As a college coach I drove our teams tens of thousands of miles, if I had to guess, close to a million over my thirty-five years on highways spread across America from Washington state to Florida, southern California to New York.
I've driven athletes to meets in compact cars, sedans, lots of ten-twelve-fifteen passenger vans - one time an RV from Evanston to Durham NC and back. I even drove my Drake squad from Portland to Eugene for the 1983 NCAA Championships at the University of Oregon in a Lincoln Continental - but that's another story.
Occasionally my treks were for reasons other than competition - attending high school meets, going on home visits, or simply driving an athlete to the doctor for a health checkup. Sometimes even for a team picnic or to pick up a pair of spikes for a runner.
This evening it was for the wedding of a current athlete, the event in January 1981 (we had no meet that weekend), the marriage ceremony 3 hours from Des Moines. The plan was to leave Friday after classes, get there about 5:30pm for the 6pm wedding, attend the reception, staying until nine o'clock. Then I'd load up the eight females in the van, arriving back in Des Moines around midnight.
Just another day in a coach's life.
During the reception I glanced out the window, the snowfall that started during the church wedding now two inches deep, the winds beginning to create piles against the side of the reception hall. At 8pm the piles were five inches deep, the drifts even bigger.
At 8:30 I got the girls together saying "We gotta get out of this place."
We said our goodbyes to Carrie and hurriedly loaded up, driving south on Hwy 63 towards Traer, windblown snow flying horizontally across the two-lane road, the hypnotizing effect making it hard to stay focused on the center line. I was barely going 20mph in the snowstorm, the crosswinds buffeting the van like it was a full sail. Not good.
Which one is Mary Ann?
For those of you too young to remember, Gilligan's Island was a 1964 sitcom that ran for three seasons, the premise five passengers (the Professor, Mary Ann, Ginger, & the Thurston's) along with a two man crew taking tourists on a site-seeing trip around Honolulu, ostensibly on a "3 hour cruise." The weather turned and the boat was lost in a typhon, shipwrecked on an uncharted island somewhere in the Pacific.
Now, my "3 hour trip" was looking more like Gilligan's.
The fifteen mile drive from the reception hall to Traer took forty-five minutes. When I saw the sign for the "Golden Door Motel" I knew we were stopping. There was no way I was driving another 120 miles. We could get three double rooms and stay the night.
The girls jumped out of the van into 7"-8" of snow, half of them without coats, none of them with boots, all of them desperate for a bathroom. But there was a problem. The manager had 37 rooms...but 35 were in use. And the two unoccupied were...singles.
I explained we were attending a wedding but it only produced a snort from the owner as he turned his head and looked at me from one eye. I swear to God he thought I was a pimp, my athletes dressed up in their finest. And for good measure he added "there aren't any more roll-away beds." Yikes.
We got situated in the two rooms, eight females in one and just me in the other, my mattress and extra blankets spread around on the floor in the "girls" room next door. We had no toothbrushes or toothpaste. No pajamas and nothing to change into. Every bath towel doubled as a pillow.
That night four girls got to sleep on two single mattresses - the other four on the carpeted floor. I got the box springs in my room. I checked at the front desk the next morning and received more bad news - the roads were still closed, the strong NW winds making the job of snowplowing nearly impossible.
On Saturday we ate candy bars from the vending machine for breakfast and lunch; my discovery of an open gas station that afternoon in the town of 1200 producing items as unappetizing as the ones in the back of the cupboard. The snow was over a foot deep on my trek there, the drifts well over my knees, my dress shoes probably ruined. Everything in town was closed. And not a single room had opened up.
Boredom ran rampant that day, three TV stations not enough to amuse the girls, some choosing to sit in the van and listen to the radio just to have more space to themselves. I felt like we were characters in Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House on the Prairie" during a Kansas blizzard, the team trapped in our room, the root cellar unreachable because of drifts, the claustrophobic conditions keeping everyone on edge.
Saturday night the ones on the floor traded places with those in beds.
By Sunday morning (36 hours later) the roads were finally cleared and we made it back to Des Moines but I learned a valuable lesson. Always bring a toothbrush and clean underwear on every winter trip. And that living on an uncharted island wouldn't be much fun. Even with Ginger.
Enjoy this story? Be sure to check out the rest of the website where you can purchase my books, "A Golden Era" and "A Long Road Ahead" which tell the stories of the high school and college running careers of a father in the 70s and his son in the 2000s.