Snow and Miracles

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

The snowmobilers stopped and talked to the truck driver who’d been sitting behind me for the past eight hours, then they sped off and I watched as his truck came back to life, the headlights suddenly filling my car, the engine revving. I could scarcely believe that the ordeal was ending.

“People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle,” says Buddhist teacher and writer Thich Nhat Hanh. “But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth.”

I would add, to move at all is a miracle, at 2 mph, over a precarious moonscape of ice, forever if necessary. After eight hours of utter motionlessness on the highway last week, and several more hour-plus waits, that was miracle enough: to crunch along Interstate 90 in precarious slow motion in the surreal predawn somewhere south of Madison, Wis., with jackknifed and overturned semis everywhere.

I had not started out my journey with such frazzled, insomniac gratitude. Nor had I thought of it as a “journey,” when I left Chicago about 1 p.m. on Feb. 6. I’m a car-culture American and, despite whatever political awareness I possess, I take my triumph over distance, terrain and weather as a given.

Big snow predicted? What do I care? My 14-year-old Corolla is good in snow. When I travel, I have only arrival times: reach Madison in about three hours, spend the night with friends, and continue on to St. Paul, Minn., the next morning to visit my daughter. The thought I devote to getting there is pretty much limited to filling my tank with gas.

“Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize,” says Hanh, “a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child — our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”

Yeah, well . . . sometimes recognition comes only under duress, which for me was served up by snow that didn’t stop falling for a long time, by ever-worsening road conditions, and maybe by — who knows? — the impaired state budgets and cutbacks in maintenance and infrastructure expenditures that are the hallmark of George Bush’s wreck-America administration. Perhaps the president’s intention is to wake us up to the miracles that our technological certainties keep us from noticing.

In any case, I managed last week to drive into a near-record, localized snowfall of about 20 inches that created a perfect debacle of highway maintenance collapse in south central Wisconsin, and wound up as one of more than 2,000 motorists stranded for the better part of a day along a 20-mile stretch of I-90 between Janesville and Madison.

Apparently, as I learned later, there was one particular incline on which the semis kept jackknifing. The highway crews would no sooner scrape the spot clear and get the truck off the road when another truck would wipe out. Wisconsin traffic flow was completely defeated by the situation.

All I knew at the time, as I drove deeper into the whiteout, was that the westbound traffic was exhibiting Chicago rush hour symptoms. Well, no problem, I can deal with a little delay. Then at some point we were down to one lane, and that lane was barely moving. And it was getting dark.

And then the truck in front of me stopped. What I remember about this truck are its USA mudflaps, because I would wind up staring at them for the next eight hours. At that point it was 5 p.m.

The essence of confinement, I was about to learn, is far less the lack of movement than it is the lack of knowledge about what’s happening, and what’s going to happen. My life had instantly been reduced to two tenuous links to the larger world: my cell phone and my car radio. The cell phone, of course, connected me to friends and loved ones, some of whom were watching TV and let me know that I might be in for a long wait; and who gave me what encouragement they could (“Remember, Bob, keep a Buddha mind,” said Malcolm, and I did my impatient best with that advice).

I also kept calling the Janesville police (I’d gotten their number from my niece), who had surprisingly little information to impart beyond “they’re working on it.” I was also directed to several local radio stations, which kept telling me that the snow out there was awful, not to go anywhere and which schools, church potluck dinners and fish fries had been canceled. In a depressing failure of local journalism, the fact of 2,000 motorists stranded on the highway slowly running out of gas was never mentioned.

So I mostly sat there, glancing at my gas gauge, shutting down all but the most minimal expectations (warmth, survival), trying to read — a cheery new book about Iraq called “The $3 Trillion War” — and talking to my new friend, John, who was in the truck behind me and had brought me crackers and soda pop.

My cell phone died about 10 p.m. (I was talking to my daughter). But by then, heroic snowmobilers were bringing food, fuel and encouragement to the stranded motorists. “The traffic’s starting to move in Dane County,” one of them said. It was midnight. I was ready to notice miracles.