This time of year, especially during a cold snap here in Texas, I often think back to my harrowing trip when I moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. My story, “Lonely Road,” was first published in U.P. Reader in 2017. I hope you enjoy it!
“It probably won’t snow much,” he assured me. His voice was confident, but concern flashed in his eyes behind wire rimmed glasses. Was that worry connected to the driving conditions or to the direction we were taking our relationship? I sat on a bench outside the mom-and-pop restaurant in Munising and quickly exchanged shoes for fur-lined boots.
Since we had no good way to communicate on the road, before cell phones, we agreed ahead of time to meet there for lunch. The waitress had alerted us to some messy weather on our intended route along the lakeshore, at the same time she offered dessert of apple or raspberry pie.
I was moving from downstate Michigan to join him in the Upper Peninsula city of Marquette, where we planned to give our marriage another try. He waited for a large logging truck to pass, waved a little salute, and then carefully pulled his dark Jeep and the trailer that carried my belongings onto the road. I followed in my small, silver car and watched the first flurries of the season begin to decorate the landscape.
While I drove, I focused on our future together and hoped we had made a good decision. Typically a nervous winter motorist, I tried to push away any anxiety about slippery roads. Fewer vehicles shared the two-lane highway with each mile, and the area became increasingly remote. Pine and bare hardwood trees were thick, and homes or businesses became scarce. The few towns and villages we passed were each marked by a lone stoplight or blinker. The flakes fell faster, blown by escalating winds. For better concentration, I turned Van Morrison down a bit and switched my fan onto high for more heat. Rarely catching sight of the Jeep through the thickening white, I reduced my speed to keep the car from sliding.
When I passed the first snowplow, I was relieved the county was prepared for the early blizzard. Even so, they seemed to be having trouble staying ahead of the swiftly falling snow. I fought the wheel to hold my course and regretted that my vehicle was so light.
Weather near Lake Superior is famously extreme and can change drastically without warning. A perky voice on the radio suggested Marquette would receive only a dusting, and I expected to be out of the worst of it before long. Although the clock read early afternoon, the sky was a deep leaden-gray. A pickup with darkened headlights passed me, and I flashed mine, hoping they got the message. I stared ahead and followed imprints of tires that shifted with each gust. Time slowed to a crawl.
The Jeep must have been well ahead of me, since I hadn’t seen it in quite a while. My fingers gripped the steering wheel too tightly, going numb, and I tried to relax them. I shifted by body forward in an attempt to see the road more clearly through the effects of the howling wind.
Any expectation of heat for my toes long abandoned, I diverted all warm air toward the defroster to retain a clear view. My wipers laboriously worked to clear the expanse of glass, but to no avail. Ice began to form on the blades, and portions of my windshield became opaque.
I followed what seemed to be a single vehicle track, at times, and avoided the disappearing ditches. I wondered occasionally if I was even on the right side of the road in that tunnel of white. Minutes felt like hours. Although my teeth chattered from the cold, I detected droplets of sweat trickling between my breasts. Heart pounding in my ears, I knew pulling off the road was a magnet for trouble, but finally felt there was no choice.
In the stilled car, I turned on my emergency flashers and wondered how he fared. His Jeep with four-wheel drive was more suited for the weather, but hauled that unfamiliar trailer. Through the span of thick whiteness, I saw a barely visible, blinking light moving toward me. Another plow, I guessed, and prayed its driver could see my vehicle where it sat. In relief, I determined it was well on the opposite side, as it crawled closer. When it stopped across from my snow-covered car, the driver cranked down his window and motioned for me to do the same.
“Broken down, ma’am?” the ruddy-faced man hollered.
“No. I can’t see where I’m going,” I called back.
“Good,” I was surprised to hear him respond, over the sounds of the gale. “There’s a place back a bit, from the way you came. A parking lot to get off the road.”
“Didn’t see it,” I responded, shaking my head in the negative.
“Turn around, and I’ll lead you there,” he yelled and rolled the glass closed before I could answer.
My whole body vibrated from cold and fear. I searched both ways through the whiteout for any oncoming traffic and held my breath. The car struggled for traction and finally completed a slow u-turn, while I joined the giant machine in a wintry parade. After a mile or two, the driver reached his arm out the window and pointed a gloved hand to the left. I spied a parking lot that held several cars covered in white, tooted my horn in thanks, and turned.
Through deep drifts exposing few traces of recent activity, I drove close to the building. After my engine was quieted, I first heard a loud ringing in my ears, followed by silence only the insulation of thick snow and ice can provide. I grabbed my hat and gloves from the seat and started the short trek up to what the dilapidated, crooked sign announced as the ‘Tioga Tavern.’
At a small table near the dancing fire, I took off my gloves and held a cup of coffee for comfort, more than anything else. I assured the welcoming bartender that I wasn’t interested in something to eat. His eyes seemed curious about my situation, but he didn’t ask. Peanut shells embellished the floor, and a silent, old-fashioned jukebox rested on the other side of the scarred, wooden dance floor. It must have been quite the hot spot on a Saturday night.
Not sure what to do next, I waited for the adrenaline to subside and willed the weather to clear. I hated making him worry, but knew he might be driving on toward Marquette without realizing my absence. I also feared he may have slid off the road and needed help. If I called the police, would they look for someone missing in the storm?
Besides the bartender, the only inhabitants that stormy afternoon were a few ancient men in flannel shirts and suspenders, who played some sort of a card game at a table, and several talkative couples at the bar. While I sipped the hot, bitter liquid and argued with my inner self over what action to take, I heard a jingle from the door. A burst of cold air followed a laughing, young couple into the room. They climbed onto stools at the bar and ordered hot chocolates fortified by peppermint schnapps. After they took turns visiting the restroom, they settled in to sample their drinks.
“Man, it’s nasty out,” the young man said to the bartender. “Would you believe, we passed a crazy guy walkin’, back there! He was tryin’ to find a woman’s car. Said she might’ve gone in the ditch, and he needed to walk so he wouldn’t miss her.”
“I wonder…” started the man behind the bar, glancing my direction.
Jolted by their words, I took a deep breath and joined them. “Excuse me, but I couldn’t help but overhear. Can you tell me what the man looked like?” I asked the newcomers.
“Hard to tell under all that winter gear, but he seemed to have a reddish beard,” the young man answered.
“He wore glasses,” his female companion said, “They were kinda frosting over.”
I grabbed my gloves, headed to the door, and opened to the wailing blizzard. Like frozen sand, it stung my eyes and I raised my hands to protect them. Peering beyond the expanse of the parking lot, I saw a hooded figure in a heavy winter coat adorned by patches of white. He trudged alongside the road with his head bent against the icy onslaught.
Wild laughter of reprieve bubbled up from inside, and I yelled against the wind. I ran toward him through peaks and valleys of snow, like in a dream where movement is almost impossible. Since he didn’t see or hear me, his head remained down as he plodded determinedly ahead. When he finally sensed movement, his head jerked up to meet my familiar face. He veered off what was probably the shoulder of the road and headed toward me. Finally close enough, I leapt at him, and he caught me in his arms.
“Are you okay?” he asked, in a voice nearly stolen by the wind.
“Now I am,” I answered, so sure our life would be good.
I solemnly looked toward his eyes. He gazed back, removed his mitten, and tenderly touched my cheek.
In the many years spent together, we often traveled that same isolated stretch of highway. The sign for the Tioga Tavern still hung lopsidedly from the front of the building. No matter the season, the windows remained dark, and no visitors were seen approaching its door. Had that warm building and the helpful people within been real, or were they figments of my imagination? I may never again feel the complete certainty about anything as I did on that day.