I was taking exit 301 off I-40 to get on the beltline. It was dark, and traffic was light. The exit ramp curved down and to the right, carving a path between the tall, tall trees. Towards the left of the ramp, there were a pair of headlights illuminating some of those trees. I thought it was an odd place for a cop to station himself - surely the exit ramp is not the best place to catch speeders. But then I realized that the car was a civilian vehicle, and it was facing away from the road, as if it had tried to take the exit, but then forgotten to turn and instead plowed straight into the weeds.
By the time my brain had processed the scene, I was past it. And then I immediately felt terrible.
A couple of years ago, I found myself stranded in the middle of the road with a car that wouldn't run. It could have been any single girl's worst nightmare, but really it was not bad at all, since it was a nice day, and I had AAA. While I was sitting there waiting on the tow truck, I was impressed with how many people stopped to see if they could help. My faith in humanity was restored, even as I sat by a car that had been dinged multiple times by people who had not bothered to leave a note.
Since then, whenever I have seen a motorist on the side of the highway, I've always felt a little obligated to stop. And yet I haven't done it, not even once. Usually, the person does not seem to be in any danger - they are very close to open businesses, it's in the middle of the day, or someone else has already stopped. Of course, all those things were true when I got stuck, too, and those people stopped anyway. And then I didn't need them.
But this situation was different. It was at least a mile in any direction to any sort of gas station, and it was nighttime, so fewer places would be open. Plus, there was just the whole emergency vibe of the situation. I had been stopped in traffic when my car just cut off. This person had run off the road. They might be incapacitated, and every minute that a Good Samaritan did not stop and help was one minute less they had to be saved.
Finally, my guilt got the best of me, and so I decided to turn around. This was not as easy as it could have been. I had to take the next exit to go back in the other direction, then take the next exit that way to get back to the ramp. It gave me a lot of time to think about why this was not a good idea. I was, after all, still a single gal in the city. Instead of finding a person in need, I might find a jerk with a knife. As I got closer and closer, I planned carefully how I was going to lock the car and hide my wallet and phone on my person. I wasn't thinking about how the person might be dead or badly injured or a traumatized teenager.
This is why people shouldn't watch the news. You see someone who has driven their car into the trees and think that they are going to rob, rape, or kill you.
Despite my fears, it was important that I do this. In all likelihood, the person I found would not be dangerous. And they probably wouldn't be dead. They would be like I was when I was on the side of the road: frustrated at the situation but surprised by the way strangers took the time to lend a hand. Someday, they, too might see a car by the side of the road and feel obliged to stop. Maybe it would take them five minutes to get back to the exit ramp, and maybe they would worry the whole way about sting operations involving disabled vehicles. But still, they would do it, and the world would be a better place because of it.
I like that I live in a world where strangers help out. And if I want to continue living in that kind of world, I have to be one of those helpful strangers.
When I finally got back to where I started, there were three cars parked on the side of the exit ramp with their flashers going. I guess some people have a little more practice at this Good Samaritan stuff, so they don't have to drive all over the place having a crisis of conscience. Figuring that the situation was under control, I drove on by for the second time in five minutes. Yes, I was relieved that I didn't have to stop. But I would have, and I think that counts for something.