This is a continuation of the story of my trek back to Abilene last Wednesday on I-20. If you haven’t read the first part, you can do so here.
Moving was a big thing, after sitting still in a car for 3 hours. We had managed to exit the interstate, get on an icy feeder road, maneuver past dozens of stalled semi trailer rigs and get back on the interstate. Traffic was moving, slowly, but movement was so much better than not. At 5 mph it seemed like we were traveling much faster. Anxiety was high. Neither my wife nor I had ever driven through conditions like this before. I’d driven in snow and ice a few times, but always in town and always within distance of a business or friend to be able to walk to if my car got stranded. I’d never been on the highway in an ice storm 10 miles outside of town at night where there was no way anyone could get to us. I tried not to think about that. I kept my mind focused on the road, finding the patches of concrete so that the tires could keep some kind of grip on the turf and not spin out. I kept saying, “It’s ok, we’re fine,” to my wife who was more nervous than usual. She doesn’t like car rides in the first place. Add to it the 3 hours we’d spent moving a total of 2 miles and the insane road conditions. It was enough to put a sane man in the asylum.
We called my boss and friend John Best. He’d told me as we had arrived in Merkel that I-20 was backed up for miles in both directions in Abilene at highway 351. He said to take the first exit into Abilene and come into town that way. We asked him if we could stay at his house for the night because there would be no way for us to get home to Clyde. It was approaching 9PM. The first exit into Abilene is Business 20/South 1st. He had suggested we take that road into town and figure a way through the conditions to get to his house on the north side of town. In the back of my mind I kept thinking about how treacherous South 1st is in normal driving conditions. Add snow, ice, black ice and desolation to that. Not a promising situation.
The exit came. I maintained the same speed, moving as best I could up the ramp and onto the bridge. There was little light. The entire bridge was iced over. There was no concrete to be seen. I couldn’t tell where the lanes were, if I was in the going or on-coming lane. I could barely tell where we were. I kept saying “It’s ok, we’re going to be fine.” I firmly believed it and didn’t allow myself to focus on the danger we were in, how incredibly insane it was to be on the road at that time, or what could happen to us if we stalled. My wife called some friends and family to ask that they pray for us. Their prayers were more valuable than gold.
My eyes were glued to the road. I put the headlights on bright. There were few if any other cars on the road. One vehicle was a few hundred yards ahead of us. In my rear view mirror there were distant headlights. My foot hovered over the brake pedal. We stayed steady at 5 mph. Any faster seemed too risky. There was little surface for the tires to grip. We had purchased the car we were in over the Thanksgiving holiday from my father. It was over a decade old, but well kept. He had just put new Michelin tires on it. How thankful I was he didn’t go the cheap road on the tires. The road was black, even the ice didn’t have a whiteness to it. There were no lights. A few reflectors on a bridge indicated we were crossing something. We wondered when we’d come to the Sam’s Club and be near loop 322. In the distance I saw headlights moving across a bridge, like a domed horizon. That must be the loop. I looked to the right, there was a sign for Sam’s. We were in town. That was a relief. It was short lived.
We approached the traffic light at the loop. Not being from a place where wintry conditions happen very often, I don’t have a ton of practice driving through icy roads. I do know that you shouldn’t let the tires come to a complete stop, especially if there’s little to no surface for the tires to grip. I decided that unless there were no other option, I wouldn’t stop at a traffic light, regardless of whether it was red or not. Fortunately there were no cars coming and the light was green. South 1st was lit up, yet spooky in presentation. The lights of the businesses and street lights made it easier to see how incredibly close to disaster and terror we were. Maybe driving through all that ice in the dark wasn’t so bad after all. Now seeing it clearly sent more chills up my spine. I kept repeating the same line of being ok and alright. Now I was trying to convince myself more than my wife.
To our right we passed K-Mart. The parking lot was like a giant ice-skating rink. It was crystallized and thick. There were even people trying to move around down there. We couldn’t tell if they were homeless, stranded or just out trying to enjoy themselves. It seemed perilous either way. We pressed onward. I kept trying to figure out which road we would turn left on to get to the north side. No option seemed like a plausible idea. We approached Pioneer. I looked over the tracks and saw only white and no cars. I saw the same at Willis, Sayles, and then a turn with no light. This was our chance. Slowly and carefully we pulled into the turn lane. A car approached from the other direction. There wasn’t time to wait for it to pass, otherwise we’d have to stop. I turned and crossed the tracks, and was on North 1st. You know, there was no difference in North and South 1st. Actually North 1st might have been worse. There was less traction on the road, I couldn’t see where the lanes were or if I was in the on-coming or going. As we came into downtown, a car approached from Grape street traveling south. I had to nearly stop so it could pass. The light was red. I kept going.
Now I’m trying to figure out how to get to North 10th, which will take us to John’s street. Again, there’s no feasible answers. Pine street looks more chaotic than any of the roads we’ve been on. It’s either Treadaway or Judge Ely. I’d heard Ely was just a block of ice. Plus we would have to make a left hand turn. As we came around Pioneer Texas the street lights were out. Two hauling trucks passed in the other direction. We approached the light. It was red. There were cars traveling on Treadaway in both directions but no one approaching in the opposite direction on 1st. I slowed enough to take the turn and kept going. Under the street lights I saw only concrete. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. “I guess they take care of Treadaway when weather like this happens,” I said. 50 yards later it was just ice again. The 2 or 3 cars in front of us moved slowly from lane to lane to keep on the ground and avoid the ice. We’d been in Abilene for nearly an hour. We’d traveled maybe 8 or 10 miles. We were less than a mile away.
The street in front of John's house. We had been too nervous and cautious to take pictures up to this point
We approached North 10th. The light was red. On 10th a white Toyota Tercel was struggling to move in the ice. It approached the light at the same time as we did. The tires skid numerous times as the driver tried to push the car through the ice. We slowed. I couldn’t tell if the driver wasn’t prepared for the drive or if the car wasn’t or both. The Tercel slowed as the truck in front of us approached the light. It seemed like the two vehicles might collide. I slowed more and the Toyota hit the gas and skid forward past us. We got on 10th safely. I couldn’t tell when we crossed the train tracks. There’s usually a bump you feel going over them. No bump this time. Several times the Tercel and the truck started to fishtail in front of us. I tried to keep enough distance between our cars so that should they spin out we wouldn’t hit them. Going down the hill my foot hovered over the brake. I didn’t want to build up too much speed, and yet at the same time I would need speed and momentum to get us up the hill at Washington. A little controlled gas did that.
That was the scariest end of it. We made it through Judge Ely, to John’s house and into his front door. I was so excited to have arrived! I gave him a big hug as we came through the door. I hadn’t allowed myself to think too much about it but everything we’d been through in the past 4 hours was traumatic and frightening. To be honest with you, I think my heart rate is high right now just recalling it all. I’m so glad that we made it through the ice hell of the road conditions. We had no idea when we left El Paso that morning that things were so bad in Abilene. We had arrived in Sweetwater at 5P and expected to be at home in Clyde with our cats at 6. Four hours later we’d traveled through terror and arrived at a friend’s home. We were treated to incredible hospitality and a warm place to sleep. We were thankful for faithful friends and for God’s hand which definitely had taken us through everything that night.
The road would await us again in the morning. But this time it wouldn’t be the same. There would be light. There would be movement on the interstate. We would travel at speeds of 25 mph (which seemed like 90 compared to the night before). It would take roughly 30 minutes to get to Clyde. We would be home, defrost our house, get cozy with our cats and figure out the rest of the weekend. The road would be a memory and a story to tell.