Wherever men and women gather around a common table to share a cup of coffee and their gift for gab, sooner or later, the subject of harrowing road trips will come up. Another person’s shared experience brings to mind mine. Several actually make my list of top five, but a trip from the Kansas City airport to Ottumwa, IA, back in early March of 1986 usually vies for the top notch.
My sister, Deb, had used spring break to fly home for a visit, and had asked my husband and me to take her back to Kansas City to catch her return flight home to Reno after a week long visit. It’s a familiar road trip we’ve taken many times, and this one was no exception on the trip south that Saturday afternoon. The forecast did call for a prospect of rain and for temperatures to begin to drop during the evening hours, so we decided not to wait with Debbie at the airport until her flight took off.
Matt, our twelve-year-old, was with us, and we stopped at McDonald’s for a quick supper before hitting the four-lane and heading north. It was already dusk when an over the road bus pulled into the parking lot. Matt wa thrilled speechless when the Indian Hills Basketball Team began pouring out of the bus and into the McDonald’s lobby. Matt, who has never met a stranger in his life, walked right up to one of the players and said, “Hi, Mister,” to the tall black athlete.
“Hey, Guy,” the basketball player greeted him, raising a hand for a high-five.
“What are you guys doing here?” Matt wanted to know.
“We have a tournament game in Hutchinson, Kansas tonight, the play-off game for the National Championship!” the Indian Hills player told him.
“We’re from Ottumwa too,” Matt said, pride evident in his voice. “Hey, good luck with the game!”
“No kidding,” the Indian Hills player said, looking out the big plate glass window of the McDonald’s lobby. “If you guys are heading to Ottumwa, you’d better hit the road pretty quick. We’ve already got a layer of ice on the bus.”
Mike and I both turned to see what he was talking about at the same time. Sure enough, the bus was covered in a sheet of ice.
“It’s getting slick out there,” the young man told us, and he reached in his jersey pocket and handed Matt something. “I hope you like basketball cards, kid, and have a safe trip.”
Matt came tearing back to the booth to show us his treasure.
“Thanks for the heads up, and good luck at the game tonight,” Mike told the player as we started throwing trash in the garbage and began packing up to leave. “You guys have a safe trip too.”
By the time we hit the parking lot, it was already an ice skating rink. We slid our way to the car and had to chip ice off of it to get in. Mike and I looked at each other with some apprehension.
“It’ll still be broken up on the highway,” Mike assured me, “but the sooner we get out of here, the better.”
However, five miles out of Kansas City, we hit our first slick spot and swerved towards the shoulder of the road. The van in front of us left the road and landed in a ditch. “Do we try to stop?” I asked.
“Afraid we’d land up in the ditch with him,” Mike replied, gripping the steering wheel tighter as if that would give him some traction.
Then we saw another car on the other side of the four-lane swerve into the center median and slide to a stand still in the ditch. Mike had already slowed to a crawl.
“Should we go back to Kansas City?” I asked.
Mike snapped at me, “How?” His question was valid. There was no place to turn around if we could have. Then we saw a vehicle rear-end another one in the left on-coming lane. Neither of these vehicles left the highway, and then other vehicles began trying to swerve around them, and were landing up in either the outside ditch or the median dividing the highways.
We were still crawling along with the north heading traffic, trying to stay in the center of the highway. The first ambulance we saw seemed at first to be moving along okay, but suddenly, it was spinning out of control like a top and crashed into another moving vehicle headed south.
Meanwhile, we were slowly passing stalled vehicles littering the right-hand ditch heading north. I started counting the wrecks as we passed them. In seventeen miles we counted seventeen wrecks. When we saw the second ambulance heading towards us, Mike and I offered up a prayer for his safety and ours. There was nothing else we could do. We just kept crawling along.
Three hours later we finally reached the Iowa turn-off heading east to Ottumwa. Much to our relief, the rest of the trip was ice-free, smooth and uneventful.
Deb had spent three hours in the airport terminal waiting for her airplane to be de-iced so it could depart that night. Indian Hills Community College won their National Tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas. We won a victory of sorts ourselves. We had traversed a highway of bumper-cars on ice and we had survived.