Before Paige Carter began dating her late husband, Jerry Carter, he came to her work for a haircut at Bakersfield's Rage Salon.
After he left, a co-worker told Paige, then an assistant hairdresser, "That man is in love with you." But she thought the notion was crazy.
It took months for Jerry and Paige to begin dating, but they fell in love, married in 2002 and had two children — and in 2006 took a trip to Oceano Dunes that changed everything. That excursion was the last time Paige saw her husband alive; he died in a horrific vehicle collision on July 1 of that year.
She's now a 30-year-old single mom in Bakersfield juggling a full-time job as a doctor's office assistant and responsibilities as a mother to a 6-year-old girl and 3-year-old boy.
"I've had to start over without Jerry," Paige said in a recent interview at her Bakersfield home. "I miss him so much."
Jerry loved riding at the Dunes, and he took his family to visit two or three times a year — sometimes bringing the children and other times leaving them with relatives.
He hoped one day to move his family close to California's only drivable beach, but the cost of living on the Central Coast seemed beyond their means.
After his son was born, Jerry, an environmental technician in the oil fields, told his mother, Pat Carter, "Mom, I have my perfect family now."
On the tragic weekend, the Carters had dropped off their two children with Paige's parents and headed off to Oceano with a group of friends.
The group had fun playing a game. They talked, ate, camped in a trailer and rode vehicles together on the sand.
The fun came to an abrupt halt when the driver of a truck jumped the crest of a dune without noticing the multipassenger all-terrain vehicle below him carrying four people.
The truck landed on Jerry and friends Shawn Barton, Ryan Gladdin, and Gladdin's son, Austin, who was then 5 years old.
Each appeared hurt, but Jerry took the brunt of it, Paige recalled. She was about 100 yards away when campsite neighbors informed her of a crash, she said.
She rushed over, but paramedics kept her about 10 feet away. She could see only part of Jerry's mangled body from her view, but she knew it was bad.
As her 27-year-old husband was taken away in the ambulance, one of Paige's friends reassured her that he'd be OK, pointing out his feet were moving.
"When I got to Marian Medical Center in Santa Maria, they took me to a little room," she recalls. "I knew immediately what they were going to tell me."
The aftermath of the crash
Paige Carter took about a month off from work to try to pull herself together emotionally. She worried particularly for her children.
"I don't let them see me break down," the mother said. "That's kind of a bad thing at times. But I have to keep the family together."
Her daughter, Payten, remembers the frequent swimming excursions and bike rides with her father.
"When we were in the pool, he'd throw me around," Payten blurts out.
Jerry gave his daughter the nickname "Buckets," a playful shortening of the name Buckethead, which has no specific meaning and came "out of the blue," Paige says.
Jerry's nickname was "Porkchop," coined by an uncle who thought his cheeks were shaped like pork chops as a kid.
Paige still thinks about her husband every day. "It's been almost two years now, and I still get depressed and sad and angry."
But she realizes she can't dwell on the tragedy.
"She's a very strong person," said Debbie Stacy, Paige's mother. "It was traumatic, as it would be for anybody."
Some members of Jerry's family were upset that the driver, Sean Evans, didn't apologize publicly in court when he was sentenced in November 2007 for his plea to vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence.
But on March 4, when Evans apologized to Jerry Carter's loved ones in a post-a-comment on The Tribune's Web site, Paige took notice.
"It took great courage to write an apology letter like that," she wrote on the Web site. "Regardless of the length of time that has passed by, I accept this apology."
Thoughts on the Dunes
Paige said she doesn't want to see the Oceano Dunes close as a vehicle riding area. She may even return there some day.
She hopes to see changes in its operation — including a requirement that a spotter be on the crest of a dune to watch out for people below before a jump.
And she believes checks of driving records when people enter the Dunes should be mandatory.
"If someone's license and registration are not up to date, they should not be allowed to enter the Dunes," Paige said.
After the accident, family members wanted to know if Evans had the proper registration. He did, she said, but it took months to find out that information, causing frustration for family members.
Oceano Dunes rangers say other California parks have checks for tags and registrations.
But the Oceano Dunes doesn't, because staff would be bogged down with the process, given the large numbers of visitors to the Dunes, according to officials.
Home life now
At her home in Bakersfield, Paige listens to country music playing softly in the background.
Family members are helping her buy her home, located in a safe neighborhood with good schools for the children.
Painted signs on the walls of her home have the words "Faith" and "Simplify."
Payten wants to draw pictures with her mom. Wyatt is chattering away. Paige must get ready for work and can't play long.
Her mother, Debbie, comes to watch the children while she's gone on this day. Otherwise, the baby sitter keeps an eye on them.
The tiny, smiley, blond boy is now rolling around on the couch — teetering on the edge of falling off — and laughing with glee.
"I'm at peace and have come to terms that Jerry is never coming back," Paige says. "Knowing that he would be proud of me for being strong and having the courage to carry on makes me more at peace."