The blizzard began just beyond Tomah, Wisconsin. Before that, the rains, heavier and louder than any we’d driven through during our summer trips from Connecticut to Minnesota, pounded off the metal and glass of our car. I’d been pushing the speedometer north of seventy, hoping to stay ahead of the orange constellation of lights in the black void of our rearview mirror—another tractor-trailer running up on us, hard. A few miles back, a Freightliner had rushed passed, and the spray and wind-shudder both blinded me and nearly whooshed us into hydroplaning. Of course, at seventy-four, seventy-five miles an hour, there was still a chance we’d water-ski into the guard rail. Worse, the temperature outside, which just twenty miles ago had lingered around a climate-change-is-real fifty degrees—this on December 23rd in Wisconsin—had now dropped to thirty-nine, thirty-eight, thirty-seven. I thought about pulling over to wait out the weather, but the downpour had reduced visibility to three car lengths. Even with our flashers on, a stray minivan might plow into us from behind. So I kept on, thinking if the temp falls any further, maybe we'd ice-skate into the ditch instead. Michelle and our daughters watched movies in the back seat and cast nervous looks out the window.
At the Tomah turn-off, the semi peeled away north onto I-94 toward Eau Claire, while we continued straight on I-90 headed for La Cross and the Mississippi River. Other than the highway split, we hadn’t passed an exit for miles. The wet blackness ran on ahead--no off-ramps, no relief. Still, without the semi haunting the rearview mirror, I flexed my fingers to allow a little circulation to return to their white tips and slowed our SUV down to fifty.
A red sedan, reindeer antlers clipped to its passenger windows, blew past in the left lane. Just as I was thinking, great, I’m gonna have to pull that guy out of the ditch, the first wet clumps thudded against the windshield. Then, as if Someone simply flipped a breaker, the temperature dropped to thirty-two and white streaks of snow, lit up by our xenon headlights like blasting into hyperdrive, filled the sky.
There isn't enough clean underwear in my bag for this.
The blizzard blew horizontally against our car. If you stared directly into the snow, you might think that the weather turned the highway into a blacktop people-mover headed in the wrong direction. You know the feeling when you’re sitting in traffic and the car next to you begins to move, but instead it feels like you’ve slipped into reverse? This is amusing at noon on the verdant Merritt Parkway. It is terrifying in the blackness of the Upper Plains when the speedometer reads thirty miles an hour, the night is black, and your wife and children are huddled under a blanket in the back seat.
The red sedan braked and pulled between us and the car ahead. Grateful for a focus point, I concentrated on the tail-lights. Together we crept along, unable to see, afraid to stop, and unsure what the hell to do next.
Those of you with small kids might be thinking, gee, this ordeal sounds an awful lot like that time Barbie, Skipper, and the gang were run off the road by a Minnesota snowstorm in that animated peppermint confection:Barbie: A Perfect Christmas. What? You are not conversant in the Barbie straight-to-DVD canon? BPC is no Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse, but it has its charms. Alas, there we were, forlorn in the Wisconsin wilderness, wishing for a magical Tannenbaum Inn to appear twinkling in the night to offer us shelter and feel-good lessons in Christmas spirit. But with every creeping half-mile, the snow and ice inched closer from the highway shoulders and nearer to our tires, threatening to suck us into a front-page Christmas horror of twisted metal. Don't worry, kids, it will all be fine, just fine fine fine--that's what I wanted to say, but I knew myself well enough to know that I lacked Barbie's plucky courage and, more importantly, her logic-confounding good luck.
Barbie wins Christmas. She's the worst.
I am not a religious man, and the Christmas symbols I enjoy best are those rooted in the co-opted pagan traditions of northern Europe—evergreen trees, yule logs, and wreaths. But when I first watched Barbie’s Christmas tale of woe, I said to our daughters—get it? Get it? This whole budget-drawn toy commercial is nothing more than a pastel-colored allegory: weary travelers, seeking shelter, on a magical night. Remind you of something?
The tires slipped, the car swerved. Panic flooded my chest and my hands squeezed the wheel. We held the road, but barely. If the ice and snow didn’t kill us, me slumping over the wheel from a heart-attack and tossing the car into a barrel-roll probably would.
Just then, what to my wondering eyes should appear--shining red, blue, and yellow in the night sky—star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright, Best Western leading, still proceeding, guiding us to its neon light.
And indoor pool.
We edged off the highway, onto the service road, and into the parking lot.
The snow forced me to pull my hoodie over my eyes as I dashed toward the amber glow of the lobby, my boots skidding on the iced-over pavement. The glass doors slid open and I shook myself off on the rubber welcome mat before approaching the counter.
“Any room in the inn?” I asked.
The hotel reservationist—Sherry, according to the nameplate pinned over her blinking candy-cane brooch—handed me a blank registration form. “Oh, youbetcha." She leaned her heavy bosom over the counter to stare outside. "Some real weather out there, I suppose.”
The pen was dry. I tried to scribble in the margin to get the ink flowing, but my hand was shaking too hard. I put the pen down. "Sherry," I said, "if I ever hear another carol extolling the overrated joys of traveling through a winter wonderland, I'm gonna drive our car off a bridge. On purpose."
"Oh, dear!" Sherry said cheerily, "I'm not too sure that would make for a very nice holiday. You wouldn't do that."
I am wet, I am cold, my hands are trembling, we have narrowly cheated death, and we have over a hundred and fifty miles to go. And it smells like someone blew up a Christmas Tree Shoppe in here. Try me.
Sherry punched our details into the computer and ran our credit card. “Well, the good news is that the pool is open till eleven tonight and breakfast starts at six tomorrow.” She slid me our key cards. Then she folded her hands on the counter and leaned forward again, as if to tell me a secret or offer me a blessing. “You have a Merry Christmas.”
In a rush, I slapped the cards with my palm, tucked them into my back pocket, and hustled for the door to gather my family and our bags. Just then, I heard the strains of Christmas music drifting over the tinny lobby speakers.
...oh-oh tidings of comfort and joy, comfort-and-joy, oh-oh ti-i-dings of comfort and joy...
I stuffed my hands in my pockets, willed them into stillness. Sometimes a Christmas miracle is a magical inn hiding in the woods, and sometimes it's a swim, a clean bed, and free mini-boxes of Frosted Flakes courtesy of a chain motel off I-90 in Sparta, Wisconsin, home of the world-famous Butterfest.
"Hey, Sherry," I said, spinning around on the welcome mat. "You have yourself a merry little Christmas, too."