I'll begin with something happened to me in the winter of 1992 on an empty road somewhere between Los Angeles and Fresno. Good friends from school know this story already, but I imagine for some of you, this is probably new.
Finals week, UCSD.
Thanks to an unfortunate coincidence between the physics and chemistry departments, I had THREE finals scheduled back-to-back on the same day. I didn't know it at the time, but students in such situations were allowed to petition a rescheduling of one of their final exams. No matter ... on about four hour's sleep, wired up to my eyeballs on caffeine, I marched to campus with countless facts and formulae precariously crammed in my beleaguered skull ... with bright hopes of swinging some Post-Finals Genuis Effect mojo into the three hours when the knowledge actually mattered. Hours pass, and by the time I turned in the final of my final exams, the morning light that greeted me bled into an inky nightsky.
Having already packed my belongings for the trip back up to SF in the trunk of my car, I stupidly thought "Hey, I'm packed. Why not drive back home tonight?"
So on four hours of sleep over 48 hours, I began the northbound drive from San Diego on the 5 freeway, crossing Los Angeles at midnight. An hour north beyond the Grapevine is a vast expanse of farmland and rural desolation; in the wee hours, the only vehicles on the road are long-distance trucks, rumbling landlocked leviathains ferrying their cargo hinter and yon.
And it was here, miles from civilization, the effects of my fatigue rapidly began catching up with me. Sleep researchers call them micronaps ... lapses of conscienceness lasting a few seconds ... during which my wheel would drift over the bumps in the road to a loud BRBRBRBRBRBR (between friends, we refer to this phenomenon as 'brailling') that jerked me awake, only for me to drift off a few minutes later. Dangerous, I know. Did I mentioned I was young and stupid?
An hour or so north of the Grapevine pass, I saw in the corner of my eye a young boy, who couldn't be older than 10, dressed in a black leather jacket too large for his frame, huddled on the side of the road. He has a scared look in his eyes, and shivering from the December air. A runaway, I thought as I approached the boy's position. Kid's probably hungry and been walking for hours. Maybe I should pull ove-
He runs. Across the freeway ... a hard sprint that places him on a collision course with the trajectory of my car. I stomp on my brakes full-stop, and even as I hear my tires screech, I know there was no way I can stop in time. Brace for impact in three-two-one ... but as he crosses the beam of my headlights, he vanishes ... just fades from sight.
For a full five minutes, I sit roadside, gasping for breath ... pulse roaring in my temples while I try to cool my nerves.
Where the hell did he go?
I search the grounds around where the boy stood, walked the line next to the long black stripes on asphalt where my tires left their mark. Nothing.
Did I imagine the whole thing?
No matter. Clearly, I was in no condition to drive and desperately needed rest. I pull into a convenience store parking lot six miles up the road, put my seat back and promptly drop into a dreamless sleep.
And to this day, driving along that stretch of road between Los Angeles and Fresno during nighttime still gives me the heebie-jeebies.
Who was that boy? What happened that night?