I finally got on a plane yesterday to return from Wisconsin back to my current home in Reno, NV. I spent the last 3 weeks doing a locum job in a town called Eau Claire—Oh Claire I was quickly corrected when I arrived—and was so happy to head back to warmer weather. I had not experienced that type of cold since I lived in Vermont growing up. I remember going to a Junior Olympics try out race my junior year of high school, along with several other teammates. My mother had driven us up to Maine, and we were staying in a quaint little Bed and Breakfast, hoping the weather would warm up a bit before the races the next day. It was well below zero the next morning, despite our prayers, and we bundled up to drive over to the cross-country ski complex, already bustling with high school athletes from all over New England. We got out and walked around, wondering if the races would be canceled as it felt dangerously cold, the wind sucking the warmth from our bodies. Nope. They were still on, and we had a decision to make. Our ski outfits at the time were thin one-piece Lycra zip ups, over thin long johns, small and light earmuffs, and thin ski gloves, everything thin to make sure we would not overheat once our bodies got moving at maximum physical effort. The usual pre-race ritual of warming up seemed daunting. I did not want to take off my outer layers. I was too cold. I decided I wasn’t going to race. There would be other races to try and qualify for the team. I didn’t want it that bad. My teammates felt the same way, so we bundled back into the car, and headed back home to Vermont, this retreat not feeling like a defeat at all, but rather a win. I didn’t feel truly warm again until I took a hot shower later that evening at home.
Fast forward about forty years, and here I was in Wisconsin, as in most of the Midwest, facing a big snowstorm followed by below zero temperatures. I realized on my last day of work that the Dodge Charger the rental agency had given me at the airport 90 miles away in Minneapolis, was not good in winter weather. My husband told me it wouldn’t be because the car was a rear-wheel drive. How the heck would I know which cars have rear-wheel drive? I thought to myself. “That’s why I got snow tires for the Camero,” was his response. Well if rear-wheel drive cars are so bad in winter weather, why was the car rented to me in the first place? There wasn’t even a snow scraper in the car when I picked it up, so I had to use my credit card—thankfully it’s thick and metal—to clear off the icy windshield before I had a chance to get to the store and buy a real scrapper. “Why are these muscle cars rear-wheel drive in the first place?” I asked my husband. “Because it’s cool.” Right. Cool.
Well, it was definitely not cool driving the four miles to work in snowy weather, with my rear-wheel drive Charger. I prayed I wouldn’t get in a wreck or need to stop at the top of an incline, rear wheels spinning with the car going nowhere. The car slid right and left, especially when I went around corners, while the impatient traffic around me—in smarter 4-wheel drive vehicles—darted around me, causing me more stress than the snow and slippery roads. I held my breath for most of the drive and was so relieved to make it to the hospital. There was no way I was going to be able to drive 90 miles to the airport after work. As soon as I got to my desk I made a call to my locum rep—thank you so much Monique!—and she took care of changing my flight and hotels, and talked to a local car rental place I could switch out the Charger for a safer car.
Which meant I had to drive to the small local airport, about 5 miles away, and the storm had picked up now that it was early afternoon. It took me an hour to get to the airport and back, though there were fewer cars on the road by then, so less fear of hitting a car, though I still slid around corners, crawling as slow and safe as I could through a white out. The wind had picked up and the temperature had dropped as I got the keys to a truck, moved my luggage from the Charger to a Dodge Ram, toes and fingers now stiff with cold. I started up the truck—which was huge—pushed the 4-wheel drive button, smiled, and returned to work more at ease.
After a long day at work, with multiple admissions and sick patients—one even had a seizure—I returned to the same hotel I had already checked out of that morning, exhausted from tackling the snow and car, the patients and weary staff. I was tired, hungry, and cold. After a cup of soup and a steamy hot shower, I dropped into bed all bundled up. The following morning the snow had stopped, but the temperature had dropped even further, the wind howling outside. I think I preferred the blinding snow over the brutally cold below zero temperatures, worsened by the wind chill factor—that painful lowering of body temperature due to the colder air passing by my body.
Fortunately, the day was gentler at work, and I got out on time to start the drive to St. Paul/Minneapolis. My hands gripped the driver’s wheel tight. Even though there wasn’t snow on the road, there were patches that were dark, and I worried about black ice. I blasted loud music to keep myself from dozing off, the stress of the previous 48 hours finally catching up with me. I slowly got used to the wide truck and side view mirrors, but I was never sure how far the cars were behind me. The hot green Matcha Tea I had picked up for the ride was half gone, warming me up from the inside, though my bladder was starting to notice. As the miles clicked off and I settled into the drive in the dark, I was intermittently glancing at the barely visible outside temperature indicator on the dashboard. 8 degrees…6 degrees…3 degrees…0 degrees. I then saw the well-known blue sign indicating it was just four miles to the next rest area. Thank the Lord, I thought, I can empty my bladder. My heart quickly sank as I got one mile away and saw the large orange sticker splashed onto the rest area sign: “No amenities, portable restrooms available.” Heck no, there is no way I am pulling my pants down in a Port-a-Potty in 0-degree weather, with the wind chill bringing the temperature down to God only knows how low, I thought. I’m going to hold it. Or pee my pants in this nice big truck.
Of course, the remaining 30 miles to the hotel went by painfully slow, and like watching a pot boil, the miles-to-go marker seemed to only decrease by one half of a mile every time I looked down. I focused on the music, trying to get through a song before looking at the miles again, though I kept my eye on the temperature, which had landed on 0 degrees and stayed there. I got to the hotel just in time to not have a bladder accident, though I was doing the pee dance as I tried to be polite to the check in staff, “where’s the bathroom?” I said as I grabbed my room key and ran.
After that relief, I ventured back out to the truck to get my luggage. It could not possibly have gotten any colder I thought as I pulled my suitcase out in the whipping wind and rushed to get back inside, and yet it felt twenty degrees lower after my brief respite in the warm lobby. Up in my hotel room, I was never so happy to see a white sheeted and comfie bed with fluffy pillows and an immaculately clean room. My core temperature finally got back up to normal after a soak in a steaming hot bath…aahhh…my muscles relaxed…and I tried not to think of the morning, when I would have to brave the frigid cold for the short 2-mile drive to the gas station and then to the airport, at a dark and early 4 am.
After about five hours of sleep, I dragged myself awake and packed up, finishing off my Matcha Tea, and bundled up again for the walk back out to the truck. Much more wind than the night before and now the temperature gauge read -8 degrees. As I sat in the driver’s seat putting in the address for the gas station into my phone navigation app, a woman I had seen waiting in the lobby came over and tapped on my window. I tried to roll the window down, but the ice had frozen it shut. I opened the door, smiled, and she asked if I could give her a jump. Her car was dead, her husband was upstairs with the flu, and they had a flight to catch. I felt awful telling her I had a rental car, no jump cables, and also had to catch a flight. I asked her if she had AAA, or roadside assistance with her car insurance. She said she didn’t know and went off to try and find someone else to help her. How awful. The flu. A dead car battery. Below zero weather with a wind chill. And a flight to catch. Ugh.
I managed to fill up the gas tank and get to the rental car drop off in time. I asked the fellow checking in my rental car if he minded the weather. “Nah,” he replied with a partially toothless grin, “Been doin’ this for twenty-four years and this ain’t bad. Once last year the wind chill got low as fifty below.” Fifty. Not fifteen. How could you even go outside? He must have read my mind as he commented, “If you outside for more than 10 minutes, you dead.” I laughed and smiled, thanked him, and quickly walked toward the terminal sliding doors. The wall of warmth on the other side was so welcome and I hoped that it wouldn’t be this cold when I return to Wisconsin in two weeks. Though next time, I sure won’t be renting a Dodge Charger.