Years ago when our children were small, we lived in a very rural part of Middle Tennessee, in a tiny house at the end of a half-mile-long lane. The kids walked that lane every day during the school-year. When the weather was bad or threatening (which directly affected whether or not Karen and I would be at work), we'd drive them to the end where the bus came for them in the morning and pick them up when the bus dropped them off in the afternoon.
One morning in February, a friend of mine called me. He'd been in an automobile accident and was in the hospital in Clarkesville. He had no home phone; there was no means of contacting his wife. Would I go get her, inform her of the situation, and bring her to see him?
Yes, of course I would do that. The children were already safely on the bus and on their way to school, so Karen and I headed out to assist my friend.
And thus began, benignly enough, that sixteen hour period that came to be known in the history of our little family as The Long, Terrible Day.
The weather report for that morning called for snow flurries but "nothing serious", and "no accumulation".
My friend's house - and his wife - were thirty miles west of us; the hospital in Clarkesville was twenty-five miles north. Altogether, we had about an eighty-mile, triangular-shaped journey in front of us - a simple trek of less than two hours in good weather on good roads.
Before we reached his house, the "flurries" were beginning to stick. Within minutes, they were accumulating rather alarmingly. By the time we collected his wife and child, there was an inch of "flurries" on the asphalt and it was still coming down, thick and heavy.
We'd gone a third of the way to Clarkesville, and the flurries had deepened to three inches and the roads were becoming slick. My speed slowed. By the halfway mark, the snow was five inches deep; the roads were now becoming treacherous. And it was still snowing. My speed dropped to a crawl.
We should have gotten to Clarkesville before noon. It was now almost three o'clock and we were hours away at our present speed. I glanced at my watch and looked over at Karen. "The kids will be coming home - alone - in this mess."
"They probably had early release," she replied. "They'll be home by now."
I frowned. "Still - they'll have had to walk home in this, and I didn't bank the fire." (Our house was heated by an ancient wood stove.) "They won't know where we are," I continued and then my heart lurched with alarm. "And I didn't leave them a key." (There were no cell phones in those days; our children, I suddenly realized, were on their own in a snowstorm.)
She reached over and patted my hand. "They'll be alright." But she sounded like she was trying to convince herself of that as much as she was attempting to reassure me.
It is true that our children were a responsible, self-reliant lot. Valencia, our eldest, was fourteen and like a second mother to the others. She was level-headed, competent, and confident. Annie, our second, was capable, clever, and resourceful, and Nate, our son, was a pragmatic young man who knew about things like how to safely kindle a fire in a wood stove. Hoodoo, our youngest, was usually game for any adventure. Still, I worried about them as the time slipped away and snow continued to fall out of the sky and pile up on the road.
It was now eight or ten inches deep. Sensible folk had abandoned the idea of traveling the country roads. Our tire tracks were the only things marring the pristine snowfall.
We reached Clarkesville at dusk, checked on my friend and delivered his wife and child to him, and turned the car toward home, anxious to see our children. (We would learn later that they had endured their own trials - released early, they had trudged down the lane through the heavy snow only to find themselves locked out of the house while Hoodoo, always susceptible to cold, suffered immensely. Valencia and the others gave up their coats to her, bundling her up like a furry snowman, and then finally Annie found a way into the house where Nate started a fire. Like I said - resourceful kids, my children.)
Just south of Clarkesville on the main highway there was a terrible wreck, with mangled cars and dozens of emergency vehicles blocking the way. We had to go around by virtue of narrow, seldom-traveled side roads. By the time we re-gained the main road, it was past eight o'clock at night and still snowing. There was more than a foot of the white stuff now. We headed south along an utterly empty highway. No other cars were in sight behind us or ahead of us.
I was hungry and tired. Still, after a while, I realized that my famished state and my fatigue couldn't suffice to explain the apparent dimming of the vehicle's headlights.
And then, abruptly, they went out and the car died. I gazed at Karen wide-eyed as our car drifted to a stop. "What now?"
I turned the key. There was no response. I got out and popped the hood and stared into the darkness beneath it at a silent, quietly cooling engine. I was young and inexperienced, definitely not a mechanic, not even of the backyard, shade tree variety. Whatever was wrong was beyond my ability to diagnose or repair.
I looked up and down the highway. Nothing. The road was dark and empty in both directions. I gazed around, into the storm. There was a light barely visible off in the distance through the tumbling snowflakes. A house? Maybe. I got back into the car and took off my coat, slipping it around Karen's shoulders. "We should probably try for that house over there," I told her. "We'll at least be warm, and we can call John and Bonnie (our neighbors) and have them check on the kids."
"God will take care of us," she said, indicating the rear view mirror. "Maybe He sent that car."
I turned and stared, astonished, as a pair of bright lights pulled up behind us. I pushed down on the handle. "Stay inside," I said. "And lock the door behind me."
Two men of indeterminate age in nondescript clothing got out of the truck that had pulled to a stop behind us. "Trouble?" The driver asked.
"It just quit on me," I told him.
"Did the headlights dim before it quit?" He guessed.
I stared at him in surprise. "Yeah - they did."
He made a motion with his hand to his companion. "Loose alternator belt," he informed me. "And now your battery's dead. We got this. Get back in and try it when I tell you."
The other man retrieved a portable charger from their truck and hooked it up to my battery while the driver tightened my alternator belt. "Okay," he said. "Give it a go." I turned the key and the engine came to life. "There you go," he said. "It'll get you home now."
I got out and extended my hand in gratitude. "What do I owe you?"
"Owe us?" He laughed as he ignored my proffered hand. "Just get home safe to your children, young man. That'll be payment enough." Still chuckling, he and his companion returned to their vehicle.
The truck backed away and swung around, headed back toward Clarkesville. In moments, the taillights were lost in the swirling snow.
I looked over at Karen in puzzlement. "Did you tell them about our kids?" I asked her. She frowned. "No - didn't you?" I shook my head and looked back along the darkened road. "No, I didn't."
I pulled away and headed toward home. But our adventure was not quite done. Just before the turn-off to the road that led down the creek and toward our house, the highway climbed a long, fairly steep hill. My speed was modest as I started up this considerable incline that was covered with twelve inches of fresh, wet snow. As we climbed, the car plowed the snow and it piled up in front of us. We didn't get halfway up the hill before the car spun out and began to slide backward, edging toward the barrow pit on the roadside.
Quickly, I took it out of gear to let it roll free and steered it back to the bottom. Then I got out and climbed to where the car had stalled. There was an impassable berm of snow where the tracks ended. Slogging into the woods by the road I found a large piece of wood, a branch that had fallen from a tree. This I used to move the berm of snow, a bit at a time, out of the way. When I had finished removing the piled-up snow and was about to toss the branch aside, I looked up the hill toward the distant crest. That snow-covered high point was yet a long way away. Yeah, I would undoubtedly need my improvised shovel again. And again. And yet again. I walked up the hill twenty yards or so and laid the branch down beside the road. Then I went back down to the car and up the hill we went once more until the plowed-up snow spun us out and sent us back to the bottom.
I can't rightly recall how many times I repeated this maneuver as the night deepened and the falling snow finally tapered off but The Long, Terrible Day had begun to intrude upon the wee hours of the next when finally the car, tires spinning, eased over the crest and we were on the downslope at last. Oh, what a marvelous feeling that was!
An hour later, after carefully negotiating the dirt and gravel road that wound along Johnson Creek, we were safely home, together with our children, in that tiny house warmed by the fire in the wood stove that my son had started and tended, and eating a very late supper prepared and kept warm for us by our daughters.
I relate this tale because lately I have had that marvelous feeling once again of finding the crest of a seemingly impassable incline and finding myself at last on the downslope.
You see, I am the writer of the Kelven's Riddle epic fantasy series. Between the writing of books 3 and 4 in the series my family was rocked by several difficulties, causing me to set the writing aside, time after time, as I dealt with more pressing issues.
But God's grace saw us through, and I kept slogging away. The first four books are done and book five, the last volume in the series, is in final revision. It will be published in March. Nine hundred thousand words and eight years of my life, but I gained the crest and am now on the downslope.
Home is in sight.