Sunday, August 20, 2023

Road Trip!

A few days ago, I made one of the most terrifying road trips of my life. When I was finally home, safe, I reflected on some of the other harrowing experiences I’ve had behind the wheel in the past quarter-century.

This, of course, leaves out the countless times I’ve put myself in peril behind the wheel prior to 1997, particularly when I owned cars with abundant horsepower, fueled by premium gas, copious amounts of testosterone, and a lack of good judgment. Those stories are for another time, if at all.

The photo at the top of the post is Rosie, our family-friendly 1994 Colt Vista. Toni named her Rosie because of the color of the car and the license plate, MRR-548. Toni always said the letters stood for “My Rosie Rosebud.”

It was Christmas, 1997. We lived in Madison and were headed up to the Fox Cities to spend the first part of the Christmas celebration with my family, at my brother Mike’s house in the countryside west of Neenah. The forecast said one to three inches of snow. Rather than take my big, black Cadillac Eldorado, we elected to take Rosie, which was a far better performer in the snow with her thinner, high-profile tires and her tiny 4-cylinder engine.

Early in the afternoon we made it to Mike’s house without incident, braving only light snow and flurries via eminently passable Highway 151 and Highway 41. Knowing I had to drive home, I limited myself to one beer as we partied and exchanged gifts with my family. By late afternoon, the snow had picked up considerably, and sister-in-law Beth served dinner early so we could “beat the worst of it” back to Madison.

It was snowing pretty hard when we backed out of Mike’s driveway and headed south. Highway 41 was snow-covered and slippery, so I took it easy and drove at a fairly steady 45 MPH. When we got off 41 to take Highway 26, road conditions were sketchy at best. I did about 35 MPH, constantly steering out of little skids, until we hit Speed Trap Central, also known as Rosendale. From Rosendale to Highway 151, it was miserable. I kept hoping that 151 would be in better shape than Highway 26.

But no.

It was snow-covered ice with deep ruts which kept tossing little Rosie from side-to-side, white-knuckle all the way, constant steering/correcting, all the way from Waupun to Sun Prairie. It was quiet in the car without much talking. I think Toni and the kids were acutely aware of how dangerous this trip had become. When we finally got to the I-90/94 interchange on 151, the road got better. The plows must have been working pretty hard on the interstate to keep it passable.

We finally got on the Beltline, took our exit, drove on unplowed city streets until I finally pulled into the garage at home. We were safe. After a few deep breaths, I helped unload Rosie, took a long hot shower, and hit the hay.

Above: My Trusty Rendezvous Road Warrior

The next harrowing journey came again at Christmas time, in 2008. The whole family – wife Toni, son Dru and our newly-acquired daughter-in-law, Dru’s wife Ashly, daughter Mal, and our young collie, Shadow – piled into my trusty road warrior Rendezvous and headed to Toni’s sister’s house in Hammond, IN, a Chicago suburb, to be with them for Christmas. The trip down was uneventful, the family Christmas was a blast, and just as the party was breaking up, it started to snow. In Hammond, at the foot of Lake Michigan, they tend to get tons of lake effect snow when the northerly wind howls across the lake and picks up tons of moisture. We knew the forecast was for snow, and before we went to bed that night, we watched the Chicagoland weather.

They were forecasting about six inches of snow for Chicagoland, with heavier amounts north and west of the city. I wasn’t worried about our trip back to Madison in the morning. The trip would be Interstate highways all the way; and the venerable road warrior Rendezvous was all-wheel-drive and equipped with four Dunlop SJ-6 winter tires, the ones Tom Holmes said would be up for whatever Mother Nature could throw at us.

When we got up and let the dog out to do her business, and had our first cup of coffee, we turned on the TV news. We knew we had about a half-foot of snow in Hammond, but the TV folks were saying the storm had gotten very brutal overnight just north and west of Chicago, with plummeting temperatures, copious snow, and howling wind.

Then, they reported that Interstate 90 – our path back to Madison – was closed from just west of Elgin all the way to Beloit. Plows couldn’t keep up with the blowing snow. Toni looked at me and said, “Are we going to be able to get home?” I mustered as much fake confidence as I could and said, “Sure. We’ll just take the Tri-State to I-94 and then up to Milwaukee, take the I-894 bypass around the city, and then back onto I-94 to Madison.”

Two sides of a right triangle, but it would get us there.

We had breakfast, said our thank-you’s and good-bye’s, and piled into the road warrior.

Shadow, curled up amidst the luggage, in the back end of the Rendezvous

I was the driver; Toni sat next to me; in the back seat were Dru, Ashly, and Mal; and in the back end with the suitcases and boxes of presents was our young collie, Shadow, who promptly laid down and went to sleep before we were out of the city limits.

The city streets in Hammond were crappy. No surprise. We picked up I-294, the Tri-State Tollway, a few blocks from Toni’s sister’s house. It’s not in as good a shape as I’d hoped. Plowed, but still some snow on the road surface and lots of icy stretches. Before we’d gone more than a few miles, we saw the first wreck. Then another. I’m doing about 40 MPH and keeping up with traffic. Seeing the wrecks must have tempered the usual speed-demon Chicagoland drivers.

We’re listening to WBBM-AM to get the latest traffic info. Well, Toni and I are. The kids have headphones clamped on, no doubt listening to rap or hip-hop or whatever they called it in ’08. And I’m acutely aware that we’re on another one of these Christmas odysseys, risking life and limb, at the mercy of some ignorant ass who thinks his Jeep Grand Cherokee can easily handle 70 MPH on icy roads.

I remember worrying about getting rear-ended, the back hatch springing open from the impact, and Shadow getting out and into traffic. Or getting into one of those infamous multi-car pileups where the road warrior Rendezvous becomes a projectile in a demolition derby, with me and my family becoming innocent victims and on our way to a hospital.

The Tri-State Tollway ends and we’re on I-94 headed to Milwaukee. Every couple of miles there’s an abandoned car in the ditch. I’m white-knuckling it again, trying to stay in the right (“slow”) lane, keeping up with traffic, constantly checking the mirrors, again keenly aware that the people I love are tacitly counting on me to get us home safely.

We take the I-894 bypass around Milwaukee and the road gets a lot better. The howling wind out of the west means north-south roads will get the most drifting, and although we’re driving into a strong headwind, the plows are able to keep the road in fairly decent shape because of minimal drifting. I can maintain about 55 MPH safely but am occasionally passed by some guy in a four-wheel-drive truck who is confident in his immunity to black ice.

It’s early afternoon when we finally pick up the Beltline, and 10 minutes later we’re home, safe. Another harrowing journey has come to an end.

The Brute: Toni's Hemi Magnum

Fast forward to Thanksgiving, 2016. Our son and his wife have invited us for Thanksgiving dinner in their newly-acquired home in the Bay View neighborhood of Milwaukee. They’ve promised to do all the cooking while we relax. We’ll be there with bells on! Toni and I had been accustomed to hosting a big family Thanksgiving dinner, but that was before the kids scattered and began their adult, professional lives.

The invite is for cocktails at 2, dinner around 3 or 4, pie and coffee to follow. Plenty of time for us to enjoy a leisurely dinner and be back home in time for the big Packers game that night. They’re retiring Brett Favre’s jersey number at half-time, and it’s the Bears, to boot. We’ll pull up anchor around 6 and should be home in time for the kickoff.

We’ll take Toni’s car, a Dodge Magnum with the 340-horsepower 5.7-liter Hemi engine, to give it some road miles. The Hemi, as we called it, made two six-mile trips every weekday taking Toni to work and back, so when the opportunity to give it some road miles presented itself, we took the Hemi and let it stretch its legs a bit. That car could haul ass!

The forecast was for light rain, but nothing to worry about. We had a lovely mid-afternoon dinner of turkey and all the trimmings and sipped our coffee and enjoyed delicious pumpkin pie. It was sort of drizzly and grey when we arrived, but when we headed back, it was dark and raining a little harder. We drove west on city streets and picked up I-94 at the Holt Avenue interchange. By the time we got to the infamous Marquette Interchange, it was pouring buckets – so hard the windshield wipers could barely keep up – and I had to slow to a very dangerous 20 MPH to try and see the road signs to make sure I stayed on I-94.

I was driving in the dark, in pouring rain, in a car which I seldom drove. Recipe for trouble.

By the time we got to the Zoo interchange, I was barely managing to keep up with traffic at around 35 to 40 MPH. There was no sign of the storm letting up. Toni pulled up the weather radar on her cell phone and said it looked bad: we were driving into the worst of it, yet to pass. A few more scary miles down the road, around Pewaukee, Toni suggested that rather than try and brave the rest of the journey, maybe we should get off the road and get a room at a motel around Delafield somewhere.

I thought about our two collies at home, and how they would react to being cooped up inside the house all that time. They’re good girls, but they can’t hold their bladders forever. And I thought about how good it would be to get off the road. And how much I hated driving at night in a rainstorm. Curled up in a motel room, watching the Pack. Hmmm.

As I was considering the option of getting off the Interstate and letting the storm rage on without trying to navigate through it, the rain let up. Just a tiny bit. Enough that the windshield wipers were now actually clearing the rain off the glass. Visibility improved, just marginally, but manageably. I said, “let’s give it a few more minutes.”

As tempting as the option of spending a night in a motel somewhere in lake country was, there was still the strong appeal of making it home. I asked Toni to check the weather radar again. She said it looked like we were almost through the yellow zone. The red zone was now east of us, and she said it looked like the green zone was somewhere around Johnson Creek – and moving east: toward us.

We decided to brave it. Her radar interpretation was accurate. The rain continually diminished as we motored west, and by the time we were at Johnson Creek it had diminished to the point that I could actually set the wipers on intermittent and maintain 60 MPH easily. A half-hour later, we were home, the dogs had been let out, and we’d only missed the first quarter of the Packers game.

Eight years hence, I’ve realized that my brain has blotted out much of the scary early part of the trip when we were in the Milwaukee metro on I-94. I know there were times when I almost drove off the road because my night vision sucks, and it’s even worse when it’s raining. But there’s enough memory left of that night to remind me that I was lucky not to have hurt us or some unsuspecting motorist that night.

Oh, and the Bears beat the Pack in that game.

Our new family truckster: Chevy Equinox

The most recent trip through hazardous weather came a few days ago, taking Toni to catch a flight at Westchester County Airport in our new Chevy Equinox. Tiny 4-cylinder engine, but All Wheel Drive, all-season tires with only a couple thousand miles on them, and lots of creature comforts. The trip for her to visit our son and his family in Milwaukee was planned for months and was one she eagerly anticipated. (For those who don’t know, my traveling days are over; my mobility issues make airline travel all but impossible.)

We knew several days in advance that there was a good likelihood of heavy rain around the time we’d be traveling but were hoping there’d be enough leeway in the forecast that maybe we could get the trip in before the worst of it.


A veteran traveler, Toni likes to fly early in the morning, when flight delays are least likely. She wanted to be at the airport around 4:15 AM, which meant we planned to leave our apartment around 3:15 AM. When we went to bed, the forecast was grim. A giant rainstorm was in Pennsylvania, bearing down on the New York City metro, and they said it would hit around 3 or 4 AM. Great. The worst possible timing for us. Toni asked me how I felt about the impending trip, and I said, “terrified.”

When the alarm went off at 2 AM, the first thing we did was check the weather radar. It was still west of us, but we had some time. Not much, but some. Around 2:45 AM, Toni checked the radar again and said, “I think we should go as soon as we can.” I agreed and went back to watching the overnight news on TV in the living room. Just before 3 AM, Toni came down the hallway and said, “All I have to do is brush my teeth and then we’re outta here.” OK with me.

As we left our apartment, we looked out the window. It wasn’t raining. But we knew it was imminent. When we got off the elevator in the lobby of our building – it had just started to rain. Missed it by that much! I said, “let me go first and bring the car around front so you don’t have to go through the parking lot.” I don’t mind getting a little wet. So what. I’ll dry off.

In the few minutes it took for me to load my rollator into the back end of our SUV and drive to the front entrance of our building, the rain had picked up quite a bit. Toni came out, pulling her suitcase, tossed it into the back seat, and by the time she actually got into the car, she was drenched! “My hair!” she said, looking at in in the mirror under the passenger’s side visor. “It’s flat as a pancake now!”

Without a free hand to hold an umbrella, she was at the mercy of the elements – for about 20 feet. But that’s all it took. “Maybe we can still beat the worst of it,” she said, as we headed out of our neighborhood on the Black Rock Turnpike. The Westchester County Airport is about 37 miles from us, via the historic Merritt Parkway. For reasons perhaps best understood only by those whose families have lived in Connecticut for generations, the Merritt Parkway is a four-lane thoroughfare through the countryside, which has, over the years, become a heavily-travelled road. But it’s not lit at night, like Interstate 95, a few miles south of the Merritt. It’s dark, it’s blacktop, it’s winding and hilly, and when it’s raining, because of the dips in the road, you encounter standing water frequently.

But it sure has that rustic charm that Connecticuters apparently want.

We wound through Fairfield on the way to the Merritt Parkway. It was constant, moderate rain. I had the wipers on the second-highest setting and was seeing the road OK. I was starting to hope that we’d be able to make the entire trip with this moderate rainfall. We got off the Black Rock Turnpike and onto the Merritt Parkway. There was absolutely no traffic. I was able to maintain about 50 MPH but was concerned about hydroplaning.

Suddenly, the moderate rain became a deluge. Just east of Westport we’d run into the brunt of the storm. Lightning flashed, the wind battered our SUV, I had the windshield wipers on the highest setting, and was barely able to see the road. I’d slowed to about 20 MPH and was wondering if we’d make it to the airport on time. Toni had the weather radar up on her cell phone and said, “Looks like it’s going to be pretty bad until we get past Stamford.”

Conjuring up a mental road map, I realized it meant we had to get past Norwalk, then New Canaan before we hit Stamford. Just then, the rain let up a tiny bit. I felt I could manage about 35 MPH. I knew Toni was glancing at the big digital speedometer in the middle of the dash. I told her I was afraid to go any faster because of the danger of hydroplaning.

Some moron in a big Chevy Silverado pickup suddenly came up behind us and passed us in the left lane. He had to be doing the full 55 MPH speed limit. It was the first time we’d encountered any traffic since getting on the Merritt.

We got past Norwalk, where we’d lived in a hotel for a week or so, waiting for the moving van to bring our stuff when we first moved to Connecticut. It was at the height of the plague in April of 2020. People were wearing masks and gloves and avoiding each other. We had to prove we were travelers to even be allowed to stay at the hotel. Our Wisconsin driver licenses were deemed adequate evidence.

Then, just west of Norwalk, around one of the many blind curves on the Merritt, we saw half a dozen or so flares on the highway and the flashing lights of emergency vehicles. Toni was afraid the road was going to be closed and she’d miss her flight. But as we got closer, we saw that the right lane was blocked but the left lane was open. Sure enough, it was a one-car wreck. There was a cop car and a flatbed wrecker blocking the right lane, and smashed up against a guidepost on the shoulder of the road was a white sedan.

“Hydroplaning, I’ll bet,” I said, as we crawled by the wreck. We resumed our 35 MPH pace in the rain. Past the exits for Stamford, suddenly the rain let up considerably. Toni pulled up the weather radar again and said we’d be in the green zone the rest of the way. I pushed it up to 45 MPH, and before long, we were at the New York state line and the exit for the Westchester County Airport.

As I pulled up in front of the terminal, a few minutes behind schedule at around 4:30 AM, Toni reached over and touched my hand and said, “Thanks. I know you’re terrified. But thanks for doing this.” We talked about a few things, knowing that soon the cop in the car across from us was going to tell us to move along. Security theater. We kissed goodbye, Toni grabbed her suitcase from the back seat, and as she entered the terminal, I made my way out of the airport and back on the road.

I hoped that the rain, which was more of a drizzle now, would stay at that level all the way back to Bridgeport. Toni had encouraged me to “turn and burn,” because another huge wave of the storm was approaching from the west. I was able to maintain 55 MPH on the Merritt on the way home, until just west of Fairfield. I caught up with the storm, which was moving east. Damn.

I got behind an old white pickup truck which was doing about 30 MPH. Cars were passing us in the left lane. Fine. I’m not blocking traffic. I’m operating at “a reasonable and prudent speed.” I allowed plenty of space between me and the old white truck and just followed him to Exit 44. I got back onto the Black Rock Turnpike, and suddenly the rain let up again. The storm had moved past me, to the east.

By the time I was back home, the rain was down to a few sprinkles here and there. I parked the car, took the elevator up to our floor, got into our apartment and collapsed into my big recliner. Thank God, the nightmare is over. Toni got to the airport in time, and I made it home safely.

I’m 74 now. My night vision is crap. My reflexes aren’t what they used to be. I’m OK to drive, I think, in daylight and on dry pavement. At night, only for short trips on roads I’m thoroughly familiar with.

For now, anyway.

I’m not sure if I’m up to another adventure like these. I hope I’ll never have to find out.

1 comment:

  1. Tim: What a well-written story. I could feel the same fears as I sit in my study on one of the warmest, suniest ? days ever. I am not a happy long-distance driver like you. I won't even drive to Madison (100 miles) alone anymore. But you got gonads, buddy! Just (please) continue carefully. And my best to Toni!