Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - December 27, 2019

"From Atlantic to Pacific"

The holidays and travel go hand in hand, and travel, at any time, holds the potential for an unhappy event. That was in the back of my mind when last Sunday our family took to the interstate. We headed west from Manhattan to meet brother Dave and his clan coming east from Salina. Our goal was Abilene’s Brookville Hotel, a Kansas restaurant famous for its chicken dinners.

When I made the reservation for 16, I asked what to do if the weather turned bad.

"Just let us know as soon as you can whether you can make it," the woman replied. That was a relief.

My concern was moot as Sunday blossomed into a beautiful, sunny, spring-like day with temperatures reaching the high 50s. But there was a problem and it had nothing to do with the weather. As we approached the Abilene exit, we saw a car and a small truck facing westward next to the east-bound lanes. Tracks showed they had crossed the soft median from our side. There were three more cars pulled off on the right shoulder of our lane.

As we neared the end of the exit ramp, a police cruiser passed in front of us. It quickly stopped and husband Art pulled up behind it. Before he could say anything, the officer asked, "Are you the person who called in?"

Art said he wasn't and explained what we had seen. The policeman said someone had called about a vehicle traveling eastward in the westbound lane. Yikes! The people in the vehicles we had seen were apparently trying to avoid a head-on crash and we had been behind them.

In contrast, weather was at the center of our most memorable holiday travel experience. In 1991, Art, daughter Mariya and I were traveling back to Kansas from Wisconsin after spending time with Art's family. Our German friends Bärbel and Heidrun were with us. We decided to spend the night in Cedar Rapids, Iowa so we could visit the shops and eat in a restaurant in the nearby Amana Colonies, a grouping of villages settled by German immigrants a century earlier.

The next morning, we were startled to discover someone had smashed the back window of the car parked next to us. Evidently a thief was looking to enjoy the Christmas presents that had been left in the car.

We dodged that bullet, but another lay ahead! After covering 130 of the remaining 300 miles, it began snowing. As we moved on, the snow intensified. But the traffic and road crews kept the interstate open.

Then, with 120 miles remaining, we turned south onto U.S. 77 at Lincoln, Nebraska. It wasn't in such good shape. When we reached Beatrice, Art considered stopping and spending the night. But being only 90 miles from home, he decided to push on.

With each mile, the snow and wind increased. The road ahead was perfectly smooth and white from an absence of other travelers. The previously-lively conversation in the van quieted until the only sounds were the hum of the engine and the crunching of the snow beneath the tires.

The wipers kept the windshield clear, but the large fluffy snowflakes were so closely spaced and swirled by the wind that it was hard to see. By the time we approached a long sweeping turn to the left a few miles from Wymore, Nebraska, Art was guessing where the road was. He stopped in the middle of the highway and got out. I asked what he was doing. He said he was judging where the road was, utilizing the fact that the snow would be smoother there than where it had fallen on the shoulders and adjacent fields.

We continued ... through Wymore, into Kansas, through Marysville, Blue Rapids and Waterville. In each case, the lights of the small towns provided a few minutes of relief from the tension.

When we left Waterville, only 35 miles separated us from home. But the Fancy Creek bridge lay ahead. The high north-south bridge is more than a half-mile long with not very substantial guard rails. The increasingly strong winds frequently made the snow seem to be falling horizontally. Driving across the bridge might be particularly difficult if the road surface was slick.

Fifteen slow miles later, we made the slight turn to the right and crested the small hill that signals the approach to the bridge. But what greeted us was something none of us had ever seen before or since. The strong winds funneled down the valley from the west passed through the bridge supports, curled upward on the bridge's east side, then back to the west and finally downward on the bridge's west side. A virtual tunnel of clockwise swirling snow left the path over the bridge almost snow- and wind-free. Rather than being difficult, the trip across the bridge was one of the easiest parts.

The remainder of the journey was slow, but without incident. Throughout the trip, Art was calm, but the tension gave me a headache that lasted for hours. Art said that if he had known at the time what was ahead, he would have stayed in Beatrice, but stopping in the countryside didn't seem like a good idea.

In contrast, our five-mile trip this Christmas Day to a local Chinese restaurant did not turn out as well. It was only an annoying fender bender for us, but for a young deer, it was fatal.

"I'll be Home for Christmas" and "Home for the Holidays" are just two examples of songs that highlight the desire to gather together at this time of year. The latter includes the line "... From Atlantic to Pacific, the traffic is terrific ..." Indeed, it is! But whether it's five miles or 500, the hassles and dangers of travel are just the price paid for satisfying the human need to be with family and friends during the Christmas season.

Upper-left: family members in front of the Brookville Hotel in Abilene; upper-right: heavy fog during the 2008 holiday trip to Wisconsin; lower-left: after our arrival in 2008, Mariya sprawls out exhausted on the impromptu bed Katie is making at Art's mother's home in Wisconsin; lower-center: the front of Gloria's car after this year's Christmas-Day encounter with a deer; lower-right: a Wisconsin driver adapts to non-ideal road conditions.

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