North of us the year wound out in the teeth of a massive storm December 28 and 29, one that raked Nebraska, the Dakotas and Minnesota and roared east into New England. Hundreds of thousands were left without power. Motorways became life hazards, buried in snow with 30 mile-an-hour winds gusting to 50 and 70 mph.
In Minnesota, the State Patrol reported 470 highway crashes, including spinouts, jackknifed semitrailers, injury accidents and two fatalities on Saturday alone. In North Dakota, I-29 and I-94 were closed in both directions for two days, and reopened on Dec. 30.
The news of such storms can stir memories, and for me it recalls late 1969 in western New York, where winter could begin in October and pile hundreds of inches of snow into late April. As Christmas approached, storms already had left several feet of snow, and another one had begun with fierce promise. I was then reporting for the Rochester Times-Union, and I chose to drive into the teeth of this storm and chase a story along the State Thruway (I-90) in western New York.
My angle was to interview people stranded along the road; I signed a waiver and the state police waved me onto the closed Thruway. The snow was half a foot deep in the good places.
I was driving a Karmann Ghia, a rear engine roadster with superb traction. Small but warm and feisty, and it could go nearly anywhere in snow. It was late afternoon, the light fading. As I moved along in the heavy storm, a kind of padded quiet fell over the car. I could hear the engine puttering proudly, felt the soft crush of tires over snow as we moved, almost gliding over the great white road. The storm soon erased the horizon. The ride was like a plunge into a great thick quilt.
Then a speck in the distance. As I came near, it was a man waving in knee-deep snow, his station wagon nose-down in the ditch. A woman and two children looked out at me. I told him my name, why I was there (for an interview) and how silly it must seem, but if he could tell me a few things I would go to the nearest rest area and report their location.
The light was nearly gone as I nosed the Ghia into the rest area. I reported the stranded family in the eastbound near mile marker such-and-such. In moments I found at a half-dozen tables the stories I’d been looking for – interviews inside, out of the weather in a warm, dry place, stories laced with vivid detail, the fear of being stranded with no one aware; here was talk in a warm, well-lighted place as the blizzard gathered strength.
Interviews finished, I headed outside and puttered out onto the Thruway to return to Rochester. The rest stop lights faded away in the rearview mirror. I was soon churning into a heavy storm and a pitch black night, on a road under deep snow, a road I could not see.
The storm heaved at the car in bursts, intense, then lessening, then intense again – from whiteout to piercing, warp-speed fragments, to whiteout again. All the while, no road, only the deep whiteness, only the slight crown of what I judged to be pavement. There were no markers, no poles at roadside, no tracks to follow, no way to know where the road might bend slightly, or where a drift may conceal a bridge or a slope into a ditch, a plunge into darkness.
A raw dread takes hold, one that conspires with the blackness beyond the beam of headlights, a kind of vertigo, an uncertainty about where you are and where you are headed: up or down, right or left? It chews at sanity, the conviction that otherwise you know what you are doing and where you are going. In this darkness, its ceaseless counter-assaults of warp speed snow and pitch blindness, you are no longer certain, no longer in control. You just hold on to the wheel and hope that the next few yards, or feet, or inches, are on solid ground.
This continued for some time, until the blizzard lightened to a reasonable storm, and poles began to appear again beside the roadway. Then at last, a glow in the distance, the lights of the city. Another 20 minutes and we were off the Thruway heading into downtown. It was Christmas Eve, and I was ever so glad to welcome its warmth, its light.