Eleven Miles To Kokomo?

“It’s about eleven miles off the Interstate, just outside Kokomo. The roads are icy, but passable. It’s up to you: do you want to try to go on, since we’re so close, or should we just go back to Chicago?”

Carl slumped a little in the driver’s seat and mumbled “I guess we can give it a try.”

Big mistake.

This was Wednesday. I was trying to get to a rural cabinet maker in Russiaville, Indiana, just outside Kokomo. I had planned the trip for the previous Monday, but that was January 6, 2014, a day based on the movie “The Day After Tomorrow”, in which the whole world slips into an Ice Age overnight. We had gotten a foot of snow, and the wind chill had been around 40 below. But I’m a Chicagoan, and we are accustomed to living in the ice age, and frankly, I rather enjoyed the weather that day. So I had signed out an old pickup from the fleet and asked my friend Pete to come along (because if the fleet truck broke down, I wanted a warm body to snuggle up to).  (Don’t tell Pete I said that.) But Ryan the cabinet maker had warned me the roads in his neighborhood were impassable, so I had postponed the trip.

By Wednesday, the temperature was above zero, and I set out alone at about 10 am. I was zipping along I-65 in light traffic (by Chicago standards) at about 50 mph. Around 11:30 am, in the middle of Nowhere-In-Particular, the traffic suddenly slowed to a crawl, and merged into the left hand of the two southbound lanes. I saw the right lane had some patchy ice in it. Now, in a former life I was a transportation engineer, and I know a thing or two about road design, snow management, and highway capacity. None of this prodigious knowledge prevents me from being a fool. Motivated by a desire to enhance the capacity of that stretch of highway (and by contempt for Indiana drivers), I joined the handful of trucks braving the icy right hand lane.

Within maybe, oh, ten seconds, my tail end began to drift to the right. “Okay truck!” I thought, “Let’s just be reasonable, and ease back over into that left lane.” And indeed, the car drifted back into the left lane, without hitting anyone (by the merciful grace of God). “Good work, truck!” I thought, “Let’s just straighten up and continue on our way.” To my consternation, however, the truck continued to drift to the left, toward the snowy shoulder. “All right truck,” I thought, “if this is how you want it, we can just settle into that snowy shoulder and come to a gentle stop.” To my amazement, the car crossed the shoulder and went airborne.

“Now see here, car,” I thought. “This is uncalled for. We’re barely going 30 miles an hour; you lack sufficient kinetic energy to lift off. This is quite unacceptable. But if you insist, I guess we’re going to find out how well Indiana designs its medians.”

You should know, a lot of thought and care go into the design of an expressway median. They are meant to minimize personal injury — at the expense of property damage, as exemplified by what happened next.

The car came down hard at the bottom of the ditch, where the snow was at least two feet deep. It was just like Luke Skywalker landing in Dagobah Swamp: the snow flew in a wave over the car, obscuring my view. When it cleared, I was sideways across the median, the ends of the car spanning the ditch. I shut off the engine and got out in time to see the last of the radiator coolant spewing out onto the snow. I had apparently struck the cable barrier as well, as many small pieces of the truck’s front end were scattered hither and  yon. “Well, truck” I thought, “here’s a fine how-do-you-do. We won’t be driving away from this one.”

I called the State Police (“Help!”), my mechanic (“I’m so sorry…”), my wife (“Send a rescue mission!”), then the fleet manager (“No insurance? Really?”), and then my cabinet vendor (“Not sure if or when I’ll see you…”). The state trooper showed up quick and I apologized for adding myself to his troubles. He said nothing. My friend Chris called to say he could pick me up on his way back from Indianapolis if I could wait there until about 8 pm. Then my wife texted to say our friend Carl Szafraniec could come for me in a Jeep. I texted back “That would be preferable.” Then my phone died.

I will offer you no assistance in pronouncing Szafraniec. You may imagine it as you like, but rest assured, you will be wrong. Carl is a professional driver. He has run deliveries for our businesses for decades. Nothing against Chris, but when I need to be rescued from a hazardous driving situation, I’ll choose my friend Carl in a Jeep over Chris in a compact any day.

The tow showed up quick too, and in no time the pickup was on his flat bed and we were heading into Wolcott, Indiana. I told the driver to take me to the nearest repair shop. He said a few words into his radio and then said “Looks like you’re coming to our place, and it’s just a tow lot.”

If I had checked this out before I left, I might have waited another day or two.

If I had checked this out before I left, I might have waited another day or two.

It turns out I went off the road on the iciest stretch of I-65 in the State. I managed to miss the news that this stretch had been closed all day Monday and most of Tuesday. Moreover, it runs through the middle of Nowhere County, Indiana, and they were dealing with a genuine disaster-refugee crisis.  The tow service that rescued me was the only one in the county. There were only two repair shops in the county, and their yards were full; thus the slippery trip to the tow lot. On the way, the driver pointed out where the tow truck itself had gone off the road the night before.

The tow lot was a scene of mass confusion. The office was packed with refugee motorists, testy clerks and frayed nerves. I could fill many blog posts with my experiences there. It took four or five people dealing with me in short bursts over the course of the afternoon just to exchange my keys for a receipt, which I finally obtained minutes before Carl arrived from Chicago at 5 pm.

“Carl, it’s 30 miles down I-65 to West Lafayette. From there, the guy I need to see is about eleven miles off the Interstate, just outside Kokomo. He says the roads are all icy, but passable. It’s up to you: do you want to try to go on, since we’re so close, or should we just go back to Chicago?”

Carl slumped a little in the driver’s seat and mumbled “I guess we can give it a try.”

We passed this just outside of West Lafayette

We passed this just outside of West Lafayette

We drove the 30 miles from Wolcott to West Lafayette, passing many spectacular wrecks along the way. I checked all my maps, and Ryan’s directions. His place in Russiaville was about eleven miles east of the highway, just beyond Rossville. So off we went, creeping along sheer ice roads at 25 mph. About 8 miles later, near Rossville, we suddenly found ourselves lost in dark, snowy wilderness.

I called Ryan for help. He pronounced Russiaville “Roossie-ville.” This made me wonder if Rossville and Roossie-ville were the same place, or two different places. We had gone miles out of our way, and once back on course, just outside of Rossville we passed a sign: “Russiaville 13”. Carl and I screamed.

“I don’t understand!” I scrambled through my notes. “This shouldn’t be possible!”

Carl said, “I need to pray.” We did.

“Carl, if I understood this place was so remote, I would never have suggested we come here tonight.”

“I forgive you.”

At around 7:30 pm we slithered into Ryan’s snowy driveway. He did not take my hint to offer us overnight shelter. Instead, he helped us to quickly load up the cabinets and wished us a safe return to Chicago.

We measured the distance back to I-65. It was 34 miles, sheer ice all the way. I didn’t think there was any town in the upper Midwest U. S. that was 34 miles from an expressway. I don’t know how Carl handled it, but for me, all the tension went to my lower back. Four days later it still aches. We got home at 11:30 pm.

I wish I was a nicer guy than I believe I am. But in my heart of hearts, I don’t feel like the sort of person that you want to rescue. I’ve known Carl for a long time, and I know I’ve offended him plenty. That he came for me, and stuck with me, and got us home safely was an act of incredible kindness and sacrifice from a true friend. I wish I could think how to show my appreciation, but my lack of imagination in this regard is one of the reasons I feel unlikeable. Hopefully I will think of something.

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