The wipers swished back and forth, not even making it to the end of their travel before the heavy, wet snow once again obscured the view. If anything, it was starting to come down harder. As he had climbed higher into the mountains, it first seemed that the snow was becoming a little thicker, less mixed with rain and more with sleet. But, then again, that may just have been his imagination. Now the snow was definitely harder but there was still a lot of sleet and freezing rain. Anyway he looked at it, the storm was becoming worse.
He glanced at the map on the GPS again. It wouldn't make any sense to try and go back - he was past the mid- point. Didn't pilots call that the 'point of no return'? However, if he kept going he still had to cross the high point of the mountains and besides, the snow seemed to be coming from the northwest - almost directly from the direction in which he was traveling. It wasn't like the blizzards he had known growing up in northern Michigan. There the snow was often two feet deep and the howling wind might be blowing at thirty miles per hour, but at least it was a dry snow. Such storms could last for a couple of days and were often followed by a week or more of sub zero weather. Here there were only four or five inches of snow on the ground and the temperature was probably in the mid twenties, but this was a wet snow - a snow, sleet, and freezing rain mixture, actually. He turned up the defroster a little more in an effort to keep the windshield clear enough to see the road.
Looking out at the two lane road he realized it was becoming harder and harder to actually tell where the edges were. Roads in this part of the Appalachian Mountains were not the best in the country. Once you got off the Interstates or other main highways most roads were fairly narrow and often winding as they worked their way up into the hills and back down again. This one was no exception. In good weather that would certainly not have been a major problem, but this storm had come up much faster than predicted - and it seemed a lot stronger. When he had left this morning, nothing more than rain and maybe a little light snow was expected. Now as he neared the crest of the heavily wooded ridges, it felt like the worst storm he had encountered in years.
Jim Finley was in the middle of his second year of grad school, a business finance major. He was a good student, holding well above a 3.5 GPA and was generally regarded as the type most professors appreciated. That is, until earlier this semester. Classes had started fine and continued that way until he made a mistake in his Econ class. Maybe not really a mistake, but something he had definitely been warned about. He had been told this particular professor would tolerate no disagreement, but hadn't taken the warning too seriously. About three weeks ago the professor had given a lecture with a lot of unsupported opinions told as facts. Jim had done some research and the next time the class met he questioned some of the statements his professor had made and cited his research as back up.
He might as well have brought a bomb into class. First the professor told him he was totally wrong and must be rather dumb to think that way. Jim asked how he could explain the research data in terms of the statements the professor had made. The result was actual shouting and name calling by the professor. By the next day the professor's blog carried a personal attack, branding Jim not only as stupid but as a bigoted racist. Some of the statements were even a little stronger than that. In two more days some of the organizations on campus had picked up the story and embellished it with non-existent happenings and quotes, and by the time the class was scheduled to meet again there were shouting protestors screaming for Jim to not only be thrown out of school but also sent to jail. None of the claims were true but that made no difference - once ignited, the storm of protest would continue until the groups found a new target.
The professor told Jim that there was no way an idiot such as he could pass the Econ class and even pushed the school administration to investigate him for hate speech, citing statements he had never made. In typical college fashion the school threatened to convene a kangaroo court and possibly expel him. His alternative was to drop the Econ class and his other courses and stay away from campus until the following term next summer.
He realized the whole thing had gotten totally out of hand but also knew that the school would never admit any wrong doing on their own part. He decided to follow their alternative. He spoke with a friend in Ohio and arranged to work with a tax firm until May. It was now late February and tax season was starting to pick up, so this would give him some experience in his field as well as provide an income.
He was to start in another two weeks, so this morning he had packed up his things and set out, planning on driving by to see some family in northern Kentucky before heading on towards Columbus. He had headed west and gotten well up into the mountains when the storm had begun to build. He looked at the map again and saw that there were no real towns anywhere nearby at all. No place to stop and get a room or even to find a restaurant. He had eaten a late breakfast and expected to be down the western slopes in time for an early supper, but the weather had slowed him and now he wasn't sure he'd be able to get down today at all.
He rounded a curve in the road and caught the edge of a drift, nearly causing him to lose control. He managed to stop the slide and continued on the pavement but slowed, watching closely for more patches of deeper snow.
The country surrounding him was heavy forest, mostly evergreens. There were some hardwoods standing bare and lonely. It was hard to believe that in another few weeks they would be leafing out once more and the ground below would be carpeted with spring flowers. But that was still a few weeks off. Now he couldn't even see the ground.
He slowly pulled around another tight turn and saw a drift covering nearly half the roadway. It had to be at least a foot or more deep. He navigated his way around and moved on towards the next curve. As he rounded this one he saw that the landscape leveled somewhat and opened up a little. This let a little more light get through but also opened the road to more drifting snow. This wasn't like the dry drifts he had known farther north. This stuff was almost ice as it lay piled on the pavement. If he got stuck here it would be awfully hard to dig himself out with the little plastic shovel in the trunk.
A wider area beside the road suddenly appeared and offered a place to pull off for a short rest. Jim hadn't realized how tense he had become, shoulders locked and hands clasping the wheel so tightly it actually hurt a little to open them. He shrugged and tried to relax his shoulders, rolling them around to loosen tight muscles. He let himself lie back against the seat, closing his eyes. He suddenly jerked them open again. He had almost gone to sleep and he was well aware of the danger of sleeping in a car with the engine running. He had read about many who had done so and never woken again, victims of carbon monoxide.
This brought some other thoughts. Somewhere in the back of his mind he had been considering staying here, waiting for the storm to blow itself out. His gas tank was nearly three quarters full, but he certainly wouldn't let the car run while he slept. He also had nothing to eat and nothing to keep him warm beyond his coat and one old light-weight blanket. Back in northern Michigan, when he traveled during the winter, there was always a sleeping bag and some nutrition bars or similar emergency food, but this far south that habit had disappeared.
He looked over his maps and saw that the nearest town of any size at all was at least sixty miles farther on - an hour and a half on clear roads - maybe even the rest of his life on this one. Still it might be a better chance than the alternative of remaining here. He looked up and stared at the road ahead. Then he looked again. Fifty yards on farther on the road made a sharp turn to the left and seemed to disappear. He looked a little closer and realized that the reason it seemed to vanish was that snow had slid down the hillside above it and there was a pile nearly three feet deep covering almost the entire surface. It looked like he would be stuck here no matter if he wanted to or not.
At least, he thought, he had on hiking boots instead of running shoes. He pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his head and slipped the jacket back on. He'd at least go see if the slide looked as bad up close as it did from here. He opened the car door and stepped out into the driving storm. The snow and sleet hit him like a knife, taking his breath away. Not nearly as cold as northern Michigan but with the wind and wet it chilled him like the northern blizzards never had.
He slowly made his way the fifty yards to the slide and found it was even a little wider and deeper than he had thought. There was no way he was going to clear that with the tiny shovel from the trunk. He considered trying to go back the way he had come but most likely those roads would be much worse now and he might very well get stuck in a much less safe location. At least here he was well off the road itself. No, it looked like he was doomed to spend a cold and hungry night in the car. Then the thought struck him that it could very well be more than just a night. It might be several days before this road was cleared.
.... There is more of this story ...