“Courage is not the absence of fear, but the mastery of it.”
January 1985. I drove north on Interstate 81 through Cortland, New York under a brilliant blue, cloudless sky. Outside the temperature hovered near 5 degrees, but inside my mom’s 1976 Chevy Impala I sat toasty-warm, bundled in my heavy winter jacket with the heater blasting. No passengers accompanied me except my thoughts as I transitioned from the frost-covered rolling hills of New York’s Southern Tier into the windswept plains of the Tug Hill Plateau. Syracuse lay 35 miles in front of me. From there my route took me past the east shore of Lake Ontario where I’d catch U.S. 11 in Watertown on my way back to Potsdam and another semester at Clarkson University.
My thoughts weighed as much as the car’s cram-packed trunk. Only a week out of the hospital, my stomach muscles, not yet recovered from major surgery, ached from the exertion to sit upright. Despite my parents’ efforts to convince me to take the semester off, I had made the decision to press forward and return to college to keep my education—and my graduation date—on track.
Instead of upending me, the tribulations I’d experienced over the past month had done just the opposite: they’d shifted my way of thinking away from fear and shyness to one of fierce resolve and determination. Despite the pain and memories, I was unstoppable. A bleeding ulcer had almost killed me when it perforated an artery. A after that, anger and extreme frustration spun into a fury which I took out on a plate glass window. I’d added insult to injury. Literally.
The broken glass won, almost severing the tendon in my right elbow and putting me in the hospital yet again. A week later, surgeons sliced open my abdomen, removed my duodenum, took out the lower third of my stomach, and permanently severed my vagus nerve in an effort to prevent a future bleed out caused by another ulcer. The enemy had struck a severe physical blow in an effort to kill me. But what he killed was my fear. His plan had backfired.
As I continued north on Interstate 81, the Syracuse skyline came into view. The sun still shone brightly and the roads were still dry, but beyond the city a gray wall of clouds spread across the horizon from west to east like a giant fog bank. Above the line of clouds I could still see bright blue sky; below, the cloud bank obliterated the horizon. More fascinated than alarmed, I drove into it. Instantly, it began to snow. Visibility dropped to mere feet as the heavy snow, driven by the engine of a lake effect blizzard, pounded my car relentlessly. I snapped on the windshield wipers. As I drove further, I dialed them up to full throttle. The wipers couldn’t scrape the snow away fast enough despite their spastic flailing, and soon I couldn’t see the end of my hood. A foot of snow spread across the highway and I struggled to keep the Chevy’s tires in the ruts formed by the cars in front of me. As the visibility deteriorated, I learned first-hand what the term “white out conditions” meant; I was driving through it.
At one point I spied a state trooper standing next to his patrol car on the right shoulder, attempting to clear his back window with an ice scraper. His car had slid off the interstate and had plowed into the mountain range of snow accumulating along the berm. The officer shrugged, helpless, as I drove by. That’s when the first electric twinge of fear hit my gut. If a cop had crashed, how could I do any better traveling on this snow-clogged highway?
Leaning forward against the steering wheel and peering through the struggling windshield wipers, I tried to figure out where the berm ended and the interstate began. The driving blizzard erased the lines and blurred my path. As I squinted and focused on keeping my tires in the ruts, the car ahead of me suddenly plunged off the side of the highway to the left, falling sideways down a shallow embankment and erupting in an explosion of white. The car disappeared completely. As I rolled along, I saw the passenger door, covered in at least four inches of snow, crack open as the people attempted to escape from their vehicle now entombed in a frozen grave.
My first thought was to pull over and render aid, but my survival instinct kicked in, revving my heart and wrenching my gut even tighter. Witnessing the disabled state trooper and the sudden crash of the car in front of me drove home the very real fact that I was now in danger of becoming stranded in the middle of a lake effect blizzard. I’d brought along some food, but I realized I could very well die out here on the interstate turned frozen tundra. I pressed on nonetheless, white knuckled now, doing all I could to remain calm in the worsening situation.
Ahead of me two circles of dim red appeared. Another car! I crept up to the back end of the vehicle until the two tail lights shone through the blizzard, beacons of hope in an otherwise bleak situation. As I drew closer I recognized the car I now followed was a four-wheel-drive Jeep. I focused on the two moving circles of light leading me through the storm as the snow on the road became so deep it began scraping the undercarriage of my car with a loud growl. Fear would not relinquish its hold on me as visions of becoming stranded in the blizzard with the temperature hovering just above zero bombarded my thinking. But somehow I knew I would be okay. Somehow, deep in my twisted gut, I believed I would emerge from this latest tribulation intact. I continued on.
After thirty miles of constant apprehension, the snow tapered a bit, to where I could actually see the car ahead of me. The left and right berms became clearer and I relaxed a little as I realized I’d actually make it to the other side of the storm. Suddenly I popped out of the blizzard, emerging from the pelting snow in the blink of an eye, into the storm’s hazy, swirling fringe. After another mile, bright sunshine again poured down on me. There was no snow on the ground. The roads were absolutely dry. A man standing on a bridge spanning the interstate waved his welcome, as if I’d just driven through a time warp into another era. Behind me the massive gray storm wall rose above the horizon, but ahead of me it was nothing but blue skies and sunlight. I’d made it.
Two hours later I arrived at the off-campus farmhouse on the outskirts of Potsdam and began to unload the car. “Why are you here?” one of my college roommates asked as he met me at the front door to help me unpack.
“What do you mean?” I said, confused.
“They closed Route 81 due to a lake effect blizzard. It’s already dumped three feet of snow.”
“It wasn’t closed when I got on it,” I answered. But it should have been. I knew I’d been extremely lucky to have made it those arduous and nerve-wracking thirty miles. Now I know I was blessed.
Copyright ©2014 by David C. Hughes