Sunday, afternoon, I drove from South Bend to Fort Wayne. Not for the pure edification of it, but rather because a newspaper office never closes, and I needed to get back to work.
Still, it was an enlightening experience. In fact, at various points along the way I experienced all seven stages of weather-impaired-freeway emotion.
Giddy abandonment. This first stage is similar to the false confidence rollercoaster patrons experience as their little car creeps along its path, gathering speed as it approaches the jumping-off point.
The Toll Road’s white ribbon of ice-coated, snow-dusted pavement taunted and beckoned me forward. Nothing to worry about, I thought. Maybe it will be OK.
An awareness of fallibility. I realize I was wrong. Just because the Toll Road isn’t closed doesn’t mean conditions aren’t abominable. Cars were crawling along. Trucks were racing past as though they were driving a Southern California turnpike in August. I hunkered behind a snowplow and thought, Turn back.
A laser-focusing of the senses. All my awareness began to center on following tire-wide slices of exposed pavement being navigated by the car ahead of me. Layers of piled snow on either side of the road make both lanes narrower. A little to the right, and my tires would begin to scream.
A little to the left, and a passing truck would shave off the driver’s side mirror. Most of all, I had to be hyper-attuned to the nuances of the vehicle in front of me.
If the driver was slowing down, and I didn’t start slowing down at the same millisecond, I’d end up stomping on the brakes, and then all bets, as they say, would be off. And what were those truck drivers thinking? Were they actually trying to kill us?
Frustration: The ice was building up on the wiperblades. I’ll get off at the rest stop and clean them. The last sign said the rest stop was 17 miles ahead. But time and space had become elastic.
I was like a cartoon runner, watching the goal recede in front of him. As each tenth of a mile painfully clicked by, visibility seemed to decline exponentially.
Pure, steering-wheel-gripping panic: Finally the odometer said I’d reached the rest stop. But where was it? I squinted through the windshield. Unbelievably, the facility wasn’t even visible. There! A blur of a road sign. I was almost past the entrance, with a moment to decide. I swerved. The car struggled but held its course. The car behind me had caught my signal and slowed. I breathed out, finally.
Hope: Fortified by coffee and chocolate, and with my wiperblades ready again for battle, I pulled out of the rest stop. Would things be better once I turned south onto I-69?
Acceptance and humility: Yes! There were few cars on I-69, and fewer trucks. Thank goodness, I thought – though no other drivers at all, and no truck drivers in particular, would be better. But I was wrong.
My epiphany came when I swerved into another rest stop to clean the ice away from my windshield again, my composure again frayed, and the nerves around my titanium knee flaring with the cold.
There were two heavily hooded men snow-blowing the sidewalks. I navigated the crude path they had cut toward the main building – there would have been no way I could have gotten through the snowdrifts – and then stopped, as an older woman, leaning on a crutch, was helped along the path by a man who looked to be her son. They were focused, too, and they didn’t even see me as they struggled with a small dip in the walkway.
I stepped forward, prepared to help, but they made it down, and back to their car. Where were they headed? Why were they in the middle of this mess? Not, I’m sure, for fun.
Strange as it seemed, we were all in this together. It was easy to forget that all of us, truckers and travelers and tollway workers, had something in common – a reason strong enough to be out in the storm.
I thought about the plow-drivers and police officers I saw all along my route, all the people who would rather be home but who turned out on a Sunday to help me and this woman and her son and all the other cold, fearful pilgrims making their way through Indiana on a slippery, blustery, treacherous evening.
One of the snowblowers stopped. Its operator dragged out a gasoline can and was refilling the tank as I returned from the main building.
I found myself shouting above the wind and through the swirling snow: Thank you for doing this!
You’re welcome! he shouted back. But he didn’t turn around or take his eyes off the gas tank. Maybe he thought I was crazy.