Prayer, Ice, Steep Ledge and a Red Porsche
By Patrick Gallagher, PE | Bridge Engineer and Adventurer
When Working Passionately and Doing the Right Thing Collide
A lot of people often think of my faith as fairy tales that make me comfortable. And I'm fine with that. I'm confident in what I believe. But there are times, like that in the story I'm about to tell, that remind me of why I'm confident. It's a funny story and presents an unlikely series of coincidences.
Before getting into the story, I need to set the back story. This story takes place towards the end of a bridge inspection trip in the North Carolina mountains in the middle of winter. A few hours before this adventure began, I was standing in an ice cold creek in the mountains inspecting a bridge in knee deep water. While in the creek, I slipped, filled up my thigh waders, and put my torso and arms most of the way in the water. I was cold, wet, and far away from a warm shower, and a long way down a mountain road. Luckily, my coworker had his suitcase with him, and offered to lend me one of his pairs of pants. So, went into the back of the truck, changed out of my cold wet pants and socks and put on his pants, and put on a pair of chest waders with no socks on. I also changed my coat and was okay with the wet shirt, after warming up in the truck for a while.
As that workday ended, I decided to take a different way back to the hotel than Google Maps defaulted to. My coworker was heading home at the end of the day, since he lived closer than me. (That’s why he had his suitcase in his car.) The route I chose to get to the hotel was a little bit longer than Google’s suggested route, but not ridiculously longer. Plus, I grew up in the mountains and I was excited because this route took me over a mountain pass! So, I decided to go this other route and have some fun.
As I ascended up the mountain pass, the paved road turned to gravel, then it got very narrow, windy, muddy, steep, and then icy. I remember looking up the mountainside early on the journey thinking, "I’ve got this!" After a certain point, turning around a large truck on the edge of a mountain would have been tough.
When the road surface turned to ice part of the way up the mountain side, I stopped the truck to reconsider one last time whether or not I should continue. I wasn’t used to seeing ice in North Carolina, and I expected it to be a brief section of slushy ice like I usually see in Raleigh when it snows. So again, I decided to go for it!
As I rounded the first corner about 200 feet from the beginning of the ice, the truck slid and was moving downhill towards the edge of the steep, icy mountain road and I was in serious trouble. So, I parked the truck when it stopped sliding, walked around it a few times, and evaluated the situation. Every time I moved the truck, it slid ever closer to the edge of the road. If it had slid down the mountain with me inside, I was a goner. If it went down the mountain without me, I would be in serious trouble at work. So, I said a very brief, passionate little prayer in a moment of desperation. "Lord help me get out of this mess!" And then deliverance came in the most unusual way.
I’m very handy and have experience getting out of difficult situations, and I’ve spent plenty of time getting out of a jam in the snow and ice. But this time was different. If I got in trouble at work, the lives of five people I love would have been impacted and I was overwhelmed with the stress and emotion I was feeling at the time.
About a minute after I said my prayer a brand-new red, shiny Porsche came driving up the icy road. It looked like it drove there straight from the dealership. It had very little mud on it and had special paint on the brakes making them look cool behind the fancy rims. What was a car like that doing there? The man behind the wheel drove through the same mud and ice, and around the same and windy curves I did. It was completely unnatural!
I stopped the Porsche, asked the men inside for help, and told them plainly, "I want you to tell me what to do and I'll do it." It was a desperate plea and a complete surrender. So, they helped me! Realize, I was in a company truck, standing on a mountain road, in bare feet and wearing someone else's pants that didn't fit quite right, and my shirt was wet. I must have looked ridiculous.
I was in an awkward situation, but so were they. Their sports car probably cost a lot more than my company truck. We were all in a tense situation. I suppose that passion and drive for adventure is what gives some people their strength and character. We could relate to each other, we found the humor in the situation, and all three of us understood why we were there. There was no need to explain ourselves to each other. We were driven by passion within us that motivates us in our daily lives, and that’s what brought us there. And we worked as one mind in getting out of the situation. Had I gone through this experience with someone else, I might be telling a whole different story. I’m glad they were there.
It happens one of these men recognized the V&M logo on the truck and knew the president of the company, David Harrell, very well. When I stopped his car, he saw me, the truck, my bare feet, poorly fitted pants, and wet shirt. And he was good friends with the man at the top of the company. What are the odds? I didn’t know if I should be thankful or fearful I would get busted. Not only was my appearance and preparedness for the situation ridiculous, this person had direct and personal contact with the person at the very top of my “do not tell” list.
These men knew how to get all of us turned around and off the edge of the road. And one of them was an engineer! They talked me through the situation and got me out of this jam. Once my truck was off the ice and turned around, I said a simple thanks, they drove off….. and that was it. Poof! The whole situation was over and I was fine, just as if nothing happened. Ten minutes earlier I was sweating icicles and now I was warm and cozy winding my way down the mountain back to normalcy.
Looking back, you might expect someone in a jacked-up Jeep, or a mudding truck to pull me out. And I would have been glad for their help too. But a shiny red Porsche?! If that's not a sign from God, I don't know what is. Given my nature, I honestly might have blown off the guy in the Jeep thinking "I'll show him, I'm man enough to handle it." I basically said the same thing to the mountain twice as I started this journey. But this symbolism caught my attention, and I surrendered. It might sound cliché to compare it to the "Jesus Take the Wheel" song. But it kind of was. In an act of desperation, I had no choice but to let someone else get me out of a mess and trust the right thing would happen.
Doing the right thing is never in question, and I joke about my “do not tell” list above. There is no do not tell list. But I had to be careful how I told the story. The story was going to get out. With David’s friends helping me, how could it not?! Awkward situations naturally happen and telling your coworkers what happened is always best. But in this case, I was dealing with people at a level in the company I don’t usually interact with. And I had no idea how they’d react. Now, I’m still working at V&M and doing well. I’m still performing my regular duties just as I have always been. But I won’t be getting off the beaten path anytime soon!
So, was this a coincidence? Maybe. But I'm thinking not. These men are not necessarily angels, they’re just grown adults like me looking for adventure. But the three of us just got into and out of a bad situation together. And a little prayer of mine was answered the way I hoped. And we’re all better for it!
I’m going to end the story with this: This is a funny story. I have a great time telling this story because the series of events are relatable to all of us, and the irony is absolutely amazing. But it could have easily been a very different story.
Our company values passion. It’s one of our core values. Passion has driven me throughout my life, and it drives me now as I seek growth personally and professionally at V&M. But there are times when passion can get ahead of our ability to manage our situations. It’s natural for all of us. Our company also values doing the right thing. Looking back, the right thing to do would have been to turn around. This story could have been very different. I am grateful for the life I have and thankful for how this story ended.
So, the lesson here isn’t a chance to entertain our friends with a cool story. Although I absolutely do that. The lesson here is to stay focused on the task at hand. Have fun with your job. But be mindful of your own natural tendencies and recognize that your greatest strengths can also be your greatest weakness. Sometimes it’s best to slow down and take it easy before we let our passion get the best of us.