By Ryan Phillips


A man who has been through bitter experiences and travelled far enjoys even his sufferings after a time” –Homer, The Odyssey–

I gripped the frigid steering wheel and cursed at the traffic that was at a standstill for what seemed like miles on Main Avenue in Northport. The bluegrass music playing through my radio only worked to intensify my anxiety as the banjo rolled at a feverish speed while I sat still.

On either side of the street, cars sat abandoned as if the occupants had simply given up and took to hoofing it in the cold—newborn refugees in the midst of chaos. As the heavy snow began to fall and cover the ground, scenes were conjured from the apocalyptic thriller “The Day After Tomorrow,” as people without transportation cried on the shoulder of Main Avenue or fought in vain to get their vehicles free from the icy clutches of winter.

Even as a reporter, I was not prepared for what this day had in store for this relatively calm corner of Alabama. Since the freak snowstorm that shut down the city two weeks ago, the city of Tuscaloosa has been hit with two other winter fronts, but has been prepared to avoid another catastrophe.  On this day, however, we were caught with our pants down.

The morning of the initial snowstorm I woke to a fine white dust that covered my vehicle, with class starting in an hour, and no announcement of closings.

I thought to myself, “If I get stuck in a ditch because of the icy roads on the way to class, I will personally walk to campus and politely ask Judy Bonner to get a winch a pull my vehicle out.”

However, the drive was manageable and the roads had not yet become frozen, but sitting in Reece Phifer on campus, my eye was instantly caught by the most terrifying site I had witnessed in years fluttering lazily outside of the third story window—a heavy snowfall.

The University was closed shortly thereafter, and I found myself wandering through a city caught in the grips of panic. Students slipped and lost footing on frozen patches of sidewalk. Cars skid and bumped into each other, and for the first time in what seems like eons, Bear Bryant was covered in a heavy white shroud of snow.

Police directed traffic along University Boulevard, but the river of snow-covered metal moved at a sluggish pace and the faces of each driver told a different story of fear and urgency—We were not prepared.

I sat on Bryant Drive for an hour before reaching Lurleen Wallace Boulevard, and by this time, the roads were frozen. Intersections were clogged with honking motorists, all wishing they were at home under a blanket watching James Spann in his shirtsleeves telling them about the impending winter apocalypse.

The Black Warrior Bridge was a slush slide that left one riding in a low gear with a foot off of the brake. My biggest sigh of relief came when I finally crossed into Northport. That is until I decided to take Main Avenue.

Another hour, five cigarettes and a volley of curse words later, I found myself on the parking lot that was Highway 43. In my infinite wisdom, I decided to take a shortcut on Flatwoods Road to reach Rose Boulevard. Big Mistake.

Before reaching an alternative route, I noticed a slope in the road in which cars were sliding sideways on a frozen patch of asphalt and getting stuck on the shoulder and in the underlying ditch. Across from Harper Farms in Northport, this slope would have claimed a pile of cars had it not been for a brave (What I can only presume) team of father and son who courageously stood in the ditch and directed drivers, me included, on how to get their vehicles out and around the patch. Covered in snow and chilled to the bone, these two winter weather warriors were game changers for those trying to get home, and for that, I thank them.

Detouring to Highway 82 and reaching Rose Boulevard some three hours after leaving campus, I was turned around again when a slope in the road had frozen and claimed several more vehicles. Citizens scattered along the shoulder shivered as they held frosted cell phones to their ears and called for help. Some citizens helped direct traffic, and others simply sat in shock as their cars hummed in wait.

I felt as though the route to my home had become impossible. Every hill and slope had become a frozen deathtrap, eagerly awaiting the next unwitting motorist to slip, slam on the breaks and then go sliding into whatever ditch, car or pedestrian that sat in it’s way.

Back on Highway 82, I took what I thought was my last option. It was around 3:00 p.m. and daylight was fading. When the darkness hit, the roads would be impossible to drive on. I took Mt. Olive Road and crawled at a snails pace leading a pack of nervous cars that had followed me from Rose Boulevard. About a mile from the turnoff that would put me about five minutes from my home in a rural area, the road was blocked.

It slowly became darker, but the snow had stopped. As the temperature continued to plummet, one driver in a white truck found themselves at the top of a hill and stuck off of the shoulder after hitting a slope.

At the bottom of the hill, cars parked and the occupants got out to stretch their legs and get a feel for the wait.

“Dammit— I have come too far to turn around now, I’ll just wait it out,” one man said as he got out of his truck and put on an University of Alabama Facilities coat to watch volunteer firefighters struggle to get the truck tires to grip the road and pull itself out.

The squeal of tires and slinging of mud signaled the truck was not going anywhere without help. On the rear of the truck, a Z71 sticker could be made out, even from where I stood some 50 yards away.

Another bystander, who had parked his commercial work truck in wait commented, “If that is a Z71, it should have four-wheel drive.” He then said with a laugh, “Maybe he just doesn’t know how to use it.”

He then walked up the hill to check on the truck and offer his assistance. I confess, I had not come prepared to help anyone and stood on the frozen road feeling inadequate in slick bottom cowboy boots that couldn’t grip duct tape if they were slathered in molasses.

After some discussion with the volunteer firefighters, he then returned to our group that continued to shiver in wait, and with a grin told us, “They just put that Z71 sticker on there for looks—it doesn’t even have four-wheel drive.”

Eventually, enough sand was put under the tires of the phony Z71 for it to grip and rip out off of the shoulder. I got back into my frozen Pathfinder and crept along the treacherous road, but the size of my tires, and my prior awareness to grip the high shoulder of the road for traction, made for a safe ride home. After all was said and done, it took me four hours to travel from The University of Alabama to Northport.

Over the last two weeks, the city has shutdown twice for winter weather, which is odd for this region. However, after the debacle that was the first snowstorm of the year, the city, county and state have all risen to a new level of responsibility and awareness when encountering this loathed winter enemy.

That being said, the next time I start my day with snow on the ground, I will simply go back to bed.

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