Driven to distraction

Some people reveal their inner selves in the most unique ways.

Are they polite? Pushy? Thoughtful and considerate? Arrogant and dangerous? We can determine that in a surprising fashion.

That realization came to me recently as I navigated another drive through Sioux Falls on one of our endless winter day. The roads were coated with ice, making them slick and slowing traffic. Well, most traffic.

There are always drivers who either don’t care about the condition of the roads or have a great deal of confidence in themselves and their vehicles. They race past other cars, driving as if it’s 85 degrees and July, not 8 and February.

Many of them are at the wheels of pickups, it seems to me. They may have four-wheel-drive vehicles, and they are confident in their ability to stay on the road. When I see one of them in the ditch, as I have several times this winter, I hope they are safe and their pickup is not too damaged. But I also am not surprised.

I take Grace to work, since she doesn’t care to drive in such lousy conditions, and it’s about 8 miles through side streets, on Interstate 229 and then on a curving and slippery off-ramp and then to a main road. On a good day, it takes about 20 minutes. But with snow, ice, wind and severe cold, aka the Winter of 2018-19, the time can double.

Some days, especially before I invested $300 in new rear tires, the drive was more exciting than we needed. We learned all too well that Sioux Falls has several steep drop-offs along its streets and highways. Peering down them as you slide past is enough to cause a slight sweat to emerge, even on a sub-zero day.

It’s a feeling I have had before.

In 1986, I lived in Galveston, a city on the slender barrier reef island of the same name. I worked for a newspaper on the mainland, and because I covered sports as well as city and school meetings, it was often night before I headed home.

That meant crossing the causeway, a long, twisting concrete span between the mainland and the island. For most of the year, looking down on the Gulf of Mexico was a beautiful sight, but for a few weeks in the winter, when even the Gulf Coast grew icy, it was rather unpleasant. I still recall the oddly metallic taste of fear I would experience on especially icy, windy nights, with my unreliable old car rolling up and then down the peak of the bridge.

I guess I am a flatlander at heart.

I also grew up in South Dakota and have worked in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Montana, and Wyoming, so winter driving is both a birthright and an acquired skill. I have skidded around icy curves in all those states and lived to tell the tale.

But when I was younger, with stronger nerve, darker hair and balder tires, I often scoffed at my parents’ warnings and set off on drives during winter weather. I hit the ditch once or twice, and skidded and slid more times that I can recall, but never did any damage to myself, my passengers or my cars.

My most frightening experience was in the mid-1990s, while working for the Argus Leader and living in Brookings. I was assigned to do a feature story in Henry, a small town near Watertown. It was about a 75-minute drive in ideal conditions, but this was an icy morning.

I had to get to Henry, interview the only two seniors in the high school, a story I had already told once, take some photos and be back in Brookings by 12:50 p.m. to get a roll of film on the bus to Sioux Falls. It was a challenge I had met several times before.

I was driving around 60 mph a few miles out of Brookings when I felt my car starting to spin. I did a complete 360 on the northbound side of Interstate 29, and when I came out of it, I was headed into the ditch.

Remembering Dad’s advice to keep the car moving through snow — I was surprisingly calm — I plunged off the road but kept moving forward. I drove right back out and was on the roadway.

Spotting an emergency turnaround, I quickly headed home. Once I was parked outside my home, I broke out into a sweat and shakes as I fully realized what I had just been through. I called the office, and after telling them I had no intentions of trying that drive again today, we settled on another assignment.

So far, our daily trips through Sioux Falls have been routine, with a few white-knuckle moments. But I just slow down and let the pickups roar past. I just want to get there and back safely, so a few minutes either way don’t really matter.

But we are ready for spring any day now. It will be nice to enjoy a peaceful, easy drive, perhaps with a window rolled down and a warm, sweet breeze in the air. We can look at the flowers in the ditch, and gaze at their beauty, not worrying about how deep the drop.

But winter is still in the driver’s seat now.

South Dakota native Tom Lawrence, a former Pioneer executive editor, has written about the state, its politics and people since 1978. Read his blog Prairie Perspective at and follow him on Twitter at @TLCF26.

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