Friday, December 24, 2010

Our Miracle On Ice

It was the typical holiday plan: pack up the kids, gifts, food, pillows, blankets and take a 15 hour drive to see family over the holidays. What could go wrong? We never have a white Christmas. Spring tornadoes sure, but not blizzards on Christmas.

Our master plan involved renting a van then driving on Christmas night in 2000 from the Texas panhandle to Tennessee to visit relatives on my side. It would probably be the only time we would ever do it with St. Pauli Girl’s kids, Eduardo and Raquel. They were probably less than thrilled but by driving overnight, we figured they’d be asleep and less likely to complain.

The weather forecast called for a snowstorm but what do meteorologists know? At least this time, they knew a lot. On Christmas morning, snowflakes filled the air. The bigger problem was the ice storm that shut down I-40 in Oklahoma with reports of ice and snow as far south as Dallas. I jumped onto the internet and scoured forecasts and road conditions. I found an alternative route by going south through Dallas. “If we can just get through Dallas by nightfall, we’ll be safe,” I told St. Pauli Girl. “But we need to leave as soon as possible.”

Now by “as soon as possible,” I meant “let’s get in the car and leave right now.” Unfortunately, we had to still pick up the rental van, send the dog to Grandma’s, load the van and get Eduardo and Raquel to pack their bags. Four hours later we were ready to pull out. The latest online road conditions report showed ice all the way to Dallas, but no roads were closed at that time. “And those reports are always ultra-conservative,” I explained to St. Pauli Girl. “Someone sees a snowflake and the plow trucks come out. It’s like those yellow highway signs showing a curve and recommending 35 miles per hour but you know you can really go about 55.”

The first twenty minutes of the trip went well. Snow was on the ground, but the roads were just wet, like driving through a nice spring shower. An hour in, snow was coming down a little harder, and you could see some slush on the road. I slowed down a bit but figured 55 mph would make okay time in this weather. I started to notice cars pulled over on the shoulder. “There sure are a lot of broken down cars,” I said. “They don’t build them like they used to.”

At this point, the van began slipping on icy spots so I slowed down a little more. As we neared a small town, flashing police lights alerted us to three cars in the median. “Idiots,” I said. “Obviously driving too fast for conditions.” I slowed down again.

A few minutes later, we drove past a Suburban laying on its side about fifty yards off the road.

“Did you see that?” St. Pauli Girl asked. “Maybe we should stop and check on them.”

“There’s no one there,” I said anxious to keep going and not lose anymore time.

“How do you know?”

“This is the country. They probably just park their car in the front yard.”

“On its side?”

“Well, it was probably on concrete blocks and the storm knocked it off. Besides if it had been a recent crash, the wheels would still be spinning, lights would be on or something,” I reasoned.

We passed several more cars that had gone off the road. Sleet came down harder, and I slowed down to about 40 mph. I could feel the van fishtail quite regularly now. I slowed down to 30. Our five-hour pace to Dallas had now become ten and what started out as a 15-hour trip had increased to about 27. But we pushed onward.

Finally, we came around a curve where the ice would not cooperate with our wheels. With “steer in the direction of the skid” pounding in my brain, I took us straight down a short embankment and into the snow covered median. Raquel screamed that we were crashing. Luckily there were no obstructions, and momentum carried us all the way through the median until we were pointed in the other direction just off the shoulder of the west bound side of the highway as if we had just made a U-turn.

“Wow,” I said. “What do you think?”

“I think we should keep going,” St. Pauli Girl replied. “We’re headed southeast. It’s going to get better!”

“You know what? Since we’re pointing in this direction, I’m going home.”

I pulled back onto the highway and slowly headed west. The storm became much fiercer, leaving a thick layer of snow atop the ice. But I wasn’t cold; I was covered in sweat. The snow came down so hard and fast it froze to the windshield before the wipers could clear it. We had to stop every 15 minutes and manually clear the windshield. Luckily the worst of the storm was headed east. By the time we hit the outskirts of our hometown, we faced only snowy roads.

We finally made it home, our 150-mile round trip having taken four hours. I sat down and St. Pauli Girl asked if it was wine time. “I’ll have scotch,” I said. “Make it a double.”

So in the spirit of the season, I send this holiday caveat to everyone: when the road department reports that conditions are bad and you should stay home, they aren’t kidding.

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