“The dangers of life are infinite, and among them is safety.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Here is a confession I did not have the guts to make before I left on this latest expedition: Sometimes before I take a trip, I have recurrent death fears. A few days before a trip I’ll start to worry about something happening to me, usually focusing on what seems most likely given the circumstances. If I’m flying, the plane will crash. If I’m driving, the car will crash. If I’m backpacking, there will be a wild animal that will maul me. I know this is all grimly silly, but it’s the reel that plays in my head that I have to work through to get where I’m going. This internal podcast of doom plays particularly loudly if I’m taking my trip alone.
When I went backpacking alone for the first time in 2010, I wrote about how my fears were not dispelled, but rather confirmed. I got stuck in a powerful and unexpected thunderstorm, in a tent, which is not where you want to be. But in that very same post I wrote that I learned on that trip how to handle fear. I learned that I can live through something very scary, and that feeling and processing genuine terror (as opposed to anxiety) was what I feared most. And yet I did it. That newly acquired knowledge didn’t really alleviate the death fears in advance of this trip, but I mostly ignored them and went about my way. It’s funny, really. Some people think I’m quite the adventurer, but I often struggle through anxiety to do the things I crave.
And so amusingly enough, when I was on my way down to the swamp, a couple of nice young men in north Georgia backed into my car because a semi cut a turn too close and was going to clip their truck. The driver’s primitive brain kicked in and did exactly what hindbrains are designed to do: forced him to throw his truck into reverse without thought, sending it crunching into my front bumper. The driver was twenty years old, and he sobbed like a baby because this was his first accident in four years, and in his grandmother’s truck. I tried to calm him down a little, pointing out that there was little damage to my front bumper, and that I just wanted to be on my way. I also reminded him that while he might be technically responsible, his instinct to back up was sound and avoided a collision with a much larger vehicle. We exchanged information and parted ways.
Okay, I thought with a grin. Car wreck down! Let’s finish this trip. And I did; I worked my way through a trip that was exactly what I wanted. And then, ten days later, I felt it was time to be home. I was unsettled about being away from my son any longer, and I missed being home, but at the same time I had a deep vein of sadness about leaving. But I took off north anyway, feeling relaxed and sunny. Somewhere south of Atlanta, Travis sent me a text: “Weather says bad storms tomorrow. Potential hail and tornadoes.” I pulled over to hit the bathroom and look at some weather maps. Laid out before me on my iPad was a map of what looked like a bowling alley extending from my present location in Georgia to my home in Indianapolis, down which tornadoes would be jauntily rolling on the final day of my trip.
Shit. I drove to a hotel north of Atlanta, checked the Weather Channel for the most dangerous times along my route, and made plans to thread the needle. I wanted to be home, instead of stuck in a hotel with no basement. I got up early the next morning and headed home. There was a single stormy spot in Tennessee that lasted ten minutes. Then the sun came out and the sky was calm, all the way through northern Kentucky. The weatherheads advised that the peak time for tornado formation in Indiana would begin about 4 to 5 in the afternoon, and I was on track to pull into my driveway at 4:15.
I crossed over the Ohio River and sang “Back Home Again in Indiana,” because my mother always did that to annoy us when we were kids and now it’s a reflex, a nod to my childhood and my mother’s sense of humor. Across the bridge, the sky immediately began to darken. A couple of lightning bolts struck in front of me. I called Travis and asked about the weather instead of stopping to look at the iPad. You’re right on top of a red spot, he said. Keep going ten miles to Austin and from there it’s clear all the way home. I hung up the phone, turned up the music and stepped on the gas. I was almost to Henryville when for some reason I looked to the left. The entire sky was divided into four pieces – two lighter pieces on the side, a dark ceiling, and an upside down triangle of dusty darkness. This is video someone else took from mile marker 23 on I-65, looking south at the tornado crossing the highway at about mile marker 18 or 19.
When you’re having a fight-or-flight reaction, being at the wheel of a car offers a powerful incentive to choose flight. My initial instinct was to gun the car and get away. Run, run, run, run, run, get away from this, get away from this, get away, my instinct sang.
An exit appeared in front of me just at that moment, and another voice in my head interrupted and said, kind of loudly: Don’t ever try to outrun a tornado. I Iistened. Four other cars and I pulled off at the same time. My hands began to shake and I pulled into the closest space. All of a sudden people were running, all around me. I snatched my phone and started running into the building with everyone else. Almost immediately after we got inside, the lights in the building went out. A woman I presume was a manager screamed at us: “In the showers, now. RUN!” I found the showers and a male voice instructed us to find showers 5 through 7, because those were the interior ones. I ran up to Shower No. 5, and someone pressed a key into my hand.
The fucking thing was locked, of course.
I tried to insert the key, but my trembling hands were not doing the job. I stopped, took a breath through my nose, and realized I had the key backward. I turned it around and opened the door, and people flooded in. I crammed myself into a corner and frantically tried to text Travis. My spaghetti fingers could only scratch out “Huge tornado. Ath a truxh stop.”
We waited here for fifteen minutes. A man in front of me was a counselor whose wife and kids were in Scottsburg, a few miles north. There was a young mother holding a sleeping toddler girl, her face set in the kind of line you get when your child is in danger and there is nothing you can do about it but hold her and keep her asleep. After several minutes, someone yelled that things were clear. We stepped reluctantly from the showers, peeking out. As the flood of people leaked out of the showers, the darkened truck stop was in chaos. Someone busted through the doors and asked “Is anyone here from Henryville? Is anyone going to Henryville?” A few voices in the crowd said yes. “Henryville has been completely flattened,” he said breathlessly. “You can’t go north anyway. Two semis have been blown over across the highway.”
There was a collective intake of breath in the crowd, and I admit it: I started to cry. I crouched in a corner near the truck supplies and called Travis. The call went through, and I told him where I was. “Breathe,” he instructed. “You need to breathe.” Loud voices were speaking up again. “I have to go.” I hung up, and the loud voices were telling us to get back in the showers right now, because there is another tornado forming, and it’s headed right at us. People ran back into the showers. Some people ran into the cooler. Any sense of relief we felt at receiving the all-clear was obliterated. We huddled again, covering our heads. This time there was noise, the sound of things hitting the building. A woman next to me put her arm around my back. I reached over and we held hands, tightly.
And then, after a few minutes, the noise stopped. Silence returned, and it appeared to be over. We streamed out of the showers again and out into the store. People kept checking radar on iPhones. I tried to call Travis again. Nothing. So I texted him. Failed. On my last stop I had posted on Facebook, in response to a question from my sister, that I was about to cross into southern Indiana. I knew my family would be worried.
And then it happened again. Again. Another one has been spotted and it’s on its way to kill us, thank you very much now get back in the showers please. This one lasted longer. There was a man in the next shower with a signal on his smartphone, and he kept a running tab on the damage and the paths of the spotted tornadoes. “God, I wish he’d shut UP,” pleaded a college student from Bloomington. I was jammed in the corner again, right next to the mother holding her sleeping blonde toddler. “Am I squishing you?” she asked. “No,” I lied with a smile. People are good. They offer hands when things look dire, and they try to make others comfortable. They show care and they show warmth however they can.
Then the toddler woke up, having slept through two tornadoes and the better part of a third. The great thing about toddlers is that they can wake up, find themselves crammed into a truck stop shower with a dozen strangers, and as long as they are being held by their mother, don’t really care. They don’t turn to her and say “What the hell is going on here?” With the waking of the toddler, the paramount concern in the showers became shielding her from any sense of danger, and we all cooperated to accomplish this. I smiled at her warmly and made funny faces. The woman next to me oohed and aaahed over her stuffed animals. Someone handed her their phone, and she played Pac-Man while the rest of us waited, the faces of mother and daughter lit up by cell phone light. I was thankful that my son was 90 miles north, safe with his dad. I was wedged in the corner, and the shower dripped on my arm intermittently.
This time after it appeared to be over, everyone was reluctant to leave. After all, the last two times didn’t work out very well. But when we stepped out this time, we stayed out. The sun eventually emerged, skies cleared a bit, and people started trying to figure things out. No one had a signal anymore, and no one had internet. My phone was almost dead, but then the little green text icon appeared on my phone and I saw words from my sister, telling me our mother was “freaking out” and asking me to let her know where I was. I tried, but return texts and calls still failed.
People started creeping warily out to their cars, and when I ventured to mine on still wobbly and uncooperative legs, I saw that something had shattered my back window. Cars all over the lot were dented, their glass shattered. And yet here we were, just outside the outer ring of a swath of terrible destruction, and we were alive, and none of us were hurt, and we had all managed to evade the what ifs and the if I hads and by pure happenstance were five minutes behind where we could have been if we hadn’t gone to the bathroom in Kentucky or stopped at a Subway in Tennessee for lunch or had simply freaked out and tried to outrun something that could not be outrun. And there were people a vanishingly short distance north in structures that had been built in the path that a half-mile wide EF-4 tornado would travel on an unseasonably warm day in early March in the year 2012. And the only thing I suffered was a single hour of expectation that I would fall into the second category instead of the first. To the north, on the other hand, children died, the most base and agonizing blow that nature and life can deliver. Children. Nature did not take into account the fact that they were innocent and I have been here long enough not to be. Deeds were not weighed, value was not considered. The process was entirely random.
And after the shock and fear wore off, and the tears had stopped, I realized something clearly about those pre-trip death fears. Anxiety and worry are a conceit; they’re based on the mistaken premise that we have any idea at all what might happen to us. We don’t. Except for one thing: We know we will arrive at the day on which we die. And it might be a warm day in early March when we feel far too young and unfinished to go, or it might be in the middle of a cold night sometime in our ninth or tenth decade. But to allow the fear of the first to define and limit the life we do have available to us is a pungently ironic folly. Yet I understand it, and I sympathize with it. How could I not, having done so myself? For me, the answer is difficult but no less compelling: Do the things you are afraid of. Do them anyway.
Because today, I’m alive.