‘Ghosts from the past appear, alas’

I live in Dubuque. Last week, I found myself driving home on Highway 52 through a blinding snowstorm after covering a school board meeting in Edgewood.

I did not encounter a single car traveling in my direction, as few were foolish enough to be out. I did pass a handful of cars heading in the opposite direction. One of them began fishtailing in front of me, and when I braked, I also began fishtailing. We missed each other, but it was close.

Though the forecast was only for an inch of snow, it only takes an inch to destroy the safety of the road, and it can look like a blizzard when driving through it. It was a harrowing drive, and as I drove with knuckles white, I tried to push the thought of Tiffany Mueller out of my mind. Months ago, I wrote a story about Mueller’s near-death experience when the truck she was driving slid off the road and ended overturned in a creek bed. She could not exit her vehicle and, as ice water filled her truck, she survived by breathing from a pocket of air until help arrived, just short of her freezing to death.

Mueller’s death-defying experience haunted me on that lonely road, as hard as I tried to dismiss it, and I checked to see if I had a hammer or anything in my car, in case I had to break a window. Then I remembered that, had Mueller put her car in park, she might have been able to open the doors and escape her near-watery grave. Duly noted, I rehearsed the act in my head, just in case.

To divert my attention from the claustrophobic fear of being entombed as such, I began thinking about poet Robert Service. Now deceased, he wrote volumes of narrative poetry about the Yukon wilderness and many tales of survival in the frozen tundra. Memories of his stories comforted me as I searched for the lines in the snow-covered road.

As a kid, my father used to read the poems to my siblings and me. They were wildly entertaining, and they rhymed. I even know some stanzas by heart and began reciting them out loud as I drove. I felt less alone somehow, as if I was speaking to someone in the car. It also brought memories of my Dad back to life, and I could hear him reading the words from “The Cremation of Sam McGee”:

“There wasn’t a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,

With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid, because of a promise given;

It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: ‘You may tax your brawn and brains,

But you promised true, and it’s up to you to cremate those last remains.’”

As I crept along the road, I also remembered reading Service’s poems to my kids as well. They loved the stories too, and I recounted the times I read to them around the fire as they listened wide-eyed to the wonderful tales.

By the time I arrived home that night, shaken but in one piece, and after I pried my fingers from the steering wheel, I was grateful to Service, Mueller and my dad for accompanying me through the miserable drive. As a writer, every time I experience an unpleasant event, I tell myself that at least it’s good for material. Voila, a column and the beginning of a poem:

When one is alone on a country road,

and the snow is blinding sight,

Ghosts from the past appear, alas,

and comfort the dreadful fright.

— Lisa Towers, staff writer, can be reached at lisa.towers@wcinet.com