Getting out of this canyon to attend church in the wintertime is sometimes an ordeal. The Saturday before Christmas of 1997, a cold norther blew into the Panhandle. The weather forecasters were predicting freezing rain and snow. They got the first half of it right. It started raining in the afternoon and it rained enough to turn our ranch roads into mush.
After dark, the temperature dropped into the twenties and the rain continued. When I got up on Sunday morning, everything in sight wore a fresh coat of ice—thick ice. Uh oh. Under ordinary circumstances, we would have called Barbara Richardson, our choir director, and told her that we couldn’t make it to church.
But today was a different deal. The choir was scheduled to present our Christmas cantata. It was to be the whole service. And guess who had the soprano solo. My wife, Kris. She had been rehearsing it for weeks, and yes, we would get there. Or try.
We had the right vehicle for the trip, a three-quarter ton four-wheel drive Suburban that had plowed that old road to town many times. But I knew we would have to go the Long Way to town. The Short Way, a 39 mile drive, required that we climb the caprock on a dirt road that passed through the Tandy ranch.
That hill was steep, and when it had a coat of ice on top, it was more than a little scary. There was a deep canyon on the right, and no guard rail, and sliding down it backwards offered a kind of thrill we sure didn’t need.
Henry Hale and I tried that once in his four-wheel drive Dodge pickup. When all four wheels were turning forward and we were sliding backward down that long hill, I took an oath not to do it again.
So we had to go the Long Way—nineteen miles of dirt road that followed the Canadian River to Highway 70. From there, it was 30 miles of black-top to town.
The first challenge came when I tried to open the Suburban door. It was coated with thick ice and frozen shut. I banged and kicked on it, and finally had to pry it open with a shovel. I fired up the diesel engine, always loud and smoky on cold mornings, and started chipping away at the ice on the windshield.
By the time I accomplished that task, Kris and one of our sons, Mark, were bundled up in their Drive-To-Town wardrobe and ready to go. In the wintertime, we set out on trips looking like a band of Eskimos. Out here, you dress with the idea that you might have to walk several miles or spend the night in the car.
We loaded up and left the ranch at 9:00. In clear weather, the trip took 45 minutes. I figured that today, we would need an hour and a half or two hours. We were supposed to be in the choir room at 10:30. The service started at 11:00. Kris’s solo came in the middle of the cantata, so if we tromped into the choir loft at 11:30, we would be all right.
The first seven miles of road proved to be nothing out of the ordinary, just the usual muddy mess that followed an inch of rain. When we got down to the river, the road had more sand in it and very little mud. I figured we could make up some time...until I noticed that the Suburban was sliding sideways down the middle of the road. The wet sand had turned to ice.
We poked along the next twelve miles and managed to stay between the ditches, and at last we came to Highway 70. It was wet but free of ice, but that changed when we climbed out of the valley. Up on the flats, the prairie country was one endless unbroken sheet of ice, and that included the highway.
Three miles south of Perryton, we saw a red Suburban sitting out in a wheat field. The driver had hit a patch of ice and driven through a barbed wire fence. Any thoughts I might have had about being in a hurry sort of vanished. That could have been us.
We crept along and finally pulled up to the church at 10:30. I let Kris and Mark out at the side door and parked the Suburban in the parking lot across the street. The ice was so thick and slick, I had to skate across Baylor Street, until I finally found better footing on the church lawn.
We did the cantata and made our joyful noise to the Lord. I hope He and Barbara took notice of the effort we made to get there, because next time...next time, if Kris is the soloist, we’ll probably do it again.