I stood by the side of the ice covered road. It was 8:41 p.m. when I got out of my car. Wearing two sets of knit slacks, the bottom pair being beige, I rolled up the top pair’s pant legs so that something light colored could be picked up by car lights. Bundled up in my coat, scarf, and gloves with my messenger style bag slung across my body, the road lit by the light of the diffused almost full moon behind a cloud filled sky, taking my first step onto the ice in my trainers felt almost life threatening.
There were no headlights approaching and no sound of cars in the distance so I took the first step then seven more to the middle of the road. I could see a significant bump in my path because in the middle of the road where the double lines meet the road rises. I couldn’t step on top of this rise nor could I straddle it without feeling like I was going down. Being confident no cars were near, I went to the ground on purpose and rolled across to the grassy yard on the other side.
I walked several steps at a normal pace at the edge of this neighbor’s yard where I felt far more secure than walking the road. Then I met their driveway. It was steep, both side-to-side going uphill and steep going down to the road. I realized I couldn’t roll across it but would have to crawl on all fours to keep from being tossed into the road mid roll. It dawned on me that as I met each driveway on the long uphill hike home, I’d have to make a choice between rolling or crawling across to get to the grass on the other side.
Nine hours earlier:
Late in the morning, on New Year’s Eve, my plans for the day changed so I decided to take me out to a movie. I chose Pitch Perfect 3, starring the delightful and talented Anna Kendrick because 1) I was by myself and wanted a chick flick and 2) I’m a girl, former musician, and had seen the previous two: it was a biological necessity to have seen the complete trilogy of those awesome piped, razzle dazzle, funny women on their A Capella journey.
Because snow was in the forecast I shopped at Earth Fare before the movie. I’d brought a soft cooler with ice bricks to keep the meat and some cheese I’d buy refrigerated. Then I went to a 12:45 showing of my movie. It was a blast – I laughed so hard. Whenever I see a comedy without Joseph I long for him after. It somehow seems wasteful to have shared my laughter with strangers instead of him. But that audience and I had a good time.
Afterwards it wasn’t snowing yet so I went to Ingles to pick up some things Earth Fare didn’t have. Then I was snack hungry and decided to drop in at Taco Bell to have a little meal and read a little. There was a drizzle out there but not the light dusting of snow expected.
By 4:30 p.m. I was on the road headed home, having decided to take the short route – a thirty minute drive home down a winding, country road. I’d barely begun that route when I ran into stalled traffic with cars deciding to turn around and head back the way they came. I couldn’t see what the problem was but didn’t wait to find out. I had a driveway to my left and chose to take it to turn around. In the process I skidded a little. A twinge of fear and dread gurgled in my gut but I soldiered on. I’d take the longer route, a thirty-five minute drive home that would put me on the Interstate and all would be well.
In short order, on the four lane road I was on and several miles before getting to the Interstate, traffic was nearly at a standstill as every driver drove between five and ten miles an hour down roads becoming caked in a thin sheet of solid ice. That gurgle of fear and dread in my gut erupted into a near panic throughout my body. Seventeen years earlier, on Christmas Eve, taking my little dog, Ed, to the emergency vet, I skidded on ice and flew off the road, off the side of a hill, the car flipping in the air head over heels and a full loop side-over-side before landing on its wheels.
For years after I could not drive in snow or ice and almost couldn’t drive in hard rains. One time I was out when it began snowing and I had to drive home. By the time I was driving up our steep driveway my legs were shaking like mad. I finally understood the phrase, “Shaking in your shoes.” Joseph and I found a trauma release technique that he took me through that helped a lot. For years in the winter time, I would find empty back lots of strip malls and grocery stores in the rain, pretend the asphalt was covered in snow and ice, and practice the correct way to drive in the snow and ice to build up my confidence. So yesterday on New Year’s Eve I had post-traumatic stress to deal with on the long, slow ride home.
For a while a truck in front of me would slip and slide on the ice, contributing to the rising panic inside me. At one point I looked to my left where in front of a pretty ranch style home on a manicured lawn a beige sedan with no one inside it rested on its hood, wheels in the air, like an apocalyptic sign.
As I saw the truck in front of me slide again a lightbulb turned on in my mind as I realized that, except for the turnaround in that driveway miles behind me, I hadn’t slid a bit on the main road. I smiled and said out loud, “I’m in a hybrid. My car is loaded down with batteries. That truck is top heavy. But my car, like me, is bottom-heavy. The batteries will help me get home safely!”
Whenever traffic stood still, I’d text Joseph or call him to keep him abreast of where I was and what the plan was. He was at home taking care of our pathways and drive so that both our Airbnb guest, who had no experience driving in snow and ice, and I could at least come home to a safe environment. The time it was taking me to make it to the Interstate and the falling temperature gauge in my car quickly undid the confidence building that I’ve-got-giant-batteries-helping-me gave me.
At one point he called me. “Sarah, I’ve looked online and they’re saying I-40 is a mess with accidents between Canton and Marion. I know its New Year’s Eve and we don’t want it this way but I think you should consider staying at one of those hotels near I-40 for the night.”
Canton was off to my left but I couldn’t wrap my mind around Marion’s location. “Where’s Marion? Isn’t it past Black Mountain?”
This was bad news because the section of I-40 I wanted was between the two.
“Sarah. Whether you take the Interstate or get a room, you are in charge. Remember, you are in charge.”
“OK. I’ll see about the rooms.”
The only problem was that the entrance to the Interstate was going to be a gentle turn to the right whereas the hotels were downhill and on the left. Traffic was crawling so I got my phone, pulled up hotels near me, and started calling. No vacancies.
As I approached the Interstate, everyone heading east was traveling at a steady pace. I decided the accidents had been caused by drivers unaware that the drizzle was turning to ice on the roads and that by now everyone was paying attention. I only had a few miles to travel down the Interstate. I took it.
Sure enough, every driver around me was going slow and careful. At one point I got my right wheels on that ridge they cut into the asphalt just outside the line – the thing that wakes sleeping drivers up. That was helpful though every time I did something like that I was scared to leave the path the cars in front of me had made on the roads. Part of the PTSD is the feeling inside that ice and snow can fling me off the road whether I’m in a car or on foot. Nineteen years ago, around the holidays, I slipped walking on ice, banging my head on the pavement and momentarily blacking out. The next winter I sprained my ankle walking on snow and ice.
I pretty much feel afraid for my life in any condition on snow and ice.
Once off the Interstate I had to travel about ten miles to get home. But between there and home, there is a tremendously steep mountain of four lane traffic. At the foot of that mountain is an Ingles. That was my destination. From there I could consider my next decision. From there, with red car lights inching up the mountain, some of them sliding, some of them stalling, it looked like the back of a twitching dragon’s tale that might shake them all into the air at any moment.
I parked in Ingles parking lot, stepped out of my car, and nearly slid under the door. The tension from the hour and a half drive that got me there nearly broke through. I got back in the car, drove to the side of the building and parked. I inched my way out of the car and next to the wall, then inched my way to their covered sidewalk to comfortably get inside. I headed to the bathroom first. I kept looking at the faces of people around me taking in how so many of them seemed calm and confident while I felt like falling apart. I don’t know why but after I used the bathroom I bought a toothbrush and toothpaste, lotion for my face, and this week’s People magazine with Hugh Jackman on the cover. Spending the night in my car in Ingle’s parking lot was an option, but they closed at 11. So where I thought I’d use the toothbrush and lotion, I don’t know! But the purchase made me feel better.
When I got back to the car I called Joseph to let him know I was going to try the mountain. I’d seen a truck filled with sand drive by and hoped that meant it had been dumping sand out the back. I pulled out onto the four lane highway with my car in the first gear lower than drive – that S2 gear. I took it out of hybrid mode, having it run on gasoline alone so I’d have more power. The first several yards it seemed I would make it up and over the mountain. But up ahead a car was stalled in the right line. The truck in front of me got in the left lane and then began going slower and slower until he lost control and began sliding.
With fear in my throat and no oncoming cars I gently turned to the left, using the middle and two lanes on the other side to turn around and head back to Ingles, my hands and arms now uncontrollably shaking. I had to make a left hand turn into Ingles but the road was flat there and so stopping and starting wasn’t really a problem. But once I got parked at Ingles, the flood gates opened and I cried my heart out.
I felt so punished by the situation that with my hands and arms still shaking, I had the presence of mind to wait until the overhead lights went off after turning off the ignition and then I just went for it. Rocking back and forth, crying my eyes out, I chanted, “This isn’t because I’ve been bad! I’m not being punished! This isn’t punishment!” I could feel a part of me looking at me with curiosity. This part said, “Ok. She needs to work this out of her nervous system and then she’ll calm down and figure out what’s next.” That observing part was right. That’s exactly what I did.
When I calmed down I called Joseph to tell him I might have to spend the night in the parking lot at Ingles. I had it all figured out. They would close at 11 so at 10:45 I’d go use the bathroom for the last time. Then I’d park with the driver’s side right up next to the grassy bank on the south side of the building so I could jump out and use the bathroom when necessary. I had a full tank of gas and fully charged batteries so I could keep myself warm throughout the night by turning the engine on and off as I liked. I had a magazine and books I could read by the parking lot lights and a kindle. I told him this wasn’t my final decision though. I wanted to give going-home traffic time to thin out where I could try the mountain again with less stress. We hung up and I opened my kindle to the current thriller I’m in the middle of reading.
About half an hour later I noticed that traffic on the road, though sparse, had sped up. People were driving down the road faster. I also noticed that my windshield hadn’t frozen up even though I’d had the engine off for some time. I’d been comfortable for some time actually, even taking my coat off.
I texted Joseph:
“Science question: Since the drizzle has stopped might the warmth of the ground under the ice have been able to melt it a little?”
I called him.
“I’m going to head up the mountain at 7. Do you think I should put it in that S2 gear, the one just below Drive? I have five of those gears but do you think 2 is best?”
“Yes, absolutely, 2 is best. You’ve got to have enough momentum to make it up the mountain but not too much so that you skid or have to brake hard.”
“OK. I’m going to do it!”
At 7 p.m. I turned right out of Ingles and headed for the mountain. There wasn’t much traffic so I was able to keep a nice distance between me and the cars in front of me without having to slow down. A salt truck passed me in the left lane and that was comforting. But I was scared. I kept repeating, “I’m making it. I’m going up the mountain. “I’m making it. I’m going up the mountain.”
Near the crest it changed to, “I’m about to crest the mountain. I’m about to crest the mountain. I’m cresting the mountain! I’m cresting the mountain! I’m over the mountain!”
I still had seven miles to get home, some of that stretch were hair pin curves. Early on I wound up with a string of cars behind me. I think they wanted me to go faster as the line of cars drove too close to each other and the one directly behind me too close to me. Eventually they all turned off the main road as I continued, inching my way toward home.
Turning on to the main road into our neighborhood, I thought I had a strait shot home and I was going to take it. Even though after a flat stretch it was a solid and steep uphill climb to our driveway, I was going to try. But there was this Cadillac SUV up ahead on my side of the road sitting still with its blinkers on. And up ahead at the first steep part, cars were bunched up together not moving. I had a choice of farmland to my right and left that I could pull onto, park and walk home but, if I couldn’t drive all the way home, there was one sweet parking spot I wanted instead.
The Cadillac had numerous people getting in and out of it. The road block up ahead wasn’t moving. This last leg of my trip was taking so long! The tension inside my body was nearly unbearable. At one point in my journey, from deep down in my soul, I could feel the desire to bargain with God begin to rise. I found momentary relief when I laughed at it. It was comical to me because there was nothing to bargain with and nothing to bargain for or against. The situation was what it was. I wanted it to end. I had wanted the situation, the tension, fear, and near panic to end hours earlier than this and there was still more to go. Bargaining wasn’t going to do me any good and might just lead to straight out panic. So I chuckled and told me, “You’ve just got to keep being present. It’s exhausting but you can do it. Just keep being present.”
I decided to call Joseph.
“I was worried! It’s been 45 minutes since you said you were leaving Ingles. Are you all right?”
“It’s been 45 minutes? I knew I was going slow but, wow. There’s this Cadillac sitting in the road that I’d go around except there are these cars up ahead on the hill…”
I described where I was, what was going on, what my options were. The part of me that wanted it to be over really wanted to park in one of the fields I was idling in front of but Joseph felt that was too far for me to walk. Feeling frantic I made a decision.
“The cars in front of me are starting to move. I’m going to try to come home.”
At a great distance I followed the Cadillac up the road. There was a hill there I needed to crest and then it would be downhill to my cherished parking spot. Barely on the other side of that crest, the Cadillac stopped. The driver got out with a box in his hand. As he walked to the house he was stopped in front of I said to no one in particular, “What?! Seriously?! Really?! You’re making deliveries in this weather?! Aauugghh!”
I inched very closely to his car in order to get as much of my car on the crest where I could idle without sliding backwards.
He came back to his car, glanced my way, and headed up the route I needed to take to get home. I could not trust that he would not make another stop and it was uphill all the way. So I came to my ideal parking space: a fork in the road where off to the left there was a wide expanse of grass where I could safely park and leave my car. I gently drove the sloping downhill road, crossed to the other side, floated into the grass and parked my car.
I cried and cried and cried, releasing more tension. When I was done I called Joseph.
“I was going to try to come all the way home but I can’t. I’m not brave enough. I’ve parked in the grass at the fork in the road where I’ve got the car way off the road. I’m going to walk home from here. Should I lock the car?”
“It probably doesn’t matter. Just go ahead and lock it.”
“I can bring the groceries that are…”
“Absolutely not! Leave the groceries. Only take your purse, lock the car and use the flashlight on your phone. I’m going to walk to the end of the driveway with salt and start walking in your direction, salting a path as I come.”
I looked around the car and decided there was one thing I needed to do first. I opened the door, got out, popped a squat and emptied my bladder. I got back in the car and looked for a flashlight on my phone. It wasn’t there. I looked outside and remembered midnight walks in snow in Southwest Virginia in my thirties. Tonight I had cloud cover but the almost full moon’s light was diffused and lighting the night up well enough. I grabbed my kindle and stuffed it in my purse. I climbed out of my car, noticed the time was 8:41, locked the car, patted it and told the car I’d be back for her, then walked to the front of the car and faced the sheet of ice over the road in front of me and every driveway up ahead. I told me to keep breathing deeply and realized I actually felt much stronger.
As soon as I was walking on grass I began calling Joseph periodically to tell him of my progress. I told him I had enough light from the moon and that I felt stronger. I told him I thought it was good I wasn’t aware of exactly where I was in my hike home because this meant I’d just keep hiking till I got there with no sense of distance to psychologically slow me down. I also told him I wasn’t going to stay on the phone because I needed to concentrate and I didn’t want to trip and lose my grip on my phone.
This was a different kind of being persistently present but it was a nice change. Every now and then I’d trip a little over the uneven ground. I told myself, “No sprains, no breaks, no falling and hitting your head because an ambulance cannot make it here for you tonight!” At one point I did fall. I fell backwards, landing on my bottom without putting undue pressure on my knees. Not a big deal. At one point I realized walking on the uneven ground was good for my brain. So I began doing cognitive exercises as I hiked along:
“1+1 is 2. 2+2 is 4. 4+4 is 8. 8+8 is 16. 16 +16 is 32. 32+32 is 64. Oh, shit, that’s a wide and steep driveway!”
It was so wide and steep I didn’t want to cross it. It frightened me. It was too steep going downhill to roll across it. I’d have to take it on all fours and I could tell from the previous two driveways I’d crawled across that my knees were getting roughed up. I walked uphill a few paces to choose the narrowest part of the driveway, promised myself I’d take excellent care of my knees when I got home, and crawled across.
At another driveway I studied it for a while then deciding to roll across it, heaved my purse across the drive ahead of me. Rolling across this driveway, the steep descent to the road got the best of me. I grabbed my purse as my body skidded toward the road. I twisted and aimed for the ditch instead. I was able to catch the point where the ditch met the driveway with my foot and stopped my forward movement. I gave up on adding cognitive exercises to my journey at that point.
Soon I thought I was at a house that has sheep in its front yard. I called Joseph to tell him where I was. He said, “Good. That’s good. I’m on my way and,” he chuckled, “bringing some help!” I didn’t know who was helping him, but it sounded good to me.
Turned out I wasn’t yet anywhere near the sheep’s yard. But I kept trudging along, navigating coming across mail boxes, traversing driveways, grateful for a long cable that keeps trespassers off one stretch of property. It was nice to hold onto that for a change.
I got to a place in the hike were the land quit going uphill for about thirty yards when I saw headlights. I moved farther away from the road, deeper into the yard, and kept moving forward. I realized those were a pair of flashlights when my phone rang. Joseph was on the line. I told him where I was and waved at the flashlight, which eventually caught my smiling face. I said, “I’m here! Do you see me? I’m in the yard, not near the road.”
A voice not Joseph’s said, “Yes! I see you! Just keep coming as you are and I’ll meet you at the road. This is Sam. Joseph and Phil are just behind me. How are you?”
“I’ve been better but it’s GREAT to see you!!”
“Here, take this hiking stick and my arm and we’re just going to carefully walk you back home. Are you all right?”
“Yes, I’m good.”
We began walking up the road when Sam stopped and said, “Wait a minute. Come here.” He pulled me into a big bear hug. It was so comforting! Then he put my hand through the crook of his arm and we headed up the road to meet Joseph and Phil.
We still had a long way to go. Sam and I set a good steady pace. We traded skidding on ice stories and talked about what was going to be missed the next day because of the ice.
He teased me saying, “Have you been asking yourself why you ever moved out to this mountain? To get stuck in the snow and have adventures?”
I answered, “And to be rescued by lovely neighbors!”
Eventually we locked hands and just took care of each other making our way up the road. Joseph and Phil had a nice conversation pulling up the rear behind us. It was a lovely New Year’s Eve parade as I got escorted home by three strong and handsome men!
As we reached our driveway Sam said, “Now, you have just walked a mile and a half uphill.”
“Really?!” I was incredulous but proud. That mile and a half uphill took an hour to walk. When I got home it was going on 9:45 p.m.
Once Joseph and I were safely inside our home, I felt such gratitude. We hugged and kissed each other. I filled in the blanks of my adventure – especially the hysterical parts. Back in 2000 on that Christmas Eve night when I got swept off the hillside, he was watching from the house having his own traumatic experience. He knows me and appreciated with me the opportunities I had to release the tension of not only a traumatic four hour journey home on ice but the trauma of revisiting the past as well.
They say you should let some time pass after a traumatic event before writing about it to give yourself some distance from it. I didn’t want to do that. I’ve spent most of day after (today), which is New Year’s day, writing this short story – not reliving it but remembering it and, in that way, creating some distance.
It was in the middle of writing this story that it occurred to me life handed me a hero’s journey yesterday evening and I took it. I’m proud of myself for facing my fears over a five hour period, allowing myself to lose it now and then, and finally getting home where, against all odds, I got a good night’s sleep.
As I write it is 9:48 p.m. on New Year’s Day. Happy New Year 2018!