A Hard Road Home (Part One) Whiteout on Windy Ridge

On February 1st ,2011, a blizzard arrived in Iowa.  It was part of the Great Groundhog Day Blizzard of 2011, which, from January 31st through February 2nd, rolled its way across the United States, from New Mexico and Texas, all the way into Canada, affecting some 100 million people along the way.  This was a real blizzard, and not just weatherman hype, designed to get you to “stay tuned” to “their” station.  It had been brewing for several days, when separate Canadian, Pacific, and Southwest weather patterns converged to produce gale force winds and heavy snowfalls that immobilized cities across the Midwest. Chicago received one to two feet of snow, the fifth worst storm in the city’s history.  For once, a storm lived up to its billing.

With several days of warning, and flexible hours at work, I opted to arrange for taking the big day off.  I would work a normal shift on Tuesday, when the storm would first reach Iowa, then drive home in a four wheel drive pickup, well ahead of most of the expected overnight accumulation.  Throughout the day, I kept an eye on the weather radar, and declined when the Company offered to put me up for the night at a nearby motel.  As night began to fall, I started out on my 23 mile journey home, anticipating the joy of staying home during a storm.

In the five years since we made the move to our re-modeled farmhouse in rural Lost Nation, Iowa, I’ve come to accept the desolation that accompanies having a gravel road address.  Most of the time, I love it.  It’s far enough removed from major roads, that you can hear the quiet.  It’s dark enough to see the Milky Way.  Our place is a small acreage on the southwest corner of the intersection of two gravel roads.  To the north and south, the road follows long hills and deep valleys, and no snow fence can protect it when the wind crosses fields of winter stubble to channel the same road-blocking drifts in the same locations, year after year after year.  To the west and east are the Whoopie Hills, a closely-spaced series of picturesque hills, well-known locally for leaving your stomach in the air, and scaring your date.  In the summer, I can take a 5-K, “Seven Sunrise” run along them.  In the winter, they are best traveled by snowshoe.

We are a priority three out here, so it sometimes takes two or three days before the county plows start clearing these roads.  The first year, we got stuck four times, with two different cars.  Each time, we had only ourselves for assistance.  With two teenaged sons at home, we had a ready-made workforce to push, pull, shovel, and spin tires. Invariably, we’d trudge back home the half mile to a mile we’d managed to stray, pick up more shovels, trudge back, get unstuck, guide our motorized sleigh back home, sigh, and resolve to wait for the plow.

We have good neighbors, on nearby farms, who will assist when asked, but for the most part, you learn to make do in the country, part of that fiercely independent spirit that leads people out of the cities to begin with.  Besides, there also seems to be a code, among country folk, that says, “What are you doing living out here, if you don’t have a four wheel drive?”

The next season, we bought a pickup.  Four wheel drive.  Used.  Unknown to us, however, the previous owner had replaced some drive train parts with mismatched gearing, so the weakest link (the front transaxle) broke…in the middle of winter…so we now had a two wheel drive truck…and I got stuck………..on the Whoopie hills.  The county plow had to back out and take a seven mile detour, in order to free me from the other direction, before he could clear the road that day.

Up to this point, I had always carried a cell phone.  Then, I gave mine up to save money.  So, naturally, I got stuck one morning…on a non-snowy day…in the only wind-blown drift on the road…a mile and a half from home…5 degrees outside…and a 25 mph wind.  The road was desolate…not a soul would come along here at this hour.  I had a wool scarf and a small blanket, so I wrapped them around me and headed home.  I felt pretty frozen, but I did manage to avoid frostbite.

We started putting winter survival kits in our vehicles.  But, complacency, and a mild winter the next year, and I ate all the candy bars.  I started slacking off in preparedness, neglecting to ensure that each vehicle had a working flashlight, blankets, dried fruit, and such.  Besides, as we headed into our sixth Lost Nation winter, the truck had been fixed, and I was studly confident.  Bring on the storms.

So now, as I confidently started the truck, in the fading light of February 1st, 2011, I was actually congratulating myself on my foresight to take the next day off.

There are three completely different sections to my route home: first, fifteen miles on US 61, a well-maintained divided highway, second, about seven miles on 136, a two-lane highway with narrow shoulders, and finally, my road, a mile and a half of gravel.  I am well acquainted with the treachery of my road, but the last two miles of 136 are not that easy either.  Just before the sharp downhill right-hand turn onto my road, there is a hilltop I call “WhiteoutPeak”.  Before that is a half mile I call “Windy Ridge”.  I never made it toWhiteoutPeak.

Driving north on 61, I was driving straight into the wind, and the snow looked like little dots coming straight at me.  This was a weird sensation, like watching a warp-speed trip through a galaxy of stars, but hardly difficult to see through.  As I turned off of 61, however, the road conditions changed dramatically.  The 35 mph winds out of the north were not leaving impassable drifts on the road.  Only a few inches had fallen, at this point.  But, the snow was not sticking to the ground, either.  I found myself slowing to twenty miles per hour, or less, for the five miles to Elwood, because the wind was stirring up great clouds of white.  Twice, I stopped, momentarily, until the gusts let up, and I could see the road again.  The road was black, but the ditches were filled with snow, and the wind was stirring it up.

I had not, of course, seen another vehicle since turning off of 61.  No one was supposed to be on this road.   Leaving Elwood, it is only three and a half miles home.  I made it a mile and a half.  To Windy Ridge.  It was in total whiteout.  I waited.  It didn’t clear.  I inched forward.  It didn’t clear.  I could see, maybe, five feet in front of the truck.  I inched. I stopped.  I crawled.  I decided I must be in a channel of wind and just needed to get through it.  So, I moved forward again, and soon found the truck tilting to the right.  Realizing I must be driving off the right shoulder, I stopped, reversed the truck, and backed up onto the road again.  I corrected my direction, and started off crawling again, praying now, for the first time.  I was not so confident anymore.  Windy Ridge is a long stretch of road.

I moved forward, hoping for a break in the visibility.  I tried low beams, high beams, parking lights only.  I rolled down the window, and tried in vain to discern the dividing line, to sense that I was staying away from the shoulder.  Before long, I felt another sensation─the truck was starting to tilt to the left.  I had overcorrected, and was now drifting off the left side of the road.  I shifted into reverse.  The truck shifted further to the left.  I gave it more gas, but it was no use.  The truck slid off of the road.

“Oh, God, no!”  I thought.  I had gotten out of medians, and ditches before with this truck, however, so I began rocking from forward to reverse, attempting to build up enough momentum to begin clawing out.

Then, the transmission snapped.

“No-o-o-o!”, I cried out.  My confideence was gone.

“Please, God, No!”  My pride was gone.

I got out of the truck to survey the situation, still hoping the transmission wasn’t really broken.  But, it wouldn’t have mattered.  No vehicle was going to get out of that situation on its own power.  The entire truck was suspended on a pedestal of snow.  Not a single wheel was making solid contact with the ground.  I got back in the truck, and turned it off.  The way the truck was buried, I wasn’t certain that I wasn’t breathing carbon monoxide.  For the first time I prayed, really prayed for God’s assistance.  Up until then, I’d been asking for His blessing, but I was really relying upon my own abilities.  In the gathering darkness, two verses that came to mind were that “pride goeth before destruction,” and “ye who think ye stand, be careful, lest ye fall.”  I felt humiliated, humbled, and corrected, all in the same instance.

I decided to turn the truck back on, and considered my options.  I could try walking home before it gets any darker.  I could stay with the truck like “they” say you should.  I looked around the truck, and realized that I had nothing in there that I should have had for an emergency: no blanket, no flashlight, no bright cloth to tie on the antenna, no coffee can, candle and matches to melt snow for drinking, no chocolate bars or dried fruit, no  nothing.  My winter coveralls─at home.  My wool scarf and socks─at home.  I’m two miles from home, in the middle of a blizzard, wearing cotton clothes, a polyester stocking cap, a Carhartt jacket, leather gloves, and steel-toed boots.  I’m stuck in a ditch along a road no one is supposed to be on, and likely won’t be on until sometime tomorrow afternoon.

I analyzed the weather conditions in my mind.  It was only down to eighteen degrees when I left.  That’s not bad.  Frostbite is not a real possibility at that temperature.  Windchill would be wicked, of course.  Probably below zero, but only on exposed skin.  It’s going to take a lot of energy to get through this, but if  I can minimize the windchill loss, I won’t lose core temperature.  If all else fails, and I get  lost, I can bury myself in a snow cave until morning, when the wind dies down and I can see where I’m going.

There were at least two things wrong with my reasoning.  One was my estimation of the amount of energy that would be required to walk two miles in a blizzard.  The second was that I had no other means to warm myself except through exertion.  Thus, by the time I would have realized that I needed to stop and form a snow cave, my cotton clothes would have been completely soaked with sweat.  Unlike wool, cotton does not insulate when wet, so eighteen degrees would have become a problem, even in a cave with no wind chill.  Core temperature would have dropped, and with that comes the possibility of dementia where people make irrational decisions, go back into the elements, and die.

Nevertheless, I ignored this part of the analysis.  I wanted to get home.  So, I decided to try.  If it gets too hard too soon, I can just come back.  I turned off the motor.  I threw my laptop shoulder bag over my neck, and left the truck.  I had thought about leaving the laptop behind and locking the truck, but later I was glad I’d brought it along, because I used it to shield my face from the wind at times.

Now that I was out of the truck, I could see the road better.  Only the ditches were full of snow.  So close to achieving my goal, and yet so totally defeated.  I started down the middle of the road.  The wind was fierce upon the side of my face, but I persevered, out of a stubbornness that I spun as logic.  There was a farmhouse, with a quarter-mile driveway, to my left, but I did not turn that way.  I had only just begun.  There would be another house up the road, if I needed to stop.

There had not been another vehicle on the road since I left US 61.  But, after several hundred feet of trekking up the road, I thought I heard the rumbling of a motor, and crunching of snow beneath tires, coming up behind me.  I quickly exited the road, and got off in the deeper drifts of the shoulder, when, sure enough, I made out the glow of headlights coming up behind me.  A minivan then rumbled right past me, going maybe ten miles per hour.  I was so far off the road, that I thought they did not see me, but after about fifty feet, they slowed and stopped.  I made my way through the snow, and they opened the back door.  As I climbed in, I saw that I was being offered a ride by a young man, his very pregnant wife, and a small child sleeping in a car seat next to me.  They were on their way to Oxford Junction.

Oxford Junction is a good ten miles past the road north to my house.  But, that part of 136 would not have the type of whiteout we were experiencing here.  I told them where I was going, and they didn’t say anything.  But, I could see a worried look pass between them, as they considered the detour that would be necessary for them to take me all the way home.  I considered their vehicle, which I knew to be front wheel drive only.

“If you could just drop me off at the corner of my road, though, I’ll be okay,” I said.  “It’s pretty wicked out there, but you don’t want to get stuck on my road.  I’ve walked this road before, and I know what I’m doing.”

“Are you sure,” the husband asked.  “I mean, really?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” I said.  “It’s not that far.  When we get over the hill, start looking for the blue road sign on the right.  My road is just past that.”

He did not try to change my mind.

Windy Ridge ends with a farmstead on the right that blocks the wind for a section.  Beyond that, the road turns to the left and crests Whiteout Peak.  As I’d suspected, there was no whiteout there today.  Somehow, this young family in a minivan had successfully maneuvered the ridge, and I, in my macho confidence, had not.  Once over that hill, road visibility greatly improved.  They let me out at my corner.  I wished them well.  They drove off.  I watched their taillights fade.  It was dark.

The lights from the minivan, and the interior dome light in particular, had affected my night vision, and I needed to re-adjust.  Believing I had oriented myself, I thought I needed to walk further down 136 to reach my corner.  When I came to a “No Passing “ sign, I knew I’d gone too far.  I turned around and went back up the road.  Again, I went too far.  The wind was blowing hard, and I had missed my road, twice.  Where is it!?  I trudged into the ditch, thinking I could find the fence line, and then find the road.  The snow was too deep, so I stumbled back up onto 136.  I prayed.

The sun had obviously set, so there was going to be very little daylight left, maybe twenty minutes.  I had a mile and a half to go.  I began to think about a snow cave.  But, my eyes adjusted further, and I began to make out distinctions between shadows.  I found the road.  Looking straight to the north, I realized that the snow still had not accumulated enough to hide the surface of the road.  I could make out the black of the road between the swirling of the snow.  That would be my compass.  I must get home before the road becomes covered.  I started north.

The first half mile would crest before a big valley.  That’s where I would expect the wind to be at its greatest fury.  That’s where I would decide if I could make it.  Just beyond that, there is a farmhouse to the right.

I had walked in strong winds before, but I was walking straight into the teeth of this one.  Wind-driven snow is not soft.  It felt like my face was being ripped to shreds by ice needles.  I walked backwards for awhile.  I used my laptop for a shield.  But, I needed to keep looking ahead, in order to maintain a sense of direction.

By the time I reached the head of the valley, all daylight was gone, and I was still a mile from home.  But, I found I could still see. The swirling snow still appeared whiter, and the road still appeared blacker, so I went on.  The ice needles were at their worst here, and they were hitting my eyes.  I had to squint, but they still got in.  Somehow, squinting made the road easier to see, however.  I decided not to take the path to the farm on the right.  I would find out later, that I was wrong about it, anyway.  It was not a working “farm around the bend” at all, but rather a winding path to some storage bins.  I would have found no shelter there, and may have become lost and left no tracks.

Instead, I went on in the dark.  There were snowdrifts now, as there usually are on this section of the road.  I had to peer further ahead, against the needles, to make out where the road was discernable again, and then trudge through.  Plodding downhill, through deep snow, against a 35mph wind, in the dark is very disorienting.  I fell down.  I had a hard time regaining balance.  I walked off into the ditch.  I thought about my family.  I prayed.  Finally, I got past the main wind channel, and could make out the road well enough to walk backwards down the valley.

In the valley there was no wind.  I had been struggling for an hour on this road, and the relief was welcomed.  There was a farmhouse down a long lane to the left.  These folks had helped dig us out in the past.  Good people.  But what if they’re not home?  I will have wasted a long journey down their drive.  Besides, I’m halfway there.  I can do this.

The respite from the wind would remain until I climbed to the top of the other side of the valley. The physical struggle was about to get worse, however.  There was now no road.  Where there is no wind, snow settles.  Deep.  And where snow settles, roads disappear.  White on white.  No contrast.

My heart had been pumping mightily for over an hour, and now I found myself trudging, plodding, lurching, lunging, falling, and crawling through knee deep snow, all the way up the valley.  As I kept finding the ditches, I began thinking again about a snow cave.  But, I’d come so far!  Lord, help me.

I remembered that either side of this road was lined with trees at the top.  I started rolling my head from side to side, and up and down, sensing, but not peering directly at, the top of the road ahead.  There, in my peripheral vision, I could make out a faint V, a slight distinction between black and almost black, that showed me where the trees met the road.  That became my new focal point.

I still wavered and stumbled through the snow, but now I had a bearing.  I pressed on.  At the top of the hill, I became reacquainted with the ice needles, but I didn’t care.  I was less that half a mile from home, and I could see streaks of black road again, although there would be more drifts.  There would be one more small valley, after the cemetery, and then home.  I was going to make it.  What a tale I would have to tell. Thank you, Lord.

The long climb through the snow had left me soaked with sweat, and somewhat dizzy.  As I neared the cemetery, I was struggling with my balance.  Then, I heard voices!  Hearing voices from a cemetery, in the midst of a blizzard, while you’re dizzy, is not comforting.  I instantly thought about hypothermia hallucinations, even though I felt hot from exertion.

Instead, just coming over the hill of the last valley was my wife, and one of our sons.  With flashlights!  They were as shocked to see me as I was to see them.  They were coming to see if maybe the truck had gotten stuck on the hill I had just climbed.  They were bringing shovels.  Same old routine, God bless them.

They rushed to assist me, as they could see I was stumbling.  I must have been quite a sight.  My son tried to remove the ice from my moustache, but I brushed his hand aside.

“I didn’t do this for nothing,” I told him.  “I’m, at least, getting a picture out of it.”  I think they were torn between pity and anger, when they saw me; simultaneously glad to see this husband/father who was now exhausted from the elements, and ready to kick him for being stupid enough to walk through this.  I, on the other hand, knew what they were about to face when they turned around.

They kept their arms on mine at first, thinking to assist me, but soon found that they each needed one hand for their flashlights, and their free hand to shelter their faces from the onslaught of ice needles.  The wind blew me down a couple of more times before home, and they interpreted that as disorientation.  Who knows?

I had Trevor get a camera and take a picture.  Then, I got cleaned up, warmed up, and filled up.  Then, I laid down on the couch and slept until the following afternoon.


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