Holy cow, I think I had a panic attack. The adrenaline racing through my body was not the good kind of adrenaline. The good kind you get on the scary theme park rides where you scream your fool head off while your body feels like it’s being affected by a zillion G’s of force and despite that when you’re finished you want to get back on again. Nope. The adrenaline I was feeling was definitely NOT the good kind. This drive was not a ride I want to ever get back on again. Yet, if I continue driving truck, I no doubt will be stuck in a similar situation some day in the future. The thought is not happy making.
It started as a nice, bright, cheery day in Nebraska two days ago. The sun peeks through the clouds playfully; the sky is a bright, brilliant blue. I drive east on I-80, listening to NPR news radio. Around mile marker 100-ish, a newscaster breaks in to say that there is a tornado warning near North Platte and a twister has briefly touched down a few miles west of there.
I sit bolt upright. I-80 goes through North Platte, and I’m only about 80 miles away. Um, not good. I switch to a local station so I can hear more about the weather. Sure enough, there is indeed a tornado warning AND a severe thunderstorm warning. Both types of storms (tornadic—didn’t know that was a word until I heard the meteorologist use it—and thunderstorm) were moving to the southeast and east. But mostly southeast. To the south and east of North Platte, a tornado could pop out at any time. To the north, a severe thunderstorm with the potential to give birth to a tornado held sway. The thunderstorm promises lots of lightning, golf ball sized hail, and a torrential downpour. This warning was set to expire at 6:30pm. It a little before six, so I figure I’d stop at the next rest area, have dinner and wait it out.
The warnings are extended to 7:15 and 7:45 respectively. But both warnings by the national weather service did expire and the newscasters said that by judging from what they saw on the Doppler radar that the worst of the storm was over and it would peter out as the night wore on.
I figure it is safe to continue by now. As I drive as far as North Platte, I see it is nice and clear, just like the announcer dude on the radio said. I continue on and around mile marker 190-ish, I see lightning east of me, which is pretty much directly in front of me, just a ways off yet.
I am driving toward this thunderstorm. I figure no big deal, since the warnings were lifted, the news guy said it looked like the worst was over and the lightning looks pretty sparse. The ground is already starting to dry up, too, from where I could see the storm had passed over earlier. Couldn’t be too bad, could it?
The short answer? Yes. Yes it could.
As I approach the storm and enter into it, rain starts dropping. Only a little, and it seems fairly mild. The lightning is less sporadic and a little more intense, enough to jolt me out of my driving doldrums. (He he. Pun intended.) I love watching lightning; even as a little kid, I would lay out on the lawn and watch, as long as I could get away with it.
But this is too much. The lightning and rain both get more intense and I get uncomfortable. I wonder how much worse can it get, and then it promptly gets worse. It got dark, which I was expecting anyway, since the sun had just set. But it was dark dark. Not just night-time dark. Storm dark. The kind of blackness you were terrified of as a kid. The discomfort turns into fear when the radio does one of those annoying warning beep signals and says that there is a severe thunderstorm warning and that it is in effect until 9:15—right in the area I am driving through. Gah!
I look for a place to get off the road. No dice. Suddenly, the sky opens up and vomits even more rain all over the road. I can barely see, so I slow down considerably. I don’t know how those other truck drivers can see when rain is like a waterfall on their windshield, even with the wipers going at warp speed, and these trucks pass mine like I’m standing still. Scares the bleep out of me. Not to mention, their passing me throws sheets of more water on my truck, which makes what teeny-tiny little visibility I have disappear completely, and I’m driving literally blind for a few seconds every time they pass me. I sympathize for drivers of automobiles in these circumstances. It’s even worse for them.
Now I’m really really scared. And then the hail comes. At first, it’s mixed in with the rain, and kinda slushy. Not too bad. I tell myself that I can make it through and manage. I’ll be fine. I’ve got balls of steel. Then the hail gets thicker, and bigger, and there is less rain.
Hail isn’t too bad to deal with, usually, visibility-wise. But when it is coming down thicker than your Aunt Mabel’s dandruff and is piling up all over the road creating the equivalent of a hail-gravel road instead of a nice cement one, it’s a problem. The crunching of my tires over the hail sounds like driving over a gazillion cockroaches or other beetle-like critters with a hard, crunchy shell. Yet there is just enough rainwater mixed in with those hail-bug bodies that those blasted speeding trucks STILL manage to create rooster tails of hail. It’s like watching rolling white Death. You just know he’s coming for you.
So now I’m petrified and I wonder how much worse could it get again. I chant the mantra “balls-of-steel, balls-of-steel” trying to keep myself focused and calm. Then I suddenly realize that I’ve got no testicles, and even if I did, wouldn’t steel ones conduct electricity? They’re metal. Or is that just copper? Damn, wish I could remember my chemistry and physics classes. Would balls of steel attract a lightning bolt? So I change my mantra to “balls-of-rubber, balls-of-rubber.” Rubber can shield you from lightning. That I do remember. “Balls bounce! Yeah! Just like me! I’m gonna bounce on outta here. Balls-of-rubber. Balls-of-rubber.”
Then I realize how absolutely ridiculous that sounds and laugh hysterically. This is not good. Especially since this is about when the 60mph winds decided to kick in. The hail drives at my truck from the north side at a severe angle almost parallel with the ground. It is crazy loud. I can’t even give a description of the sound—maybe the best I could come up with is if a million big league baseball pitchers all decided to throw fastballs at the truck all at the same time, for about an hour without stopping. That shuts me up pretty quick-like.
I’m wonder how much worse it can get again, but then I figure that the only thing worse would be if this thunderstorm that the National Weather Service said was capable of producing tornadoes actually produces one. Or more. I shudder at that thought and try to unthink it. It’s no use. The thought is out there, and I can’t take it back. I sneak the occasional glance at the sky, but all I see is pitch black. Streaks of lightning brighten the inky sky occasionally and this reassures me—I don’t see a tell-tale funnel. But the re-assurance isn’t much, because there is still hail battering my truck trying to break through the windows and pelt me to death. Not to mention, Mother Nature could still fry my truck to a crisp with that dang lightning. I feel sorry for the cattle that are out there in the fields. I wonder what happens to a truck and its occupant if it gets hit by lightning. If the truck’s electrical system fries, will it cause a fire? Could the fuel tanks light? Will I explode? Or will I just lose control and plow into fifteen other vehicles (and then cause a fire and explode)? Can I be electrocuted through the truck?
As I’m pondering these things I shouldn’t be pondering, thunder claps directly over my head. I’m so hyped up and scared from my dark musings that I jump almost high enough to hit my head on the truck cab’s ceiling. Strangely, despite all the lightning, it is the only thunder I hear during the whole trip.
Visibility is so bad, that now I’m not even being passed by the speedster trucks. We all slow down—eastbound and westbound on the freeway, and we’re all clawing through this storm.
It occurs to me that the storm is moving the same direction I am. It’s going east. The weatherman said earlier it was moving 20-25mph. At this point I’m doing about 20mph. Holy crap. I’m going to be stuck in this zero visibility hell forever, or at least until I die in a tragic accident. I realize that I need to speed up a bit, or else I will never be able to outrace this storm enough to get off the dang road and get someplace safe.
As for getting off at the nearest exit, well… What’s an exit? In the thick of it, I spy only one place that trucks can go, and by the time I see what it is—a rest area—I pass the exit. From what little I can see, though, it looks like it is already full up. But it is difficult enough just to SEE the darn exit signs, much less navigate the exits themselves. Most of the time, it is all I can do just to stay between the lines I can barely see a few feet in front of me.
The lightning occasionally illuminates the road, making it a little easier to see. I allow the odometer to creep up a bit, risking a teeny bit more every now and then when there aren’t any other cars or trucks around me to throw shit on me and make my visibility worse. While I’m not a speedster like the other trucks that passed me, I also speed up some when I get to a pocket where the storm isn’t as bad. Then I’m promptly stuffed back into a much pokier pace by increased storm activity and poor visibility again. This pattern plays itself out several more times.
I finally get to where the rain has thinned out enough that I can accelerate to almost regular freeway speeds again. I stop at the nearest truck stop and call it a night. All told, from the moment I started into the storm until I got to the truck stop, it took me three hours and forty-five minutes. This was to cover a distance of about 100 miles. It felt like 1000 miles and an eternity.
Within minutes of parking, the storm re-joins me and creates havoc with other drivers coming in to park and get out of the storm. They can’t see a dang thing and are backing blindly into place. The driver who parks next to me nearly creams the passenger side of my truck and at the last second sees enough that he avoids my mirrors by inches. After he sets the brakes, he turns to me and gives me a big thumbs up sign. I smile and return the gesture.
I’m glad to be alive.
What about you? Have you had any super scary weather-related driving incidents? Do share!