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By Tom Palen 

White Out


February 3, 2024

I've heard and read stories from people about traveling in the recent snowstorms that hit the Midwest. Still, I feel like I've driven in worse. The year was 2014.

It was just a little before 3 p.m. I planned to go to Cedar Falls to have dinner with my daughter Delaney and spend time together. I checked the weather, and northern Iowa had a blizzard warning. The report called for conditions to be at their worst starting around 9 p.m. and lasting until midnight. If I got on the road right away, I would be there around 5:30 before the brunt of the conditions took hold. I gathered a few things, said goodbye to Melissa, and headed out the door.

I needed to fill the tank with gasoline, and my car desperately needed a wash. I stopped at BP, where I filled the tank, but the carwash wasn't open. I headed north, pulling into Kum and Go; their carwash was also closed. I guess I'll just drive a car covered with that ugly white salt from the streets.

I headed out the highway and set the cruise control. There weren't a lot of cars on the road, so the trip was going fast. I turned at the Pioneer Plant on Highway 149, drove about six miles, and then turned north onto Highway 21 north.

As I entered Delta, I thought about the covered bridge that used to be here; how sad it was that some vandals burned it down. I passed the abandoned gas station in town. It was dark and quiet. I wish someone could make a go of that business. It's a neat little store with a restaurant inside. I've often stopped there for coffee or to grab a sandwich when driving to Winona, Minn., every weekend. Delta doesn't have the population to support a restaurant and C-store.

In just a short time, I reached What Cheer. She was a hopping town in her day, with an Opera House and a thriving business community. Times have changed, and the small town has taken losses but still survives on a smaller scale. What Cheer hosts a very popular flea market three times each year at the Keokuk County Fairgrounds.

I continued north on Highway 21 past the truck stops near I-80. I took the three-mile jog east on Highway 6, then back north on 21 toward Belle Plaine.

I picked up just a few raindrops on the windshield, but that didn't last long. Halfway to Belle Plaine, I could hear sleet hitting the glass. Although I could not see it, I knew it was present and that I needed to be aware of changes in the road conditions. The roads were wet in Belle Plaine, but driving conditions were good, with plenty of traction.

At the four-way stop, I noticed a bit of slush on the road at the intersection, but only near the intersection, and then the streets were just wet again. Five miles farther up the road, I came to the stop sign at the intersection of Highway 30. The road conditions were the same, but the sleet had turned into light flurries.

From here, it's just 15 miles to Dysart, then 20 minutes to Waterloo and Cedar Falls. I had been aware of the northwest crosswinds since I left Ottumwa. I had kept a steady, light, left pressure on the steering wheel to counter the wind's effect.

The wind was still gaining momentum. It took more pressure on the wheel to keep the car centered in my lane. The snow flurries were getting heavier; snow was starting to stick to the road. A big gust of wind pushed against the side of the car. It was one of those gusts that really got your attention. I slowed the car down to 50 mph.

I conscientiously remembered bridges freeze faster than roads. With a bridge ahead, I slowed the car to 45 mph. Thinking about the rest of the trip, I decided if the roads were to get nasty, I would stay on 21 - not taking the Dysart Road shortcut was becoming a good thought as that road is known for its snow drifts.

Everything was going well so far. I figured I was about halfway to Dysart. Off to the west, I could see snow blowing hard across the open field in a cloud headed for the road, much like a tsunami wave rushes to land. I let my foot off the gas to slow down, and in a flash, I was in a total whiteout. I began braking slowly, then broke out into the clear again. That was weird! I had never experienced going from good visibility to no visibility back to good visibility that quickly, at least not on the road. I slowed down to 20 mph.

I had a couple more quick episodes where masses of snow splashed over the road like a wave breaking on Lake Superior or in the ocean and crashing over the beach. They didn't last long; soon, I was back in pretty good condition. I noticed tire tracks on the pavement; it seemed a car before me was sliding and slipping on the road. The tracks were going back and forth from one shoulder to the other. Very strange as the roads were not slippery.

As I drove on, now about 25 mph, I would head in and out of small areas of blowing snow that would last only a few seconds, and then I would be in the clear again. It was almost like flying when I was in and out of clouds, going over 200 mph, and yet somehow, 25 mph on this road felt much faster.

The snow flurries were getting thicker as the wind continued to build speed. I slowed the car to 20 mph. The visibility rapidly got worse. I slowed to 10 mph. I could see no more than 40 or 50 feet in front of the car. I turned on my flashers, diligently watching vehicles that may have stopped ahead of me. I didn't want to stop myself for fear of someone hitting me from behind. I was keenly aware of the road. It was covered with snow but still had good traction and grip for stopping. A white Toyota also pulled up close behind me with his flasher on.

I didn't think the visibility could get any worse, but it did. I slowed to 5 mph, then to an idle speed. I sensed the Toyota was watching to see what I would do, as if he were waiting for my lead. I pulled over to the shoulder to stop, and so did he.

I needed a moment to think, to decide what to do. It was not safe driving, yet I felt it was less safe to sit on the side of the road. I looked at the clock; it was 4:46 p.m. I wasn't sure exactly where I was, but I knew I had not yet reached Dysart. It was another 20 miles from Dysart to Waterloo and about 15 more miles to Cedar Falls. If conditions didn't improve, and I did not expect they would, reaching Cedar Falls could take another 2 to 3 hours. It would be dark in less than an hour. I did not want to drive in this at night with my headlights reflecting off the snow. I made my decision.

I called Delaney to tell her I was turning back to Ottumwa.

I shut off my flashers; I rapidly tapped my brake pedal three times, signaling the Toyota that I was about to move, then turned on my left turn signal. He flashed his high beam lights thrice as if to acknowledge my intent. I put the car in first gear, turning the wheel all the way to the left. I paused. Visibility was so poor that even making a U-turn was dangerous. After making the sign of the cross from my forehead to my chest and from shoulder to shoulder, I said, "Here we go, Lord, you've got the lead."

Looking in the rearview mirror and forward again, I let the clutch out while giving the car some gas and quickly made a U-turn to the shoulder on the other side of the road. I stopped across from the Toyota and looked at the driver. He brought his hand up and rubbed his face and chin. He moved his cheeks between his fingertips and thumb as he contemplated following me. Finally, he removed his hand from his face, shook his head back and forth to say no, and waved me on.

I started back south now on 21. The visibility was terrible. I was going 5 miles per hour. The wind continued to blow harder. The snow flurries were getting even more dense. I thought about being in the cockpit of the airplane.

My wing span is 50 feet, and I sit only 25 feet from the wing tip. I have never been in visibility so low I could not see at least an obscured wing tip. A highway lane is about 12 feet wide - half the distance to my wing tip, but I could not see the shoulder on the other side of the road. This was bad.

The visibility was coming down even more. I felt closed in, as if the walls were coming in on me from all sides. The road seemed to get narrower. I lost sight of the lane ahead of me. I pushed in the clutch to let the car come to a stop. I started seeing taller grass out my driver's window. Had I driven into the ditch without knowing it?

It was almost deafening in the car as the wind continued to push against me. I couldn't see anything out the right window. It was like someone covered the windows with white paper. The feeling was very confined, almost like I'd lost my bearings.

As I brought the car to a stop, I became aware I was on the shoulder...on the wrong side of the road. This was a very eerie feeling. I thought back to the tracks I had seen earlier that repeatedly went from one shoulder to another. I now understood that the driver must have been caught in a whiteout just like this; they couldn't see where they were going either.

It was very odd. Although visibility on the ground was nearly zero, looking up, I could see the power lines and the top of the utility poles on the other side of the highway - that's where I needed to be. I drove to the other side of the road. While my car was breaking the wind coming at me from the right. I was able to see the yellow center line again. My instinct told me to keep moving, so I proceeded forward just above an idle speed.

I kept the car in my lane by watching the center line. I drove this way for several minutes when I encountered three oncoming cars on the shoulder; they were going north but were on my side of the road. Each with their flashers on, they were nearly bumper to bumper as if to make a chain, giving them strength in numbers, protecting themselves from danger.

I pressed on and eventually came out of the worst of the weather. I met a snow plow coming from the other direction. I wanted to warn the driver: don't go in there; it's a frozen hell. But he was on his own mission - to clear the highway. I prayed that all the cars in there would be clear of his path and they, too, would make it out safely.

The blizzard conditions heading south began to ease up. The wind was still strong, but she had lost her ferocious grip. Without the snow in the fields to blow around, the wind no longer dominated me nor held me captive inside her twister.

It felt like I was in that mess for an eternity, but it was only about 25 or 30 minutes. By the time I got back to Highway 30, driving conditions were normal, with a strong northwesterly wind now pushing me from behind.

I called Delaney again to tell her I was okay and in the clear. Melissa called a few minutes later to see if I was OK. I told her I was coming back home.

Next, my friend Steve Black called to tell me how bad conditions were up in northern Iowa. "I know," I said, explaining what I had just driven through.

After talking to Steve, his son Schuyler called. Schuyler said, "Wow. It must have been bad. I've never known you to turn around because of the weather."

I don't mind driving in bad weather – I rather enjoy the challenge on occasion. But as I thought about what Schuyler said, I realized that in nearly four decades of driving, that was the first time I ever remember turning around because of the weather. Yes, it was that bad.

Anyone who does not believe in God should have been in the car with me that evening. There was a presence of danger in the wind's grip; evil lurked in the ditches on both sides of the road, each reaching, pulling, and grabbing at me. Yet, something, no, not something - Someone protected and guided me, keeping me safe even when I couldn't see the road before me. Friends, I don't believe my luck is that good. It had to be my faith that got me through that storm, and for that, I am thankful.


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