My wife, Kathy, and I had planned to drive to Chicago last weekend. But we prudently canceled after the horrific pileup on I-94 near Michigan City, Ind. that killed three and wrecked more than 40 vehicles. News reports said drivers were blinded by a sudden whiteout from “lake effect” snow.
Whiteouts are something I remember all too well from back in the mid-1960s, when I was living in Alaska. I had hitched a ride with a bush pilot from Kotzebue, a tiny community on the eastern shore of the Bering Sea, heading northeast toward Barrow, when we ran into a whiteout. The light faded into ghostly white. No sun, anywhere. I could not tell up from down, side from side.
The pilot looked over at me, and took out a socket wrench. “Put your hands in your lap and fold them together. If I see you move, even a twitch, I will hit you in the head with this wrench.”
How come? “The last guy I had up in a whiteout panicked and grabbed the controls. The only thing to do in a whiteout is don’t look out, focus only at the controls and climb gently.
“Eventually, you’ll get out.”
He was right — we did. And eventually, we, too, will get out of this Arctic weather, which has set all-time January records for snow. As of this writing we’d already had more than 31.5 inches of snowfall, topping the previous record of 29.6 inches, set in January, 1978 — and as I write, it’s snowing again.
But in the meantime, the snow and the cold this year remind me of the weather when I was much younger.
In the 1950s my parents used to drive to Traverse City to spend Christmas with my grandfather. In those days before expressways, it took around nine hours in the old green Buick, with my father driving much too fast - according to my mother. The perpendicular snow banks on either side of the road were six or seven feet high, cut by the enormous rotary plows of the day. Where the wind had cleared the road you could see the bare black telephone poles marching off in the white, featureless distance.