The drive from St. Louis, MO to Memphis, TN should, according to Google maps, be a 299 mile trip south on Interstate 55, crossing through northeastern Arkansas, clocking in at about 4 hours.

Before I left St. Louis, I had a good deal of work to wrap up (as if a reminder is necessary, that is why I travel) but wanted to get to Memphis before 5, so any fantasies I entertained of stopping at the Anheuser-Busch brewery or having another crepe at the Rooster quickly dissipated. I had already done both. Also, it was raining. I opened weather.com and saw a storm–the shape of a slash in punctuation about 150 miles long–to the west of my route. Tornados warnings had been issued. I stopped waiting for an e-mail and entered “Time: TBA” to an announcement, shut my computer, and left the city. It was noon.

The drive was boring, long. Family road-trips along the east coast offered less ominous landscapes to watch, and I preferred my parents’ Garrison Keillor cassettes to Bill Bryson’s “short” history of “nearly everything.” It remains to be seen (heard?) if he will be covering dinosaurs; I do hope so. I am still only at rocks, four hours deep. But I digress. The reader’s voice was comforting, and I appreciated an alternative to the usual Midwest radio offerings that, in a scan, go something like: country, country, Christian, country, classic rock, Christian, Christian country. It was a good review of material that I knew more about as a 15 year-old than I do now, and the reminder that luck–just luck–has been critical to the evolution and formation of the universe and survival of the human race.

And quite a curious human race we are. It was jarring to see so many billboards informing one that abortion is murder, that patriotism is our duty (specifically, fighting terrorism), or that adult video stores are often only 9 miles away. American flags and beef jerky, I do happen to like.

I drove into the storm at about 2pm. Then I drove out. Then I drove into it again. And so it went for a couple of hours, I feeling pleasantly safe in a car I am expert at driving–the exact model of VW Beetle I own (though no convertible). Around 3:30, I called my supervisor to let her know where I was, and I asked her to look at a radar picture of the storm to confirm that, in fact, there was one. I hung up to pay better attention to adverse conditions ahead.

It got very bad very fast. I called my dad, a former “weather guesser,” and unbeknownst to me, he was in an all-day seminar about using aerospace capabilities to better predict and warn the public about the threat of imminent natural disaster. How a propos. I just wanted someone to tell me if tornados were touching ground near me, so I called my mom. It was spitting rain. The sky to my right–west–was a terrifying and beautiful layering of chartreuse farmland, pearly sunlight, porcini nimbus clouds, and an mussel shell ceiling. I no longer wanted information from her–I just needed her to see me through it. Ahead of me, the visibility got worse. The rain came down harder. Nature’s tendency to Romanticism subsided to the reality of a very dangerous storm, rushing at me at about 40 miles per hour. My car gave to the wind, and I lost sight of the car I’d been following by not more than 50 feet. I began to heave sobs and my body was shaking. My mom clicked through news posts and Doppler maps, all the while praying every bit as aggressively as the sky was punishing me.

I was in northeast Arkansas. I’ve since been able to establish that I was near Joiner, AR. I intended to follow the semis and pickups and press on to Memphis, but I was concerned about a tornado. Mom finally came across news that one had just touched ground in Osceola, which I’d passed 18 miles before. Almost as threatening was the lightning, hydroplaning–but for whatever reason, the self-visualization of my Beetle rising into the sky with cows and mailboxes consumed me. I found solace in two comforts: Bill Bryson’s reminder that natural phenomena, miracle or disaster, are hard to come by, and the sound of my mom’s voice, which is a powerful one and very well-suited to hold me together in a time of adversity.

My mom told me I needed to stop. But I was in northeast Arkansas. A building with a shelter would be a stranger’s farmhouse down a mile-long road. Even trees were sparse. I had passed a small rest stop building going southbound a couple of minutes before, so I drove in the left lane and looked for a police access crossway. But I had nowhere to u-turn. My mom kept talking to me. Suddenly, I made out an exit for a highway overpass to the right and swerved over. (The visibility was such that I saw the exit arrow when it was next to my car.) I crossed the highway. I drove north for a mile then found another highway overpass. The likelihood of 2 overpasses in such a low-density area was very low; I was very lucky. I pulled into the rest stop, one of two (one in each direction) in the stretch of about 80 miles of Route 55 in Arkansas. Cars around me had stopped in haphazard places–the grass median, even on the exit ramp to the rest stop but not near the building itself. Clearly, they trusted it to protect them from a tornado about as much as I did. Surely, most Americans have seen the movie Twister by now. Regardless, I pulled in to the lot and sat and waited for my hands to stop shaking and get blood back in them. I had given myself a cramp from staying in such an uptight position. The storm passed as I sat, and I watched families run to the shelter with dogs hugged to their poncho chests. Lightning struck and thunder roared simultaneously; when I turned my wipers off I could see nothing. It began to hail. I was in the eye of the storm. I’ve always had some admiration for (if not jealousy of) actresses who seemingly naturally scream in a high-pitched squeal–equally cute for a surprise birthday party and an alien attack–though I’d heard it from Sarah Jessica Parker the night before in an episode of “Sex & The City” when she’s caught in the rain in expensive shoes. I’d never been able to pull off the high-pitched squeal myself. Rollercoasters and cockroaches effect a low-pitched “aah” sound in me. But I screamed each time thunder sounded within a mile. It would make Hitchcock proud.

My dad beeped in to my cell phone while I was parked, and my mom passed me on to him. He stayed with me on the phone until the rain died down. He told me to go talk to the people at the shelter because they would know what to do because they live through this a lot and to listen to the radio. Mostly, though, I wanted to go to the shelter for the restroom. Inevitably, those at the shelter were interstate travelers like me and equally clueless. One girl was halfway through a bottle of beer. It was a bit anticlimactic. I sensed that I was the most scared of the group, and I am okay with that. I was also the only one who was alone. And I am a wuss.

I pulled back onto the highway. The radio is really not that helpful in such a situation–the tornado and flash flood warnings were a bit obvious to anyone who was driving, and naming off “Jefferson County, Mississippi County” and so on does nothing for the out-of-towner. It would have been nice to hear, “If you’re listening to this in a good strong building, stick around for, like, 20 minutes. If you’re driving, it’s safe to come to Memphis now! But don’t go to Nashville unless you’re an idiot,” and so on, with a little Paul Simon ditty I happen to like a lot.

I pulled into Memphis close to 6pm. Perhaps Google will consider adding an asterisk (*) to its directions with a warning about variable travel time with tornado warnings, or, perhaps after this and my Bourbon Trail adventure, I will never drive to Tennessee from another US state ever again. I am willing to make that sacrifice. Regardless, the lesson learned is that I have got to let go of my need for control and trust Volkswagen. Kidding! Of course I already trust Volkswagen. Doesn’t everyone?

There’s no lesson to be learned. It’s just yet another life experience I didn’t exactly need, but I’m okay with having had it.

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