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Chased by a maniac

(This frightening trip took place a couple of years before we joined the burgeoning army of cell-phone users. I'm not sure, in retrospect, if having a phone would have helped, but then again…)

By A.C. Haeffner

One of the beauties of life in the hills is the scant traffic you encounter.

If you know the back roads, that traffic becomes nearly nonexistent. But even the main thoroughfares -- outside of population centers -- can rarely be described as clogged.

"I only saw two cars on the way home last night" was a fairly common account I gave years ago, when I was employed in Elmira by the Star-Gazette daily newspaper. Of course, that was a bit of an exaggeration; for there was certainly traffic in Elmira and the adjoining community of Horseheads. But once I had cleared those, the final half of my journey home -- often after midnight -- was frequently free of anything resembling another moving vehicle.

Light traffic is a circumstance to which I have grown accustomed, and a far cry from the kind in which I learned to drive -- in the much thicker population pockets north of Detroit. There, bumper-to-bumper congestion was the norm, and nothing I feared. But years and distance eroded the confidence of my youth, and in time the thought of it -- of even driving in Michigan -- seemed daunting.

And when -- upon a return there one summer -- I encountered a maniac on wheels, it became much more than daunting. It became terrifying.


Long after we had settled in Schuyler County, my family started taking summer sojourns to an island hideaway in northern Michigan -- a place called Bois Blanc ("White Woods") that I had visited as a young child and was now drawn back to.

The day before we were to leave on this particular trip -- with much of the packing and heavy lugging still ahead of us -- I wrenched my back. Sitting down and getting up were both a trick. Lifting suitcases and such was almost beyond imagining. I was moving very slowly, and would be for days. My wife Susan and teen-aged sons Jonathan and David would have to shoulder some of what normally would be one of my vacation roles: the loading of our Voyager van.

Then, on the morning of departure, while I was on the way to see a chiropractor about my back, a driver pulled out in front of the van after only briefly stopping at a stop sign, oblivious to the fact of my right of way and my 50-mile-an-hour speed. The van's brakes worked better than my back did, and I narrowly dodged an accident.

An hour later, as Susan transported our dog to the kennel on another road, another motorist completely ignored a stop sign and surged in front of her. Brakes engaged and gravel flying, Susan managed somehow to avoid collision.

We had to consider if maybe we were being sent a message -- such as stay off the roads.
But we weren't about to do that -- were more determined, if anything, in the face of seeming adversity -- and eventually departed, though an hour later than we would have liked. Perhaps, we figured, we could make up time on the way, for it is a long trip to the island, some 11 hours at best.

Alas, we hit rush hour near Buffalo, were slowed to a crawl by construction for much of the distance between Niagara Falls and Hamilton, Ontario, and found ourselves another hour behind schedule by the time we crossed back into the United States at Port Huron, Michigan. Our planned destination for the night -- Gaylord, Michigan, about an hour and a half shy of our ferry departure point the next day -- was looking like a bit of a reach.

From Port Huron, we followed Route 69 West as night deepened, hooked into 475 near Flint and then headed north on I-75, traveling the speed limit of 70. Even at that speed, our arrival in Gaylord would be very late.

The 70 mph seemed like quick travel, indeed, but it proved a snail's pace next to some of the cars zipping by us. As the hour approached midnight -- my wife had yielded the driving chores to me a short time before -- I saw two more such vehicles coming on fast behind us, one in the left lane and one in ours.

The car in the left lane passed us first, probably going close to 90. The other car, I expected, would do the same, but a quick glance in my side-view mirror failed to locate it. I checked in front to make sure I was keeping well back of another vehicle ahead of me in my lane, and followed that with a glance in my rearview. What I saw next forced me to sit bolt upright in shock, my ailing back protesting by tossing a scorching pain into the mix.

The car coming up behind me wasn't passing; it was instead coming straight for my rear bumper, and fast.

"What the hell!" I yelled, alerting both my wife, in the passenger seat, and son Jonathan, seated behind us. His younger brother David was sleeping in the rearmost seat. As Susan and Jonathan turned frantically, eyes fixed on the onrushing car, I accelerated quickly, somehow staying ahead of and avoiding it -- by no more than an inch or so, I figured.

While accelerating, I gave thought to going around the vehicle in front of me, but that driver could see what was happening and was accelerating, too, making passage difficult. Besides, I didn't like the idea of increasing the speed of this encounter; I was thinking I'd rather slow it down. But how?

As I desperately puzzled, the car behind -- light-colored, I thought, but little else was evident beyond the glare of its headlights -- suddenly decelerated sharply, backing away quickly, wandering off the shoulder and back over the center line, then off the shoulder again. It looked like it might be stopping. And so I slowed, thinking its driver had perhaps fallen asleep at the wheel and now was regaining control.

But another look in the rearview a half-minute later brought the terror cascading back.
"He's coming again," I said. Susan and Jonathan mixed cries of confusion with my expletives as the assaulting motorist made another run at us. Accelerating sooner this time, I got on the tail of the vehicle in front and was thinking again of passing him -- leaving him to deal with the consequences -- but hesitated, some nagging feeling of decency impeding me. In that moment, the driver ahead leaned on his accelerator and started pulling away from us.

The car behind was still gaining, and I couldn't imagine what to do. Slowing down might slow the chase car too, but more likely get us rear-ended. I decided instead to increase our speed, and kept barely ahead as the charging vehicle veered right and left, almost touching us. I leaned on my horn, hoping to wake the driver if sleep was the problem, and feinted from side to side in an effort to elude contact. And then ... then the attack subsided once again. The assault vehicle backed off, decelerating so quickly that it soon was far behind us, its headlights barely visible.

"We've gotta get off this road," I said, thinking I could pull over to the shoulder in the absence of an exit. But I quickly discarded that idea, imagining the marauder colliding with us at 90 miles an hour while we sat helpless. And so we pressed on, not far behind the vehicle in front, hoping for an exit.

A mile or so later, providence: a sign said an exit for a place called Standish was another mile ahead.

As we neared it, I checked my rearview again and froze.

"He's coming," I said tightly.

"What!" Susan exclaimed.

"Oh, God, no," said Jonathan.

Just then, David awakened.

"What's going on?" he asked. "What's all the noise?"

I didn't have time to answer. With Susan and Jonathan turned, looking behind us, David did likewise, and watched as the attacker gained on us rapidly. I had a decision -- take the exit or stay on I-75 -- and decided on the exit. The same decision was taken by the driver ahead of us.
Surely the car behind would not follow.

But it did. It took the exit, too.

Too late to react -- to get back on 75 -- I concentrated on what might lie ahead. The attacker was zeroing in on us again; would catch us if we slowed too much on the exit; crash into us if we obeyed any stop signs. And so I braced myself for what would have to be high-speed evasion: no doubt through a stop sign, possibly around the vehicle in front, and then -- I didn't dwell on it -- a turn onto the road ahead without regard to traffic or the physical laws of nature that might send us hurtling onto our side.

And then, suddenly, none of those possibilities confronted us.

In almost the same moment that I realized the exit had no stop sign -- was an entrance ramp to a state highway -- David announced equally welcome news.

"He's pulling off the road. He's stopping."

And so he -- or she -- had.

The onrushing car was fading once again, this time coming to a complete stop. Of course, that didn't mean it wouldn't be coming again, so I kept up my speed as I entered the newfound state road, passed the vehicle that had been in front of us, took the next exit off the highway, doubled back to I-75 and resumed our northern course as quickly as possible.

Alas, 10 minutes later I saw headlights -- similar, I thought, to those before -- coming up fast behind us. They were wandering, I noticed -- right, left, right -- and gaining.

Ahead lay another exit.

"Christ!" I said, and the rest of the family turned to look behind.

"What're you going to do?" Susan asked nervously.

"What I should have done the last time," I said.

I moved over to the exit lane as soon as it appeared, and slowed just enough to give the onrushing vehicle a chance to get closer; I had to know if it was following us. Then, just as I was running out of room to make my maneuver, the other car veered into the exit lane, committed at a seemingly alarming speed. And as it veered right, I veered left, up a short embankment -- the last available pavement -- and back onto I-75.

The other car couldn't follow us -- if, in fact, that was the intent of its driver. It was going too fast for its operator to react. And so it barreled down the exit and out of our sight.

There was silence in our van for a minute.

"We've gotta get off this road," I said again.

And like a mirage in the desert, a rest area appeared two miles later. There, after parking and exiting our van, the four of us paced about, loosening tightened limbs, shaking heads ruefully at one another and looking, from time to time, south along the interstate, from where we had just come.

There was something out there waiting for us, we decided, and only daylight would keep it at bay.
A map on the wall of the rest-area building showed us another exit was a mere handful of miles ahead, and we decided to chance it. Somehow, not even the rest area seemed safe. Beyond the short drive, though, further night travel was out of the question.

We climbed back in the van, hurriedly drove the short stretch on I-75 -- nerves taut and eyes concentrated as much behind us as ahead -- and pulled into a motel for the night, a good hour short of our intended destination.

Thoughts of contacting the authorities seemed fruitless, for what would they be looking for? All we had seen clearly of the attacking vehicle were its headlights. No make, no model, no distinct color. (White? Beige? Yellow?) And where would they look? The vehicle -- if it was the same one both times -- could be anywhere by the time an officer responded. And so we opted for sleep as the preferred curative.

The next day, we resumed our travel, looking over our shoulders as we went, finally passing Gaylord and eventually relaxing in the glare of daylight.

We had accepted by silent consent, I think, that whatever had assaulted us -- sleepy driver, drunk driver, drugged driver or hell-raiser -- was a creature of the night.

And when we exited I-75, turning off on a picturesque county road that would take us the final half-hour to our destination -- at first an attractive goal, but now safe haven as well -- we stopped looking behind us altogether, saving that particular practice for the journey home at vacation's end

But we made doubly sure to schedule our return trip to New York and to Schuyler County's peaceful roads so that any time spent on I-75 would come before nightfall -- before the drunks and the crazies and the devil's own claimed that high-speed highway as their playground.






© The Odessa File 2004
Charles Haeffner
P.O. Box 365
Odessa, New York 14869