It was late afternoon by the time we got to Hot Springs Highway. This is mountain country and the roads pretty much go up and down and up and down the entire distance. The ice was much thicker out here and was all white over the roads. In order to get over the hills you had to build up as much speed as possible going down one hill so that momentum would carry over the next. You also had to pretty much forget about brakes. They were almost useless unless you spotted the thing you were braking for a hundred yards off.
By now the temperature had gotten so cold that the pine trees had begun freezing, causing them to burst and crack. Several times we had to stop the car (thank goodness it never happened on an uphill) to pull a fallen tree off the road. This was generally made more difficult by the fact that the trees were oftentimes frozen to the road, and footing was always problematic. The trees and branches were however, less trouble than the power lines they seemed to enjoy bringing down with them. Four times we skirted lines across the road, twice with the ends hissing, spitting, and sparking like angry, headless, Fourth of July snakes.
Once we reached Hot Springs Village we were told by the guard out front that we would have to go around to the back entrance. (Hot Springs Village is a small town in the mountains of Arkansas, located in a National Park. There are lots of restrictions on how close together the houses can be, the size of the roads, cutting down trees, interacting with wildlife, and tons of other things I would never think about. As a result it is extremely hilly, densely forested, and many people cannot even see their neighbors.) From the front entrance you would have to ascend an extremely long and steep hill which had already claimed ten or twelve other cars in it’s ditches before someone had the presence of mind to close it off. We went around to the back.
Our instructions to find Lena’s Dad’s (Robbie’s) house was from the front, but the guard gave us a map and helped us out the best she could with the literal maze of tiny streets and lanes through the woods. Our light was starting to fail as the dull grey glow from the sun sank away. We spun and circled and twisted our way, stopping occasionally for tree removal, until we finally found Robbie’s street. It was dusk out and none of the streetlights… well, the one streetlight… would light. We tried vainly to get the car up onto the tiny side-road but it was far too steep and we just kept sliding back down into the road. Robbie had told us however that he was just a little way up the road so we decided to leave the car there, grab a change of clothes and a toothbrush, and hoof it the rest of the way. (Still raining, still freezing.)
Did everyone here see the Blair Witch Project? Three scared, lonely teenagers lost in the woods, bitterly cold, with strange unexplainable noises happening all around them? If you saw that movie you already know what the next part of this story felt like.
We had to make our way off of the road since there was no way to walk on it without sliding down the hill. To gain any purchase you had to kick (often several times) into the ice ahead of you to make a toehold so you could climb up another step. Neither Lena nor myself are in terrific shape so this kind of exertion was even more tiring than it sounds. All the while the trees are groaning, popping and crashing as the weight of the ice and the internal pressures combined to bring them down around us. It was frankly quite noisy. We were soaked through and ice was starting to create a thin coat on the outside of our clothes. Lena’s hair was breaking off.
As we climbed, we slowly discovered that “a little way up the road” doesn’t mean the same thing when you aren’t A) walking, B) freezing, C) soaked, and D) frightened. The truth was that Robbie’s house was a little over a mile up the hill. Er… road.
We dodged a pine tree that fairly exploded and crash-landed next to us, and Lena suddenly sat down in the ice crying. She said she was too tired to walk anymore and just wanted to lay down for a minute and catch her breath. She cried that she felt like she was falling asleep on her feet and it felt so much better to be just sitting and wouldn’t I just go away and stop telling her to get back up? Now I don’t know a lot about cold weather but I do know that when ice is forming on you laying down and going to sleep is an bad idea. I had to get her back on her feet, but I really didn’t want her to be thinking about dying out here, (and us without our coffee can) so instead I made her think about how angry she was at her dad and all the things she wanted to yell at him about over this trip. Lena gets real motivated at the thought of telling someone off who really deserves it. I wasn’t sure Robbie actually did deserve any blame here, but hey, I was already motivated.
As we rounded the last corner into Robbie’s driveway, Lena fell through the ice into the ditch below. I tried to help get her out and fell in with her. The ice had formed a bubble over the swiftly moving water beneath and we really couldn’t tell in the dark where was ground and where was ditch. We flailed our way out (I left a shoe behind) and sat at the top of a small hill looking down at Robbie and Emily’s house. There was no way to walk down it at all without slipping and falling so we simply stayed on our butts and slid down. Once in the front yard I saw one of the most depressing sights I had ever witnessed. Robbie had spotted us sliding down the hill and had come outside with a flashlight to greet us. Before we even registered his presence, Lena I simultaneously looked directly at the flashlight and considered the implication. No electricity. No heat. No bath. No any of the things we had envisioned in our heads to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Not for the first time that night did I think longingly on that coffee can and candle.
Robbie and Emily were not equipped for guests, and had rented a private and completely inaccessible cabin “a little further way” up the road. They had no beds, no blankets, no pillows, no chairs other than stools, and the hot water that had been in the water heater when the electric went out had already been used up. We slept on the floor under a pair of bathroom towels.
The morning was absolutely spectacular. The sky was clear and blue, and the strong bright sunlight refracted through an entire forest made of glass encased trees. It will always be one of my favorite sights, second only to Lena coming around the corner into the church chapel on our wedding day as the organ played the Wedding March. My wife didn’t give a crap. She was tired and cold and hungry and just wanted to get the hell out. She would have left that second except that there was nowhere to go. We were frozen in.
Robbie and Emily had a fireplace, but being ardent non-smokers they had denuded their property of any way to produce flame, lest someone be tempted into lighting up by the presence of a cigarette lighter in the Eddie Bauer Explorer in the driveway. Lena and I were able to get back down the hill and found a small hardware store running it’s cash register from a kerosene generator. There we found matches, lighters, kindling, kerosene lamps, and candles, as well as a battery-powered radio. As we left the store ran out of emergency-type supplies completely, so we tucked and ran back to our car.
That day Emily’s daughter and her S.O. arrived. (I did mention this was Christmas?) They had a four-wheel drive so they had made it all the way up the hill before landing in the ditch with my shoe at the top of the driveway. We left their car there.
The day after that the radio reported that a majority of roads had been cleared of ice and Lena and I high-tailed it as soon as we could get out. (Almost exactly 30 minutes after we left the electricity came back on. We never offered to turn around.) We made it back to Tupelo and the same Holiday Inn we had been in when this whole mess started. We ordered hot Italian food and spent about an hour each taking blistering showers. It was close to being as happy as I had ever been.
We have visited Robbie and Emily since then. We have gone to Little Rock and seen the Arkansas “art scene” and climbed to the top of mountain overlooks that rise over beautifully forested landscapes. We have enjoyed ourselves immensely visiting our family in one of the most unspoiled places in America. But never in winter. Never, ever in winter.