I can still remember the snow falling in buckets and clumps, drenching the landscape, cloaking the interstate and obscuring any sense of where one lane ended and another one began, muffling the brightness of the far-off street lights like a scrim on a theater stage.
We could see the street lights above empty, wind-swept streets as we passed by the highway exit that was our best hope of finding a motel and waiting out the storm. We drove past because we had been in the left lane of the highway when the exit finally came into view, and the road surface was too slippery to change lanes quickly enough.
Surely, we thought, we’d get off at the very next exit. We weren’t in the middle of the Gobi desert or Antarctica. This was the American midwest. There had to be a motel somewhere nearby, somewhere with central heating and clean sheets and a bathroom, where we would admit that a blizzard in northern Wisconsin had proven that there existed some times you should just stay home and wait it out. I cautiously and slowly edged the minivan into the right lane—or what seemed to be a lane—and kept watching the dark side of the highway for a snow-covered green blur that would be the next road sign.
My daughter pored over a map of Wisconsin by a tiny reading light above the dashboard. If that last exit was Menomonee, there had to be smaller towns up ahead.
We had started the journey hours earlier, a familiar three hundred mile trek from our home in southern Wisconsin to the Twin Cities where my daughter was a college student. Sometimes her dad drove and I stayed home with the rest of the kids, and sometimes I drove. The trip one-way took a good six hours in good weather.
The weather had indeed been good when we started, that much was true. There were a few snow flurries going on as we pulled out of the driveway, but four-wheel drive will make you cocky. The weather forecasters were predicting snow in our path, but who ever expected total accuracy from the weatherman? We blithely set out in daylight, with the goal of making it to the Twin Cities not far off our usual schedule.
As daylight faded, the snow picked up. For about an hour we vacillated over whether it was getting heavy enough to justify benching ourselves at a motel until morning, or whether it was starting to lighten up. Wishful thinking can be so disarming. And with every mile we drew closer to our destination, the more tantalizing the thought of completing the journey without interruption.
As we sailed past the exit and watched the street lights get swallowed by a blanket of white, we finally knew we’d overreached. Still, we were confident that a room for hire would be ours soon. I drove cautiously, slowly, along the set of tracks cut in the snow by the drivers ahead. There appeared to be only one lane left to use, and every car on the road that night seemed to be following an unspoken rule to stay in that single lane, guided by the faint pinprick of taillights in the distance assuring that there was still a road to find, like hikers traversing a narrow ledge.
There are instants in your life when you don’t know if you will live or die, and we suddenly had ours. From out of the swirling, snowy blackness, a set of headlights perched higher than ours came up on our left. A semi-trailer whose driver had less patience than everyone else on the road inexorably crept up on us, bearing closer and closer. I could see the headlights casting their glow through the driving snow, and I focused totally on keeping the minivan straight and completely in its lane. The truck never touched us. But as it passed, the wind force it created caught the minivan like a giant hand and sent us sliding off at an angle, completely out of control. I remember that the sides of the truck were yellow and white as our headlights turned toward the giant machine while it passed methodically, implacably, like Leviathan cleaving the silent, wine-dark sea. As the truck drew away from us and disappeared into the dark, a drift of snow swirled off its roof and plunged us into total whiteout. We slewed and yawed blindly out of control. I turned the wheel desperately back and forth, trying to get some purchase beneath the wheels, but my efforts were useless.
After a couple of seconds that felt like a lifetime, we felt the front of the minivan hit something hard. A guardrail had kept us from sliding into a ditch or worse. “Honey, are you okay?” I asked. “Sure,” my daughter replied. “How about you?” I was fine too…but as I looked toward her, I could see the pinpoints of light signaling the approach of the next car in the single snow-covered lane. We realized instantly that our minivan, positioned crosswise across the lane of traffic, would be invisible in the storm to oncoming traffic until it would be too late to stop. I slammed the van into reverse and hoped that luck would go our way. If it didn’t, we’d be out of the van and over the guardrail before the next accident happened.
The wheels caught, and we pushed back into the lane of traffic. Slowly we drove on, and took the next exit. The road had barely been plowed. The map showed a small town a few miles north, and we aimed the damaged van that way with hope in our hearts. We were deep in the middle of nowhere. The few driveways that we passed were unplowed and uninviting. No sign announcing a town ahead was anywhere to be seen.
We finally drew near what seemed to be a farm, with a tall yard light silhouetted in the snow, and a large sign out front that gave it an air of respectability. The driveway looked as if it had been plowed at some point during the storm. We drove up to a small house. I left my daughter in the car, and knocked on the door.
A young woman answered, her eyes cautious and wary. We’d been in an accident on the interstate, I explained, and were trying to find a place to stay. The map said we’d find a town in this direction. Were we on the right track?
No, she answered. The town ahead no longer had any type of lodging. More important, she said, there was a dangerous and winding hill not far ahead of us on this road, and we should not try to navigate it in this storm. Well then, I replied. My daughter and I clearly needed a place to stay in this storm. We were easy keepers. Could we just pay her forty dollars to sleep on her kitchen floor?
She was sorry, she said, but she would have to refuse. She had young children in the house, and her husband was away from home, and she just did not feel comfortable with letting two strangers in the door while he was away. We would just have to get back on the interstate and keep driving.
I returned to the car, crushed and stunned. Ahead of us lay a road we had no business being on. Behind us lay the interstate where we had nearly died. The seaworthiness of the van was a wild card. My daughter busied herself with brushing and scraping the snow from the windows as I tried to inventory the damage to the front end and tell whether or not the van would be able to make it much farther. I called my husband to report on the night’s events and tell him that we were safe so far…but uncertain as to where we would end up.
A man with a beard and a dark snow-covered jumpsuit came up to my side of the van as I said goodbye on the phone and tried to figure out what to do next. I was startled, but rolled down the window and explained our situation. He thought for a minute, then had us follow him to the trailer located behind the home we had just been turned away from. His wife was out for a little while, and so he couldn’t commit just then to letting us stay the night…but at least we could get out of the cold.
We followed meekly…and when the pair of them were finally together, they must have decided we posed no hazard to them and folded us into their tiny, cramped home. As the snow continued to mount outside and we finally tucked into some warm food, we exchanged our stories. The young woman who had turned us away was in fact their daughter-in-law, they said. Until recently, the man with the beard and his wife had lived in a state farther east. But their only son was a farmer. And when it appeared that he needed help to keep the farm running, they had left their comfortable life behind and moved here to help him keep his business and his family on solid ground. It was not the life they had predicted, but it was the one they chose without hesitation.
My daughter and I slept in their bed that night, exhausted but warm and safe. By morning, the storm had ceased and the skies had cleared and the sunlight positively glistened on the newly fallen carpet of snow. We scraped the heavy coverlet of white off the van and said our goodbyes and heartfelt thanks. I slipped a fifty dollar bill on to a nearby shelf before we left.
My daughter and I retraced our path eight miles back to the exit we wished we had taken the night before and dropped the van at an auto repair shop to get checked before continuing on. The whole world seemed swept clean, a glorious radiance and purity to the snow cover that extended to the horizon. The highway surface itself, plowed clean in the middle of the night, looked as well-maintained as if Martha Stewart had been running the road crew. We chowed down over pancakes and sausage and pondered the strangeness of fortune and the kindness of strangers.
It has been a good eleven years since that desperate night in the snow. A snow- covered road still frightens me more than it used to. When I look back, I know that I have never been closer to being dead than at that instant when our car spun out of control in blinding snow in a blizzard on the interstate. I wonder at the workings of fate, and the hand of God, and the presence of angels. There’s a lot that I’ll never know.
But I know for sure that every so often angels appear without wings or halos, celestial choirs or golden flutes or harps. Once in a while, they just show up wearing a watch cap and sturdy Sorel boots and a snowmobile suit