Friday, December 28, 2012

The Power of the Prairie

The more gentle face of winter

It has been a day of such relentless and uninspiring grayness that even I (a lover of prairies and plains and wide open spaces) cannot summon up any response to the landscape greater than, "Meh." This week Illinois just seems dull. More than that, depressing.

It's easy to forget how, just one short week ago, the prairie tried to kill me. A winter storm blew in while I was innocently working at my job in Decatur, with not much snow but winds with gusts of up to sixty miles per hour. Even though I had taken Greenturtle's pick-up truck to work, this transplanted Michigander was not too worried about driving home. Driving in snow does not freak me out.

Indeed, despite the fact that the roads were slick with black ice, as the day's precipitation had started out as rain before the temperatures plummeted, I was rather nonchalant driving through the city. Sure, the truck fish-tailed a bit every time I had to turn, but I took the turns slowly, so no problem.

And then I left the Forsyth town limits, heading north on highway 51. It was worse than any weather I'd ever tried to drive through. That's right, ever. The wind blew whorls of snow relentlessly across the road, rendering everything into a single cloud of white. Visibility extended perhaps a foot or two beyond the headlights. The road was icy, and the truck fish-tailed precariously with each gust of wind. It doesn't help that I'm night-blind.

I took a deep breath, and kept driving. How bad could it be? Have I mentioned how I'm originally from Michigan and used to drive in blizzards several times a year while commuting from work or school? It's actually a point of pride with me: I can do bad weather. I'll go one step further; I like it. When I'm living in warmer parts, pictures of snowy landscapes can make me sick with longing for "home." I can't think of anything as invigorating as stepping outside into single digit temperatures or heading out for a day of cross-country skiing across a glittering expanse of snow.

But this was different. The wind kept pushing the truck into a fish-tailing nightmare over the ice, and after fighting my way back into what I presumed to be my lane (not that I could see the lanes), I realized that, no matter what, I was going to go off the road. I had two choices -- I could do it unintentionally, sliding off willy-nilly and perhaps smashing something (a road sign, the truck, and/or myself) in the process, or I could just swallow my pride and do it on purpose.

I chose the latter, and pulled over onto the shoulder. I didn't think I'd gotten very far out of town. Despite the length of time that had passed, which seemed endless, I'd probably only gone a half mile or so out of Forsyth.

Perhaps I should have mentioned earlier in this tale that, on this day of all days, I'd forgotten my cell phone. A reluctant citizen of the twenty-first century, I often forget to bring it or find that its charge has petered out. Normally, this is not a problem. But tonight? Well, I had no way of calling Greenturtle and letting him know where I was. It was just me and the elements.

I decided to walk the short distance to Forsyth, find a phone, call Greenturtle, and then either wait the storm out or check into a motel for the night. I exited the truck on the passenger side, retreated a distance from the road in case anyone else slithered off in the storm, and started walking.

In my early twenties, I attempted to write an embarrassingly pretentious, semi-autobiographical novel, which ended with the protagonist returning home to her northern homeland (I was in the Army, stationed in Georgia, when I was wrestling with this juvenilia), and similarly having to pull over to the side of the road in a blizzard; the tale ended with her staggering into the oblivion of that white maelstrom. The ending was supposed to be liberating.

It was a really bad novel, and I hadn't kept a copy, or thought of it in years. Until all of a sudden, there I was, just as I'd imagined, staggering in search of shelter through clouds of whiteness. It wasn't liberating. To be blunt, it sucked. With each gust of wind, I stumbled and, a couple of times, almost fell down. My hair was blown across my head, and coated in place by a layer of ice, thus leaving my ear vulnerable to each gust of sixty-mile-per-hour wind. Well, that hurt; my eardrum felt like it was on fire.

A week after the fact, it's hard to describe, even hard to really remember, on a visceral level, how difficult it was to keep walking forward. When the wind blew, it was not only hard to stand upright; it was a challenge to breathe.

One foot after the other...one foot after the other. It probably took me a half hour to shuffle back to the gas station at the edge of town. It felt like longer. I suddenly understood how people who end up stranded in bad weather (hikers and explorers from the days of Yore) could perish. It sounds silly, but I'd never really "gotten" that before. If I had had to walk five or ten miles instead of a half mile...if I'd been somewhere really isolated instead of on a normally busy highway...yeah, I'll admit it. I would have died. At some point, I would have let the wind push me sideways and not had the strength to get back up. (Of course, in those circumstances, I would not have abandoned my vehicle and therefore not have had to collapse in exhaustion, but that isn't where my mind was going as I shambled onwards.)

Being the birder that I am, of course I thought of birds. The dark-eyed juncos and American tree sparrows who winter in Illinois, how were they holding up in this weather? What about the cardinals and titmice who call this area home? They must have some strategies of staying warm and safe through the gales. The wind blew, I kept walking, and I thought of birds. I also thought about moving to Texas. Under the circumstances, that seemed like an excellent idea.

Finally, I got to the gas station, where the youthful attendant let me borrow his phone. He wasn't very talkative, but as soon as I defrosted enough to get a chill, he also let me have a cup of coffee for free, thus earning a nomination as one of the anonymous angels of my year. (The only thing he said to me in the hour that I waited was to ask if I believed that the world was really going to end that night, as per the alleged Mayan prophecy. I said, "No.")

Greenturtle insisted on coming to get me, in our much more winter-road-worthy car. I got home safely and, obviously, I lived to tell this tale. But in that short expanse of time, I saw my beloved prairie in a new light. I have always seen the flatlands as quietly beautiful, intriguing, sometimes austere...but always benign.

That night, I experienced a different side of the prairie. The flatlands can be powerful, even deadly. I do feel a bit humbled, and even silly, but also grateful. Grateful that my moment in the storm was so superficial, but also grateful for this new understanding.

As a footnote...we went back the next day to retrieve the truck. First of all, we passed about a dozen vehicles that had gone off the road in a much more precipitous manner than I had, which did make me feel a bit better about my rather melodramatic choices the previous evening. Second, I realized that the arduous journey on foot I recalled was, in actuality, perhaps a quarter mile. Yes, that's right...I felt like a hero for strolling one quarter mile in a snowstorm! (OK, feeling tiny now.)

And finally, seeing the aftermath of the storm in the calm sunshine of the following morning, I no longer wanted to move to Texas. On the contrary, I felt homesick. I wanted to move somewhere with a real winter. Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota...give me some place icy and implacable; give me my home....

Have you ever felt challenged by the elements, no matter how trivial? What's the worst that Nature has ever thrown at you? Please don't be shy...all comments (except for really rude ones, which thankfully I've never had) are welcome!

1 comment:

  1. My worst weather moments have always happened while I was in a car; I've never tackled them on foot. I'm all too familiar with the hunched forward, death grip on the steering wheel, fervent prayers for my life and safely being sent aloft times; this occurs about once a month, when I'm driving home at 9:30 PM from work in a snowstorm, or it's aftermath. Ah, winter in the UP! Sometimes, when it's single digits and there's a strong wind, I look out the window and think in disbelief, "You could DIE out there!" And I, too, worry about the birds. For more insight into what a prairie can throw at you, reread "The Long Winter" by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Glad you made it safely to the gas station, and then home! MOM

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