The Blizzard of ’12: We Made It

[imgbelt img=radar1_34.jpeg]We turned west on Illinois 9. By the time we passed the prison, about two miles west of town, we were in trouble. In retrospect, we should have turned around there. We didn’t. Eternal optimism, I guess.


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It was quieter here. The road down the river was partially snow-covered, but in pretty good shape, so we made good time through Chillicothe and on into the north side of Peoria, where we caught the outer belt. Given the hour, just after 4:30 p.m, the road was not jammed with traffic, and was relatively clear with slush and some slick spots.

It was getting dark when we exited to get to Illinois 116. Under normal circumstances, we would be a little over an hour from Bushnell. 

This is where the mess really hit. The road was covered with drifting snow and ice. Still, we were in a line of traffic, making slow progress westward across a brutal gale from the north that periodically caused whiteouts. If it hadn’t been for the taillights of the car ahead, we would have lost the road entirely several times, but we rolled on.

At Farmington, about 20 miles west of Peoria, we had a decision to make: Take Illinois 116 across the open farmland, or head south on Illinois 78, a bit hilly, partly protected by woods, and with a city of 9,000 or so that would normally be about 30 minutes from home. 

We went south. Along the way, we hit a couple of whiteouts and saw a few cars off the road, but we still were making progress at 20 or 30 miles per hour. When we reached Canton, the snow seemed to have slowed, and the newly revitalized downtown looked gorgeous. The relative quiet gave us a totally false sense of security.

We turned west on Illinois 9. By the time we passed the prison, about two miles west of town, we were in trouble. In retrospect, we should have turned around there. We didn’t. Eternal optimism, I guess.

We managed another mile or so in constant whiteout. In my 44 years of driving, I have been in tough storms, but nothing like this, especially with only three or four inches of snow. 

We were creeping along at less than 10 miles per hour when I lost the road completely and went off the right side. We tried to back up, but I now suspect the bottom of the car was hung up on the snow and the drop into the ditch. There wasn’t a house nearby, only the snow-shrouded lights of the prison a mile or so behind us.

At some level, I knew how bad it was outside, but the car was comfortable. When I got out to push the car, the temperature was 28. The road was solid ice. Snow slashed at my face in what must have been a constant 40 mph wind. I tried to push, as did my wife and son, but to no avail. Some passersby also helped, but that didn’t work either. 

No humor here: The weather outside was frightful. But, inside the car, I felt more humbled than scared. We had plenty of gas so we could ride it out. Fortunately, a police officer came by and called a tow truck. An hour or so later, we were headed back to Canton, out $75, but with no complaints. We ended up comfortably ensconced in the new and lovely Harvester Inn and had a late dinner and brunch — delicious home-style meals — at the American Grille. We finally returned home at about 3 p.m. on Friday the twenty-first.

In all of this, we had missed text messages from one of my wife’s friends telling us not to try to get home. Illinois 9 was already closed by drifting snow and abandoned cars by the time we were leaving Canton. As it turns out, we were better off than a lot of our friends and neighbors. One friend and his daughter spent twelve hours in their SUV. People who went out to search for them couldn’t find them, which raised a lot of fears.

Other neighbors were stuck in surrounding cities where they worked. One, on his way home, counted at least 50 cars in the ditch along a 20-mile stretch of U.S. 67 south of Monmouth, IL. 

A number of children and teachers were stranded at our schools in Bushnell, while at least one busload of children from another nearby school district had to be rescued from their bus. The police turned back buses leaving from the schools in Macomb. The driver of a stranded food service truck became an instant local legend when he opened his refrigerators to feed people taken in by the Prairie City Community Center. 

Small towns around the area opened their homes and community centers to people caught in the storm. This is the real and wonderful feel-good moment of hospitality, about helping and sharing with those in need, including friendly fellow motorists and police officers.

Then, there is the power of nature unleashed. Despite my caution, despite my misgivings, we got caught. I knew what we were in for. But we only got off with an inconvenience. My stomach still flipflops when I think of what could have happened.

A lot of us ducked the powerful blow of this storm in one way or another. We might not have been able to do it alone. We needed help from others, and that’s enough of a lesson for now. I’ll ponder the natural side of this as time passes.

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.



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