Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Whiteout


January 1985. At fifteen years old, I was an angry ex-dancer; passion crushed, career shunted. It seemed so true, that statement about not going home again. After being on my own at fourteen, across the country from my parents in order to pursue a dream that didn't work out, there was no question of going back to a "normal" high school, no desire to live at home, despite my parents' support (or maybe because of it—I didn't want sympathy or for anyone to say they'd been afraid this kind of thing would happen). So, I was once again the "new girl" at another boarding school for artists, and that was fine; I could remake myself into anything at all: drama major, costume designer, metalsmith, photographer. Assuming, of course, that my parents and I made it through the whiteout. We had just arrived in Traverse City, Michigan, had found the school some 14 miles away, situated between two frozen lakes, abutting State Park land, and we were heading out to find a restaurant where we could have one last family meal before my parents flew back to New York. It was snowing steadily, but not too heavily when we set out in the rental car, and none of us thought much of it. We'd lived in Michigan before; we'd survived the Chicago Blizzard of 1979; we were troopers. We headed north on M-137, the road that bisected the campus of my new school and led toward civilization. I don't remember where we ate—it was some small, funky little place. I think we'd made it onto US-31, but certainly not back into Traverse City. It was snowing harder, and I suppose we realized we'd be better off keeping the driving distance to a minimum. We ate (I am wondering now why the place was even open; we were certainly the only customers crazy enough to be there), and we went back outside. With misgivings we noticed the increased snowfall, but there was nothing to do but drive back. We certainly had no place else to go; my parents were staying in hotel-style accommodations on campus. Dad got behind the wheel, my mom was in the passenger seat, and I was picking over my thoughts in the back of the car. At some point, my father began to find it difficult to see. The defroster was on full blast, along with the wipers, and together they kept the windshield clean. The headlights were on, of course, but they cast their beams out into a void of white. There was snow on the road in front of us and piled up on the sides of the road as well. The needle on the speedometer started to fall. At some point, the hazards were punched on, and although there probably wasn't much conversation in the car at the time, whatever there was ceased. On 137, heading south now, we crept along in what became a total whiteout. I remember being impressed. I hadn't known it was possible to lose sight of everything. The road—all but about six inches, if that, in front of the hood—disappeared entirely, and with it its lines of demarcation: there was no way to tell our lane from the oncoming, no visible difference between the road and its shoulder, or the shoulder and the deep trench filling fast with snow just beyond that. Everything was white, including my father's olive-skinned hands on the steering wheel. Continue and risk missing a curve, sliding off the road; stop, and risk being stuck there all night, freezing, maybe being hit by another vehicle, assuming there was anyone else crazy enough to be out there. Time slowed, the distance between us and our destination dwindled in tiny increments. Each of us in our separate sphere of consciousness, each of us sending up our own thoughts to god or nature, certainly humbled, I don't know what my parents were thinking (probably something along the lines of "I hope we make it..."), but I remember looking out the window, at white on white on white, and thinking that erasing everything felt appropriate somehow. Tabula rasa in a winter whiteout we will never forget.

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