As my nephew David is making his way back to Kansas, stuck in traffic and snow, I am reminded of a similar trip in 1983 from Chicago to LaJunta, CO, where my parents lived. I was visiting my professor Mike Stienel, who had moved to Northwestern to teach. It was a great visit with a teacher I loved and a generous person. I got to go to a rehearsal with the Spinners (for a debutant ball-holy cow…that’s another story…). He was playing in the band, so I got to see high society first hand.
I left Chicago two days before Christmas. He tried to talk me out of it. The temperatures were in the -30’s. But the thought of crashing Christmas with someone other than family didn’t settle with me. As an adult, I never resonated with Christmas…it was always an uncomfortable and awkward time, and being with non-family wasn’t an option…So, I hit the (recently) open road.
It was windy…really windy all the way out of Illinois and through Iowa. And cold…Just stopping to take a pee was a bone chilling experience. I remember stopping often to look under the hood. My car could barely make 65 in the wind, and the heater was on high all day. It couldn’t keep up. I those days, I usually drove straight through, no matter how far. I was young and invincible. But it became clear to me that driving all the way in this cold was not a good situation…I called my college friend Scott Erb to see if I could stay the night in Henderson, Nebraska with he and his family.
When I arrived, they welcomed me in to their warm house, and the warm hearts. I remember the sense of relief after being so alone in a barren place all day. I was overwhelmed and the reclusive me was glad to be with others. I remember some tears. They were so welcoming. I was hypothermic. It was only then I realized what danger I had been in for I don’t know how long on this lonely highway. After a good hot meal and some conversation, they gave me a comfortable place to sleep, and I was out. I felt protected. By them…and by higher powers.
The next morning I think the temps had approached -40 if I remember right, although I can’t seem to find a record online. I’ve camped once in temps like that, at 11,000 ft. in Colorado on the last day of January…but I had gear that time (barely adequate…but at least I had gear!). It was frigid that morning back in Nebraska. My car wouldn’t start of course, and they tried to convince me to stay. The thought of crashing their Christmas Day was also not something I could bear. I know they would have been totally fine with it, and welcoming, and generous, but I just couldn’t do it. So, Scott, his dad Virgil, and I spent 2 1/2 hours getting my car started. Vergil was a plumber, and had a heater, like a jet engine! that we blew under the care for a couple of hours to warm the block. And finally I was off.
As I headed through Western Kansas, feeling closer to home by the minute, I heard a noise from the engine. It was still sub-zero, but not as cold as the previous day. I stopped, and checked under the hood only to find the last of three alternator bolts in my red Ford Pinto station wagon nearly ready to work its way off (they were long 4 or 5 inch bolts and the last one was hanging on by an inch or two. I screwed it back in enough to get going, and kept checking it all the way home. One of my memories from this trip was frozen fingers. Each time I checked the oil…the radiator…the alternator, my fingers froze. It took forever to warm them, but each time I was on the road. Homeward bound for Christmas to the place where at least I could be comfortable in my discomfort around Christmas. Mom and Dad were glad to see me. I was glad to see them, and I ate lots of cookies!
What I learned was that listening can save my life, and that all along the journey home, there are people with generous helpful hearts and homes! I was lucky! Except I don’t believe in luck. I believe in Good Samaritans and Guardian Angels…like the one when I was a kid who pushed me back into the car and slammed the door shut after I accidentally opened it as we were speeding down the highway. That angelic experience has shaped my whole life…but alas, is another story.
To all those out there helping people and animals in this cold weather, I thank you from the bottom of my traveler’s heart. And to all those travelers out there, I off you up one of my favorite songs.