I Drove Through The Polar Vortex And Lived To Tell About It


I am 20 hours in to what should have been a 16 hour journey and I’m exhausted. I-65 is closed off by a huge snow pile at the Lafayette exit and the 125 miles between here and Chicago feels like an eternity. It’s January 6th, the start of record breaking cold temperatures in the Midwest. The thermometer in my rental car reads negative 10. Pulling off the highway and into a gas station to reroute my GPS, I realize I’m out of options. With work in the morning and unable to use another vacation day, as well as the understanding that conditions won’t be better by sunrise, I tell myself that the only way out of this arctic hell is through. I opt to use RTE 41, the only known route back to the city. I check the “Avoid highway” option and pull onto the main road.

About 5 minutes into the trip, I’m in a residential area. Driving a little ways, in front of me I see a roof covered bridge, with one lane for one car, and a red light signaling it’s closed. I check the GPS to see if this is a mistake. It’s not. Between snow banks, I have no way to turn around without get stuck. 

I rev the engine in my rented sedan. I’m trying to think of something badass to say, like I’m in some scene of a movie, but all I can muster is a high-pitched “SCREW YOU, BRIDGE!” before releasing the breaking and flying over the crossing. I land in powder with a thud as deep as the sigh I let out immediately afterward. The negative 40 wind chill pushes against the car. 

I tell myself it can’t get any worse.

Here’s the thing — if the only way to get to the road back home is a one lane bridge that’s closed, it’s going to get worse, and it does. 

While it’s stopped snowing, the wind has blown massive dunes on most of the road for what turned out to be the next 30 miles. Drivers are stopped on either side, waiting for other cars to get through barely one lane of pavement that isn’t anywhere close to clear. I’m doomed. I’m driving a midsize car though anything from 4 to 12 inches of snow, and I am doomed.

I call up my friend back east who is up late thanks to law school. I give her my location and ask her for a favor.

“Can you call me every half hour just to check on me? I’m scared shitless.”

She complies. I turn on the radio and skim for something I can sing to. All Jesus stations. Thanks, Indiana.

I feel like I’m off-roading flooring the gas with traction control on through seemingly endless miles of road flanked by snow. I notice several cars that got stuck and were abandoned. I try not to think that if I became one of them, no one would be able to find me here.

From the fear grows aggression.

When you find yourself in a dire situation, whether by total accident or because you ran headlong into it, it’s hard to keep a clear mind about what you’re facing. But you need to, because it’s that lucid thought process that will pull you through. Yet the mania that seeps out from your brain and into your very fingers and toes will propel you onward, as well. If the mania got you into this mess, it can get you out of it. Sometimes you have to just keep going, not because it’s safe, but because its the only way.

Aside from the fact that I’m a mere 100 miles away from my apartment, I tell myself that I didn’t spend over 20 hours in a car just to get stuck the last few. Furthermore, while I’m not sure when my time will be, I’ll be damned if happens in a rental car, during subzero temps on faulty road in Podunk, Indiana. Screw these streets, screw the past few daunting hours driving 30 on a sheet of ice, and screw all this damn music on the radio. 

My friend calls to check on me. 

“I AM SO OVER THIS SHIT TRIP!” I say, half angst and half battle cry.

With each mile, the flat plains give way to houses and businesses. The reception on my phone goes from 1 bar to 3. The radio station goes static and turns to rap. 

“Home of Chicago’s #1 hip hop and today’s hottest music!” echoes in an otherwise quiet car. 

My ears perk up. I see a sign.

“Chicago: 80 miles.”

The miles crawl. My car spins out slightly. There are gas stations every mile. When I cross over into Illinois the highway is open.

The Chicago Skyway arcs over showing a perfect view of the Midwest Capitol’s skyline and “Midnight City” by M83 seeps out the speakers of the car like clockwork, I shed enough tears to wet the apples of my cheeks — not because I did it, or because I was happy to be there, but because the pill of it all was finally swallowed and the fight was finally over.

In the last 10 miles of my trip, I marvel at the life looming before me. When I drag my feet up the stairs of my apartment and I make my way into my room, it doesn’t feel like mine. I set my alarm for work the next day and wake up still in my shoes.

All my stuff from back east is still packed in my car. I am no longer living out of two suitcases. I am no longer a nomad. My address is in Chicago, my heart is still very much in Boston, but my gumption and audacity are scattered along the highways between the two cities, never mind everywhere in between. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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