My wife, Sherry, and I were among those motorists who were stranded in northern Iowa by a winter storm that resulted in treacherous roads on President’s Day, Monday, Feb. 18.
But luckily we didn’t end up in the median or in a ditch like lots of drivers we encountered.
It started out as a weekend visit with our son, Dane, and his wife, Casey, at their Minneapolis home. (Another son, Clint, and his fiance, Lisa, also live in Minneapolis. But they were in northern Minnesota at her parents’ cabin the weekend of our visit.)
We hit the road about 6:30 Saturday morning, taking the Avenue of the Saints, which is without doubt the best route between here and there.
We knew a winter storm was expected to hit Iowa Saturday night and Sunday morning, but we’d be in the Twin Cities before then. And we hoped conditions would improve in time for our drive back home Monday afternoon.
Besides, I thought to myself. Weather forecasts are often wrong—maybe we’ll luck out and the storm will fizzle out.
Our weekend visit with Dane and Casey was enjoyable. One of the highlights was a Sunday trip to nearby Stillwater, Minn. It’s a quaint hillside town with a riverside business district packed with antique stores and other shops in beautiful old brick buildings.
We left Dane and Casey’s house about 9:30 Monday morning for a stroll through the Mall of America before heading home.
Blending in with the morning mall walkers, we had already walked by a number of the varied stores in the four-story shopping complex by the time they opened their doors at 10.
By about 1:30 we’d pretty much toured the entire mall, and we’d had all the walking, gazing and shopping we could handle. We had lunch at the mall and were on I-35 by about 2:30 that Monday afternoon, headed home. We had no idea what an adventure awaited us.
Sherry and I have traveled a lot in our nearly 39 years of marriage. We’ve been lost in every mjor American city. We’ve had breakdowns, flat tires and overheated engines, and we’ve and floated along after accidently driving onto a flooded street. We’ve outraced tornadoes and have been caught in blizzards once or twice and in freezing rain and on icy roads many times.
But that Monday afternoon experience on the Avenue of the Saints won the award for the longest distance we’ve traveled in deplorable conditions.
We were driving our large conversion van because we’d happily moved some of Dane’s childhood possessions from our attic to his.
The Twin Cities were frigid while we were there, but they received only a dusting of snow despite the wintry mix Iowa got late Saturday and into Sunday.
But skies turned cloudy and there was a stiff west wind when we headed toward home, and it never let up. Our first sign of problems ahead was a flashing sign on a two-wheel Minnesota DOT trailer on the I-35 shoulder just south of Albert Lea, Minn., warning of icy roads ahead.
Wherever there were no hills, trees or buildings adjacent to the roadway to block the strong wind, it blew snow across all four lanes, causing whiteout conditions and long patches of ice.
That meant we’d have clear, dry pavement for a while. Then, without warning, we’d encounter many feet where all the traffic lanes were, basically, skating rinks. At those places, there were often up to a dozen vehicles—cars and jack-knifed semis—scattered in ditches or the median, some upside down. Most had been there for a while because they had been tagged by police and had snow drifting around them. But some were newcomers.
A rear-wheel drive van buffeted by the wind is not the most stable vehicle to be in during times like that, so we drove down the clear stretches of interstate at a reduced speed so we’d have no trouble slowing down even more in time for the icy spots.
Some drivers, though, were much more daring. While we and most other drivers drove at a cautious 50 mph on the clear stretches of highway, some cars and semis zipped around us in the passing lane going much faster.
Many continued to zoom by us when we slowed to as little as 15 mph on the stretches of glare ice.
I remember one shiny, black late-model pickup truck in particular. It was towing an empty flatbed trailer and going way too fast for conditions in my opinion when it passed us on a good stretch of road after we’d crossed the border into Iowa.
Several miles ahead, at an icy spot, some people were milling about on the sides of the interstate. It was obvious that some of them had just slid off into ditches, and other motorists had stopped to assist them.
That flatbed trailer that had been attached to the black pickup caught my eye. Separated from the truck, it was on the outside shoulder, facing the wrong way. Then I saw the truck that had been pulling it. It was upside down in the right ditch about 50 feet away. That must have been some ride!
We forged ahead, slowly and cautiously, hoping for improved conditions. We also hoped those passing us wouldn’t crash while doing so, taking us with them. For a while we followed Iowa DOT trucks that were plowing and spreading salt. But they were not very effective—it was too cold for the salt to work. Besides, more blowing snow covered it as soon as it left the spreader.
By the time we reached Charles City, Iowa, on this tense, white-knuckle, journey in slow motion, we were worn out. The wind was still whistling from the west, the roads were still bad and it was getting dark. The van needed fuel, and we were still 173 miles from home. That’s three hours under normal conditions but perhaps five hours that day.
In our younger years, we might have forged ahead. But on that nasty Monday, we decided to stay in Charles City and finish our trip home on Tuesday.
Not far from Highway 218, we stumbled upon a clean and inexpensive little motel, the Hometown Inn, owned by Don and Shirley Holm. It’s my kind of place — $51 a night including tax and you park right outside the door to your room.
On Tuesday, we were up early but decided to delay our trip until 10 a.m. to give crews more time to deal with the icy roads. The wind had died down and it was sunny but still dangerously cold.
After enjoying the motel’s complimentary breakfast and chatting with Don and Shirley (she’s a teacher whose classes had been cancelled that day because of the weather), it was time to leave.
But when I turned the ignition key on the van, the starter merely clicked. It wouldn’t turn the engine over.
The battery is fairly new, and I didn’t think that was the problem. But Don graciously brought out his jumper cables and insisted we try to jumpstart the van with his pickup truck. But all I got was a click—the engine still wouldn’t turn over.
“Maybe the starter motor is frozen,” Don said. “Sometimes they get moisture in them, and they freeze. I’ll put on an old coat, slide under the van and tap the starter with a hammer.”
I protested, saying we had Triple A road service and would call them. But he insisted. Moments later Don was underneath the van on his back. After a few well-placed taps from his hammer, I turned the key and the van started right up.
After offering our profound thanks and saying our goodbyes to Don and Shirley Holm, we were once again headed for home.
The roads were still bad in many places but slightly better than they had been the day before.
“Maybe we should make our future visits to Minneapolis in the summer months,” I suggested to my wife.
“Yes, maybe we should,” she said.
Copyright Feb. 25, 2008. This “Everyday People” column appeared in The North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.