Unless I have a reason to go there, I prefer to avoid the Chicago metro. The heavy traffic and never-ending road construction create constant congestion on the highways. I’ve even tried driving through at 4:00 am on a Sunday morning and still ran into backed up and stopped traffic.
Chicago drivers have two hands for a reason. One to blast the horn and the other to wave their middle finger at drivers who fail to demonstrate courteous motoring skills. And, the toll booths? Well, that’s another story. Finding a different route is an excellent way to avoid the stress of “passing through” Chicago.
I was headed to the east coast, without a particular destination, I was just going, and in no hurry at all. I decided to take an alternate route I’ve traveled many times. I go around Lake Superior, through northern Wisconsin, and across the UP of Michigan. From there, I join I-75 south, cross the Mackinaw Bridge, and drive the length of the state.
At Flint, Michigan, I can go east, over the top of Lake Erie, cut through Canada, and into Buffalo, New York. Or, continue to Toledo, Ohio, passing south of the lake. Either way, I come out well east of Chicago’s traffic fiasco.
I like to journey with a free spirit – having an idea when I want to be where I’m going, but without rigid schedules. For this trip, I would drive well after dark, catch some sleep at a rest area, and cross the Mighty Mack in the morning. With frigid temperatures forecast and traveling on a road where you seldom see other cars at night, I laid out an itinerary that was well planned, including fuel stops. But, even the best of plans can often require improvisions.
The gas station where I was going to refuel was closed permanently. No problem. There’s another gas station twenty-five-miles down the road that’s open until midnight. We continued on.
When we arrived at the next station, the place was dark. Using the light from my cell phone, I read a handwritten sign on the front door. “New hours. Now closing at 8 pm. Open at 6 am daily.” Great. I glanced at the time on my phone; it wasn’t quite ten-o-clock. “Eight hours until they open.” I zipped my coat, raised the hood to block the cold wind, pushed my hands deep into my pockets, and walked back to the truck. I climbed inside the warm cab. A little more than concerned, I gave my dog June a rub on the head and said, “This isn’t good.”
I scrolled through the GPS. The next gas station was only fifteen miles farther away, but my truck was so low on gas I was afraid to attempt it, and who knew if they would even be open? I had a one-gallon can of gasoline in the back, but my truck only gets 12 mpg, so that wouldn’t take me far. “Hmm. What to do.”
There I was, nearly out of gas on a barren road in extreme northern Michigan, at a gas station that didn’t have card readers on their pumps. The weather was bitterly cold, and the camper didn’t have a heater. Adding to my situation, there is no cell phone service in this area.
I decided to stay in the gas station parking lot until morning; at least, I knew this place would open in eight hours - probably. And, If I froze to death, I’m sure someone would be curious enough to investigate this abandoned truck and camper, to find my body. It was really cold.
I had a zero-degree sleeping bag and a few blankets in the camper. I would save the gallon of gasoline to put in the truck and let it run if the camper was too cold. June and I crawled into the mummy-style bag but couldn’t close the zipper. The bag wasn’t designed for a border collie and a man. I laid the blankets over us and kept my coat on with the hood up. It was actually pretty warm when we snuggled together, but June didn’t much care for the feeling of being confined. She would wiggle out from under the covers and lay next to me until she got cold, then wanted back inside the bag again. This went on all night long, and neither of us slept well.
In the morning, I pumped 25.2 gallons of gasoline in my twenty-five-gallon tank. Inside, I poured a cup of coffee and went to the register to pay for my gas. “How cold is it out there?”
The cashier glanced at a digital thermometer, “Twenty-four below, before wind chill.”
She looked out on the driveway. My truck was the only vehicle at the pumps. “Did you stay in that camper last night?” I told her I did. She laid a credit card slip on the counter and handed me a pen. “Boy, you must have a real good heater in that thing.” I nodded
Had we tried to keep going in the night, I might have made it a mile or two down the road before I ran the tank dry. At that point, one gallon of gas from the spare can wouldn’t have done much good. In the morning, I also found the next station (15 miles down the road) had also gone out of business!
I was saved by a zero-degree bag, a warm dog, and the grace of God, who told me to stay put.
Given a chance to make that trip over, I would take the same route, and I’d still do it after dark - but I wouldn’t let the tank get below half - anything to avoid that Chicago traffic.
a broadcaster, pilot, writer, and our Guest Columnist!