On December 16, 2019, St. Louis got one crazy snowstorm. I know this because of a task I had on my to-do list that day, still archived on my computer: Drive to Art Hill to take pictures.
I knew better, actually. I had been stranded in a winter storm eight years before when traveling to Springfield, MO on business. Freezing rain was in the forecast, so I opted to leave the night before. But I honestly didn’t know what all the fuss was about. There were no problems on the highway at all…until there were.
Less than an hour into my trip, they shut down the highway. Strangely, I had never before considered just what that meant. The highway really was shut down. All the cars and trucks turned off their engines. All the drivers, I imagined, stopped sipping their coffees and tried not to think about going to the bathroom.
The big rigs eventually maneuvered onto the shoulder, and the other drivers – myself included – jockeyed for the vacancies they left. My goal was to get to an exit ramp about 50 feet away, and I accomplished this in just under two hours. But, when I got there, I still had to navigate the ramp itself, which had turned into a steeply-graded slip-and-slide.
The climb was well worth it. At the top of my little Everest, I found a gas station with a Burger King. I penguin-walked with my fellow motorists and shared a booth with them. We were shoulder-to-shoulder, delighting in our fast food. We had made it to the Land of the Whopper. We were in this together.
Eight hours later, the highway reopened. I ventured back out, a big cup of coffee and a box of Good n Plenty at my side. I still had two plus hours of travel time. Even if it took me twice that long, I figured, I would make my mid-morning meeting. I was doing the numbers in my head – if I averaged 40 mph, if I averaged 30 mph – when I came upon the scene of the accident(s). A semi overturned here, a car there, several more vehicles in the ditch. I gripped the wheel and slowed to a crawl. I was wide awake now, checking the rearview mirror for would-be tailgaters. But I needn’t have worried. I was the only car on the highway. All the smart people were still back at Burger King.
It took me 30 minutes to get to the next exit, and half again as long to find a place to sleep. I took a short nap in a church that had opened its doors to stranded motorists, and then I headed back home. The sun was coming up by then, the highway had been salted, and the traffic was moving at a pretty good clip. Much to my surprise, it took me no time at all to get home. I had spent the night just a short distance away.
I later learned that the ice storm had cut a narrow swath, closing down just a few miles of highway. A small matter really. So small, in fact, that MODOT didn’t report it right away. When I called my boss to tell him I’d been stranded, he wasn’t able to verify it online. Neither could my husband. Nor could the people I was driving to Springfield to meet.
Until the ice storm was finally reported – and even after it was – I thought of this as my Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe moment. While the world was sleeping, I went someplace else. I had an adventure. It was treacherous and scary and strange and beautiful.
Fast forward to December 16, 2019 and that crazy St. Louis snowstorm. I was back out on the highway, heading to Art Hill to take pictures. The roads were snow-packed already, and the snow was continuing to fall, wet and heavy. It took me two white-knuckled hours to drive the 18 miles to Forest Park and, during that time, I saw a couple cars go into the ditch. But most of the time, I had the road to myself. It was if the rest of the world was sleeping.
And yet, when I got to Art Hill, there were a hundred sledders or more – their toboggans, coats, and hats making a colorful confetti design on the hillside. Their voices punctuated the usual quiet of the snow with laughter, shrieks and calls to one another. It was exactly what I’d hoped to find.
The experience took me back several years to the night I was stranded on the highway. All these people had braved the storm to climb their little Everest, to have their day of adventure. One pure and perfect moment, frozen in time.
Art Hill is the January feature in my 2022 A YEAR IN THE CITY calendar. It is also available as an archival print. For more information, see ayearinthecity.com.