On my 50th birthday, it was early July and winter was a distant memory. I enjoyed a lovely evening spent with a few close friends. I told my kids they could each pick someone to invite and we'd all relax on the deck with some steaks on the BBQ and cold beer in the ice chest. My son Ben showed up with his new girlfriend. They had only been dating a short while, so I didn’t remember her name. He reminded me it was Francesca, but she went by Fran. She was an attractive Hispanic girl.
The weather was perfect. Mid-80’s, with a gentle evening breeze. The night was spent drinking beer, eating delicious food and enjoying lively conversation. When the party finally wound down, it was much too late for Fran to ride back home on her bike. Ben didn’t have a driver’s license and asked if I would give her a ride.
"Of course," I said.
Overhearing our conversation, my wife added, "I'll join you,"
My wife Jackie is no fool. We've been married 28 years. A rule established long ago was that I don’t give women rides without someone else present. This rule was the result of a friend being accused of propositioning a young girl. Without witnesses, there was no one to refute his claim and the mere accusation damaged his reputation. It didn't help that my friend was also a pastor.
Making small talk during the drive I began to inquire about her family.
"What does your dad do?"
"He's a Spanish professor at Kirkwood Community College."
I paused a moment. I had to think a bit about how to delicately phrase my next question. I didn't want to sound like a hayseed.
"You look like a ferner. Is y'all’s family ferners?"
Instead, I said, "A Spanish professor? That sounds interesting. I’m guessing your dad from another country?"
"My dad is from Chile."
"Really? I once had a friend from Chile. We lived together at the University of Iowa Foreign Language House. He was an international student. He dated a tall blonde girl name Barbara who was almost twice his size! I mean, he was really short…
Jackie shot me “the look.” It’s the familiar look she gives me every time I start talking too much.
“...well anyway, we lost touch after I graduated. I think he moved back to Chile."
There was a pause in our conversation as we turned down the street where she lived.
"It's the big white house on the next corner," Fran said pointing to the right right side of the street.
While I focused on spotting the house, Jackie kept the conversation going. "You know, I took a semester of Spanish at Kirkwood. Maybe he was my teacher. What's your dad's name?"
I suddenly stopped the car and looked back at Fran.
"Claudio? Claudio Hidalgo?”
“YES!” Fran exclaimed.
Moments later, I found myself standing in a kitchen with an old friend I hadn't seen in 28 years. Claudio was amazed. I was amazed.
In the course our conversation, I asked why he chose to stay in Iowa. Why on earth would he forsake the glorious mountain ranges and tropical beaches of Chile to stay here? There were many reasons, of course, but I was particularly interested when he said, "I love the winter! It's such an adventure. Wondering how to dress so you'll stay warm. Driving through the snow."
I marveled. Claudio was actually excited about winter.
"I don't know why people complain, I think it's fun."
As a child, I recall thinking about winter the same way he did. Now I'm 53, and bitch more about Iowa winters with each passing year, including the promise to “move away from this God forsaken hell hole” when it’s so cold my bones ache. This winter is no exception. It's now February and the month, on average, is the coldest of the year in Iowa. It was a balmy 33 degrees when I went to bed last night. When I woke up, the mercury plummeted to a mere 7 degrees and the forecast said it would continue to fall throughout the day. An Alberta Clipper blew in overnight. Though my apartment in Iowa City is well insulated, I could hear the wind howl so loud it woke me from my slumber.
Early the next morning, Jackie informed me she had business to tend to with her brother and needed me to drive her to Cedar Rapids. At first, I complained about wanting to spend the day writing, then I realized this was a tremendous opportunity.
"Sure, let's go to Cedar Rapids. There's something I need to do there as well."
I’d been working all week on launching my new website. A website designed to recast my online persona as a writer promoting my yet to be completed book. Lest you think this premature, you should know that in today’s competitive social-media driven marketplace, one must prove to publishers you can deliver readers before they even consider a book deal. This means doing a lot of writing simply to build a base of future book buyers. There’s no lack of brilliant writers. There is, however, a dearth of profit for traditional publishing houses. The business has changed. Bottom line, if you want to get published, you can’t just be a competent writer, you have to be a competent self-promoter. Between you and me, I possess the later skill more than the former, but let’s keep that between us.
Anyway, I have this ingenious idea that the website I designed should be visually themed in a way that supports the book title, “Where Rivers Go.”
“Where Rivers Go” pretty much screams pictures of rivers and since I had lived the past 13 years next to the Cedar River, I knew the perfect spot to capture just the right images. The problem is, it required driving to an obscure part of town and hiking through the woods to get to the place I had in mind. I would have to hike down a dirt road, but with the old snow pack, it was now glaze ice and there was no way I was risking driving my car back there and getting stuck out in the middle of nowhere. While driving down I-380, I explained all this to Jackie, who reacted exactly as expected.
"Are you CRAZY?"
"What’s the problem?"
"THE WIND CHILL IS 30 DEGREES BELOW ZERO!!!"
Jackie grew up in Tennessee and has a lifelong aversion to the cold. She avoids it like the plague. Me? Well heck, I’m an Iowan. I was raised to dress for weather like this. I will forsake being fashionable at the drop of a hat, if it means my fingers won’t turn blue and fall off.
Like any survivalist, I took careful inventory of my gear:
Two pairs of socks.
Goose down winter parka.
Pullover insulated headgear with face mask.
Check and check.
30 degree below zero wind chills? Yea, whatever. I’m good to go. In fact, I’m looking forward to this. All of the sudden, I remembered what winter was all about. It was about being able to hike through the woods without having to cut through dense underbrush, the worry of getting poison ivy, or being bit by mosquitoes so big they could carry off a small child. The woods shed all their impediments in the winter. I felt (and looked) like an astronaut ready to explore an alien world. Claudio was right, this IS fun.
After dropping Jackie off, I headed headed out Otis Road. Otis Road hugs the east side of the river heading south of town. About a mile past Prairie Fisheries, I turned onto Cole Street and drove to where it makes a sharp turn as it approaches the Sac and Fox trailhead. From there, I carefully approached a railroad crossing. Cautious, not just of Union Pacific freight trains that were often almost a mile long and carried so much much coal the ground shook when they passed by, but because just on the other side of the tracks, there’s a steep hill heading down towards a gravel parking area for the trailhead. If covered with snow or ice, there would be no way the car would make it back up. Fortunately, since the hill faced south, the snow and ice had melted and I felt perfectly safe leaving my car there. That cut about a hundred yards off the hike.
Back in the good ol’ days when we had money and could afford two cars, I had a beat up old Subaru Forester. Perfect for this kind of adventure. If I still had it, I would have driven on that icy snow packed dirt road about a half mile through the woods until I reached the roller dam.
But with my Toyota Camry? Forget it. Instead, I lingered in my warm car while I took inventory of all my camera gear I had crammed into my Swiss Army backpack. My intention was to shoot video as well as pictures, so I also brought a light tripod - which I ended up using as a hiking pole to keep me from falling on my ass on the ice.
In addition to looking like Nanook of the North, I was carrying a full pack weighing about thirty pounds. I left the safe environs of my vehicle and headed down the dirt road toward the roller dam. Now mid-morning, the wind was still incredibly strong. The icy road proved treacherous even on foot. I realized how long it had been since I risked such an adventure, and how much more I valued my life than I once did. Nevertheless, my careful planning paid off handsomely. I was comfy cozy in my goose down parka.
I contemplated leaving the slippery road and save time by making a bee line through the woods towards my destination. After pausing for a moment, I decided to stick to the roadway. Though icy, I didn't want to risk going off road where I couldn't see what was underfoot. I didn't want to be that guy who stepped on a bear trap and had to gnaw his foot off, then stop the blood with a tourniquet made of coyote intestine.
OK, Cedar Rapids doesn't have bears or coyotes, but still...
I followed the road as it twisted and turned, angling gradually toward the river’s edge. Having lived nearby for years, I knew the road like the back of my hand. One more sharp curve and there’d be a straightaway about 75 yards long before the last turn that led to a small clearing next to the roller dam.
So worried I would slip on a patch of glare ice, I became hyper-focused on where I planted my feet. When I finally looked up, I was shocked. There, directly in front of me, was an overturned pickup truck resting on it’s roof. I’m talking major accident, with windows crushed, airbags deployed and debris everywhere.
I stood there looking at the wreckage for a few minutes before realizing I should probably check for bodies. I kneeled down to see the passenger compartment was empty. Debris surrounded the pickup, including a broken snow shovel and other personal belongings. I was baffled by how the truck landed upside down in a way that blocked the entire road. Then I noticed tire tracks coming from the north, weaving through the woods. They must have been driving way too fast to see the sudden drop off. That might explain how they flipped over. I'm guessing alcohol was a factor.
Undaunted, I carefully skirted the overturned wreck to complete my mission. Finally, I reached the roller dam. Leaning against the steel railing, I stood at the edge of the cement platform overlooking the dam. Risking frostbite, I removed my gloves to adjust the settings on my camera, quickly getting the shots I needed. The water roared and glistened as it churned beneath the spillway. Sheets of ice from upriver would briefly jut forward in the air, then break apart as they slid down the watery ramp that stretched across the river.
When finished, I hiked back down the road, again passing by the wreckage. The overturned pickup was now someone's winter tale. Once the brief horror of nearly dying passed, the experience would be a gift that kept on giving. A kind of winter big fish story they could regale their friends with for the rest of their lives.
To my way of thinking, walking away from flipping over a pickup isn't much different than when I narrowly dodged a huge oak limb that fell from the weight the snow (Winter of '08). Or when my mother pulled me out of a window just before I jumped into a twelve foot snow drift that nearly reached my 2nd floor bedroom (Blizzard of '73). I was 12. My thinking was that it would be a "soft" landing and I could dig myself out.
I'm pretty sure I could have.
We who choose to endure this season each have our stories. Stories mentally indexed by how close to dying we were. It doesn't matter if it was our own stupidity that got us there.
We love telling these stories as much as we love complaining.