Friday, July 4, 2014


Thunderheads building (c)Rita Herrmann, 2014
The storm clouds billowed on the horizon as I approached Rockford, Illinois. I was nearing the eight hour mark of driving for the day, having begun that morning in Arkansas. The weather was great with sunshine and blue skies since the morning, a view that carried me past the cornfields of central Illinois and toward its northern border. A few lightly grayed clouds in the distance were of no consequence to me, this girl of the South, this woman from tornado alley.

The last hour of the day's journey turned me east from the interstate and onto a series of two-lane state roads through the lake district north of Chicago where I would find the home of an old high school friend I had not seen in almost 30 years. A few sprinkles of rain soon changed to a steady downpour, making it a bit more challenging on these roads which were in the midst of summer construction projects. The two lanes were narrowed with work on each shoulder, resulting in one-foot drop offs on either side. Navigating through the orange construction barrels required attention on a good day, but add rain and fast approaching dusk, and the unfamiliar road became nerve-wracking. 

Then the wind started. Leaves blew across the road and smacked against the sides of cars, sticking there in the dampness. I was in the middle of a line of about ten cars, all slowed to a speed of 30 m.p.h. due to the reduced visibility in the storm. We puttered along this road as the wind whipped the rain at sharp angles. Over the sound of the car radio, I heard an odd noise and lowered the radio volume to listen. It was the distinctive sound of a tornado siren, a sound I have heard numerous times before.  In a split second, I thought I should stop and find shelter, but in the seconds that followed, I realized there was no where to go. The construction had removed any shoulder I could use to park. No driveways or side roads appeared on this stretch of highway, and stopping in the roadway was impossible due to the line of traffic. We were all driving through it. We had no where else to go.

An emergency alert blared from my cell phone, filling the car with a sound that could draw blood from the ears. The shock of the sound nearly scared my bladder into forgetting itself. This was not a good sign.

The winds grew stronger and limbs were blown from trees into the roadway. We drove over the small ones and around the larger ones. At one point, a huge limb fell across the roadway, and two guys from a truck in front of me stopped and dragged it from the road. Then we all kept going. We had no choice. The winds took on the telltale circular motion I knew far too well. I wanted to stop and wait out the storm, but I had no option to do so, no where to safely stop. 

I would not advise driving through a storm like this. I would advise heeding the warnings of the sirens and emergency alerts. Under normal circumstances, I too would have calmly and quickly found a safe place to ride out the storm. Sometimes, though, life does not give you options. Your only option to get from here to there is through. 

This event occurred a couple weekends ago, and resulted in comments regarding my fortitude from the few people I told. People have often described me as strong, though I would not use that term to describe myself. Friends say that my ability to take on hard tasks, travel solo, and endure life challenges show that I am strong. The funny thing is, I don't see it that way. I never felt I had any other choice. Giving up was not an option, nor was sitting down and crying. It doesn't make me better, it just was the way my life unfolded. I traveled the road before me, and for each person, that road is different. If I had to wait for someone to help me, I still would have been stuck on that dirt road where I had a flat tire when I was 23.

About 20 minutes after the emergency alert filled my car with its screams, I arrived at the front door of my friend's house. Her first words to me after 29 years were, "I tried to call you to tell you to pull over. You just drove through a tornado." Funny, it didn't seem all that bad.

Sometimes 'through' is the only option. Hang on tight, pray, and drive through it like a boss.

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