Descent into the Polar Vortex

February 7, 2019

Carol was so fascinated by single digits, then came the minus signs and her first W.H.I.G.M.I moment in a while

Turns out I had timed our January arrival in Chicago via Amtrak’s Southwest Chief to coincide with the delivery of the Arctic Circle’s Polar Vortex. I say “turns out” because planning the trip had nothing to do with advance weather forecasts. Even if it had, I would not have been put off by any climate effects emerging from something that sounded like a new thrill ride on the city’s Navy Pier, or a new constellation of planetary alignment revealing itself for the first time in Chicago’s night sky. In this I would soon become much enlightened.

It is perhaps an opportunity for a teachable moment to declaim the reasons, justifications, challenges, advantages and revelations of travel, along with all the golden chances to leave valuable possessions behind as you go. This twelve-day junket had the modest goal of introducing more of the Champagne and Madigan relations to each other. The worst that could happen would be to discover incompatibilities that would later bloom into full-blown family dysfunction. We really weren’t expecting anything like that.

I think the snow had a “buried alive” feel for Carol.

What we also weren’t expecting was to be caught in a freeze so deep that even the hysterical presenters of The Weather Channel failed to overstate it. As we rolled into Chicago’s Union Station through the city’s western suburbs, I pointed out to Carol sections of switching tracks with flames shooting out from them to keep them from freezing. Images of tracks on fire would flash across national news broadcasts in the days ahead.

Over the next week, Carol and I would experience temperatures we’d only vicariously lived through in movies like Dr. Zhivago and Ice Age. There was little need for us to go out in any of that, except, of course, to replenish our wine stores. On that Friday morning following our arrival, the A.M. temperature was reported as -7F, but I still dropped Harper off at school with her thinking there was no reason to cancel it just because frostbite could occur within about thirty minutes of exposure to the elements.

The Chicago River freezing over sometime after Hell did. (Photo courtesy of Mary Nerad Wonderlick)

All along, though, the issue was not getting around, but getting out. The Vortex seemed to cordon off this section of the Midwest like some wall not a figment of a stunted imagination. An Uber request on our day of departure initially returned “No cars available.” (Lyft ultimately provided one, albeit thirty minutes late.) Our flight to Detroit was delayed three hours, as well as our connection to Dayton. And then neither Lyft or Uber could provide drivers on our subsequent departure date for home. Overall, thousands of flights were canceled and even Amtrak suspended service into and out of Chicago for a couple of days.

Could have been a scene from the beginning of Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Three hour delay, but we got out of O’Hare.

So what? Unless you booked your trip with the Donner Party, or your Uber driver turns out to be a stormchaser, adverse weather simply becomes another unplanned and unexpected adventure. And sharing such an adventure with a surprisingly compatible companion only heightens the experience. Isn’t that what travel should be about anyway? Travel writer Paul Theroux once arrived at the border of Albania, not realizing he needed a visa to enter. Traveling alone, he was relieved he didn’t have anyone along to have to apologize to. Bill Bryson, another solo sojourner, was dropped off in the middle of a highway tunnel in Tokyo and instructed by the cabbie to ascend a very long and dimly lit staircase to reach the train station. No way he does that with his spouse along.

But here’s the thing with unexpectedly traveling into a Polar Vortex with a traveling companion: you have someone to keep warm with under the down comforter. There’s a lot of places I wouldn’t care to travel to alone. But I can’t think of a place on earth or a climate condition I wouldn’t want to experience as long as Carol would be along, gently suggesting, “we’re not doing this again in January, right?”

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