Last night wasn’t the first time we’d placed a 911 call from the freeway. We’ve phoned in downed power lines, brush fires, stalled cars that looked like they needed assistance, or to report a ladder blocking a lane of traffic. My wife Sabrina is particularly observant of things even off to the side – she sees the stray dogs towing a chewed-off leash, or the man huddled underneath an overpass. Each time, we double-back, Sabrina at the wheel, me on the phone, as we pinpoint the location and make the call. Sometimes another motorist has already phoned in the incident. When we re-passed the man near the overpass, CHP officers were already onsite. But we could then drive home knowing that someone had responded; we had not simply driven by.
On Sunday, we had made a quick trip to Healdsburg to buy groceries. It was a day off, and we were in a silly mood, joking and laughing. When we headed back onto the freeway for the 30 minute drive home, it was just deepening into dusk. I was chattering away about something or other as we neared Geyserville, and then as we passed the first exit, I notice a white van with its lights on pulled off to the side of the road. “Wait, what was that?” Sabrina said. “What?” I asked. “On the side of the road. Before the van.” “I didn’t see.” “It looked like two children – huddled in the grass.” I knew what this meant. “Do you want to go back?” She looked at me. The mood in the truck had changed completely. We both knew the answer.
We took the second Geyserville exit, and drove through town, backtracking. It seemed to take forever. Finally, we were once again northbound on 101. Maybe the van would be gone already. Maybe. But no – as we rounded the bend, we could see the lights again. And yes, sure enough, a figure, huddled in the grass. Sabrina pulled the truck up right alongside. I opened the door and stepped out. The figure moved – it was not a child, but a young woman, with long hair. She was dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, her hair was disheveled, and she had obviously been crying. I said, “Are you OK?” She was only a couple of feet away from me. She stood up, rapidly but unsteadily, saying, “No.” But at that same moment, the driver’s side door of the van opened, and a man stepped out. An older man, in his late forties or fifties, with gray in his hair, hair parted on one side and long halfway down his neck. He was gaunt-faced, slender. He locked his eyes on the eyes of the young woman, and she did not meet my gaze – she turned to him, throwing her cloth purse over her shoulder, and walked towards him. The van was only about 20 feet away. I called out, “You don’t have to go with him. You can come with us.” She ignored me, and got into the van, her head bowed. He got into the other side, and shut his door.
It was not right. I knew that somehow this was a bad situation, that she needed help but was simply afraid to leave. Yet I was paralyzed. My instinct, my only thought, during that interminable moment of her walking, was to run after her, to grab her, to pull her into our truck. I have a history as a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault. There was a period of time in my life, when I was tired of being a victim, and determined that no other woman should have to experience what I had gone through, when I would have intervened by placing myself directly in between the two parties, regardless of any danger. On Sunday night, that was the only solution my adrenalin-pumped body could muster. But I knew Sabrina would not allow me to do that. So instead – I was frozen.
Finally I heard Sabrina saying, “Get in the truck. Come on. We have to get their license plate number.” Thank god. A plan. The van had taken off as soon as the young woman was inside, and because I had lost those few seconds, Sabrina had to drive fast on the darkening roadway, hoping we could catch up. At last, we drew up right behind them. It is harder to get a license plate number at night from a moving vehicle than you might think. But Sabrina is good in a crisis. “OK,” she said. “I am going to come up alongside as if I am going to pass them. I’ll get the make and model of the vehicle, and you focus on the plate.”
I had the notepad on my lap, pen ready. Both of us had thumping hearts. Sabrina called out, “White Chevy van.” She ended up reading out the license number as well, while I frantically wrote. As soon as we passed, I dialed 911. At that point, I was ready. I had all the information. I knew where we were (Highway 101, North Bound, just passing Asti Exit), I had vehicle description (White Chevy van with utility rack on roof), I had license plate number, I had a description of what we had seen, and who was involved. As I stayed on the phone with the 911 dispatcher, just before our own highway exit, the van passed us, and I re-verified the license plate number – much easier to read when you are the one being passed. So we were confident we had it right. The dispatcher thanked us and said officers would be on their way.
All that was left for us to do was to drive the few remaining minutes home, praying that either the police find them, or that this was all a big misunderstanding – in either scenario, wishing fervently that this young woman is now safe.