A winter storm warning is no longer a novelty by the Sunday before Christmas. Earlier in the month we looked to the sky and willed the snow to fall, like the dour denizens of Lake Wobegon. Not anymore. "Snow mas," I mutter as I take an ax to my glacier-encased Toyota.
The wind drives tiny spikes of sleet into my eyes. The windshield wipers are entombed in ice mounds, rendering my plastic scraper as effective as a Q-tip. Holidays and winter weather bring out the crybaby in me. Instead of cursing the work, I fight back tears. Get a grip, Moore, I think, and hammer the blades free. It's 1:30 p.m.
The snow falls fast within the city limits, but at least it comes straight down. Out on the interstate, wind gathers it up from the fields and draws white curtains across the freeway. Visibility is 50 feet. I haven't felt this out of control on wheels since I learned to ride a bike. And while I've only been on the interstate for a total of one minute, I realize I'm going way too fast. I glance down at the speedometer. It says 25 mph.
Down in Chicago the football is frozen and slippery, and I listen to the Bears devour the Packers on the radio. This takes more concentration than I can afford to spend on something other than finding two tire tracks on I-90.
Cars and trucks, some upside down, appear on the shoulder of the freeway. Scale is scrambled against the white-on-gray background. A jackknifed semi looks like the dismembered arm of a giant plopped down in the center berm. Car carcasses appear from nowhere and go by slowly at this speed. It's like a windshield viewing of a black-and-white sci-fi movie.
Drivers who defy road conditions are an elite bunch. Pickup truck owners lead this hell-bound parade. I stop counting at a dozen cars and trucks in the ditch by the time I get to Baraboo. It's been two hours since I left Madison. Time to call home.
The phone nestles itself into wool mittens over on the passenger seat as if to say, "Leave me alone." Since it's all I can do to squeeze the wheel and squint, the cell might as well be on the roof. I aim the van in the general direction of a rest stop exit. Hitting the ramp is like bringing a plane down onto the moving deck of an aircraft carrier. I land a parking slot and reach for the phone.
"The Packers are getting killed," announces my wife, Peggy, when she picks up. "I know," I say. "It's bad."
"You can't believe this driving," I say. "The Bears are doing anything they want to them," she says. "I think I might have to turn back," I say.
The call drops. I look at my battery supply. One lonely dot is left. I turn off the phone and back out.
The rest stop is the only off-ramp that's plowed. I can't turn around and go back to Madison because all the other ramps are drifted over. It's forward or nowhere. I notice headlights in the rearview that are too damn close. I return my eyes to the road and then quickly look back to the mirror. The headlights are taillights now. They disappear from the mirror going sideways.
The snow is mounded high on the streets of La Crosse. It's like driving through a corridor of giant wedding cakes. Four slow hours on the road, but the snow and wind have stopped. I snap off the radio and glide through the faintly familiar neighborhood in silence.
I turn the car off in front of the dark apartment building and get out. The snow is thigh-deep in the yard and hides the steps up the hill. I stagger to the front door and reach for the knob. No knob.
I hear Ben Harper singing on the other side. There's a bath towel hanging through the hole where the knob used to be, so I push in the door and fall forward into the living room.
Is there a better feeling than a hug from your 19-year-old son at Christmastime? "We were freaking out, Dad," he says. We sit down and look at the weather on his laptop. In five minutes we're back on the road.
Peggy is furious when she hears we're headed back. But in the absence of the wind and snowfall we're able to cruise at a mighty 40-miles-per-hour clip. It's like light speed compared to the trip up. "Here we go," says Tucker. He clips in his iPod, and TV on the Radio provides our road trip soundtrack.
I would have driven twice the distance in worse weather to have a few hours alone with Tucker. He's doing well in college but not so well in school, if you catch my drift. We talk music and girls and work and grades. We take bets on the pickup trucks careening past us in the fast lane. We see a couple of them later on the side of the road buried up to the door handles in snow.
Being a parent is a hurry-up-and-wait proposition. Tucker is our oldest, and, with good intentions, I've lurched through every turn in his life. Anxious to nail each challenge, rushing to celebrate each success, in a hurry to move past each mistake.
No wonder time flies.
But not tonight. We creep along at a safe, soft speed. His Madison friends will have to wait. Our dinner will have to wait. The Packers will have to wait.
Back in Madison, we laugh as we rumble down Atwood Avenue. It's the fastest we've driven in hours. Even though he'll be home, I won't see much of Tucker in the coming weeks. We thread between the hills of snow at the narrow mouth of our driveway. I turn off the motor. The engine ticks in the quiet night and for a few more seconds we sit together in the dark. No one knows why it goes by so fast, but it takes a storm to stop time.