Once Bitten

I recently made the round trip from Fort Atkinson, WI, to Poughkeepsie, NY, to deliver my older daughter to college. I made the trip in a little over 72 hours, and in that time encountered two of the most dreaded road hazards imaginable.

We left on a Friday afternoon at five, and made our way through Chicago with no trouble at all. Then we got onto I-80/94 heading east to Indiana, and that’s when the trouble started...

Within minutes, all four lanes of traffic ground to a halt. Thinking that there must be an accident or a construction zone ahead, we settled in and waited. And waited. And... waited.

An hour later we had moved about a mile, and we knew something strange was going on. When people all around you are getting out of their cars to walk and stretch, something’s not right.

And yet... everything seemed normal. All the Chicago radio stations were broadcasting baseball games and sports talk. The roadside traffic alert signs weren’t flashing yellow, and the AM traffic information radio broadcast was nothing but static. If there was a serious problem on I-80/94, no one was talking about it.

And so we stuck it out.

Finally, nearly three hours into the ordeal, my daughter found an AM station in Indiana that was broadcasting the truth. The Indiana DJ said, “Folks, none of the Chicago stations are talking about this, but if you’re on I-80 trying to cross into Indiana, GET OFF THE ROAD NOW! You’re not going to make it!”

It turned out there was a section of the Interstate in northern Indiana that was flooded out, and I-80 was actually closed! And in three hours, we hadn’t seen a single law enforcement officer, not a single detour sign, not a single warning or indication that we should be getting off I-80 and finding another route! It was astonishing that nothing was being done, and we felt very lucky to have found that little AM station.

We got out of traffic, doubled back to Chicago, drove south to Champaign-Urbana, then headed east through Indianapolis and Columbus, and arrived in Poughkeepsie a mere seven hours late!

After delivering my daughter to her new dorm room, touring the campus and saying our goodbyes, my younger daughter and I headed for home the next afternoon.
Somewhere in Ohio, heading west on I-80, we were caught in a tight pocket of traffic.

Both lanes were being hemmed in by tractor-trailers, and about a dozen cars were waiting for one or the other of the rigs to pull ahead and pass, so that everyone could move ahead.

Suddenly, the Audi directly in front of me swerved into the shoulder, and I saw a three-foot long section of tire tread barreling down the lane towards me. Swerving out of its path was not an option, as the Audi knocked it right into the center of the lane. I had only an instant to make my decision: hit the road gator with my right tire, hit it with my left tire, or go right down the middle. The last choice seemed the safest, so I took a bead on the rolling black snake and hit it head-on.


My daughter looked up from her book. “What was that?”

“It’s ok, honey,” I said, trying to remain calm. “We were just hit by a road gator.”

“A what?”

As I explained what had just happened, I cautiously tested the steering and brakes to see if there had been any obvious damage to the vital systems. It didn’t seem there had been, but Lord knows what happened to all those cars behind us.

When we stopped for lunch, I finally saw what had happened. The lower lip of my front bumper had a clean vertical crease right down the middle, and there was a nasty black tire tread imprint on the bumper itself.

I know I was lucky. The tire tread was careening along the ground, not flying through the air. I was able to pop out the dent in the front bumper by hand, and the imprint scrubbed right off.

The lasting effect, however, was a new respect for fleets and drivers that maintain proper tire inflation, and for the educational work done by the Tire Retread Information Bureau. Underinflated tires can kill, and they can also scare the hell out of you.