My Tuesday began with a hastily-stuffed overnight bag and a shoebox containing two apples, most of a box of pecan granola bars and a dizzying array of plastic tubes of various powder used to flavor bottled water. My Tuesday could easily have ended on a 60-something mile stretch of Interstate 35 in northern Iowa.
After a perfect six or so hours on the road to start my day, poor road conditions were honestly the last thing on my mind. The indicators that things were beginning to get worse were difficult to spot at first, with snow slowly building up on the edges of the roadway and the slushy patches in the middle of my lane becoming more frequent. The festivities began around mile marker 183 with an overturned minivan in the center median. A long, green plastic tape that I’m guessing indicated the car had been tagged and identified by the highway patrol streamed in the breeze from its home, tied to something on the car’s undercarriage.
That was the first of what were surely four or five dozen stranded vehicles I’d see over the next hour and a half. Winds out of the west had turned that stretch of I-35 into a set from a disaster movie. Snow was blowing across all four lanes of the highway, and in many places the left lane was completely covered. I couldn’t have gotten off of the road had I wanted to (and I did) because the rare offramps were drifted shut.
So for about the next 90 minutes, I drove white-knuckled through a deathtrap, often going as slowly as 30 miles an hour and wondering what the occasional idiot was thinking who blazed by me at twice that speed in that drifted-over left lane.
The cars strewn to the sides of the road were in a frightening array of conditions. Some had merely been embedded nose first into a drift in the ditch to the right. Many more had obviously come to a halt after spinning several times, left along the side of the road pointed in the opposite of their original direction. Several were upside down, and like the minivan were indicating their locations with neon-colored tape catching the wind.
At one point, there were six cars in the ditch in a space of maybe 20 feet. I saw a dark-colored mid-sized SUV – a Dodge, I think – with a crushed front fender in the right shoulder, facing back to the north. A few feet behind the Dodge sat the minivan it had obviously destroyed. The van’s driver’s side door was crushed in several feet, the front quarter of the van split open to expose the engine and wheel wells, and the windshield shattered from the impact. I wondered if the drivers had made it through the crash safely; the driver of the minivan almost certainly was injured, and likely in severe fashion.
There were comical things too. The boat that had skidded into the median and become enveloped in the twisted wreckage of its trailer. The oddly isolated ladder, twisted and broken but reaching straight up into afternoon sky as if asking for someone to help pull it out of the snow. The car off to the right that was by that point almost completely buried by a steadily advancing drift.
The worst of the journey ended around mile marker 124, just north of Ames, Iowa. From there, I encountered an occasional snow patch and another car either in the ditch or in the process of being yanked free by the end of a heavy chain every few miles, but nothing like the 60-mile stretch that was thankfully behind me.
I stopped in Ames to get gas and buy a Pepsi Max, not because I needed either of those things, but because I just needed to stop and get my bearings before traveling onward. An hour later, by the time I had moved south of Des Moines, the roads were perfect again and the final four and a half hours or so of my trip were largely uneventful. The most interesting thing I saw the rest of the night was the guy in Topeka, Kan., sitting on the side of the road, two open cases of beer sitting proudly on the roof of the car, while a Kansas highway patrolman had him illuminated with a flashlight.
I arrived at my destination after spending about 13 and a half hours on the road. I only hope that stretch of road is better before I turn around and retrace my journey on Friday.