There was a time when I used to be a bit of a daredevil regarding the weather. My friend, Terry, and I would pride ourselves on getting together for lunch on extreme weather days. "It's 105 in the shade--let's go to lunch...Did you hear there's a tornado watch?!--let's do lunch!....Did you see Keeler Avenue? It's turned into raging river! I'll pick you up for lunch." Only very extreme cold was considered a potential threat--not because the media warned about life-threatening wind chill, but because we were faced with cars that either didn't start at all or stalled out along the way, leaving us high and dry and calling for a ride. Blinding snow storm or 3 foot drifts never stopped us. Some considered us "storm chaser wannabes," but that wasn't it exactly. We were born and raised in the Chicago area and we weren't going to let a little weather get in our way. It was our way of being Chicago-style tough.
Although sometimes I take pause at my cavalier attitude, I have never been one to believe in letting either my fears or my lack of caution stop me from doing something that I want to do. I may be prone to a contemplative lifestyle, but I appreciate that I have to do enough living to have something to contemplate. So, if I want to do something badly enough, there's no stopping me. Especially when it came to a little bit of weather.
That was then and this is now.
Things changed for me in the summer of 2003. It was July--probably very close to this actual date! I had planned a trip to Champaign to visit my daughter and son-in-law for a few days. Erin was taking summer classes and on that day I was to be in Champaign at 4:00 PM to pick her up from her last class. Everything was set; I had the exact name and address of the building and I was to wait outside the south entrance for her to meet me.
Watching the weather channel, I knew the warnings. Storms were predicted for that afternoon, but since we had planned a definite schedule, there was no point in leaving earlier. All morning the predictions became more dire. The sky to the south was black with clouds. I decided that I had better get on the road before the storms broke, making absolutely no sense since I was driving in the direction of the storm rather than away from it. I had barely reached Matteson when the rain began. This was no regular rain, but one of those "100 year" storms that we hear about every few years. It wasn't too bad at first because traffic was slow and the windshield wipers did a fair job of keeping the windshield clear. But as traffic thinned and I got up to the minimum speed limit of 45 mph, they lost the battle in spite of their valiant efforts.
Trying to see the road through flooded glass became too much for me, but I had no choice. I couldn't see the side of the road to pull over. Not only that, another driver might not realize I was pulled over, and try to navigate his way by following my taillights. In that case, even in the event I successfully made it to the shoulder I might get rear-ended by another car. So, I did the only thing I could under those circumstances: I kept driving.
To my delight, a rest area sign seemed to appear out of nowhere. I knew the rest area was coming up, but in my predicament it might have been easy to miss. As I pulled onto the ramp, it seemed that the rain was beginning to let up, but it was probably due to my reduced speed. The water wasn't hitting the windshield with the same velocity, making the wipers effective once again.
I sat at the rest area, waiting out the storm. A few minutes later, when it was completely clear, I headed back on the road again. It was still cloudy, but much brighter and I was confident that the worst was behind me. I felt hopeful.
About thirty minutes later, I drove into the very heart of the storm system. "Torrential downpour" doesn't even begin to describe the experience. Again, my view of the road was completely impaired and visibility was limited to a few feet. There were a few other vehicles on the road, trucks that sped past me, adding spray to the wave of water washing over me. A lone car was my lifeline, my hope, my hero. I followed the taillights of that car, much too closely I know, but mere inches separated the taillights from the rain-out of invisibility. Wherever that car was going, we were going together; if he or she drove into the ditch, I would be the lemming following along.
When the car turned off of the interstate, I did my best to overcome my disappointment. I was on my own now, finding comfort in the strange realization that traveling alone made a collision less likely, at least one that involved another vehicle. Because I was on a schedule, I was determined to keep going. I had, after all, made it this far. It was only when my brave little Dodge Stratus hydroplaned around a curve, doing its best to grip the pavement while being washed away by rivulets of flowing rainwater, that I decided to exit at my next opportunity.
I pulled into the Clinton gas station for another break from the weather. There was no power,but I didn't need to pump gas anyway. Instead, I pulled up right outside the door and ran into the rest room. That brief escape from car to building caused me to be soaked through to the skin. It wasn't easy feeling my way around the pitch black rest room; I was only glad that the station remained open in spite of the power failure. Perhaps the employees did not want to brave the storm themselves and decided to stay put.
After awhile, I was on the road again, the sky again brighter but still cloudy. This time I was not as hopeful; I had been fooled by the brightened sky once before. In retrospect, it was probably good that I had turned the radio off so that I could concentrate on driving. I'm sure that there were tornado warnings all around me and that the announcers and DJ's pressed the message forcefully. Central Illinois is known for tornadoes, and they tend to take them seriously.
I was able to drive the rest of the way to Champaign incident free. Miraculously, I had made it to our meeting place earlier than anticipated. Needing to use the rest-room once again (maybe it was the fear-induced adrenaline), I entered into the building, my still-sodden self being hit by refrigerated air that chilled me to the bone. Knowing that I could not allow myself to freeze to death, and also having no idea which of the many classrooms was hers, I decided to wait for Erin in the car.
Not only had the storm begun yet again, but now the city's emergency siren wailed as the rain pelted sideways into my little sanctuary. The sky was green, the air heavy with pressure. I remember wondering what it would be like if my car blew away with me in it? Would I spin around in the eye of the tornado or just go flying like a missile? Looking outg, it seemed too dangerous to run for cover, so I just took my chances and stayed. It is only since then that I've learned never to stay in a car during a tornado.
I was surprised when Erin ran across the street and jumped into the car. The others in the building tried to stop her, but there was no way she was going to leave her mother in a tornado by herself. Foolish, I know, but when it comes to weather she's like her mother. Like the car I previously followed along the highway, we were in this together. The comfort of the team-effort made all the difference. Strength in numbers became a reality for us. And the tornado was short-lived after all. No harm done, we began what ended up being the long and winding drive to her home. Streets were washed out and viaducts were flooded in every direction, and we detoured out of town and then back in from another direction. Eventually we made it home; until then we had each other. We were worn, but we had made it through, safe and sound.
It seems that every time I drive to Champaign now I run into rain. That's probably not true, but it seems that way. And I know that, when it does rain, I exhibit signs of my own brand of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Now even a little bit of rain along the way causes me to panic. Strangely, I don't remember feeling that panic stricken when driving through the '03 storm--God's way of protecting me, I'm sure. I had to keep my wits about me, after all! But in looking back, I wonder how I actually really did it and came through. I am amazed at my own persistence. It was probably stupid to have kept driving, but in many ways I'm glad I did. I proved that I could look danger (even death?!) in the eye and overcome my fears, but that wasn't the point of it, really. The point was that I knew my daughter would be waiting for me, wondering and perhaps worrying if I was okay. She had no cell phone at that time, so I couldn't call her to report my progress or whereabouts. I couldn't make her wait and worry. In my mind, I had no choice but to keep moving forward and so that's what I did.
I've gained a new respect for Mother Nature and her weather. I've also gained a healthy caution regarding life. My risks are more calculated now--not so frivolous. I'm not sure if it's wisdom or cowardice that directs me. I only know that the experience caused something to change in me. Weather, a powerful force, is an agent of change, affecting both the seen and unseen. Things can be damaged and destroyed, but other things blossom as a result. Weather destroys, but then creates new life in it's wake. It takes both storms and sunny days for life to happen.