It later seemed like a too-obvious metaphor, that I should spent two solid days driving as fast and as far as I could from a blizzard, only to end up waylaid by a thief and forced to not only drive through a whiteout, but to do it at night.
I’m night blind, which for many sensible adults would have been strike three to make them pull over and wait it out. I passed some of these cozy hunkered-down people on my two-lane country road, their flashing hazard lights so muffled by gathering snow that they took on a calmer quality, like nightlights. Between our vehicles, mine was the greater hazard by far. I was going a grandma 40 in a 65, trying not to stare too directly into the Warp Drive stripes of light just beyond my windshield that burrowed into my retinas like too many tiny shooting comets.
This was the ass end of an epic solo “50th birthday” road trip from Chicago to Portland, and I wasn’t supposed to be in Kansas at all, much less fighting my way through a blizzard to arrive, scarcely announced, at the home of my first lover and his wife of many years, Brian and Ramona McCallum. We’re all friends, but it has been 20 years probably since we’ve seen one another. And it was a pretty big “drop by” to ring up with six hours notice and ask to spend the night out of the blue at their house in Garden City, Kansas. Without getting too far into it, we have a complicated history, so it was especially gracious of Ramona not to veto the plan.
The night the blizzard caught me was the night I was originally planning a tour of the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone in Wyoming and then heading up to North Dakota, mostly just to ‘tag’ it as it’s one of my very few remaining not-visited US states, along with Alaska, Deleware, Maine and New Hampshire. I was planning to go north all the way back to Chicago and observe, photograph, and delight in spring’s transformation of the landscape over the three weeks between when I left on March 20 and returned April 14. I was especially looking forward to seeing how Montana might have greened up.
But then, and this is embarrassing, a friend who I instant message with most days asked me if I was at all worried about the blizzard (What blizzard?). I had been fastidious about checking the weather all the way to Portland, which was for the most part sunny and dry, jacket weather during the day and a bit chilly at night. I hadn’t needed to wear my parka, even at sunset in the Badlands of South Dakota, at dawn at Mount Rushmore, or anywhere in beautiful snowy Montana, whose cornflower blue creeks and rivers were burbling with snowmelt.
In Walla Walla, Washington, it was warm enough that I played golf in short sleeves and Portland’s weather was more than cooperative, especially since I was inside a conference center listening to poets and envying other writers all day at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP).
After Portland, I spent the next week of the return trip in an AirBNB in Boise, Idaho, mostly eating and drinking, taking pictures and videos, and doing one vaguely hike-like walk. I had stopped worrying about the weather, which was super dumb. If it hadn’t been for Joe’s warning I would have had to plow through two feet of snow in South Dakota to make it to the border of North Dakota only to find both connecting interstates closed.
[I’ve since learned about the existence of NOAA weather radios, and also a phone app where you input your driving route and dates and it comes back with any bad news like “Hey, lady, you’re headed into the very worst part of a blizzard and planning to travel with it eastward, like a dumb dog that doesn’t know when it’s time to abandon its owner and go a different way.”]
I was in Idaho Falls when Joe clued me in to the blizzard and I immediately started shifting my route southward to try to get out of the way.
Here’s where I ended up driving, and even with the shift, I had to drive through and outrun the the snowstorm twice (once crossing the Rockies at Ogden, UT and again leaving Laramie, WY on my way to Pueblo.) Pueblo was where a thief took my iPhone out of my car as I was in a shop, forcing me to find a T-Mobile and buy another one, a process that took a precious couple of hours at just the wrong time.
I made that delay worse by stopping on my way out of Pueblo because my car was getting hit by some serious wind blasts. I called an audible and decided to take a different road, one that went even further south before snaking up into Kansas, the state of my birth and first 24 years.
I had gone about 10 miles in the new direction before I realized the road was climbing and it went through some serious mountains. I turned back around and took the same road I was on initially, wasting valuable time, time that I was forced spend driving in a blizzard when if I had just kept going down the road I was on, would have been at Brian and Ramona’s, safe and warm.
(As I went back to research the snowfall amounts for the places I was supposed to go, I saw that Pueblo got one 107 mile per hour gust of wind, which the weather people referred to as a “gustnado,” because someone was going to invent a word.) I say this so you’ll realize the wind gusts were serious and not your typical Western Kansas high winds.
It’s hard to describe to you just how tense and nearly overwhelming the blizzard driving was. And that was before I saw my “low tire pressure” light go on. It was one of those “you gotta be kidding me,” Job-style pile-on moments. With a pathetic look and pleading gestures, I managed to get the clerk inside a just-closed service station to sell me quarters for the air machine. The tire filled, and then, thankfully, the pressure held. Despite all the craziness, I can honestly say I never contemplated not continuing, as long as the car was able to carry me.
In Kansas, I reconnected with the McCallums, who were as welcoming as they could possibly be, and then in Kansas City with my sister Michelle, who I hadn’t seen in person in ten years, and my college friend Joe Orosco, who lives in Lawrence. Our time together was so brief we didn’t even manage to take a picture!
Driven by fear and chasing escape, it ended up being just the detour I needed: An excuse to breach walls, revisit unsettled history and see people I really ought to in a milestone year; people who were important contributors to the drama as I marked a half century and was marked by it.