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Normally, it takes about eight hours to travel between Perry County and my hometown of Rockford, Ill., a sprawling, industrial city built along the Rock River near the Wisconsin border. It’s an easy route of interstates, so I frequently travel north to visit family and friends.
Full disclosure – I’ve spent the majority of my adult life in Minnesota and Wisconsin, so I’m accustomed to perilous winter driving. I’ve driven for years on slick, snow-packed roads, even on ice-roads of frozen lakes, where the thick icy layers shifted and creaked beneath my tires. I guess I kind of pride myself on my winter-driving savvy.
Enter last week’s polar vortex, the prevailing wind pattern that normally circles the Arctic but instead weakened and clawed an icy path across much of the U.S.
Many of us in the lower 48 were left in a tailspin of blowing, drifting snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures. Meteorologists warned of the coming deep-freeze and snowfall and advised us to stay off the roads. Where we were concerned, their warnings fell on deaf ears.
A few days earlier, my family and I had traveled to Rockford for a brief and belated Christmas celebration. We’d planned to return, along with my mom, to Perry County the Sunday the storm was expected to hit.
That morning, I sat at the kitchen table in the house I’d grown up in and scanned the weather reports. Outside, skies and roads were clear. We had a choice. We could stay and wait or we could head out in the hopes of dodging the fiercest part of the storm.
We had work and school commitments the next day, however, so we ultimately decided to head out. I poured myself another mug of black coffee and we loaded up the van. My husband and I, our two daughters, my mother and our arthritic, 12-year-old yellow Lab climbed in and headed out on our eight-hour journey to Perry County.
Two and a half days later, we arrived.
The trip began without incident. As we passed our hundredth mile, my confidence grew. Maybe we’d be able to dodge the storm after all.
At about the 120-mile mark, our luck ran out.
As we drove, snow swirled and danced across our path and quickly became a blinding white curtain. The semi ahead slowed to a near-halt, hazard lights flashing.
I gripped the steering wheel tighter as we crept along at 15 miles per hour and felt our way to the next town. In El Paso, Ill., we skidded our way down and around the ramp and into the lot of the nearest motel.
Luckily, a room was still available, but soon the motel was full and the surrounding restaurants closed. From the window of our room, we watched the snow blow sideways and listened to the fierce wind howl across the glass.
Inside, the motel’s hallways and lobby were peppered with stranded travelers swapping stories about their own harried journeys. One man, traveling alone from Dallas to Chicago, had been in a mild wreck and a sheriff had come to his aid. At breakfast the next morning, people talked to one another and gave out warm, empathetic smiles. There was the young man sitting alone, homesick and heading to Cincinnati, who showed us a photo of his rescue dog, Eskimo. “I can’t wait to get home to my four-legged kid,” he said, laughing.
There was the family with young children gathered around the near-empty vending machine – the only food available to many at the motel – that was headed to St. Louis and had gotten stuck in a snowdrift. There was the senior woman who served breakfast to the motel guests and told us the delivery truck had been unable to get through and the motel was quickly running out of food.
We were all in this together. Faced with circumstances beyond our control, we focused on our commonalities and basic needs. We looked to each other for help and camaraderie. Without our hectic schedules to distract us, we lived in the moment.
Meanwhile, social media kept me abreast of the problems Perry Countians were facing. My news feed was full of reports of frozen or bursting water lines, furnace failures, states of emergency and power outages and warming centers in neighboring counties. Everywhere, the ruthless storm was bearing down hard.
We settled into our motel room and made a new plan. Hopefully, by early morning, the interstates would be plowed and de-iced and we could bundle up and continue on our way. We’d be home a day late, we told everyone.
The next morning, we bravely merged back onto I-39. Last night’s lanes of blowing snow had given way to ice-packed roads, biting winds and dangerously frigid temps.
Vehicles crawled along single-file as we slowly made our way across the border and into Indiana. My daughters began tallying cars and semis lodged in snowdrifts in the median and road shoulders. By the time we reached Crawfordsville, we’d counted 63 cars and 25 semis. A few semis were jackknifed, a few on their sides with all 18 wheels in the air, some showed signs of fender benders and one was even torn in half, its trailer in a field along the right shoulder, its contents spilled and the cab in a drift along the left shoulder. Ahead, we watched a sheriff’s car slide slowly from the road and into a guardrail. The rear tires spun as he tried to reverse and eventually free himself.
Again, we exited and checked into a hotel.
By late Tuesday morning, we reached Indianapolis and the roads began to improve. We crossed into Perry County before sunset and exhaled a collective sigh of relief. Finally, we’d made it home safely.
For many, the storm brought danger and loss. Some were left injured, some with damaged property, many without heat or adequate resources and protection.
But for us, as much as we felt the stress and inconvenience of missed work, of the icy roads and creeping pace, we’d stayed safe. We had the good fortune of being able to find a warm motel. Our time on the road was scary, to be sure, but our time waiting out the storm was a silver lining.
For just two days, we weren’t a busy family scattered to the four winds by hectic work and school schedules, errands and chores. Instead, we were together. My daughters played. My mother, whose company I miss because of the miles between us, talked with me for hours. We played cards, laughed and shared stories. We all stayed up late, watched movies, ate too many salty and sugary snacks from the motel vending machines. We sat together at meals. We didn’t make our beds, wash dishes or do laundry. We didn’t do homework.
In retrospect, I realized that had it not been for the terrible weather, if our trip had been free of snags and delays, I would have missed out on those soul-warming experiences.
So thank you, polar vortex. I’ll consider that extra time with my loved ones your unintended Christmas gift.