Fresh out of film school, Soraya Simi’s first documentary was centered around the Paralympic rower’s 2,500-mile solo journey to Hawaii. Except Madsen never made it.
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Day 12. Halfway into an eight-hour trek on Highway 6 from Salt Lake City to Mammoth Lakes, California—my last stop on a solo road trip across the West before finally settling down in Santa Barbara with the first lease I’ve signed in three years.
I promise myself that this is the last time I will ever drive through Nevada alone.
It’s hot, I’m tired, and the A/C in my car broke long ago. I’m 100 miles from the nearest town and haven’t seen another car for more than 30 minutes. As for the scenery, I might as well be on Mars. Barren and bleak desert stretches on into a kind of cruel infinity. The understimulation takes me to all corners of my mind.
I think of loneliness. I think of Angela Madsen, my first feature documentary subject. After coming across a sailing film I’d made while a student at the University of Southern California, she’d asked me to tell the story of her solo, unsupported 2,500-mile row from California to Hawaii. We FaceTimed just months after my graduation from film school in 2019; it was the first time I realized that she was 59 years old and used a wheelchair. She was a Paralympian and had already rowed across both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. It was a stroke of luck, an amazing opportunity for my first doc.
We spent a year filming together around her home in Long Beach, California, before she surreptitiously launched her 20-foot ocean rowing boat, Row of Life, in the heart of 2020’s global COVID lockdown. After she was about eight weeks at sea, we exchanged what would be our final satellite messages. The next day, she drowned while attempting to fix the bow shackle on her boat. I’m still not sure exactly what happened. She was halfway between Los Angeles and Hawaii, and surrounded by so much ocean she must’ve seen the edges of the earth bend, glimpsing into a window of eternity.
Did she feel lonely? Did she cry for help? Did she know no one would come?
I think of her cremated ashes sitting in a box on her TV chair at home, waiting to be reunited with the Pacific Ocean. I think of my hard drive with all the footage I shot, collecting dust on a bookshelf back home in Tucson, Arizona. I think of how much she wanted a film about her life—more than she wanted to row across the Pacific alone. I think about how much she trusted me; she said we were together for a reason. “I just row, Soraya,” she said, “You do the rest.”
Both hands on the wheel, I start to cry. Cool, glass tears run down my cheeks. I let it happen. It feels good to feel something in all this nothing. I look out the window. A swath of sand rises and spins in the distance. A dust devil accelerating toward me. I stare a beat too long. By the time I look back at the road, I’ve veered into the opposite lane. I jerk the wheel to adjust, but overcompensate. My car swerves off the asphalt, lurching into the desert. I yank the steering wheel again, but it locks as the tires lose traction on loose dirt. I head straight for a ditch at 85 miles per hour.
I scream and slam the brakes but accidentally hit the accelerator. I close my eyes. The airbags explode. A punch in the face. Metal and plastic crunch. Glass shatters. My car soars into the air, lands with a thud, and, eventually, rolls to a stop.