Level Three

Snow sticking to bare trees on either side of a stream flowing through a narrow cleft in sandstone bedrock.

Hocking River gorge, above the Rock Mill covered bridge, in winter.

        Evidence of the tragic demise of Fred Rutter, in the form of a mangled guardrail, was not spotted for many hours after he should have returned home.  An exhausted snowplow driver noticed the deformed metal as he cautiously drove the big county truck down the sinuous track by the Hocking River gorge adjacent to Rock Mill.  
       The full implication of the damage did not fully register on the driver's mind.  He was too focused on trying to plow and salt Lithopolis Road, during this first major winter storm of 2022, which began on Ground Hog's Day.  The driver could have cared less that The Weather Channel had dubbed this several-days-long generator of overtime and frazzled nerves, Winter Storm Latham (in all capital letters, exclamation points, and accompanied by an ominously voiced announcer).  The road pavement was not visible, nor could his massive plow even get close.  It had been buried under more than three inches of ice created by a day-long bout of freezing rain, followed by an evening of heavy sleet, which eventually turned to snow - and the snow continued for another day and a half.
        This section of road was nerve-racking even during the best weather.  Steep grades and a series of tight 'S' curves, three road intersections, a ninety-foot-deep gouge into the sandstone bedrock, created over the eons by the deceptively minor waterflow of the Hocking River, just a mere five miles from its origin west of Greencastle.  The gorge dropped abruptly from the south edge of the road, and when the foliage was on the trees, it was mostly invisible.  A small hill bordered the north side of the road.  An old wooden mill, five stories in height, was perched on the opposite side of the narrow chasm, and towered over the throat of the deep gorge.  This structure, which was built in 1824, and known as Rock Mill, replaced the first mill at this location which had been destroyed by a flood in 1822.  A picturesque little covered bridge spans the cleft in the rock created by the so-called river, above a waterfall.  This stunning scene can only be briefly glimpsed by drivers on the road, while being attentive to avoid vehicles slowing to get a better view, or packs of bicyclists attired in garishly colored spandex struggling up or down the hill.  Adding to the fun of negotiating this part of road is a nearby brewery, which has a cross-walk connecting its facility to a parking lot across the road.
        None of these distractions occupied the mind of the snow plow operator.  His primary objective was to keep his truck and plow on the road, wherever that was, and try not to slide down the hill and over the embankment into the abyss.  The glacier of ice adhered to the pavement, plus the heavily falling and blowing snow, made this maneuver a sphincter tightening operation.  This is why, by the middle of Friday morning, the county engineer had raised the road condition warning from Level 2 to the most serious Level 3.  That meant no one was to be traveling on the roads except snow removal crews, law enforcement, and first responders.  All others were subject to arrest - which usually did not happen because it was too dangerous to attempt apprehend anyone foolish enough to be out in conditions such as this.  The citations typically were awarded when crews came by to extract the unfortunates from the ditch, providing they still had a pulse.  The damaged guardrail caught the driver's attention, but only briefly.  He had his own priorities and distractions just staying on the road.

        Fred had seriously considered these factors before walking out of his house.  A big plow driven by the mayor, along with a smaller truck operated by a village worker, had been grinding up and down Columbus Street the previous afternoon, throughout the night, and into the morning.  By now the pavement was visible, and so was the painted yellow line down the middle of the street.  The road was mostly wet and passable.  That level of constant attention would not be possible for the rural roads outside of the village. A few cars had passed by, but not many.  He concluded that getting out of the unplowed alley by his house would be a challenge, but getting out of town would not.  However, the snow kept falling and the wet road kept getting obscured by slush until the plow trucks made another reappearance.
        Why even consider hitting the road at all?  He was retired, therefore the compulsion to get to work, no matter what, was not a factor.  But he was the treasurer of the Friday noon discussion meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous in the nearby city of Lancaster, Ohio.  As such, he was partially responsible for making sure the doors were open and the coffee on for the other members of the group.  It was a matter of trust and responsibility.  
        Chris, the group secretary, had called Fred to consult as to whether it was advisable to even try to get into town.  He lived a couple of miles northeast of Lancaster, and owned a four-wheel drive pickup truck.  He was confident he could probably make it, Level 3 road warning or not.  Southeast of town the ice was causing trees to fall across roads, power outages were being reported, and the Hocking River was flooding near Logan.  Chris said his wife told him he was an idiot to try, thus giving him a moment of pause, and the reason for his phone call.  
        They discussed the admonitions by AA 'old timers' to go to meetings no matter what.  If a person would have gone out in bad weather to get a drink, or make it over to the dope house, then that person should put the same amount of effort into getting to a meeting.  All alcoholics and addicts intuitively understand this dilemma.  During the Blizzard of 1978, Fred stayed home from work because he could not get his car out of the garage due to the ice.  Being stuck at home, but within walking distance to the grocery store, he decided to head into the maelstrom to acquire beer to tide him over until the dangerous weather conditions abated.  The blowing snow completely enveloped him at one point in a total whiteout.  It was incredibly disorienting.  Feet on the ground, yet not able to tell which direction he was going.  Nevertheless, he persisted and made it into the store.  Other folks were loading up on bread and milk, which apparently are necessary staples during a storm.  He felt the stares of disapproval as people glared at his two twelve-packs of Miller High Life, but comforted himself with the thought that he would be having fun, and they would not!  It only made sense!  Well, truth be known, it only made sense to people like him, and he seemed to be the only one.
        "Be willing to go to any lengths to stay sober," is the mantra for successful recovery in AA.  Certainly, then, today was one of those occasions to seriously consider one's motives before acting.  Had not these two men made a commitment to make sure the meeting took place on time every Friday, so the still suffering alcoholic and addict could find refuge and the message of hope and recovery?  Indeed they had.  Yet the program of recovery also brought them to a new way of living and thinking whereby rational thought should hold sway over the old irrational and self-serving forms of decision-making.  
        Chris offered to contact two other members - one who lived in town and the other who drove a monster truck that probably could drive across the Grand Canyon.  The in-towner said he was not leaving his house no matter what.  The guy with the beast of a truck was in the hospital due to a possible cardiac issue.  Chris reluctantly decided he would stay home as well.   Fred's wife Tammy agreed with Chris's wife, that only an idiot would go out on the roads if he did not have to.  Still, he continued to waffle about his decision.
        Fred arrived at the self-serving conclusion that he had to try, because he was doing this to help others.  Additionally, he was a safe driver - in his own estimation.  The road to ruin is paved with good intentions.  These lofty motives, clouded by ego and self-delusion, cause many to act in incredibly stupid ways. Then when things go awry, they are perplexed and mystified.  The inevitable disasters which result from this fallacy in reasoning is never their fault for they were trying to do something decent - in their own opinion.  
        These are the situations where life gets difficult.  Make a decision based upon rational information and conclusions, or proceed because people might like you better for having tried.  In Fred's case, rational thinking lost, and pride and ego won out.  He got in the car and cautiously began the drive to Lancaster.

        Normally, the drive is about fourteen miles and takes about twenty five to thirty minutes.  Fred, because he had been a commercial truck driver for many years, knew he would have to yield to the road conditions, and not to the clock or his typical backroad route.  The Level 3 warning did give him pause, but not sufficiently enough to dissuade him from his mission of higher purpose.  He felt confident that could the read road conditions and be safe in a dangerous situation.  Hubris and danger make for a disastrous combination.
        The road conditions were definitely poor.  A layer of ice, several inches thick, resided under another couple of inches of fresh falling snow.  Where a county or township snow plow had passed by, the conditions would either be packed snow, which was okay to drive on, or thick slush created by the salt.  The slush made the underlying ice even more slick.  Some other cars were on the road, but very few.
        He almost slid off the road while climbing the hill that led to Rock Mill.  The challenge was to maintain traction in the snow and ice while applying sufficient power to get up the hill, and and not start spinning the wheels and losing traction.  Stopping at that point was not a good option, for he was on a hill and there was no place to turn around.  So he pressed on, and finally made it to the top.  A relatively flat stretch of road, covering several hundred feet, provided enough time for this man on a fool's errand to catch his breath and prepare for the next challenge.  Through the falling snow he could see the crest of the road where it began its descent into the Hocking River gorge.  He slowed the car to a crawl.
        The laws of physics then began to exert themselves.  Gravity.  The steepening downward slope of the road resulted in the car picking up speed.  Improperly applied brakes on a slick surface results in loss of control, so Fred gently pulled on the emergency brake handle while very gingerly resting his foot on the brake pedal.  His speed, while still very slow, was definitely increasing.  With a sinking feeling of helplessness, Fred applied the brakes harder, and then felt the horrifying sensation of the loss of control.  The brakes had stopped the wheels from turning, which is what they are supposed to do, but now the stationary tires were sliding upon the ice.  Gravity was increasing the speed.  The series of curves approached rapidly, and that meant the need to steer.  He let off the brakes and turned the steering wheel.  Nothing!  Gravity, acceleration, and centrifugal force dictated this speeding object would maintain a straight trajectory.

        Science made the car slide sideways into the pile of snow bordering the guardrail.  That snow was a natural incline plane for the car to roll over, and into the void.  Science again!  This was not Fred's fault!  But he did not have much time to think about such things.  The braking tree limbs sounded loud in the rolling car as it arced through space.   Gravity once again took over, and pulled the slowly cartwheeling vehicle toward the bottom of the chasm. The car made a sickening crunch-thud, when it hit the solid rock river bed below.  Snow knocked from the surrounding trees gently showered down onto the crumpled metal at the bottom of the abyss.  And then it was silent again - silent like it only can be when it is snowing. 

        Had this not happened, Fred would have arrived eventually at the church parking lot in Lancaster, and found it empty.  He would have unlocked the building, started the coffee, and set out a fine assortment of cookies - and then waited.  He would expect that eventually some people would slowly trickle in.  There would be lively banter about the weather, the treacherous road conditions, and various permutations on the theme of "willingness to go any length".
        That is what he expected.  In reality, no other car made any tracks in the parking lot that day - not even his.

*  *  *
        The opportunity for Fred to humbly mention in the ensuing days, his selfless act to assure the meeting was open on Friday had disappeared.  He could not poke fun at himself for sitting in an empty room, drinking coffee and eating cookies, while taking the inventory of those who had not appeared.  
        Actually, those remarks would not have been those of a humble person.  They would have been utterances of a man driven by ego, who shrouded the ugly truth with vails of humor and self-depreciation.  Things are not always as they seem, even when coming from a person who appears to be sincere and well grounded.
        No, Fred's pride and ego was permanently punctured with that dull noise in the Hocking River gorge - all because he thought himself special and above the remonstrances of officials charged with keeping us all safe, while stating the obvious:  "stay off the roads!  LEVEL 3 Travel Alert!"



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