It was only a slight bit of freezing drizzle. Just barely enough. But as some of us remember more vividly than others, when it comes to freezing rain, just barely enough is quite enough. Enough to walk walking risky and driving dangerous.
But there was still enough residual heat in the ground and pavement that I was able to drive up the big hill near our house without any trouble. Out on the highway, though, there were some spots that were pretty slick. Most of the drivers that I encountered were staying well below the speed limit. Sometimes, though, even that isn’t quite slow enough.
Just before my turn to work, about two miles north of town, I saw a car sitting up on the road bank, headlights pointing toward the ditch. “Must have been in a bit of a hurry to get away,” I thought, “going off and leaving their headlights on.” Then I realized there was still someone sitting in the car.
I eased over slowly onto the wide paved shoulder, parked and turned on my flashers. As I walked carefully across the frozen shoulder, I saw the car’s tracks. The vehicle had slid off the highway at about a thirty degree angle, crossed the wide sloped ditch, then up and along the bank. By the time it came to a stop in the tall prairie grass, it was turned almost perpendicular to the highway.
The driver, a woman in her early twenties, had called her father and was talking to him on her cell phone. While she continued her conversation, I checked out the situation a bit more. There was not enough freezing rain to make the grass and ground slick. The slope back down and up out of the ditch wasn’t terribly steep. There was no mud or water in the smooth cup of the ditch. I walked a ways along the ditch and checked for anything that could damage a wheel or snag a vehicle. It seemed clear.
I headed back to the young woman. After she finished talking to her dad, we took a look at her car and it seemed fine. “If you take a bit of an angle,” I encouraged, pointing out what I thought was a good line, “I think you’ll be able to drive off from this.”
She got into her car, and headed down the bank slowly and into the ditch. I would have used more speed and a more gradual angle but she made it up the opposite slope just fine. After driving a couple hundred yards along the highway she pulled off onto a side road. Once again, she got out of her car. Without the tall grass surrounding her vehicle, she inspected it once again. I pulled over to check on her. Both she and the car seemed fine. I lowered my window and asked her where she was headed. “To work in Wichita.”
“I’m glad you’re okay,” I said. “Even when it turns out that you’re okay, those slides are pretty scary.” She nodded her head in clear agreement, looked me in the eye and replied, “Thank you for stopping.
After checking carefully for traffic, I pulled out across the road and headed on to work, less than a minute away. As I started braking for my turn beside the motel, my car slid just a little ways. Just enough to remind me how easy it is.
I reflected later on my commute and realized I really hadn’t done anything to help the woman. I hadn’t even made a phone call. Hadn’t helped push her car out. Before I even stopped, she may have already planned out how she would get across the ditch and back on the highway.
Then again, maybe I offered just barely enough encouragement to help her believe she could do it. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.