A snowstorm brings the gifts of solitude and silence
This is my column in today’s Greenville News. Happy Winter!
When I was in medical school in West Virginia, I was also in the Air National Guard. One drill weekend, when I was scheduled to drive to my unit, a blizzard blew into town. And I mean the real kind, officially designated by the weather service and properly pedigreed.
I had every legitimate reason to call my Chief Master Sergeant, explain the situation, and stay in Morgantown, tucked in my apartment. I didn’t. I decided that I had to make the three and a half hour drive. Was I patriotic? Yes. Was my girlfriend, and current wife, also at the end of the drive? Absolutely.
So off I went, in my little red Dodge hatch-back. I slid into a guard-rail on the way out of town, but the damage was cosmetic. I continued on my way. The snow was thick, and the wind blew it in great gusts across I-79. It piled up along the way, and at various points I recall that it was difficult to see the lights in business by the side of the road, difficult to make out the lights of other vehicles. I could barely see road signs until I was very nearly next to them. I drove behind, and by, snow plows and salt trucks.
As I drove further on my journey, I saw fewer and fewer vehicles, testament to the potential of the storm. I pulled over at a fast-food restaurant for a break. My hair and coat were wet with snow just from the walk into the building. I grabbed a large Coke and a snack, then settled back into my car.
Not much further down the road, I spilled the entire drink in my lap; a sure way to stay awake when it’s below freezing and snow is swirling all about. I stopped, next, at a shopping center and changed clothes. Just in time, because wise managers were sending employees home for their safety. Foolish and intrepid, I pressed on, my clothes dry and my drink refilled.
In the end, it took about six hours or more to reach home. I made it to drill, and I visited with Jan. It was a foolish, wonderful, thing to do, traveling in weather like that. If my children did it, I’d be furious, and worried. And at least they would have cell-phones, which of course almost no one had then.
But there was something about it that I can’t describe. There was a beauty in that snow, that solitude, that uncertainty. Maybe it was spending so much time with so many people in classes and in the hospital. Maybe it was that fact that as a child, I liked to wander in snowy woods alone, and hide in snow-banks, listening to the wind in the trees. Sometimes, loneliness is just the ticket.
A few weeks ago I was traveling in Indiana. A snow-storm came up as I drove towards Evansville. It was just a few flakes in Louisville. But as I drove west on I-64, the flakes became more frequent, and ultimately, the roads became slick, the lights dimmed by the enveloping white. Finally, the snow was blowing horizontally across the road, and cars were fewer. I found my way to my hotel and settled in for the night.
Mind you, I had a cell-phone, and a more reliable (and likely safer) vehicle than back in my medical school days. And I’m a better driver than I was then. And unfortunately, I was driving away from my wife and children, rather than towards them. But there was a similar emotion, a familiar sense of delight.
The highways of the Midwest are long and often straight. Even when they snake up and down hills, their vistas are impressive. Seeing the snow come across those highways, seeing the black clouds coalesce, sitting quietly in my car with the dash-board lights and radio, well that was a kind of quiet treasure; a gift of travel and solitude.
But it’s a gift we rarely receive these days. Our phones are never at rest, and never leave us at rest. Screens are everywhere, in offices and waiting rooms, in homes and even in vehicles. We clamor for more information, more entertainment, more people, more connection. The lights of social media are never dimmed by weather.
It’s a pity, because solitude is often magnificent. And silence is spiritual. And few things bring them together like driving alone in a snowstorm.