— Continued from last week —
We were headed up Route 78 towards Memphis with the intention of taking the 240 loop around the southern part of town, and avoiding most of the city. On the way the radio announcer told us that the section of 240 we were headed towards had been closed in an effort to keep people away. We pulled out the map.
There was some small road that looked like it more or less paralleled the highway for a good distance, hopefully far enough to get to where it opened back up. It was extremely difficult even finding this road. It was unmarked and began some distance from the highway running straight into the woods. It was, however, the only road that went the right direction in the vicinity so we decided to trust it.
Soon enough we saw the highway. By this time we were almost entirely traversing water and swamp and our “road” hovered less than a foot above it. It was also, in large measure, made of wood. Eventually we came to the point where the highway opened up again, but we had no immediate way to get to it, and in any case our 35 miles per hour seemed at least twice as fast as anyone out there was going.
After a short time we can to the end of our little wooden road, and turned back onto the interstate. With seemingly increasing frequency we saw automobiles pulled off to the sides of the road. Crumpled fenders, doors, engines — and not just cars. A motorcycle here and there, and a large number of tractor-trailer rigs. At nine o’ clock in the morning, the sky was growing darker, not brighter, and was beginning to resemble a heavy-handed charcoal drawing.
We passed some breaks in the surface of the road at our whirlwind 15 miles per hour. I looked out the side window at them as we did. They were not, as I had first assumed, breaks in the tarmac of the road itself, but breaks in the almost inch-thick sheet of crystal clear ice that had formed on top of it. Suddenly it clicked. Black ice was in fact, ice that was black, but rather it was ice you could not see. This ice was clear, hard, smooth, and worst of all, wet. It had been raining solidly for as long as we had been awake, and was only getting worse. This rain stayed wet about long enough to hit the ground, at which time it froze solid. That’s what I and all those wrecked vehicles I was looking at had been driving on. (When you see ice outside in Florida it’s usually because someone has set a sprinkler on their orange trees to protect them from the cold. This ice is white, not clear. I had never even considered the possibility of ice on the ground before, outside of a skating rink.)
The only thing I knew about driving in conditions such as these was a barely remembered conversation I overheard between my grandfather and the son of a friend of his. He was sort of bragging I guess about his ability to drive on… snow maybe? Turn into the skid, never hit your brakes, and something else. I had been maybe four years old then. Apparently the universe felt I was qualified.
The further we drove, the worse the weather became. A new element was added to the game of driving on ice— avoiding everyone else. Lena cried out in alarm as, going down a hill, I suddenly switched lanes for no apparent reason only to go silent a split instant later as an old, brown buick spun past us to collide with the car in front. They both swept into the ditch.
We decided it was time for a break.
The two of us began looking for an open restaurant/convenience store/gas station. Anything at all would do. It was getting to be mid-afternoon and we were seriously hungry. Also the wind had started picking up and I wanted to get off the road for a bit. Having to concentrate that intensely on not dying while driving was proving exhausting. Everything seemed closed until we finally spotted a place with a lit sign and a lot full of cars. I parked our vehicle maybe thirty feet from the door. It took over five minutes to walk the distance with only one spill. Inside was a country cooking buffet inside a large and blessedly warm room with everyone talking to everyone else. We all wanted to know how big this thing was and what was to be done. The consensus seemed to be that this was the worst ice storm in living memory, and that the best thing for all of us to do was to find a hotel room and hole up for a couple of days. The other thing everyone agreed on was that there were no available hotel rooms for two or three hundred miles. We appeared to be in the middle, just as bad going back as forward, so Lena and I decided to press on. We cracked the shell that had developed on the car as we had eaten, made sure that the “ice armor” that was building up in the wheel wells was safely away from the tires, and left the last warmth we would see for the next four days.
From here, things really started to get nasty. The sky, already dark and oppressive, had taken on some very ugly shades of blue and purple. It looked like someone had beaten the hell out of it and it was back for revenge. As a way to pass the time Lena and I thought we’d try counting the wrecks on the side of the road as we slipped and stuttered along. After about a half-hour we had counted 87 crushed, burnt, or simply abandoned automobiles. The game grew too depressing (and frankly scary) and we gave it up.
The radio began reporting bridge and road closings all over Little Rock. This was a problem since we were headed to Lena’s dad’s house in Hot Springs Village, on the other side. The trip suddenly became a slow-moving race to see if we could get to and through the Arkansas capitol before they could shut it off from us. We came to the 440 overpass where we had intended to loop south of the city itself. There were stern-faced state troopers waving people past without explanation. At the top of the overpass was an overturned eighteen wheeler who’s trailer hung part-way over the highway beneath. As we came closer another semi attempted to crest the overpass behind it. He did not have the speed and lost traction, sliding backwards and sideways on rapidly spinning wheels. The rig hit the grass and continued to slide until the slope steepened and it rolled over and down the rest of the ramp’s hill. The we passed beneath the trailer and road above and I couldn’t see anymore.
According to the radio the highway 30 bridge through the middle of town was scheduled to be closed within the hour, so we did what we could to hustle our way there to cross the river while we still could. We made it at the last minute (of course) and continued on down 30 towards Hot Springs Highway, only stopping once to refuel and knock about 40 pounds of accumulated ice off the car. We had no way of knowing then that by far the most dangerous part of journey still lay ahead.