Kathy Muhlenbruch Hotchkiss' winter experience

Ferris Column: The writer, Kathy Hotchkiss, a long time Franklin County resident, has lived in Illinois the last 11 years. She currently serves as State First Vice Pres-ident for the Illinois Questers. She has adult children living in Hampton, Florida and Cedar Falls. This is her story in her own words:

The headline of the Hamp-ton Chronicle on Thursday, December 05, 1991 read, "Blizzard paralyzes Franklin County; schools caught off-guard, roads closed."

The first few paragraphs of the article, which, along with photos, covering almost the whole front page, mention winds on the previous Tues-day of up to 40 mph, plunging wind chills down to minus 45 degrees, visibility cut to zero in rural area and the Sheriff's Department announcing that if people ventured out, they were on their own.

That morning Hampton Superintendent, Jim Alexander, was calling around to other school districts, first being told at 9:30 a.m., by Clarion that there was no problem, but half an hour later getting a call back saying things had changed. "By mid-afternoon the blowing and drifting was so bad that the rural areas were in a state of white-out.

Sheriff Payne said he re-ceived several calls from con-cerned people about family members who hadn't reached their destination. "Eventually, everyone was accounted for, so far, unless someone is out there in a snowbank on a county gravel road, we made it through this storm without a death. We're lucky," he said.

In re-reading this article, I felt those last two sentences applied specifically to me, alt-hough I was not named. In 1991, I was an employee of Franklin County Home Care Service, and my first client that morning lived several miles northeast of Latimer. The weather was cold, but sunny. There had been two inches of fluffy snow the day before, but there was nothing alarming as I headed out to work in my older silver Honda Prelude. I was a busy mother of three, and I don't recall listening to the forecast. By 9 a.m., I was on my way to Latimer with typical winter driving, where I spent two hours with another client. After that I was sched-uled to go to Hampton for the remainder of the day. Cell phone? No, hardly anyone had them at that time.

As I left Latimer shortly after 11 a.m., I found that with all that fluffy snow blowing around in the stiff wind, visi-bility quickly dropped at the edge of town. I came up be-hind a car going very slowly down the wrong side of the road. I honked at the car, try-ing to warn them to get over, when they suddenly drifted into the ditch right by CAL school. I knew they could get help there, so I inched ahead toward the intersection with Highway 3.

The visibility was near zero, so I stopped there, with cars both ahead of me and behind me. I got out and told the driv-er behind me that I was going to do a U-turn and go back to Latimer. The driver ahead of me got out also, and it turned out that he was a relative of mine. He suggested that I go to his mother's home in Coulter, but I told him with the visibility this bad, I did not even want to try to cross Highway 3.

I made my way back to Latimer, stopped back at my client's home that I had just left, and called my office. I told our director, Deb Jones, that the weather was horrible, and that I was going to take the gravel road and get home.

You might wonder why I didn't just stay put in Latimer. I didn't know if my husband, a farmer, would be at home if school was let out early, and didn't want my young kids home alone in a blizzard. In that moment those concerns were my priority.

To describe the trip that followed as "harrowing" would be rather an understate-ment. I had taken 170th Street, which runs east and west past the north side of Beed's Lake, hundreds of times, and I knew where every farm place was located. I looked up at the telephone poles to help guide me, as they were slightly visi-ble above the ground blizzard.

I "felt" my way along, go-ing very slowly, for several miles. I met no other cars on what was typically a busy gravel road. I was about three and one-half miles from home when my car hit a snow bank, which I didn't see until I hit it. There was hard-packed ice covering the gravel under-neath, I was at the edge of the road, and I was stuck. I also knew I was about a mile from any farm place where I could get help, and that my car was the safest place to stay.

I got out to see just how bad my situation was. With the ice underneath, I didn't have enough traction to free myself, so I got back in the car to wait for help. Unbeknownst to me, my car's heater wasn't working properly. When doing home care, I often only had a short distance between homes, so I seldom ran the car long enough to really warm up anyway. I was wearing khaki-type slacks and a polo shirt, with regular socks, athletic shoes and a medium weight winter jacket and gloves.

When I got out of the car, my legs became coated with icy snow. The car was just warm enough to melt the snow, but not warm enough to warm me up. The temperature had dropped significantly since I left Latimer. I was worried about how long I might be there and about running low on fuel, or having my tail pipe filling up with snow, so I only ran the engine for a few minutes at a time, which did not have much effect on the temperature inside the car.

The radio was an interesting companion, with ads urging people to go to the First Na-tional Bank for their annual cookie day, interspersed with the weather updates and warn-ing people that if they traveled the roads it would be at their own risk. I was getting very cold, especially my feet, since my socks were also wet from the melted snow. I was pretty sure I had a blanket in the trunk, but didn't want to get out and further chill myself and the car by checking.

My children did get home safely that day on the school bus, but I'm not sure what time school dismissed. I later talked to their longtime driver, Jim Burmester, who said it was the worst weather he had ever driven in. I think that speaks volumes!

In the meantime, my mom, Melba Muhlenbruch, became concerned and called Deb Jones. Deb told her what time I had called and told her I should have been back home quite some time ago, and that I planned to take the gravel road home. My mom went down-town and got my dad out of a meeting he was attending, and then they both went out to the farm. She stayed to take care of my kids while my dad, Howard Muhlenbruch, who has since passed away, and my now former, husband, Roy went to look for me. The Sher-iff's office had no information about me so Mom made them aware that I was out there, stranded, somewhere. Dad's 4WD pick-up made it through the snowdrifts, but I didn't even see the pickup until the lights were a yard or two from my car. I have never been so thankful to see anyone in my life! I'm not sure how long I was in my car, maybe two hours or longer. When you are alone, scared and cold, and no one knows where you are, that can seem like forever. We in-formed the Sheriff's office that I was safe, and told them that there was a silver car out there that might be hard to see when they started clearing the roads.

If you are in a town you may not realize how much dif-ferent the weather can be in a rural area. On that December day, I experienced a "perfect storm" with bitter cold and strong winds blowing fresh powdery snow over icy roads. The weather conditions changed and became dangerous so quickly that it caught me and many others off guard.

When we went back to retrieve my car after the storm, the whole engine was packed with hardened snow. It had to be towed as the serpentine belt had come off. We also got the heater checked out and found it had issues. I continued working for Franklin County, but from that time on my trunk contained boots, warm socks, a blanket plus other items use-ful in a weather emergency.

There were many lessons learned on that winter day, and I became a more cautious trav-eler. I've never forgotten the care and concern of my family that saved me from becoming a statistic. I was lucky!