostrada #Tours #Mille Miglia #Motor Valley #Florence