It’s a beastly winter day in western Michigan. I just dashed out for some lunch, and the snow is falling fast, with the wind whipping it into near-whiteouts here and there. It’s gotten really cold, too, with highs below 20 degrees and lows in the single digits for the next week. I haven’t seen this kind of ugly winter weather in a very long time.
But I’ve seen far, far worse. I grew up in Michigan’s remote Upper Peninsula, 18 miles off the shore of Lake Superior. We’d have blizzards up there that would dump three feet of snow, with winds that would whip up drifts taller than you stand. When the north wind blew and the big lake froze, our high temperatures wouldn’t reach zero.
But it wasn’t up there that I saw the worst winter weather ever.
It was many Januaries ago. My brother Steve had been home from college for Christmas—no small feat, since he attended school in Memphis, Tennessee, 900 miles from home. Ever the ready travelers, my dad and I decided we’d haul him back there ourselves when his break was over, in our trusty Pontiac station wagon.
The trip down was fine, and we crashed overnight in his dorm before heading back north the next day, expecting to be home very late that night.
That trip went smoothly too, until we stopped in Rantoul, Illinois, to grab some McDonald’s for supper. Dad had been driving all day, and the forecast said clear and cold all the way home, so when we saddled back up, I took the wheel.
As I steered the wagon up the ramp onto I-57, the farmhouse lights twinkled in the distance through the frigid evening air. Then suddenly, starting off to my left and sweeping steadily across all the way to my right, the lights quickly vanished.
It was a mystery for only a minute or two. Then we ran full-speed into the worst blizzard I’ve ever seen. Instantly visibility dropped to almost nothing; the only thing I could see as I slowed to about 25 mph was each individual lane divider stripe as it entered the glow of the headlights just to my left.
Then I started seeing other vehicles, some that I passed and some that passed me. And the ones that had gone off the road and were stuck in the drifts, lights blazing and wheels spinning. Dad told me not to stop, not even to slow down, so on I drove and drove.
We passed a whole bunch of exits, but never saw the signs, nor the off-ramps, through the blizzard; just the shadowy form of each overpass as we drove slowly beneath it.
At long last, the snow eased up a bit, just long enough for us to see an exit and take it. On the other side of the highway were some lights shining dimly through the snow, so I crossed the overpass and pulled into a parking lot. It was an old-timey gas station with one or two pumps and a small garage, but it was clearly closed. As my dad and I debated whether to get out and check if there was anyone there, a big pickup truck pulled in next to us. I rolled my window down.
“Did you come off the highway?” hollered the driver over the wind.
“Well, the State Police have it closed now. They’re taking people in over at the Coliseum. You want to follow me?”
I drove behind our savior’s truck back over the highway and another half-mile into a tiny town, where he pulled up the main street and pointed out his window to a building with lights at its entrance, then roared off in search of others in need.
The Coliseum, it turned out, is what they call the community center in the town of Ashkum, 79 miles south of Chicago, and only 45 miles north Rantoul. It had taken us two hours of tense motoring to cover that distance.
The street was lined with cars angled in on both sides, so we circled the block and parked on the next street over, then hustled through the snow and wind back to the Coliseum.
The building’s central space was set up with tables and chairs, and it was packed. There was a short entrance hall just inside the doorway with built-in benches on either side, and they had the only spaces left open, so we parked ourselves there.
And there we stayed—the whole night long. It was less than comfortable: the hard wooden seats got old fast, and every time anyone went in or out, we got a bone-chilling blast of icy air. At some point some men hauled in a bunch of folding Army cots and stacks of blankets, no doubt liberated from the nearest National Guard depot. But there were so many people crowded in the main part of the building, we knew it wasn’t worth trying for one. Besides, there were plenty of people who needed those cots more than a couple of fit, healthy guys.
After a long night of almost no sleep, morning came. The snow had stopped, but it was way below zero and gusty, with a minus-35-degree wind chill. Word went around that the highway was open, and we tried to leave, but the wagon’s battery was dead. Even the guy with a wrecker and jumper cables who came around mid-day to try to help us and a few others in the same boat couldn’t get it to start.
So we settled in back at the Coliseum. Some very kind townspeople who could’ve been cozied up in their warm homes came out instead and fed us soup and bread and crackers for lunch and dinner. It wasn’t fancy, but there weren’t any restaurants in evidence, so it was a godsend. My throat tightens up even now, thinking about their generosity and that of the guys who fetched the cots and our pickup truck-driving friend who braved the blizzard to help folks like us find shelter.
It was a very long day of sitting around and me fretting about not getting home in time for the start of school and the planned reviews to prepare for our upcoming exams. But at least we had somewhere warm to sit!
There weren’t nearly as many people there for the second night, so we each got a cot and an Army blanket and fell asleep early. I slept so well the next thing I knew my dad was shaking me awake the next morning to let me know it was a little bit warmer out and he’d already gotten the car running.
I don’t remember much about the ten hours or so driving home, other than it was a bright and sunny day, and very cold, and the snowbanks grew bigger and bigger the farther north we went. They were several feet higher at home than when we’d left just a few days before. It was a big, bad storm.
I’m one of seven kids in my family, so my dad and I never got much time together with just the two of us. As unpleasant as parts of this trip were, then, it’s a memory I’ve warmed up to (no pun intended) over the decades. About five years ago, I pulled off of I-57 back into Ashkum (I pass it twice every year, traveling to visit my wife’s family) on another January day. This one was sunny and much warmer. It was more than 30 years after our legendary stay, but the Coliseum looked pretty much like I remembered it. I called my dad when we got home to reminisce about our visit there.
We lost him in 2019. I’m the only one who recalls that adventure all those years ago. Now when I drive past that particular exit down south of Chicago each year, my eyes fill with tears, every single time. I miss him. But I’m awfully glad I have those memories of being stranded together, just us two, ever so briefly, with those wonderful folks in Ashkum.