Photo by Sam Jones.

When Tom Petty released his classic rock song ‘Learning to Fly’ in 1991 it provided an eerie reminder of an event that took place just ten years prior…

After receiving my drivers license at the age of sixteen, I borrowed my brother’s car and went to my girlfriend’s house in Airdrie, about twenty minutes north of Calgary. She wanted to meet with friends ‘down town’, so we drove to the main street and met up with three other guys and another girl in a big four-door Cutlass Supreme, which one of them had borrowed from his parents. I had a quarter-ounce bag of weed and someone else had brought a forty-ounce bottle of vodka. We drove to the countryside, during the middle of January, on the long prairie roads of Southern Alberta, in search of a place to get high. Eventually, we came across a utility shed at the corner of a crossroad, then pulled in close to hide ourselves from any passersby. I rolled a few rather large joints, while the others began passing the bottle around. After a while we had a real game going on, where one of us would jump out of the car, run around to another door, and jump back in. This was an enormous amount of fun, as we were all getting especially stoned. With our continuous switching of seats, I ended up in the back with my girlfriend to my right, and another guy sitting beside her. The other girl in the car landed in the drivers seat, and decided to start the car to go for a little drive. Her distinct act of bravery seemed admirable at first, but soon became apparent that she had something to prove.

The roads were covered in deep gravel and snow, and sloped on either side into a deep ditch, which sloped upward again to the top of the farmers’ fields. As the car accelerated she began turning the steering wheel back and forth, in order to make the car fishtail — all within her perfect control, of course! We quickly reached a speed of over 65 mph (105 kph), which was too fast to make a recover if something went wrong. As we slid across the gravel and snow, the oscillation of the car became more dramatic, until its sheer weight began to overpower her control. The front wheels dug into a deep patch of gravel, forcing the car into a violent shift, where we were now pointed directly toward the ditch, with a sturdy wooden telephone pole straight in front of us. We flew over the edge of the road, down through the ditch, and up a steep embankment of snow gathered around the telephone pole. We missed the post by inches, then rebounded off the snowbank, with such force that it lunched the car into the air, back toward the road, only now with the car completely upside down. I am certain, that with all near-death experiences, the memories of such stay lodged in our minds for many years to come. I will always remember flying through the air, as in a tranquil flight, perfectly inverted and parallel with the road below, which was now eight feet above my head — a scene that should only be found in a theatre near you! The windows exploded and the roof of the car flattened as we impacted on the frozen road. Surprisingly, no one was seriously hurt, with the exception of the guy beside my girlfriend, who suffered a broken collarbone. Seatbelts weren’t mandatory until 1987 — not that it would have mattered.

One by one we squirmed our way through the narrow openings of the collapsed windows, and crawled out onto the frozen gravel and snow, then gathered to the side of the road. I can still picture the flattened car, upside-down in the middle of the highway, with the telephone pole and snowbank just sixty-feet away, and utility shed off in the distance. We sobered-up rather quickly in that moment. After ten minutes or so, a white truck drove through the crossroad at the utility shed, came to a sudden stop, then backed-up and turned toward our crash. An older man got out and asked what happened, then helped the injured teen and car owner’s son into the front of the pickup, and opened the fibreglass cap for the rest of us to get in. As soon as we climbed into the box, he closed the tailgate and locked the window of the cap so that none of us could escape. He then drove us to the town centre, and let us out directly in front of the police station, across the street from where we had originally gathered. He helped the injured teen and car owner’s son into the station, where my girlfriend and I followed to report our accident. After we were released we got back into my brother’s car and drove to her house, wistful and less keen for adventure. I was thankful that we had survived. I also had a great amount of respect for the older man. My girlfriend and I never spoke after that.

When I think back to that day it makes me shudder inside. We were so close to hitting the telephone pole that there could have been a strikingly different outcome for six Alberta families. As a result of this and other painful experiences, I have gained a much deeper appreciation for the gravity of our choice. Throughout my life I have always wanted to push things to the limit, and have found myself making mistakes in the process. Our learning to fly can sometimes mean falling flat on our face. Yet from the mistakes we make we can unearth the true understanding and purpose of life. You may feel like your life is completely upside down, or that you are flying down the ‘Highway to Hell’ — but God has better plans for your life if you are willing to turn it all around. It is not your position in life that matters, but rather your trajectory. To believe that there is no hope at all is giving up way too fast. I find it very amazing how one (or a few) small oversights can add up and evolve into a catastrophic mistake. For those of you who have never made an error in your life please be sure to leave a comment. My life is miles apart from what it used to be. I have an incredible family, a successful career, and try to keep all four tires on the road at all times. If it weren’t for a whole lotta prayer and good company I wouldn’t be where I am today. Taking steps toward a better life may feel ridiculous to someone who is bent on being a bad-ass. But you may just find that those steps are the greatest and most promising thing that you could ever do. I still love Petty’s song — I just don’t need to be uber-stoned to enjoy it. God has much better plans for your life and mine.

Ephesians 2:1-10 (NIV) 1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.