Wednesday, January 02, 2008


Canadians like to shock foreigners with descriptions of the intensity of our winters. The concept of minus 40 degree temperatures, twice as cold windchill and mountains of snow are guaranteed to convince others how tough, stoic and impermeable to pain we must be.

So far, we've had more snow this winter than the last three put together. It's minus something outside tonight, and it's also one of those real frosty ones where the ice crystals in the air turn every streetlamp into a pillar of light that shoots straight up to infinity.

But before you go marvelling at how tough, stoic and high of pain-threshold I must be; I have to tell you that the worst winter storm I've ever experienced was in Grand Island, Nebraska, and I'll take as much as winter can throw at me here before I'll ever venture back there.

About 10 years ago, I was booked to spend the winter in LA, part work, part recovery from filming 4 MOW's in five months. I owned a 12 cylinder Jaguar that I truly loved to drive and decided to make the trans-continental trek in it so I could maximize the road pleasures of the desert and the Pacific coast.

About an hour out of Omaha, however, the Jag and I ran into the teeth of a nasty winter storm. Having grown up in Saskatchewan, I was familiar with the ways of a prairie blizzard and figured I could easily make it to my next scheduled stop in Denver.

The storm had other plans.

As the snow fell more heavily and the wind picked up, I found a big rig to run interference, drafting behind it so I could see the road. Except for that semi and the blacktop between us, everything in every direction went white. Now and then I'd notice a car in the ditch or covered with snow on the shoulder. But I tried to ignore how bad things were obviously getting by concentrating on the tail-lights in front of me, hoping the trucker knew where we were and I could follow him off whatever exit he took into a warm and cozy truckstop.

And then the tail lights slewed and I realized the truck was jack-knifing.

I gently pushed the brakes, hoping I could stop and trying to avoid skidding as well. I also glanced in the rear view. And that's when I saw the truck behind jack-knife too.

I'm not sure how long we slid or what mental calculations I made on the likelihood of becoming the Jag sandwich between those two slabs of semi. But somehow we all stopped without touching each other. There was this elongated silence awaiting the subsequent impact of somebody trailing. But it never came.

The trucker behind bailed with a flare in his hand and quickly had a couple more parked across the highway to warn (anybody as dumb as us to be out here) of trouble ahead. Then we all managed to get pointed in the right direction and onto the shoulder.

The truckers' names were Dwayne and Bobby and we convened in Dwayne's lead vehicle, partly because it was the safest place and partly because he had a stack of these amazing TV dinners that cooked themselves when you pulled a foil tab that triggered some kind of built in heat system.

Bobby had a six pack of V8 and I had most of a bottle of Vodka, so we settled in to make the best of it, listening to truckers up and down the CB band indicating that Interstate 80 was shutting down from one end of the state to the other. Those up ahead were also saying the worst of the storm was still rolling our way and every now and then the Nebraska State Patrol would break in to remind everybody to stay put and not try to get anywhere on foot.

So we talked, drank and listened to Country music until a set of toplights flashed alongside. It was a young State Trooper assigned to make sure stranded motorists were ferried to the nearest motel. For us, that was a Holiday Inn less than a hundred yards away in Grand Island, Nebraska.

We each were allowed to bring one suitcase and piled into the cruiser. The hundred yard drive to the motel took just over two hours and we were hammered by wind that almost bruised it hit so hard in making the final ten feet from car door to front lobby.

We booked into some of the few remaining rooms and made last call at the bar. By that time, the TV newscasters were calling this the 'storm of the century', predicting I-80 could be closed for days.

This initially didn't seem too much of a hardship. The place had an indoor pool, a bar and a restaurant, not to mention HBO and ESPN on the channel listings. But by morning, the storm had knocked out the cable feed and a half dozen items had already disappeared from the coffee shop menu.

The phones were down and although the hotel had electricity, we were asked to use as little as possible and radios, any light but your bathroom and the pool heater were among the first casualties. So, to keep from going stir crazy, most of the guests spent all day in the cocktail lounge, playing poker and swapping stories as one-by-one, the bottles arrayed behind the bar disappeared.

Blowing snow cut the visibility so low, you weren't sure if you couldn't see anything or the windows were just caked shut.

The only outside information came from a local cable access channel that featured a lone guy at a desk letting snowbound residents know that "The Kennedy family is staying with the Carsons at their farm" or "Jim Brown has called to say he's found all his dogs". Then around 9 o'clock, there'd be a final weather report and they'd replay a tape of the recent Nebraska victory over Viginia Tech in the Orange Bowl before signing off.

After three straight nights of this, there were still guys in the bar betting on the outcome. Unfettered monotony or running out of beer and having to subsist on Creme de Menthe and Limoncello can do that to a person.

Now, we were never in danger of freezing to death or starving, but the isolation and feeling of imprisonment were palpable. The hotel staff couldn't leave either and fretted about families they hadn't heard from in days while my fellow travellers stressed over meetings they would miss without explanations, cargo freezing and cars that might not be dug out of the snow til Spring.

We were this lost island in the middle of endless Nebraska whiteness. Even after the snow stopped, we knew it could take days to clear the road and who knew how long after that before our vehicles could hopefully be thawed back to functionality. We'd all been dropped into a twilight Zone where our lives and futures were on hold and I began to feel like I'd been lured into a trap at the dead center of America.

I mean I was trapped with some very nice people. This wasn't some traveling salesman circle of hell or "Day of the Locusts" with frostbite. But having grown up in the middle of nowhere, I'd always felt a little like I'd managed to escape to a better life -- and now I was right back in nowhere central with no escape in sight.

So I wrote all day, as if searching for the creative key that had gotten me out in the first place, and wrung stories out of everybody I met in case we were there so long I might run out of ones of my own.

When the coffee shop burned its last slice of bread, I was among the volunteers who waded through drifts to a nearby store to see if we could get supplies. But it was locked and shuttered and we were too numb from the sub-zero temperatures and the cutting wind to break in and knew we also might not make it back if we did and then had to carry anything.

That outing brought home just how bad things were out there and I wondered how other people were coping. The man on the cable access channel did his best to assure us things were getting back to normal. But he was clearly in need of a shave, sleeping in his on air suit and getting by on bad coffee and lunch room oreos.

At night, I'd visit the too cold to swim in pool because it had windows that looked out over the city of Grand Island. I'd try to convince myself that there were more lights on than the night before and more winking farm lights beyond, indicating that life was improving. But you couldn't tell for sure.

Dwayne and Bobby joined me on one of these excursions. All of us either too smart or too stupid to join the endless poker game that had taken over the lounge. I recalled reading a book about Scott's ill fated trip to the South Pole when I was a kid and wondered if this was how he'd felt. Dwayne allowed that I was one "disturbed motherfucker" while Bobby asked if anybody at the motel had a dog we could eat if things got worse.

Next morning, as we learned the coffee shop was down to coffee, corn flakes and prunes, a State Trooper pulled in. The Interstate was open.

My trucker buddies were among the first to be ferried to their rigs to get them out of the way of the plows, while the Jag was towed to a local body shop to thaw. That afternoon, I hooked up with a tickled pink local mechanic who'd "see'd 'em in books but never up close" and tickled him further by paying for a call back to Toronto so he could speak with somebody who knew how to get "em" going again.

Bobby stopped in to say good-bye from him and Dwayne and we made plans to hook up in LA, but we never did. It was dark by the time the car started and I got back to the motel. They assumed I would stay one last night while the highway was fully cleared and even tried to tempt me with the "All You Can Eat" buffet the cook was preparing after finally making it to the grocery store. But I didn't want to risk the window out of limbo closing again and said my farewells.

The highway to Denver felt like an obstacle course, littered with stranded cars and sheeted with ice. The Jag coughed a lot and stalled once. But even it seemed to sense that if we didn't leave now, we never would.

Not that I have anything against Nebraska, but I crossed into Colorado at the stroke of midnight and I've never been back. Even flying over it now, I still get a twinge. It's not that it's nowhere. It's just that it could be, if you let it.


Kelly J. Compeau said...

This story reminds me of the infamous Ice Storm '98, which struck South-Eastern Ontario and upstate New York 10 years ago this very day. So many lives lost, millions of dollars in damage...I try to keep that in perspective when I remember the tough time I went through, trapped in a 500 sq ft apartment with no heat, no lights, no power, very low cold water pressure (no hot water) living on crackers, chips and cookies, for 3 days. Hell had indeed frozen over.

I absolutely hate the cold, but the weather we've been getting here in Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal, lately, is tolerable, relatively speaking, as I used to live about an hour's drive from the North Pole where this is considered a lovely day in May.

Cunningham said...

For a brief moment I had the sneaking suspicion that this story was going to end in cannibalism.

"Not that there's anything wrong with that..."

Brandon Laraby said...

Man, and I thought I had it bad just walking to work today.

I'd forgotten my gloves (smaaart move for a writer! :P) but was over halfway to work so I figured 'screw it'. Damn near gave myself frostbite.

That's one hell of a story, I'd probably have done something stupid like try and walk it. Sounds like it was one heck of a lucky turn that those tractor trailers were there, though.

The Film Diva said...

Great story!!! My fingers turned blue reading it. I hope you at least got a novel out of that one -- it sounds like a Stephen King book.

Riddley Walker said...

I am *so* stealing bits of that... ;-)

Holy crap, what a stop-over!

jutratest said...

Add vampires or a cannibalistic vending machine, a sex scene and a perky twelve year old named bobby and you have a Stephen King short story.

Anonymous said...

This has got to be one of the best essays I've ever read.

I'm from Omaha, by the way -- but I don't live in Nebraska any more.