One Wrong Turn

I went to Kansas City last week, and as I customarily do in that metropolis, I got lost. Not the frantic, “I’m never going to get out of here; I’m going to join the Navy because I see a sign for the Navy pier and that’s the only thing I recognize!” kind of lost that happened to me once when I was trying to get out of Chicago. This was more the kind of “I followed the directions perfectly so where the heck is the hotel?” kind of lost. This was also the first time I got lost since I’ve had my smart phone. In the past, I would have retraced my steps and tried to figure out where I went awry. This time I pulled into a convenience store to fill up with gas and simply put in my current location and the address of my hotel. In a matter of seconds, I had a new map and a huge sense of relief. Unfortunately, smart phones weren’t available in 1979, and correcting my wrong turn then wasn’t nearly that simple.

It was a muggy 4th of July that year, and the fireworks display that I attended with my in-laws went off on schedule despite the scattered thunderstorms in the area. As we drove back to their house a mere 30 minutes from the show, it became apparent that the predicted high winds and torrential rains had hit this area while we were gone. I put my daughter and son in our car and headed home. About two miles from their house, a large tree had blown across the road blocking our progress. I put the car in reverse and backed up to the intersection fearful that if I tried to turn around, I would get stuck in the muddy road. As I headed east, I didn’t think it mattered which road I took back north because any of them would take me to the highway. As it turned out, any of them would take me there except one.

The path I chose became less and less of a gravel road and more and more of a muddy trail. I knew there was no chance to turn around without getting stuck and backing up the two or three miles I had come would be impossible as I was having trouble staying in the worn track going forward. Finally, even the trail gave way to a muddy wheat field and with a sickening thud, the car jerked to a stop. I put the car in reverse, but the spinning whine of the tires signaled just how badly I was stuck. And it started to rain.

I thought about just spending the night in the car, but I knew the remote location would make us difficult to find, and I didn’t want John and the rest of the family frantic when they discovered we were missing. Instead, I got out of the car with my four-year-old daughter and almost two-year-old son to brave the elements. We hadn’t gone very far when the pull of the mud was too much for the thin strap of my sandal. It only took a few steps to realize walking barefoot was much easier than walking with one shoe off and one shoe on. I can only imagine the spectacle we made as I carried my son, gripped my daughter’s hand, and slogged sans shoes across the muddy field.

I tried desperately to remember how far we had come so I would have some idea of how long a walk stretched before us. I calculated that we had at least two miles to reach the county blacktop and another half mile to the closest house. Jagged lightning lit the sky, and my son whimpered. I gave him words of encouragement and tried to spin this as a grand adventure. I’m not sure if my daughter believed that story or if she was in shock because she was uncharacteristically quiet. The rain slowed to a drizzle, but we were already soaking wet when we came upon a combine left in the field so I decided to take shelter in the cab to rest for a few minutes.  I’m glad the farmer took the keys because I might have been tempted to try to drive it out of the field which would have undoubtedly compounded my predicament because I’d never driven a combine before.

We left the combine and resumed our trek.  I wasn’t sure how much longer I could carry my son when I finally felt the firm pavement beneath my feet, but now I had to decide if I needed to go east or west to find an inhabited farm.  Heading in the wrong direction could prolong our misery by several hours. I strained to see any recognizable landmark with each flash of lightning.  With little confidence in my decision, we headed back west knowing that it had to be close to midnight so the chance of any traffic on this road was remote. In about 10 minutes I saw the sweetest sight I had seen in a long time–a security light illuminating the driveway to the house of some friends. Not wanting to frighten them, I yelled my name as I pounded on their door, and we were soon drying off in their kitchen.

John is not at his best when awakened in the middle of the night so he chose to focus on the mistake I made by taking the only road in a 13 mile stretch that didn’t connect with the highway. I chose to focus on my resilience and fortitude that got us all out of a bad situation safely and the fact that he chose not to go see the fireworks with us.  Of course he was the one that had to drive 30 miles to pick us up and pull the car out of the field with a tractor the next day. My children were small enough that I don’t think they remember that night, but I will never forget it. Sometimes we pay a pretty high price when we take a wrong turn. I know I did…I really liked those sandals.

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