After the show, I just wanted to return the rental car and fly home, but a flooded creek coursing over the bridge stood between me and the airport. If I turned around, I'd be stuck; if I went ahead, I'd be dead.
A few years ago I had a come-to-Jesus moment with my career after I'd wrapped up a show in Houston. A colleague and I were traveling home together, but we had to tear down first so our flights were not until the following morning. We could have taken a red-eye flight, but agreed that a restful night's sleep and an early start made more sense.
When we woke the following day, it was raining pretty hard, and according to the news, it had been for a while. I thought it best to check on our flight, and was disappointed – but not surprised – when I saw that it was delayed. My co-worker and I decided to head for the airport anyway, and in the parking lot we did rock, paper, scissors to see who would have to drive our rental car in the pouring rain. I lost, so I took the wheel and headed out nice and slow.
As we navigated to the freeway, we saw standing water on some side streets, but figured the major roads surely were designed to deal with that problem. Not so much, we found, after we got onto a major thoroughfare. For long stretches, the entire left lane was underwater, so we kept to the right. At least there wasn't much traffic on the roads, which at the time I thought was lucky, but soon I realized that it was just because everyone in Houston was smarter than us.
My co-worker and I had a serious conversation about bailing out and holing up somewhere. Then we passed an exit that was half full of water, and we realized that if we left the freeway, we had no idea what we'd be driving into. So I tightened my grip and crawled along the nearly deserted road.
After about 30 minutes, the rain had let up and glints of sun poked through the clouds. Even better, we started seeing way-finding signs for the airport, and I was grateful our ordeal was over – or so I thought.
Turning onto an access road to the airport, we were suddenly in a line of stop-and-go traffic. We had no idea why, so we continued to roll forward, as we were occasionally passed by a car coming from the other direction. Suddenly I realized the cars heading our direction were ones in front of us in line that had turned around, as just ahead, a creek was far over its banks and coursing across the bridge in front of us. Some drivers were braving it; some were bailing out.
After perhaps the stupidest decision I've ever made, I went for it. I have no idea why. But as we inched across the bridge, I panicked. We were going to die, I decided, and I wondered if my company's insurance policy would pay our families.
I am not a religious sort, but I prayed out loud. By some miracle, the engine kept running even though it was half submerged in water, and we made it to the opposite side. Then I started to cry with my colleague. I turned into the first dry parking lot we came to because I needed to get out of the car and throw up or lie down on the ground or something. It looked like everyone who went before us had the same idea, as the parking lot, which resembled an island, was half full of people and cars. Word on the street was that the road just ahead was also underwater and that the access point to the airport was closed.
We came to the realization that we were stranded in that parking lot unless I wanted to drive back across the bridge – which wouldn't happen even if a pack of wild dogs was chasing me. But the second miracle of the day was that the parking lot actually belonged to a small airport hotel built on enough of a rise that it was the only dry thing around.
The road would likely be impassable for at least the rest of the day, the hotel's front desk worker told us. My co-worker called our airline to report our situation and ask about a new flight, but she was told not to even bother trying to come to the airport until the next morning.
Feeling unlucky – yet lucky to be alive at the same time – we booked a room at the hotel. Outside, the parking lot continued to fill with other lunatics like me, and it wasn't long before the front desk crew had sold every last room and started pulling cots out of storage.
The fact that we had all gone through what felt like a near-death experience created a strange camaraderie among the hotel's occupants, many of whom sat around the lobby chatting with each other rather than sitting alone in their rooms. It wasn't long, however, before people started to realize that this hotel had neither a bar nor a restaurant on the premises, and things got a little less convivial. Those who had food hid it, and those who didn't turned their cars and purses upside down in the hopes of a wayward granola bar or something.
The front-desk staffers called a convenience store a couple of blocks up the street to see if it was open. It was, because that clerk was stranded there too, but water past our knees stood between us and it. Without much hesitation, a crew formed to wade there on a reconnaissance mission for food and beer, and everyone in the lobby threw money in a pile. They returned a while later with armloads of sandwiches, bags of chips, packages of cookies, and three cases of beer, and then we sat around in the lobby and ate our food.
By the next morning, the water had dramatically receded, so we made our way to a crowded airport concourse. As I sat on the floor, I thought about the crazy ordeal and what I'd learned: Never drive through a flooded road for God's sake, and try to hide a little food in your bag in case you ever find yourself scrounging for nibbles like a shipwreck survivor.
— Karin Westby, director of sales, Wheeler Electronics Inc., Cleveland