Weather or Not

- by Michael!

We love taking road trips.

Joanie and I are perfect travel companions. We enjoy seeing new things, we have similar taste in music  (mostly), we both love to tell and listen to stories (even ones we’ve heard before!), and we both tend to prefer me doing the bulk of the driving – not by a lot, maybe a 60/40 or 70/30 split.

(Note: Our love of travel should not be news to you. If it is, go here and here to read about some of our trips in the past.)

But there is one considerable detriment to our road-tripping bliss: namely, that Joanie and I seem to attract life-threatening – and perhaps even cosmos-threatening – weather patterns whenever we are in a moving ground-based vehicle for more than an hour.

On one trip from Waco to Ft. Worth, we drove through a dust storm in which the entire world turned an alarming shade of reddish-brown. The Honda rocked back and forth across I-35 as all the dirt from West Texas, which I can assure you is a considerable quantity, scoured our vehicle.

A few years later when we “moved” from Wichita to Philadelphia (more on that topic later), I drove all of our worldly possessions and my blissfully sleeping wife through the single most terrifying rainstorm I have ever encountered in my life between Kansas City and St. Louis. You have simply not lived until you have hydroplaned a 16-foot Penske truck with a Honda Civic paper-clipped to the back.

This propensity for finding maddening weather on a regular basis is only alleviated by one of our only major road-trip-affecting personality differences: the relative strengths of our internal weather-freak-out-o-meters.

Mine is pretty solidly set at “meh.” This is not necessarily a good thing. Take, for instance, last May’s trip from Wichita to Tulsa to drop Joanie off for her first summer with Light Opera Oklahoma.

We left Wichita amid rumors of tornadoes. This did not really worry either of us, as roughly one in three days in Wichita between April and December carries some form of rumor about tornadoes, and the weather was fairly clear in Wichita itself. However, the moment Joanie got us out of town and onto the open road, the skies opened and sheets of rain poured forth and we started to think, “Hey! This might actually be a real storm complex!” So we switched on the radio and were informed, in no uncertain terms, that we needed to get into our basements immediately.

My reaction: “This car does not have a basement. Therefore, we should keep driving.”

Joanie’s reaction: “The sky is turning green and purple. Therefore, we are going to die.”

After both of us had a chance to adequately express these diverse opinions at various decibel levels, I reluctantly agreed that we needed to stop somewhere. Rather than risk exiting the highway (which is hard in southern Kansas, as there aren’t actually any exits), I talked Joanie, who was visibly shaking in terror at this point, into parking the Honda under an overpass, along with some dozen other passenger vehicles jammed into both shoulders and the right-hand lane. The left-hand lane was kept clear, of course, since semi-trucks couldn’t pull over and had to just keep on trucking and hope for the best.

The rain abated somewhat, enough for us to see one of Nature’s Wondrous Sights: a rotating wall cloud.

This is one of those ways that God reminds you “You are very, very small, and maybe your daily problems aren’t so awful, because, hey, look at what that stuff you breathe can do.”

In essence, we were at the center of this massive, sluggishly circling cloud that could, at any point, get bored and decide to become death. Or a shortcut to Oz. But mostly the death thing.

In a way, it was awesome. I mean, in that “wow aren’t explosions cool” part of my brain, I was going “Ooooooo!” But it was also terrifying, and I was very glad when it passed us by. As we resumed our southward trek, I admitted, out loud, that I had been a bonehead, we should have stopped sooner, she was right to insist on stopping when we did, because otherwise we would have died either from the tornado or excessive exposure to Flying Semi-truck.

We counted at least three that had been so buffeted by the winds that they were overturned on the side of the road. I mean, completely up-ended, like eighteen-wheeled turtles. Thankfully the drivers were all standing outside their vehicles, chatting away on their phones to whatever emergency personnel they needed to contact, walking around in the brilliant sunshine that broke through the moment we left the underpass.

It was uncanny.

But easily the most terrifying storm we’ve been through was this past winter on our way home from Atlanta.

There was, believe it or not, a blizzard.

Ok, it wasn’t really a blizzard. You caught me. This would not make even the “Top 100” list in the Little House books. But what you have to remember is that cities in the South are easily crippled by small amounts of “winter weather.” This is not, I must stress, due to panic, or stupidity, on the part of people in these communities.

It’s simply a matter of pragmatism.

You wouldn’t waste money on earthquake-proofing, say, Philadelphia’s central library.

I doubt many city officials in Denver are worried about hurricane evacuation routes.

And snow just doesn’t happen often enough in most Southern communities to warrant spending money on equipment to deal with it. It’s typically judged less wasteful to just shut things down, let the kids play outside, and enjoy some hot chocolate than to invest in snowplows or salt-trucks.

But every now and then, some dumb butterfly has to just flap its wings by the light of the full moon when the planets are touching each other experimentally in some galactic parking lot, and a “wint’ry mix” hits the Land of Grits and Fried Okra in ways that we just aren’t equipped to handle. Not often. If it were often, there would be a need to become equipped. But no. It’s just often enough to royally disrupt everything, while still being rare enough to make it dumb to spend money on snow.

This was one of those storms.

Granted, it was only 6ish inches of snow. But a good portion of the precipitation was simply ice-based slush that turned I-85 into a 20-mph skating rink for cars.

We had been visiting Joanie’s aunt and uncle in Kennesaw, GA, and left for Mobile around 4 in the afternoon. Under normal circumstances, this is a 5 hour drive if you are responsible and think speed limits should be followed via the traditional American means of automatically adding between six and nine mph depending on traffic. For me it is roughly a four-and-a-half hour drive, which includes a mandatory quarter-hour stop at Priester’s, where God goes when he wants the best candied pecans in the history of ever.

On this particular journey, we arrived at just before one in the morning.

The snow/slush/oobleck, thankfully, did not really hit until we were outside of 285, or we would never have made it home, at least not that night. As the mix began to really come down, traffic began to slow, stutter, stall, and eventually stop, more or less. There was one fifty-yard stretch of 85 that took us almost an hour to clear.

Eventually, the entirety of the highway was down to one zombie-like shuffle-lane of not-traffic, oozing southward like molasses or tree sap or the person you always end up in line behind at the grocery store.

Unlike our tornado close-call, this time around it was a good thing that my weather-freak-out-o-meter is normally set to withstand pretty high pressure. Had Joanie been driving, and I mean no disrespect to my wife, who is frankly a better driver than I am in general, we probably would not have made it home because she would have decided that the idiots around us deserved nothing better than to die in a fiery conflagration at her hands and that our vehicle and lives were acceptable prices to pay for such a just cause.

She was not pleased with the situation.

I, however, kept my weather-freak-out-o-meter firmly at my customary level of “meh” and drove bravely onward, even as the weather turned to actual snow that featured individual flakes the size of toilet paper squares.

We did, of course, make it home that night, and I went straight in to work that next morning, where I’m sure I had several very productive mini-comas due to my crushing exhaustion.

But see, it all balances out. My “meh”-ness is, in such cases as this snowstorm, an asset, while Joanie’s more sensitive weather-meter can save lives. And thankfully, now that we live in the Gulf Coast region, we don’t have to worry about the kind of heart-stopping regional weather patterns that we’ve experienced elsewhere in the country.