April 21, 2000: Easter Weekend Incident

One of many trip reports by Alan Silverstein.
Last update: May 29, 2008

I sent this by email to various people the Monday after it happened...

Cathie, Megan, and I headed for Santa Fe, New Mexico, this past weekend, but we didn't make it. Friday evening, traveling 65 MPH on an open highway about 15 miles south of Fairplay, Colorado, about half an hour after sunset under cloudy skies, we had an unfortunate encounter with a full-grown elk.

I'd probably end up telling the story a lot more times, so I might as well write it down and email it... It's also therapeutic for me to do so. I'll tell the whole story, however long it is, and you can skip it if it's too much detail for you.

All things considered we were remarkably lucky, despite several screw-ups on my part. I'll dispassionately describe those elements also, for what possibly might be learned from them.

We were in my 1991 Subaru Loyale wagon. Since none of us had had time for lunch, we took an early dinner break in Denver before leaving town, and stopped into Cathie's mountain property briefly on the way to Fairplay. I originally hoped to make it to Salida or Alamosa for the night, but Cathie reminded me she wanted to do a side-trip to St. Elmo. So we were going to stop early at Johnson Village near Buena Vista, and get up real early the next morning to continue the trip.

Sunset was at about 7:45pm. I recall looking at the clock at 8:08 pm and thinking we would be in Johnson Village by 8:30 or so. We were travelling south at about the speed limit on a long, open, lonely stretch of highway through South Park, 14.5 miles GPS direct from Fairplay. It was cloudy and getting dark, but the road was dry and the temperature relatively warm. I had my headlights on. I remember starting to use high beams, but cars were coming the other way pretty regularly, with only short gaps, so due to laziness or whatever, I didn't.

Although we'd seen numerous elk along the road miles back, and it was twilight, it didn't occur to any of us that the hazard was unusually high. Unlike many stretches of road, there were also no "deer hazard" signs to remind us.

I don't recall well the exact moments before the crash. We think it happened at about 8:15. I know Cathie said, "watch out, watch out," and I looked from the left to straight ahead to see what she meant. You know how on a long drive with little traffic, you usually don't rivet your attention to the road ahead, you glance around. (However, at that moment I was not playing with the GPS, radio, or anything else.)

My first error, or bit of bad luck, was that when the elk first became visible, Cathie was looking ahead and I wasn't. I'll never know, if I had seen it at the first possible moment, whether I could have avoided hitting it. Yes, probably I could have slowed enough for it to escape. She said at first it looked like a patch of fog, and was so well camouflaged in the fading light that she didn't know for sure what it was before she yelled.

I don't actually recall seeing the elk before braking, but based on the skid marks, I must have seen it standing right in our lane, with no shoulder on the right, and no one coming the other way, so I turned left to try to miss it. Unfortunately the elk was also facing to my left, and it must have moved that way. The second bit of bad luck was that it didn't move quite fast enough, and I swerved to where it ended up. Possibly if I had done nothing we would have just missed it. Best I could tell, we were just straddling the center line at the point of impact, and the elk was mostly in the northbound lane.

My first clear memory is of seeing the very large hindquarters of the elk in my headlights just a few feet away and realizing we were about to hit it. In that split second I knew it would likely come through the windshield. Fortunately Cathie and Megan did not know this was possible, they said later...

All that said, we got very lucky. Apparently we hit the hindquarters only, on the front left of my car, in such a way as to lift and roll the animal. My left headlight was pushed in 1.5", and there was a smaller bend in the frame behind it, but the light cover did not break. The hood crumpled backward and down and was dented by three projecting objects in the engine compartment. The hood would not open very far until we bent it out somewhat straight again. My left side rearview mirror caught some hair and folded back, as it was designed to do. The fenders had very little damage.

It appears the energy was distributed optimally. The amount of damage was remarkably small considering we were probably going 40-45 at the moment of impact. None of us remembers even hitting the seatbelts. Two feet to the right and we would have missed the elk; two feet to the left and it could have been much worse.

But wait, there's more. After the collision and the elk "instantly" vanishing from view, we continued to slide across the northbound lane with a big crumple in the hood. I tried to turn right and there was no response at all. I yelled something like, "I have no control." I mistakenly thought the collision had wrecked the front end.

We drifted left across the road towards an embankment dropping about 20 feet, which was a sick feeling. We started to go off the road and tip, and we went right over a metal reflector post. I thought there was nothing I could do but watch. I was pretty sure we were going to roll over to the left. Fortunately, again, Cathie and Megan didn't realize this was possible and weren't scared by it.

We stopped at an awkward angle. I cursed like crazy for a few seconds about totaling my car. (It was obvious no one in the car was injured, although Megan and I were pretty freaked out.) I knew we had an injured elk just behind us someplace, and we needed to try the cell phone or ham radio to call the state patrol or sheriff, but my first priority was stabilizing the car. All the dash lights were red -- it had stalled, so I turned it off.

I finally started to do some things right. First, do nothing at all, assess for a moment. Turn on the flashers. Then I got out and looked. The wheels were turned hard left (that was surprising), the metal post was still showing out the front of the bumper, and probably we weren't going to roll immediately. I had Megan get out of the car carefully (on the downhill side) and quickly move away. Then I had Cathie do the same on the uphill side. "As you take your weight off, if you feel the car rising, put your weight back on it, but only if it's safe."

Once they were clear I climbed back in. (Now that was scary.) Engine condition unknown, but I had to move the car. I started it up and it seemed to run OK, so as quickly as I could, I engaged 4WD and backed up the hill, then forward onto the shoulder. Whew! Kill the engine again. Try the cell phone -- no signal, as expected. Ham radio, call mayday on 146.52, no answer. Scan, catch Pikes Peak repeater -- OK, I can call for help, but before I got that far, some people stopped. After a bit of confusion, they drove to a place a mile away and called the county dispatcher for us.

The next couple of hours were pretty busy as passerby stopped, then an ambulance, a tow truck, and eventually a state trooper. "Everyone turns out for an accident like this, don't worry about it." We could barely see the crippled elk down the embankment behind us, dragging its hindquarters, then stopping. None of the people who stopped to help had a gun, but the first thing the trooper did when he arrived was to shoot the elk. (And it took four shots...)

The paperwork took a ridiculously long time. The ladies sat in the car as necessary to stay warm. I got some help bending the hood straight enough to open it without impinging on the wipers or fenders. Then I used a rock hammer to beat it into roughly correct shape again to not interfere with the engine.

The radiator was pushed back and some green fluid showed, but if a leak occurred, it rapidly "healed". Most of the water on the ground was from melting snow caught in the skid plate from driving through some small snowbanks while visiting Cathie's property. The car was driveable!

When I had a chance, I went down to see the dead elk. It was huge, and still warm. Surprisingly peaceful and not very bloody. I felt awful, but there was nothing I could do. I was glad I took a moment though.

The skid marks were impressively long and visible by headlamp. No signs of broken parts on the highway, and unclear exactly where we connected.

After being released without citation (whew) by the trooper, and some debate, we turned back toward Fairplay, limped into town, and found a motel. There was a lot of vibration, but I quickly realized it was due to flat spots on the tires from the skid. The car tracked straight and handled OK.

Saturday morning, I spent some time studying the car, confirming the flat spots on the tires weren't too deep, and bending more metal. Once again I was astonished at how lucky we were.

We hobbled back to Denver trying to minimize the vibration. A mechanic in Jefferson said balancing the tires wouldn't help. I bought a new set of tires in Denver, and that fixed the vibration. I couldn't find a new hood, though, because the junkyards closed in mid-afternoon -- I'm still working on that. Also, I still need to bend out the frame and adjust the headlamp. But amazingly, the total cost for repairs might be under $300, depending on whether the radiator starts leaking.

(Much later: I was able to fix up the car, replace the hood, and drive it for five more years. Although a few years later I did have to replace the radiator when it cracked and leaked.)

Everyone who's heard the story has two reactions -- first, did we keep the elk? (I considered it briefly after the trooper asked if we wanted it, but it was impractical, and it grossed out Cathie and Megan, grin.) And second, how amazingly lucky we were to be OK and to have a driveable car.

Summary of ways I might have screwed up:

Summary of ways we got lucky:

Well that's the story, at least the parts worth retelling. Thank you for your interest.