My name is Julie Leidel, and I’m one of many that has been involved in a terrible accident with our beloved elk population in Evergreen. I wanted to write my story and perspective of the events that happened on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019 around 5:50- 5:55pm.
I’m an artist, and I was coming home from Breckenridge after an art opening at Portfolio Gallery. I was heading south bound on HWY 74 before 6pm. I had just passed through the green light for Bergen Peak Dr. and Lewis Ridge Road. The speed limit is 55 through that section, and I was driving under the speed limit, at about 45-50mph in my 2015 Nissan Xterra. I was not distracted, I was not texting. I was not in a hurry. I was paying full attention to the road. I was listening to an audio book on the drive called The Power of Vulnerability by Berne Brown. HWY 74 was very dark, and I was the only car heading south bound within about 300-500 yards or so. I had no one in front of me, and no one behind me. I was essentially alone on the highway Southbound, heading uphill. I was in the left lane from passing a car earlier, and as I passed by the Wendy’s restaurant, my headlights illuminated in the inky blackness an entire herd of elk crossing diagonally towards me from the South East. They were tightly gathered, with their bodies stacked in the herd head-to-torso moving towards me to the North West. The herd was more than one elk deep in places. I could see that they were moving more in a group than in single file. It was a solid wall of elk in front of me. The lead 2-3 elk were to the right of me, 1-2 in the right-hand lane, and another passing into the ditch to my right. In my headlights, I could see about 7-9 elk before my peripheral vision could no longer see more on either side. I knew I was in the center of the herd with no option to swerve left or right to avoid them. As soon as my headlights illuminated them, I braked. I had a few seconds before impact where I was very calm, cool, and collected, and I’ll tell you why.
You see, I had been in a very similar accident 5 years, 1 month, and 1 day prior to this accident. I had been driving in Utah Westbound also at night along I-15 where the speed limit is 85. I had a deer run out in front of me. In that accident, I was going 85mph and I had no time to break at all as the deer leapt into my lane from my left a second or two before my car. I remember thinking my legs would be crushed as I hit that poor deer. I had a 2009 black Nissan Xterra at that time, and it was totaled from the impact. I had major back pain and issues for months afterwards, but that car saved my life. The cab had me fully safe, it didn’t buckle into me at all. I bought my 2015 Xterra immediately, and added the reinforced , front grill guard because of this accident. I knew my statistical chances of this happening again were higher than most drivers because of my career as an artist, and my mountain living. I drive all over the state day and night for art shows and festivals. I have always been a cautious driver, especially at night for all the mountain driving I do. I’ve never had any other car accidents in my life. After this Utah accident, I became even more wary to night driving in the mountains. This story is important to know because I take this experience with me when I drive. I took this experience with me as I hit the elk herd. I would argue that I’m a safer driver at night than most cars around me BECAUSE of my previous experience.
I say that I was calm, cool, and collected as I braked for the elk impact because I had done this before. I knew to not freak out and to handle the situation with control and as much mindfulness as I could muster. I believe I had a guardian angel in both encounters. Time slowed down as I braked hard, but not enough to avoid impact. I remember trying to go between two elk, but that it was futile because there was no break between them. Because of my breaking, I hit the elk going about 35-40mph is my guess. My air bags didn’t go off this time like they had in my first accident, and I wonder if it was my slow speed that didn’t have them deploy? That part is a mystery to me. I could smell the gun powder scent you get though, like they tried to deploy and misfired. They should have gone off in my opinion. I was calm because I knew that I wouldn’t be crushed because of my trust in my second Xterra. I was clear-minded because I knew this vehicle would save my life, and that my grill guard was between me and the elk. As I hit them, I had a sense that I hit more than one, and I was right after further study of my car in daylight. Right after impact, I continued to slow. I looked in my rear view mirrors, but realized all alignment was off. I looked over my shoulder behind me as I changed lanes to get off the road safely.
As I came to a full stop on the right-hand side of the highway, I realized my air bags didn’t go off, and I thought maybe the damage wasn’t too bad because of that fact. I also felt a wave of relief after a quick mental body scan that I was not injured, and that the cab didn’t cave in on me. After I was fully stopped, I turned on my hazard lights, and I realized my audio book was still playing, and that my phone had come off of its magnetic holder and had been flung forward on my dash. As I picked up my phone, there was broken safety glass dust and small pieces all over it. I then looked at my windshield for the first time, and saw that there was a huge, central impact crater that had broken the windshield and pushed the safety glass in 3 to 4 inches towards me. In the dark, I could see what I believed was the dark outline of an elk not moving on the hood of my car. I called my husband as I sat at 5:58pm, and then the calm left me as I stared at the damage from my vantage point inside the car and realized how close the elk came to breaking through and coming into the cab at me. I told him the story, and was upset for me as I told him he would have to come get me. He left our house soon after with my kiddos for the 25 minute drive from our home. As I sat, I could see 3-5 cars pass right next to me (even in the right lane 4-5 inches from my car) going really slowly and looking at me with horror as they continued on. No one stopped. After about 10 minutes of staying in my car, I realized that no more cars were passing by. I then looked behind me to see 300 years or so behind me, headlights on the side of the road of at least 3-4 cars, and 1-2 fire trucks blocking some traffic. I was horrified. Others had hit the same elk herd that I just had.
I tried to get out of my driver’s side door, but it wouldn’t open more than about 3-4 inches. I then crawled over to my passenger door to get out. I had the head lights on still and I could see there was a caution road sign warning of the upcoming lower speed limit of 45mph ahead of me. I had my phone in hand and turned on the flashlight app. It was then that I realized my hood was crumpled up horribly, and it was in fact the shape I saw from the inside – no elk was on my hood. That was just the shape of my hood now. The front of my car was damaged beyond driving. The metal grill guard did its job and was terribly bent along with the engine compartment, which had pushed the sidewall exterior of my car into my driver’s door. It was so dark out that I couldn’t assess all the damage at that time. As I was standing in front of my car taking a photo, traffic started to fly by me at full speed, in the left and right hand lanes, inches from my car! It was so dark that none of the emergency personnel even knew I was part of the accident. I was so far away from the people involved behind me that no one even noticed my car’s flashing hazard lights and they started to divert traffic right into my accident! It was at this time that I knew I needed to walk down to tell them that I was in need of help, that traffic shouldn’t be driving here yet, that there was more of the accident ahead that they didn’t even know about or see.
I was walking, but actively in shock. I was blubbering and noises were coming out of my mouth at an astonishingly rapid rate, noises, but not real words. I had a quiet voice at first as everything was starting to pull together in my mind. I realized that no one would be able to hear me, and the first people I saw were the fire fighters out in the middle of the road, diverting traffic to my vehicle location. I tried to yell out, and somewhere in my head I realized that I wasn’t making any sense at all. I was mindful of the fact that I wasn’t able to communicate at all. This sent my body into a deeper shock perhaps. I was walking very uneasy and unbalanced as I tried to stay on the side of the road towards the people. I was crying out still, trying to get anyone’s attention.
The first responder that saw or heard me first was a wonderful woman. She was a fire fighter, and she came out of the middle of the road to me. She saw my state and she was considerably shorter than I am, but she put her arm around me and held me up and supported me fully as we walked. I remember feeling very well cared for from her, and as my words were coming in and out, I made a point to tell her thank you so much. She handed me over to another male fire fighter and she told him I looked to be in shock. At that point, I realized I needed to shake it off and try to get a really clear head – remove the fog so to speak. They asked me if I was hurt, I said no. They asked me if I was involved in hitting or being hit by any other cars, I said no. The female fire fighter had other duties to attend to, and she left me with the male fire fighter. She was a Godsend for me. I needed her help, and her compassion and concern was warm and she was very empathetic saying that calls about kids and animals being hurt were just the worst. By this time it is probably 6:15pm, so roughly about a 20-25mintues past the accidents. The male fire fighter was wearing plain clothes and a reflective vest. His arms were crossed and his face calm and unemotional as he watched the diversion of traffic. I asked if the police were on the scene, and he said no, the State Patrol wasn’t here yet. I could see he was annoyed by this fact. I pointed up to my flashing lights and said no one was up there to help me or divert traffic, and he said they didn’t have enough resources to divert any up to me. I explained that they were letting traffic drive full speed too soon, and that it was dangerous up by me. He said can you drive your car away? I said “No way, it’s way too damaged.” I didn’t know if there were car parts in the road at all or not, it was too dark to tell. He said well, we can’t do anything right now. He said, you’ve got to slow down, this happens all the time and that people drive way too fast through here. I remember being on the defensive, and finding my voice to tell him I was driving well under the speed limit and they were already in the road and I couldn’t see them until my headlights found them, and by then it was too late. He just was very detached saying that this happens all the time... I was cold, my coat was in my car, and he clearly didn’t have anything else to say to me or any help to offer, so I walked back to my car, in disbelief. I didn’t really know what to do. I looked and saw a male elk dead on my side of the road that I must have hit as it was in front of any other stopped cars. I looked into North-bound traffic to see a dead elk over there in the middle of the road, I assumed I hit that one too as it was across from the emergency trucks, more forward from the other car, but it’s hard to tell exactly.
As I got back to my car, I put on my coat, and realized that my paint tubes from a previous art demo had been thrown all over my car. I started to pick them up and tried to pull my belongings together. I was frustrated that no one wanted to help me, and I called my husband back. He was upset by this too and was going to call 911 for me, but since he was driving, I said no, I’ll do it. So, I dialed 911 at 6:21pm. I told dispatch my story and how there were no police on site yet, and how there was no help for my vehicle. As I was on the phone with him, a few state patrol cars pulled up way down the road and we ended the call. I then walked back down the hill the 300 or so yards to the emergency vehicles. I called out to different fire fighters in the middle lanes that we need to do something about traffic by my car. They had started to change the traffic pattern by my second walk down to them, so they had it diverted somewhat, but still not all the way up by my car. I crossed over the lanes of traffic because no cars were coming, so I could talk to the fire fighter. He yelled out to watch out and get out of the road, but no cars were coming. He said to go talk to the other team (also in the middle of the road) and he pointed directly to them. I had already crossed the open lanes and was next to him, so I continued on in the middle by all the emergency vehicles (where no traffic was) and he yelled at me to get out of the road a second time. I explained that I was going where he told me to go and had pointed me towards, and he was upset with me, so I then crossed the lanes of traffic again because he wanted me out of the road and then waved me onto a second group on the side of the road. He offered for me to sit in the empty cab of the fire truck and just wait, but I declined because I still hadn’t received any help and it felt urgent to me for an emergency vehicle to be up towards my accident with traffic. I suggested that I’d just go back to my car instead after talking to the police, and the fire fighter was upset that I would go back to my car. He said it wasn’t safe and I should go to the side group of personnel. I followed his direction to the mix of fire fighters and state patrol officers on the side of the road. I told my story for the 5th time and the officer said I should go back to my car and get out my license and registration. I explained that the fire fighter had JUST told me that I shouldn’t do that. The officer ignored that, and said, I can walk you back, you shouldn’t be out here on the side of the road. Exasperated with a feeling of not being heard, I told him I was perfectly fine walking back by myself and that I had already done it multiple times. I left his company by saying, I need an emergency vehicle to help me up by my car to see the damage, and for traffic, and that I would need a tow truck. He said he’d bring his state patrol car up to me.
I walked back to my car, by this time, it’s about 6:40pm and my husband and kids were the first people on the scene of my accident. Brian, my husband, told me they had just passed an accident with a van and elk just up and over the hill, further Southbound. I was giving them hugs and talking to them, and then the officer pulled up behind me with his headlights and emergency lights on, 50 minutes after my accident. The officer sat in his car for around 10 minutes before getting out of his car to talk, running my plates perhaps. He got out and handed me paperwork to fill out. I handed him my driver’s lic and insurance card at his request. I said “Don’t you even want to look at the damage to my car?” He agreed to see it, and we walked to the front of my car. I explained that I was lucky to be alive, and it was the first time I saw his face soften in agreement. He had me fill out the form and write down the accident details while he went back to the patrol car. My family and I waited for a while, and my husband took all my belongings to his car while I took a few more photos. The officer came back out with the details of the tow he had called for me and asked for my key. No ticket was issued. By this time, all fire trucks are gone, all other emergency cars are gone, and only one patrol was back by one other car behind me. He said I could go, if my family could take me home, but just then the tow had arrived. The two tow truck drivers knew the officer, and with some somber laughter they talked about it being “the 4th one tonight!” I said how horrible, and I hoped there wouldn’t be any more, and the officer just looked at me and said, “Oh, my shift is just starting, I’m sure this won’t be the last.” The tow truck guys and the officer gave me some pointers on talking with my insurance, and I reached out my hand to shake the officer’s hand. We then got into Brian’s car as a family and headed towards home. It was then the next day (on Monday) that I saw my car in the light at the tow facility for the first time. I think I hit 3 elk, grazed one on my front right, major impact on my front left (driver’s side) and a third slammed into my driver’s door and left passenger doors that I didn’t even notice while on the scene. Both doors were dented in and I couldn’t see this at night.
I was frustrated with much of how the event unfolded, from how quickly the elk were in front of me out of the black night, to how little time I had to respond, to how I couldn’t seem to get any emergency help for such a long time. The worst part for me as I reflected back on it was how all the emergency responders (save my one interaction with the female firefighter) were so numb. Every emergency responder that I came in contact with was expecting this, and it was nothing new, it was just the start of another dark night in November. Some even put blame on me for not being able to avoid the accident. There was a void of compassion or empathy, not because they didn’t feel for the victims, but I believe because it happens all the time, over and over in this area. You can only let so much in if you are an emergency responder. They were all great, and I’m grateful for their help, but we shouldn’t have our emergency folks expecting this to happen on a more than regular basis. Something needs to change!
I got home and saw posts on NextDoor and Evergreen community Facebook pages over the weekend. So many people comment online about how people speed through that section, and how it’s the driver’s faults because they are distracted or texting… this wasn’t my encounter at all. Not at all. I was well under the speed limit, I wasn’t texting or looking at my phone. I was by myself on the road so I couldn’t see any other cars break because of the elk in front of me. I was at full attention to my driving when this happened and I had no warning until I saw the elk right in front of me. I’ve played it over and over in my mind. I thought critically about what I could have done different. Yes, if I was going slower (at about 20mph) I would have had enough reaction time to stop. That’s the only difference I could have made to avoid this particular case from happening. Tell me, in a 55mph zone, if a car is going 20mph, wouldn’t that also be a hazard?
We need to make some big changes for that 10-15 mile stretch of HWY 74. I think the speed limit should be lowered from I-70 South to a max of 45mph, and maybe down to 35mph after dark. It would be great to have officers giving tickets if we can get a new speed limit in place too, to bring awareness to the issue. I think we need illumination for the highway. It’s so very dark there, that even the emergency vehicles didn’t see my car, WITH my hazards on. Highway lights would help us see past our headlights and add safety after dark. I would also love to see some fencing so that we could have a controlled area for the animals to safely cross, and flashing motion lights/signs when there’s movement like the city of Golden has done. I think an animal bridge would be even better. With the population of Evergreen growing quickly, more and more cars are on the road with more and more chances to hit elk and deer. We need to keep people safe. We need to keep animals safe. We need some changes to happen as soon as possible so that others aren’t hurt or killed by our beloved elk. No one wants this to happen, we all feel terrible and my gut sinks anytime I see a dead animal on the side of the road. We have a responsibility to be good stewards of the land and of nature. We have an obligation to work hard, and to make a positive impact with better safety measures for all. This shouldn’t happen all the time. We shouldn’t have emergency responders numb to the number of calls and untouched by the amount of death that comes from these interactions. This is a system that is in need of a fix. We also need to make the public more aware knowledgeable of the dangers, and we need to unite our community in coming up with a better solution.
Encounter with Elk herd on HWY 74
Julie Leidel shares news and musings on inspiration for her artwork.