Let me start with the obvious. We did not mean to drive right through a massive winter storm. What we did was dangerous. Authorities were telling everyone to stay off the roads for good reason – the roads were dangerous. They were covered with snow and ice, and the winds were blowing. But we drove anyway, not with just our car, but also pulling a travel trailer. I do NOT recommend driving in these conditions and we never want to do that again.
But we found ourselves in the middle of the storm – we had no choice.
So how did we get to that point? Not checking the weather reports carefully enough.
Don’t get me wrong – I knew a storm was coming. But I failed to give it a wide enough berth. Storm are unpredictable – I should have remembered that.
Our story starts on a Monday. We were in Winona, Minnesota visiting our daughter. By Thursday we were to be in New Orleans. In between was the storm. I checked the weather reports Monday night. The storm was predicted to start during the day on Wednesday, and get bad over night Wednesday into Thursday. I checked weather reports from various towns along our route. As of Monday night, it looked like we could outrun the storm if we left Winona early morning, getting south of the storm before it really got bad. Perfect.
My biggest mistake – not checking the weather again until Tuesday evening. A lot had changed in 24 hours. It was clear that the storm had moved faster than anticipated, and had gotten bigger than anticipated, now taking up a huge swath of the country. Much wider than it was forecasted to be on Monday night.
Still we thought we could outrun the worst of it. We picked a different route that took us east, and kept us on interstate the whole way. We still thought we could get east of the biggest part of the storm. We knew we would meet the storm once we turned south, but it looked like we would meet it at the front, which was narrower. We thought we could punch through it and get south of it still.
So we left Winona really early Wednesday morning, heading east as fast as we could to get ahead of the storm, and hoped for the best.
We drove right into the worst of it.
When we did meet the storm at first it was okay. There was snow and it was windy, but the roads were still mostly clear. We drove slowly because of the winds on the trailer. But it really was manageable.
Them things just got ugly quickly.
We had to stop for gas. The off ramp was an adventure. The trailer started to slide around as my husband turned left off the ramp to the gas station. But he got it straightened out behind us just fine. The entrance to the gas station was impossible to find because there was so much snow. We passed by it, causing us to have to do a u-turn in the next intersection to come back to the driveway. Thankfully my husband was able to punch through the snow drift into the gas station. Others were not so lucky – he helped push two other cars out before leaving ourselves.
We got back on the road and quickly realized that the roads were now more snow covered, there was hard layers of ice, and the wind had picked up. The highway we needed was closed, and we got rerouted even further east. We we now on a route that made no sense to our destination.
The new route had us travelling south east through Illinois. The fields around us were really, really flat. Nothing to break the wind.
One gust hit and the trailer got blown to about a 35 degree angle behind us, on the interstate, on ice, as a truck tried to pass us.
That’s when we knew it was time to stop.
The trick was to find an offramp that was fairly flat, clear, and not blocked by a truck that had jackknifed trying to get off.
We finally found one a couple of exits later, but there were no hotels off of it. Honestly, we hadn’t even looked at the signs – we just saw a clear off ramp and took it. Once we realized there were hotels one exit later, we tried to get back on the highway, only to have a tractor trailer get stuck right in front of us, blocking the whole road.
My husband managed to do another u-turn in front of him (he’s really getting good at u-turns in the snow!) and we took a back road to the next town. We found what we think might have been the last hotel room in Le Roy, Illinois. Everyone after us was turned away – even the two truck loads of Air Force. We tucked the trailer into the parking lot at the back of the hotel, got to our room, and just sat for a minute.
We were lucky to be safe. We were lucky to have a room. We were lucky.
After getting ourselves collected, we went to get dinner. Every restaurant in town was closed- even the McDonalds. Staff had been sent home early. The only thing open was the Love’s Truck Stop. We got dinner from the gas station – and we got the last four chicken wrap tacos in the warming oven.
Le Roy, Illinois is not a big town. But everywhere you turned was a truck or a car stopped looking for safety from the storm. The Love’s Truck stop spaces were full, the hotels were full, there was nowhere to get food. I think a lot of people had a hard night that night. But even they were luckier than the people whose cars and trucks who had spun out and were in the ditches.
The next morning, Thursday, we checked the weather again – watched the news, read the storm warnings, checked forecasts along the route. It was still bad. But the worst of the storm had passed Le Roy and the immediate area. Where we were was now under a “Special Weather Statement”, and no longer a storm warning. South us, especially Memphis, was still being hit hard with an ice storm. But we could see the interstate from our window – cars were moving along it fairly well.
Because the storm had passed where we were, because cars were moving we decided to hit the road again, get some miles behind us, knowing we would have to stop before we got to the freezing rain. Our hope was to make it as far as St. Louis.
We drove 320 km (approximately 200 miles) on Thursday. It took 6 hours. The roads were still bad. Cars and trucks littered the ditches. But there was less of a wind, no blowing snow, and no precipitation. The highways were hard packed snow that had become icy so we went slowly – so did everyone else. But with less of a wind, the trailer behind us was more stable, making us more comfortable.
We stopped in Pevely, Missouri that night after having booked a room while on the road. And good thing we reserved a room, because they were booked up. Every hotel for miles was full. Some people had stayed for a couple a days waiting out the storm. Others, like us, had ventured out to get a few more miles behind them and had stopped for the night. The lady behind the desk warned us that most restaurants around had not opened that day, and those that had were closing at 6. We ran out to get a pizza, and hunkered in for the night.
By the next morning, Friday, the storm was over. The roads were moving. The hotels were clearing. As we traveled south, we still hit ice on the roads. The north bound lanes in particular were skating rinks. Even though the sun was out, we watched as truck after truck skidded off the road into the ditch. Southbound lands were slightly better. There was one lane of mostly clear road which we all stayed in it.
Memphis was hit hard with ice. Trees down, pure ice on the roads off the highway, cars encased in ice. But south of Memphis everything cleared and we were fine the rest of the way.
We finally pulled into New Orleans around 7 pm Friday night. A trip that should have taken about 17 hours took us closer to 26. But we made it.
And we will never do that again. From now on we leave well ahead of any storm.
So I say we were lucky – and we were. But one of my favourite sayings comes from Edna Mode in the Incredibles: “Luck favours the prepared.”
We got lucky because of a number of things. We have winter tires on the truck, not the trailer, but the truck is doing the pulling. Winter tires make a huge difference. When we needed to grip ice, or punch through snow, the tires were able to find the traction we needed. Our truck is also four wheel drive. And my husband knows winter driving. All of these things definitely helped.
Still – we also know how dangerous winter driving is. We know what we did was risky. And we will never do it again.