For all we talk about road trips, sometimes the open road is not our friend. Last Saturday it was determined to be the enemy.
Twice a year my wife and I take my mom on a one-day, one-tank drive down to southern Indiana to visit my aunt. If not for our attempt to serve in kindness, these two would rarely see each other, if ever. My aunt keeps extremely busy with freelance art projects, tending to her horses and dogs, and general maintenance and upkeep on the several hilly acres where she’s lived for nearly forty years. She’s selective about her travel — she’s been overseas multiple times, but not so much in recent years. Mom is a homebody who lost her taste for long drives about an hour after I got my driver’s license. It’s fortunate for her that long drives have become my thing.
The drive from Indianapolis to the tiny town of Birdseye is a hundred-mile gauntlet of inconveniences. Once you’re beyond Indy’s city limits, no interstate can help you unless you’re prepared to tack on extra mileage for the detour. I-65 to Louisville heads due southeast; the half-finished stretch of I-69 to Evansville heads due southwest. Birdseye is straight south, right down the middle between the two. That means it’s highways with stoplights all the way, and a bounty of barriers between them — speed limits halved through the smaller towns; dozens of miles of construction taking literal years to finish the I-69 extension; speed traps when you least expect them (though it’s been over fifteen years since they last caught me ’round there); elderly car owners who believe every day is a fine day for a leisurely Sunday drive; the occasional Amish buggy; heavy trucks that can’t help their sluggishness; overcautious dudes with too many DUIs who can’t afford one more on their record; and a frequent lack of left lanes to pass around any and all of these at your discretion. For anyone who likes the sensation of trying to get where they’re going, southern Indiana isn’t the place to be.
When you’ve finished the paved portion of the gauntlet, then there’s the final leg, the back road leading to my aunt’s house. The coda to our 2½-hour drag (on a perfect day) is a hilly, mile-long, 1½-lane gravel path with no shoulders, no smooth spots, and razor-thin margin for error. If you own an SUV or other vehicle that takes kindly to rough terrains, perhaps it’s no big deal. My lightweight Kia Forte is not a fan of gravel roads. The approach to my aunt’s house is shorter if we take the front way, though it means we have to climb several hundred feet uphill to reach her front door. I can handle that, but Mom’s older and out of shape and is not a fan of the front way. The back way delivers her right to my aunt’s doorstep, but it’s extra steep, treacherously bumpy, and inclined sharply enough to convince me I could flip the car if we go above 3 mph. I’m not a fan of the back way.
Last Saturday was that time again. I did the good-son thing for Mother’s Day weekend and dutifully made the semiannual trek once more. Post-retirement, it’s become one of her few chances to get out of her apartment and routine. Anne tags along as my emotional anchor. Together we try to make the most of it.
This time the final leg was scarier than usual. If you live within several states of us, you’ll recall a couple weeks ago when the rains came pouring down and wouldn’t stop for days on end. The Not-So-Great Flood of Spring 2017 occupied local headlines and gave locals headaches for days without ceasing. Damages and calamities were reported in various corners. On the upside, my grass looks better than it has in years. Meanwhile around my aunt’s place, the creek at the bottom of her hill rose above the banks and flooded all around, loosening the grounds around their horses’ grazing field to the point that their fence collapsed. The horses, no fools they, stayed near home but headed to higher ground and waited patiently to be corralled and led to their stables nearer the hilltop. Once the waters receded, driftwood and human trash was left behind around the landscape. Along my walk I found a few fast-food cups (though the nearest such joint is at least ten miles away), a coverless pillow, and a jagged chunk of car door paneling.
Also on the side-effect list, the main gravel road took damages. In addition to the added craters and bumps, the main road leading across a creek to their front way washed out. Local handy folks came in and rebuilt it before we arrived, adding the pair of new metal drainpipes you’ll note in the lead photo. Curiously, they restored each intersecting road, but reshaped it in such a way that seems to assume no one will ever need to turn at that intersection. Any attempts to veer left or right in a vehicle larger than a Yugo or less rugged than a monster truck may now potentially send you and yours plunging and flipping over into one of the four handy corner crevasses that weren’t there before. Entering was tricky; exiting took extra moves.
All told, once our hours of visiting were done, I was anxious to get home and be done with the down-home obstacle course for another five or six months. We planned for one bathroom stop and one dinner stop. Fate had other plans down the road.
A bit before 7 p.m. on the north end of Bloomington, all northbound traffic came to a forty-minute pause in the middle of the construction zone. We had no idea what was wrong. A quick check of our phones revealed nothing useful. Cars only inched forward as frustrated drivers either U-turned into the southbound lanes to escape or — in a fairly illegal maneuver — crossed over the southbound lanes and headed north up the wrong way of a one-way all-dirt construction-only access toward the next, otherwise inaccessible street.
I’ve had very little experience in Bloomington and don’t know its layout as well as I do Indianapolis’ and some other cities’. We could’ve faked our way elsewhere using Google Maps, but I held on to the thought that as soon as we did that, seconds later the traffic would clear and we’d be on our way to circumnavigating a longer route for naught. So we stayed in line and waited and waited and waited and waited and seethed and waited and waited and craned our necks and waited and waited and waited and waited and checked our phones again and waited and waited and watched at least two police cars zoom northward in the southbound lanes and waited and waited and waited and noticed no one was driving south in the southbound lanes at all anymore and waited and waited and waited and waited and waited and so on.
Around 7:40 we all began creeping forward. Presumably whatever the problem had been, it was now solved and the day was saved and life could go on.
All dialogue and internal monologues immediately silenced as we crawled near and around the spot where the girl just died.
That photo is precisely the scene we saw. We didn’t know what had happened at the time. All I knew is this was a time for prayer, because that’s the kind of horrifying moment from which not everyone walks away.
I hate that I was right. Hate it.
The following evening, more of the story came in. Over in the southbound lanes, a bicyclist fell over in the middle of the road. The oncoming car, probably doing the posted 45 mph limit or thereabouts, swerved to miss and successfully saved the one life, but spun out of control and into the northbound lanes, headlong into the path of the truck.
The collision killed the car’s passenger, an 11-year-old girl.
Both drivers were hospitalized. Fatal collisions are the sort of news story where we rarely see updates after the initial headline, so that’s likely all I’ll ever know. We can only continue praying that the Lord is seeing all of them, including the bicyclist, through this unimaginable time.
Most emergency vehicles had cleared out before they’d started moving us forward. All southbound traffic had been diverted off at the next intersection. Police and construction workers rearranged their zone and ushered us northbound onlookers into the southbound lanes for a couple hundred feet to get us around the scene, on our way and out of theirs. From there, my one and only mission was to get us home and out of the car so I could stop freaking out inside about how, if we’d left my aunt’s place a half-hour sooner, or if the restaurant staff had done their job better, that could’ve been us taking the truck’s place.
None of us spoke for the rest of the drive, except for one tense, volume-11 moment when Anne took me for a dangerous fool trying to zoom around a long semi on a too-narrow ramp. In my defense, I noticed the narrowing a split-second before her top-volume warning and was already about a millisecond into braking and ceding the right-of-way, but I perfectly understood now was not the night for stunts.
Then, back to silence till we arrived home a little before 9. Anne went straight to bed. I opted for immersion in distractions, none of which worked. Sunday I left the house only for church, then avoided driving the rest of the day. I needed time away.
All other complaints, concerns, and criticisms of the day effectively faded to background noise in my mind, shamed and suffocated in their triviality and their fleeting nature, humbled and rendered irrelevant by the harshest possible reminder that, for all our past travels and the trips yet to come, the open road is not always our friend. But sometimes maybe we’re too quick and shallow to badmouth its lower-level challenges for being The Worst.