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The annual Texas Christmas Commute – 2012

My mom called a couple of days before Christmas this year to relay the latest West Texas weather forecast – snow. Nonplussed, I had already seen weather predictions. Not a problem – no big deal – nothing to worry about … and yet …

“I’ll Be Home For Christmas” still rings through my head remembering Denton on Christmas Eve 2009. We humans get ourselves into trouble over the silliest things …

Steve (my husband and fellow traveler) and I had stopped by Target to pick up last minute gifts before heading out on Interstate 35, Abilene bound. We scooted into the store dodging sloppy, wet snow. The weather seemed changeable with patchy low clouds and dapples of sunlight. No problem for the seasoned Texas road warrior.

Not 30 minutes later, as we trundled our holiday packages to a frosty, gray store front – a panorama of wintery wonder – we recoiled as minus-30 windchills and stinging sleet assaulted our faces and hands. “If you don’t like the weather,” the saying goes, “wait a minute.” Or wait 18 hours.

Freezing snow-sleet mix plastered vehicles , shopping carts – even those big red ball thingies at the store entrance.

Quietly muttering the famous Star Wars quote, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” – I braved the final frigid steps to quickly secure the parcels in the trunk next to our suitcases.

Many other shoppers voiced similar reactions to a new and disappointing weather outlook – no – weather disaster. We all were heading to distant lands – Oklahoma City, Shreveport, Lubbock, Abilene. Holiday traffic slowed from clip to crawl as Christmas Eve morning ticked toward noon. The on-ramp at I-35 W – solidly crammed with semi’s, SUV’s and little silver Saturns (like ours) – crept into a long trail of Southbound snails already caked in re-frozen snow and road grime. The pace, as we soon discoved, was an excruceating 3 to 10 miles an hour. The first  15 minutes – we could still see University of North Texas stadium light poles. Soon we witnessed our first pick-up truck spin its wheels as it struggled up an incline. Road conditions slowly moved from bad to worse – but not as slowly as the once gleeful Christmas commuters.

Steve and I revelled in the opportunity to be together and, after stopping at a convenience store for Slim Jims, Spicy V-8 and pork rinds, for Steve, and a hot chocolate and coffee ( yes, I’m a two-fisted drinker) for me – we clammered back in the conga line of slip-sliders, free-wheelers and off-road Kamikaze’s.

If I had been at the wheel, we would have been back home by this time. But Steve, with his years of driving to oil rigs no matter what the conditions, driving the stalwart front-wheel-drive Ion, took charge of the icy asphalt – maneuvering past stalled or sliding trucks and sedans like a pro.

Cell phones kept us in contact with family in Abilene, but our overall progress turned bleak when brother David informed us Ranger Hill was closed.

No other challenge could have filled us with such dread or disappointment.

Ranger Hill … notorius on a good day … is a lovely piece of Interstate 20, snaking up and around mesas and hills. The 6% incline brings you to an elevation high enough to make your ears pop at least three times. One accident – minor or not – on this divided highway may shut down all lanes of traffic. With little wiggle room for emergency vecicles, and the remote location, this stretch gets closed rather than add death and destruction to the already anxious holiday trekkers.

We had been on the wintry road for two hours and had travelled all of 29 miles.

We looked for an exit and turn-around. Home is where we needed to be. But Steve and I knew with darkness falling, more vehicles losing traction  – some sliding down barrow ditches and open fields (and Steve having run out of pork rinds)  – our homeward journey would be just as long.

Actually longer, we soon found.

Spurs to other highways do not always lead back the way one has come. We faced a decptively hopeful road (FM 81) North to Decatur about 30 miles West of Denton.

The Fort Worth police officer – big and tough, but obiviously underdressed for such Arctic blasts – lumbered out of his patrol car and told us a truck had spun out and climbed a telephone pole up ahead. The wrecker was on its way, but nothing was getting by.

We rejoined the heavy metal masses straining under exhaustion, frustration and with clear way to safety.

After muddling through another treachorus mile, we turned the right way at the right time and happily headed home, passing new wrecks, abandoned or buried trucks.

Five hours,  a round trip of about 50 miles, later, a different task presented itself. We entered our warm house to find one of our cats – Silver – had died. She was very sick, and the end was expected.

The blizzard  lasted long enough to cause havoc, but Christmas morning – not 24 hours later – the sun shone, most of the snow was melting and after burying Silver in a very nice spot under the willow tree, we once again made our way to Abilene – roads clear, Ranger Hill open and family greeting us with love and cheer.

But what about this Christmas (2011) commute? Read on, McDuff.