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Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Thin Line Between Heaven and Hell

The last thing I remember seeing before my helmet hit the pavement was my husband's profile superimposed against a backdrop of black roadway as we fell. 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 Harley Davidson 20,000 miles safely in the United States - from California to Washington D.C. and up the West Coast to Seattle without so much as a close call. We had ridden 600 miles across Texas in one day enduring 110 degree temperatures with nothing more than a sunburn.

Now we were living in Italy. We brought our bike. 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 sound of your own head cracking 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 was awake and could see everything around me. But what I saw were the blurred images of cars headed right toward me.

Facing on-coming traffic, I had landed on my back, then bounced onto my face on the oily surface where our bike had pitched out from underneath us. Lying on my stomach on the center line, my mind quickly went to the irony of surviving only to be hit by a traffic, and 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 alive and conscious. Relief washed over me. We were both alive.
I yelled back that I was OK, but couldn't move, and honey, get us out of the road. I was like Bambi looking up at the headlights coming toward me, frozen.

Scott drug me under the arms across the pavement. He propped me up against a rock wall and begged me to tell him that I was OK. A Navy Corpsman with medical training to handle injuries on the battlefield, he had seen far worse, but the shock of my bloody face was jarring him.

We had gone down at 65 to 75 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 bike on its side far down the Autostrada on the right shoulder. Scott ran to it for the first aide kit and I yelled after him to retrieve my camera.

We would need pictures.

motorcycle accident, italy, autostrada

harley davidson, motorcycle, accident, italy

Pictures of  a moment-in-life hell where a journalist on assignment is sitting on the side of the road with blood and oil on her face, barely digesting that everything has just changed in a flash of bad luck.

Our accident caused 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, working as a 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 our Harley was the dream. My version of Heaven. Not a bucket list item for many people - but certainly near the top of mine. So what the hell had just happened?

Setting my camera down next to me, my 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 me on the shoulder.

It was chaotic.

Reassuring my husband that I was OK, I asked him to do what I knew he didn't want to do - leave me and photograph the scene. Never try to dissuade a reporter when they want information. Reluctantly he walked back down the Autostrada where we had crashed, and was shocked to find an entire lane and half of another covered with black oil.

Sitting on the shoulder, 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 where we had gone down.

It was a long distance. I guessed a football field.

The ambulance arrived and four Italians tried to load me into it and head off to an Italian hospital where I knew what awaited. 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 that moves slow.

I wouldn't go with them until everything important was retrieved and came with us in the ambulance. It was all still on the bike, way down the road. My passport, my phone with the 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.

During our debate in the ambulance, the Polizia joined Scott and began photographing the oil spill. Suddenly a road construction worker in an orange vest appeared and confided to the officer that 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 was lunchtime.

italy, autostrada

italy, driving in italy, italian

Lunch time in Italy, or "Pausa Pranzo," starts at 1:00 and ends two or three hours later. It's an important meal, and shops close for it. Italians have their priorities, food and drink are high on the list, and efficiency is not one of them. 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, but in this situation, the Italy of my nightmares. A country where people are passionate about many things, but live in a moment where lunch is more important than preventing a disaster.

Eventually, all our belongings were retrieved and piled into the ambulance that seemed to bounce over cobblestones for hours after exiting the Autostrada. Inside the hospital, it was everything I had anticipated it might be, and worse. Noisy, unorganized, inattentive, unsanitary, and in disarray.

But it didn't matter. We were grateful.

Sitting in our group hospital room that night, we thanked God and agreed that on this horrific day, we had, indeed, experienced both Heaven, and Hell.

A Heaven where adventurous angels live, some of whom must love to travel. Because two of them decided to ride shotgun on a motorcycle in Italy just for fun that day. We had unknowingly carried one on each 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 right on that fine line between Heaven and Hell.

harley davidson, rent a motorcycle in italy, driving in italy

The End

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