Friday, June 19, 2009

Why Do I Live In the Midwest?

It started off as a stormy day, but by noon the clouds were clearing and I headed over to the gym. I was the only person there, and only the fifth brave person to show up at all that day, even though it was 1 pm. By the time I left, the sun was out, it was getting hotter, and I was feeling the need to go for a long drive.

[Cue dramatic, foreboding music.]

I bought a $1 large drink at Mickey-Dee’s, bless their soulessness for doing this again this summer, and I swung by the house to grab my camera. As I was driving down the street near my house, I spotted a loon on the small lake at the end of the main street, the thrill of which carried me for quite some time. With some healthy snacks, a gargantuan drink and my camera in tow, and some exotic wildlife spotting already occurring, I decided to drive up to the Wind Point Lighthouse in Racine, Wisconsin.

My car said it was 84º, but it felt hotter thanks to the humidity. With all my windows down and the moonroof open, the second I passed the intersection of 4 Mile Road and County Road G in Wind Point, I felt the temperature plummet. This is not uncommon for Wind Point, which juts out into Lake Michigan. I frequently drive here on hot summer days because it can and often is 10-15º cooler, with less humidity and a cold wind coming off the lake. I watched the numbers dropping on my temperature gauge, and as I parked at the lighthouse, it settled on 66º, almost 20º colder than it was just one mile west.

I wandered the beach, running from the wild waves chasing my heels, watched the mallards buzzing me as I invaded their turf, and contemplated going into the water up to my ankles. It’s my lake, after all. Why not? My nerves could stand getting wet up to my toes, and then I had to scamper backwards into the warm sunlight for relief. After that, I wandered around the flowerbeds, taking close-ups of the blooming explosions of color.

Dark clouds started to roll in and the birds were sweeping all around the sky, so I figured I should pack up before I got rained on.

As I headed south on G toward Racine Harbor, the sky cleared again and it seemed like friendly clouds were in the sky. I walked the fisherman’s pier with waves crashing on the breaker wall, drenching me.

Then I drove to the southern side of Racine Harbor where Ann and I had met a muskrat the previous weekend, and I hoped to find him again.

There he was! Meet Tony.

Tony was on edge because something terrible was going on in downtown Racine and what seemed like every fire truck and ambulance in the county were congregating nearby, though I never saw smoke. Finally he dipped into the breaker rocks and I didn’t see him emerge again.

As I was driving out of downtown Racine, scary dark clouds were coming into the area and I wondered if I’d make it home before the big storm hit.

I was heading west on 20, where it joins Sheridan Road, and the National Weather Service broke into my music and reported a tornado in Kenosha on 50 and Green Bay Road, 8 mere miles away. My intended route home had been to go south on Green Bay to 50, and take 50 to the expressway, but if there was a tornado at that intersection, I decided to skip it and take H south instead.

H was a mess! Not only was I looking nervously at the approaching clouds in the west, but I was also being beaten madly with rain, so hard that the fastest setting on my wipers couldn’t keep up with it.

The tornado was working east to downtown Kenosha, so I felt better about heading toward 50, but the new report had hail and 70 mph winds at 50 and the expressway, with lights out and standing water where 50 goes under 94.

This is a tree blocking H, just north of 50 -- sorry so blurry; it was pitch black out and this tree almost killed me because I did not see it until it was about 20 feet away.

I continued south on H because of all the construction going on, and came face to face with police directing traffic around downed trees, over and over. Fearful that my luck had run out, I turned west onto 165, with the intention of jumping on the tollway to avoid these country roads. As I drew closer, I could see the cars were at a dead standstill as far as the eye could see on the tollway, in either direction, and I could just imagine there were flooded underpasses holding up traffic, so I continued west on 165 and made a quick turn south on the nearest north-south street I found, which was U.

U is usually a beautiful drive if you’re avoiding the expressway and Frontage Road, but tonight it was a bloody nightmare. The farm at the corner of U and 165 was underwater. As I drove south, the orchard on the west side of the road had flooded, with big trees lying in water over two feet deep.

I watched the rushing water draining from the flooded orchard land, down the dip in the road, and it flooded out the street ahead of me. Cars were driving through it, but it looked scary. I forgot what I was supposed to do while driving through water: ride the brakes to keep them dry and working, or keep my foot on the gas, lest my engine die. I chose to keep my foot on the accelerator, figuring I could dry my brakes after they were out of the water, and this seemed to get me through the first flooded out portion of U.

I pleaded with my car not to die, to just get us through this puddle and we’d be okay, and I felt the panic start when the splashes I made came up to my windows. You could easily guess that the water was well up to the chassis of the car, if not higher, and the thirty feet of flooded road seemed like a million miles to my eyes. Once through it, I could see that about a city block ahead was another one, this one deeper, and I started to hyperventilate, unsure if I should risk it, or try to turn around and go back through the first one. Other cars were braving it, so I decided to try. This time I was sure the water was up to the bottom of my car door, and I dared not look down to see if it was coming in the car as I drove through it. My car obeyed my request to not die in the middle of it and I thanked it kindly for its allegiance.

A little further down, there was a much bigger washout, one that saw cars up to their bumpers in water, making splashes that towered over their cars, and I started to tremble. It was still raining like a son-of-a-bitch and I didn’t know how many more of these my car would make it through. U is a hilly street and I could imagine that there would be plenty more of these washouts ahead of me. I considered turning back as I watched a box truck drive through the water ahead of me, and the spray was so high that it reached the windows of the cab on the truck, even though he was going really slowly.

That decided it for me: I was going back to 165, which meant I had to successfully cross the previous two areas of high water, and hope that 165 wasn’t totally underwater somewhere else.

I made it, though my nerves were shot, and 165 had at least 5 more areas where I had to beg my car not to die as I drove through a current of water washing out the road. At one point I crossed a washout and slowed to watch the truck in the opposite lane make it through, and the current was so strong, the truck slid into the guardrail. That made my stomach churn. My brain somehow convinced me that if I could make it to the next big north-south street, I’d be okay, and just before I hit 45, I found myself behind a fire truck on 165 that was putting out a tree on fire from a lightning strike. PEEE-UU, that stunk, but I was allowed to pass and somehow found myself at 45. (Don’t ask me how a tree burns in the middle of a deluge, but it was.)

South! Must go south and get out of this god-forsaken state!

Illinois doesn’t have massive flash floods or trees down in roads. Right?


45 had a number of areas that were just as bad as U, if not worse, even after I crossed the state line. Once the water splashed clear up over the top of my car, totally blinding me for painful seconds as I drove through this rushing, muddy water. The news was reporting the tollway under water in a number of areas, as well as power being out all over the place. They couldn’t even keep up with reporting all the damage and areas to avoid, particularly when the National Weather Service was breaking in every few minutes to report on the hail warnings and thunderstorm locations. The farther south I drove, the better the roads got, but I was still trembling from the terror I’d already survived.

Three mere hours after leaving Racine, I made it home to find the field next to my house, which always fills with water when it rains, was the highest it’s ever been.

My brother’s words echoed in my ears, that we were at the top of a hill, and when the field filled up, it would run down the street before it came into our house. This is a good theory until put to test, because while we are at the top of a hill, we’re at the lowest point of the top of the plateau, so much of the water that fell on our high ground was rushing down the street to drain into the field, which was rushing to drain down the street, and the two currents met…

…At my driveway. What the hell was I going to do?

Nothing. I watched it, all night, fighting for control, water flowing in both directions, causing a huge area of my street to fill with water and the edge of my driveway to get washed with occasional lapping waves from the dueling currents. So far, the house seems to be save. [Fingers crossed.]

So, I managed to survive a severe thunderstorm, narrowly avoiding a tornado and hail, drove through countless areas of rushing water, some washing brown water over the top of my car as I drove through them, blinding me temporarily, downed trees older than me blocking roads, another on fire from lightning, and a field next to my house so overfull of water that it was creeping up to my driveway.

I’m ready for spring to be over.


Pixie the dog said...

Your story reminds me of my first summer/fall here in Houston. It floods with each heavy rain here and it was shortly after a bad tropical storm, so folks were panicking. I ended up leaving my car in a high parking lot and walking home. Luckily the storm itself was over by then. Now I know so wait out any storm because that giant puddle madness is too much to handle.

anonchshdavb said...

Yikes! At least you took pictures!

You should move out here. No tornadoes or hurricanes, just wildfires and the occasional volcano.

Happy Villain said...

I considered doing just that: abandoning my car and getting home some other way. Except that I was not within walking distance of anything. Don't you hate flash floods?!

How did I know you'd suggest I move there because of a little water? As if I'd give all this up for...what...some lakes and mountains and waterfalls and ocean and forests and stuff? Pshaw.