Monday, April 28, 2014

Chicago to Rapid City

For some reason I thought that spring had arrived and this trip across America would not involve white-knuckle driving through blizzards.  Maybe that's because I've been spending time in DC and Seattle, where we've already hit the second round of flowering shrubs and bulbs and most trees are basically leafed out.  Not so in these northern plaines states!

I left Chicago a little around 8am en route to Rapid City, South Dakota.  According to Google maps, the trip would take me through Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and most of South Dakota, with an estimated arrival time somewhere between 13 and 14 hours later.  That estimate, however, turned out to be way optimistic.  BECAUSE WEATHER.

A medium rain was falling when I got on the road in Chicago.  I didn't think much of it until I saw the mess that was the freeway.  The bulk of my path through the city was against the morning rush hour traffic, with the exception of one 14 mile stretch past O'Hare airport.  Because of the rain and its related accidents, it took me more than an hour to get through those 14 miles.

"No worries," I told myself, "once I get out of the heart of the city traffic will clear up -- and presumably I'll drive out of this storm and into better weather.  It'll be a long day but nothing terrible."

That naive prediction was correct in the sense that the traffic did clear up and I was able to make pretty good time up to Madison, Wisconsin (where I stopped for breakfast at a Perkins diner, where I was served by a middle-aged woman with dirty bleached-blonde hair, fuchsia lipstick, purple eye shadow and a tendency to talk in the upper extremities of her vocal range) and across the border into Minnesota.  But there things started to change.  I never drove out of the storm; in fact, it only got worse as I went.  Minnesota is a blur of heavy fog, pouring rain and vast expanses of sodden gray fields.

More of the same in South Dakota, only the wind picked up.  A lot.  By the time I got back on the road after dinner, it was full-on sideways downpour.  Strong wind gusts buffeted my car, sometimes with such strength that they pushed me into the other lane!  The worst was passing the semi trucks.  They threw up so much spray, and the wind eddied around them so turbulently, that every time I passed a truck I felt like I was driving through one of those drive-through car-washes.  I fixed my eyes on the white strip on the side of the road to make sure I didn't blow off, and just prayed that I'd be able to keep my car under control long enough to get through to the other side.  (Now, I'm a very confident driver and not much phases me, but this was stressful and kind of scary.)

That went on for a good two hours, and then the rain turned to heavy, wet snow.  So now we not only had the wind and the spray, but also further reduced visibility (because of the way the snow reflected the headlights) plus goopy slush on the road that made changing lanes slippery and treacherous.  And then, to top it all off, my speedometer started to spaz out:  I'd be going along and all of a sudden it would just drop to zero or flail about across the dial.  Fortunately after such a long time in the car I had a pretty good feeling for the speed I was going.  Plus, by this time everyone had slowed way down, which was appropriate, and we were just feeling our way along the freeway.  Obviously this meant that I'd get to Rapid City later than expected -- I watched the expected arrival time move from 11pm to 11:30pm to after midnight.  I was tired, but with all the adrenaline there was no fear of falling asleep!

Eventually the snow thinned back out to rain and things calmed down a bit; my speedometer inexplicably returned to normal, as if nothing had ever happened.  I felt comfortable enough to pick up when Heather called, and it was comforting to have her on the phone as I went along.  Not that she would have been able to do anything if I'd ended up in the ditch, but at least I felt less alone during those last few hours -- because South Dakota is barren; just vast stretches of inky black, not even farmhouses.

At long last -- as in, 16 hours after leaving Chicago -- I finally made it to Rapid City and the hotel.  My room is warm and comfortable and -- surprise! -- on Mountain Time.  I hadn't realized I was already so far west; seeing the clock was like remembering last minute about Daylight Savings Time.  What a nice little windfall of an extra hour.  Just enough time to jot down a blog entry before climbing under the covers.  Good night!

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