I learned to drive on the flat terrain of Minnesota, and developed a kind of invincibility about driving in winter weather. When I moved to western Pennsylvania in 1991, I acquired a somewhat healthy respect for the the hills and curves, but I was still that driver who thought that winter driving was more of a nuisance than a hazard. Spinning out of control on an icy US 322 in 2006 changed that pretty quickly, though.
I was driving home from work in a heavy snowfall in our old Dodge Caravan. My dog, Jake, was sprawled out in the back. Crawling down a hill, I hit a patch of ice which sent the van spinning around and around and around in circles until it finally stopped in the right lane, facing the wrong direction. I managed to turn around and park on the shoulder as cars swerved to avoid hitting me. A man pulled up behind me and came to my window to ask if I was OK. I could barely speak, and I was shaking horribly. He asked me where I was going. I told him I lived in Clarion, and he said, “Follow me. I’ll make sure you get there.” It was like he hooked a tow rope to my front bumper. I didn’t take my eyes off his back lights for 15 miles as he guided me slowly over hills, bridges, and ice patches, and delivered Jake and me to the town’s limits. He simply waved as I turned in the direction of home.
In the 12 winters since, I’ve become that driver I used to dread to get behind, the one driving 20 mph down a snow covered hill, the one I’d yell at from inside my car, “If you’re too afraid to drive, stay home!” I never considered that the person ahead of me had little choice but to be on the road, and that whatever the reason was, it was more important to them than their fear of driving in the snow.
Now I want to slap anyone who says to me, “You grew up in Minnesota! You should know how to drive in this stuff!” I know HOW to drive in the stuff. That’s not the issue. I am AFRAID to drive in the stuff. This isn’t like my fear of flying, where I can pop a Xanax, chase it down with a glass of wine, put on headphones and shut my eyes.
A few days ago, on Christmas morning, I was in bed hanging on tight to my phone as I checked the road conditions from Daughter #1’s house, where I had spent the night, to Daughter #2’s house an hour away, where my four grandchildren were waiting anxiously to open presents. The route consists of five miles of back roads and 55 miles of interstate. There was a winter weather advisory in effect, and it had indeed snowed a few inches, and the wind was blowing 30-35 mph. My stomach was in a knot as I got ready to leave, but no one else seemed to anticipate or worry about the potentially hazardous road conditions (at least to the degree that I did). I don’t often give voice to my fear because it feels so…irrational, so I said nothing.
Until I got to Sheetz.
Sheetz offers free coffee on Christmas Day, and so per the tradition, my daughter and her husband, driving together in their vehicle, were going to stop there before getting on the interstate. I left a few minutes ahead of them, and, white-knuckled, drove in the direction of Sheetz with my little dog Zuzu in the back. The roads were slippery and snow covered. It was snowing, and the wind caught my Jeep every once in awhile and knocked it to the side or the middle of the road. Every mile I grew more anxious, and here’s what was going through my mind: I am letting everyone down. I am a big baby. I am pathetic. I am ashamed. It’s just a little snow! Snap out of it! When I finally pulled into Sheetz, I started to cry.
I called Daughter #1 and told her I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t drive any further. And like that kind man who guided me home that day I spun out of control, she told me to hang tight, they’d be there in a minute. When they pulled up alongside me, my son-in-law smiled and said, “Hey, there’s no crying on Christmas!” and my daughter said, “Get in the passenger’s seat. I’m driving.” I took a deep breath and reminded myself that it’s OK to be scared. It’s how I react to fear that can cause the bigger mess. A mindful moment is one breath of goodwill that can soften the conglomeration of feelings that seem to all mesh together into one tight ball.
When gripped with fear and the berating is knocking, may we all remember the words of the poet Pablo Neruda: “You start dying slowly / When you kill your self-esteem; / When you do not let others help you.”