Good Friday on the Highway

By Amanda Witt Published on March 25, 2016

Twenty years ago, my husband and I — and hundreds of other travelers — experienced a Good Friday we’re unlikely to ever forget.

That year, when our daughter was not quite two years old and I was pregnant with our first son, my husband and I decided to make the 160-mile drive from Lubbock to Abilene, in order to spend Easter weekend with my parents.

Our daughter had a toddler-Easter party to attend, and my husband had classes to teach (not every university takes off Good Friday), so it was mid-afternoon before we set out. But it was an easy drive, less than three hours; we expected to be in Abilene by suppertime.

Halfway through our journey, the clouds darkened.

“I wonder if we’re in for some rain,” my husband said, and turned on the radio, because rain in West Texas doesn’t generally fall softly and sweetly.

The radio said nary a word about oncoming inclement weather. We drove on.

Ten minutes past the small town of Snyder, the storm hit. Not a thunderstorm, as you might reasonably expect in West Texas in April, but a snowstorm. A blizzard. A blinding, can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face blizzard, a blizzard worthy of Michigan or Minnesota.

I don’t know how to fully convey to northerners the utter impossibility of this happening in that area of Texas, and happening moreover in April, when the average high temperature is 77 degrees. Eighteen inches of snow fell that day; the average annual snowfall for that part of the state is less than five. Twenty years later, Sweetwater, Snyder, Abilene, all those nearby towns, still have records that were set by the Good Friday freak snowstorm of April 5, 1996.

And at the heart of the blizzard was U.S. Highway 84.

At the time, we didn’t know it was going to get that bad. Still, when the storm hit, my husband and I decided to turn around and wait it out in Snyder. So we crept cautiously along through the driving snow, looking for a turnaround on the divided highway.

When we reached one, we couldn’t believe our eyes. Barricades, traffic cones, warning reflectors. The road back was closed. We — and hundreds of other startled travelers — were trapped.

After staring for a moment, dumbfounded, at the barricades, we did the only thing we could do. We crept forward along US 84, bumper to bumper with everyone else, like a modern-day wagon train.

“I’m hungry,” our daughter said from the back seat. We had an Easter basket full of candy and party favors, nothing more, and the needle on the gas gauge was falling lower and lower as the snowdrifts alongside the road grew higher and higher. We passed not a single gas station, not a store, nothing but field after field of dying wheat.

“What’s the next town?” I asked. “Roscoe?” This was in the days of maps and memory, not of GPS navigation systems.

“Yeah,” my husband said. “Roscoe’s only thirty miles from Snyder.”

It had been two-and-a-half hours since we left Snyder.

Night fell.

We ate the Easter candy. We blew bubbles and read “The Tale of Miss Moppet” a hundred times. We sang every song we knew, and then made up some. Outside the car the snowdrifts continued to grow.

We came to a complete stop beside an old train, its rusty boxcars blurred by falling snow. “This is surreal,” my husband said.

I began to grow frightened. What would we do when we ran out of gas and the car’s heater stopped — already we probably were sucking carbon monoxide, what with all those cars around us, and would that hurt my unborn baby? What would we do when our little daughter’s lips turned blue with cold? Somebody might let us into their car … until they, too, ran out of gas.

“Could we build a fire in one of those boxcars?” I asked. Civilization had vanished, and I wasn’t going to sit passively in a car while my child froze.

“With what?” my husband said. “Everything’s wet — and besides, they don’t have doors. The wind’s whipping right through them. The car’s better, even if the engine dies.”

We sang some more. We prayed. We talked brightly and cheerfully to our blessedly content daughter.

Finally, far up ahead, we saw a line of reflectors marking an exit. When eventually we crept up to it, we pulled off the highway and made our way cautiously through the drift-filled streets of Roscoe, Texas, population 1,380. We saw only one place in town that was open — a well-lit diner, crowded, cars crammed in the small lot and spilling over into the street.

Almost euphoric with relief, we parked and carried our daughter inside. It was packed full, and warm; people were chatting companionably, offering each other advice; and we soon were comforted with chicken fried steak and fries. Then we stood in a long line for the pay phone (this was before the days of mobiles) and called my parents, 50 impassable miles away. “We’ll stay here tonight,” we assured them.

There was no motel in town, or if there was, it was long full. But my parents knew where we’d go.

We weren’t the first to arrive, or the second, or fortieth, or fiftieth. All of those people had been put up in church members’ homes. The rest of us — two hundred people or so — were welcomed into the Roscoe Church of Christ for the night. When it was time to sleep, we used the pews in the church auditorium for beds, or camped on classroom floors. “The other church in town is already full,” someone said.

“Oh, dear, we’d have saved you a bed somewhere if we’d known you were coming,” another woman told me, worriedly eying my bulging stomach. “Joanne still has one, but she’s out a ways and I don’t think her road’s passable any more. Are you feeling okay?”

Church members brought us blankets, pillows, food. The ones who owned four-wheel drives ferried food and gasoline to the line of cars trapped on the highway outside of town, to people who were afraid to go sleep at a stranger’s house, or at a stranger’s church.

At midnight they turned the lights out. The preacher watched over us as we slept, sitting in a folding chair up front, reading by the light of the baptistry dressing room.

Early next morning, cheerful women arrived to brew coffee, scramble eggs, fry bacon, bake biscuits. We ate — egg stains joining the chocolate on my daughter’s white shirt — and accepted seconds, and tucked some cash into the preacher’s hand, though he never said a word about donations.

And then the sun came out, and the snow melted almost instantly away, and we thanked them and drove on. In less than an hour my father met us in the driveway and my mother welcomed us with mountains of blueberry muffins, piles of bacon and giant bowls of cut fruit, as if we had been lost in the barren wilderness, which until the tiny town of Roscoe gave us refuge, we had.

After all that snow on Good Friday, Easter Sunday was 70 degrees and sunny.

It’s a weekend I’ll never forget. I’ll never forget the kindness of God’s people to strangers in need, but I’ll also always remember the lesson of that weather. Not every parable is told in words.

Sometimes the sky grows dark. Sometimes the road is blocked, and the supplies are dwindling away, and you don’t know how you’re going to survive ’til morning. Sometimes it’s Friday — “Good” Friday, the most earth-shattering day the world has ever known.

But Sunday’s coming. Sunday is coming, and regardless of whatever came before, Easter morning will dawn beautiful and fair. Christ has risen. He has risen, and one day He will return to take us home.

 

Amanda Witt, Ph.D., is a homeschooling mother and the author of The Red Series, a four-part thriller set in the near future.

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