Tuesday, February 10, 2004


Last Wednesday and Thursday, February 7 and 8, I was heading west for Nebraska across Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. I intended to spend Friday in West Point, Nebraska, and Saturday at the Annual Gathering of the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Nebraska. By the time I reached Gilmore City, Iowa, along Highway 3 on Thursday I had already tuned into West Point's "farmer-owned" radio station, WTIC.

I was hearing "winter storm watch." No, "winter storm warning." No, it was a blizzard. The station played its news, weather, farm reports, and two country songs per hour. Now the schools in West Point that had announced they would start two hours late were announcing that school was cancelled. The fields along both sides of Highway 3 in Iowa were fierce ocean swells. Snow was flying in the air.

I stopped for coffee in Remsen, Iowa, pulling into a convenience store through quite a plowbank at the edge of the road. I had to push through the heaped snow again on my way back onto the road. The snowfall had quickened. The roads were thick with snow in places. In other places, a snowplow led the way, throwing a white spray high into the air. To see the way forward, one stays back.

On the four-lane portion of Highway 75 between Le Mars, Iowa, and Sioux City, I was passed by several semis pulling loads: for a moment I lost sight of the road in the white-out the trucks spun up: you could close your eyes and shove forward blindly and do no worse. Then, just as suddenly, the way cleared.

Now WTIC radio was making it obvious that anything in West Point scheduled for Thursday was being re-scheduled. Including a woman's funeral! The bowling alley was closed, no league bowling tonight. The grocery store would close at 5:00 p.m. The library would close at 6:00 p.m. and the Technology Demonstration scheduled for 7:00 p.m. was cancelled. The community was battening down its hatches.

I stopped to visit a friend in Sioux City, conversation and coffee with the poet Phil Hey. It was snowing. It snowed. It had snowed. It would snow. It will have been snowing. When we finished our coffee and talk, I was in no hurry to rush out to the car and head down the road.

And when I got to the car, I was in no hurry to rush away. I took my time clearing snow off the windshield, the back window, the side windows. Before I could get in the car and latch my seatbelt, the windows were covered over with snow again.

I was not in any hurry traveling the "snow-covered and slippery" roads in Nebraska either; and I told myself I could get a motel room in mid-afternoon anytime road conditions got frightful and unsafe. As long as I didn't try to hurry, the roads were okay. As long as I maintained three times the usual distance from the car in front of me, as long as I could follow the open track worn into my side of the road, as long as I slowed to twenty miles per hour passing the groves to my left side, where snow was drifted in the lee of the trees, I was comfortable and safe and could move forward. If I lost confidence, as I say, I could get a motel room in the middle of the afternoon. How decadent!

I never lost confidence. It was a winter storm, but not the worst of winter storms. I didn't try to drive any faster than the conditions allowed. I gave myself to the situation, didn't push against it but went with it, and arrived in West Point about 4:15 p.m. My hosts, Dick and Gwen Lindberg, opened their home for me; I tromped some snow in on the carpet.

On Monday after I returned to Fairwater, Phil Hey e-mailed me that his wife Terry was concerned they hadn't offered me a place to stay, they'd let me go off into the storm. "You can assure Terry," I responded, "that if I had run into any problems getting out of Sioux City, I'd have checked with you whether there was a place for me to bed down. And if I'd gone part way to West Point and decided it wasn't worth battling the weather, I was prepared to get a motel room along the way." Maybe I'm The Middlewesterner, but I'm not crazy: I know when to go with and not against the forces of nature; and I know when to say whoa.

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