The adventures never end.
It’s 11:00 pm. We’ve just settled in our rooms at the Burke Inn in Carroll, Iowa. We’re exhausted, drenched, and happy to be safe and sound. And alive. Thunder roars, lightning flashes frequently and rain pours down outside my motel room window. Deep rumbles from the depths of the darkest clouds. Torrents of water falling on an already totally over-saturated and flooded land.
About 8:00 this evening, we are tooling along our beloved Lincoln Highway, heading west from Scranton, Iowa, where we’d stopped briefly to get some shots of two cool old busts of Abe Lincoln at a bend in the original highway. We found the old markers by following the directions in Butko’s book, and we are glad we took time to see those simple, classy memorials.
But as we head toward Carroll, the sky is growing dark and threatening in front of us. Lightning dances along the horizon. I have made reservations for us tonight at the Park Motel in Denison, about 30 miles ahead. It’s a legendary old Lincoln Highway motel that’s on the National Register of Historic Places, and I’ve made the reservations on-line, which means I’ve been exchanging emails with a woman there named Deb who obviously works nights because her replies always come after our work hours. She has three of their themed rooms waiting for us, but I realize it’s getting late. I don’t think I ever gave her my credit card to hold the rooms. I should call. Glenn helps find the phone number on his iPhone.
“Thank you for calling the Historic Park Motel. This is Deb. May I help you?” Her voice has a raspy quality.
“Hey! This is Rick Sebak. I hope you still have three rooms for me.”
“Oh, hon, I as wondering if you’d be coming. I was about to release those rooms. But we’re in the middle of a tornado right now. The sirens are going off, and I understand one has touched down about two miles south of town! Maybe you won’t make it here. Where are you?”
“We’re in Carroll,” I say. “But we haven’t had dinner yet, maybe we should stop and eat rather than drive into a tornado.”
“That might be smart,” she says. “I will keep the rooms for you unless you call back. Be gosh darn careful,” she says. I swear she said that. “Be gosh darn careful.”
We consider our options and then decide to turn around and go back into Carroll. I didn’t like the hopeless feeling we’d experienced the other evening in Van Wert, Ohio, when we were first concerned about tornado watches and warnings. As we come back into Carroll, Bob sees a neon RESTAURANT sign on the north side of the highway. CROSSROAD BISTRO the sign says. We decide to give it a try.
We’re reading the menu when a woman comes in and announces to the whole room that a tornado warning is up, and it’s due to arrive here in Carroll in about 15 minutes.
“Are we OK here?” I ask.
“Oh, yes,” she says, “we have a basement and we can all go down there if we have to.”
Someone else reports that quarter-inch hail is a possibility too, and people start worrying about their cars, and some start moving their vehicles under the awning next door at the old A&W drive-in restaurant. One man comes back and says, “With my luck the roof of the A&W will collapse on my car.” We laugh.
Bob brings the camera in before he moves our van. He and Glenn get their rain jackets, but it isn’t raining yet. The sky is terrifying to the South. Black. Dark, deep, black clouds.
Our waiter comes over to take our order, and we’re wondering if they’re still gonna cook stuff.
“Oh yeah,” he says. “Unless we have to run downstairs.”
Then there’s noise outside and everybody turns to look. The rain is immediate and incredible. It’s flying parallel to the ground, not downward. The wind is ferocious. It’s like midnight all of a sudden, totally dark.
Someone says loudly and emphatically, “Everyone to the basement. NOW!”
I grab the camera. Glenn is in front of me. Everyone in the restaurant is running down the basement stairs. The railing is greasy. It’s a weird world. All the kitchen staff are there. The man who made the joke about the A&W falling on his car. A Hispanic woman and her son. All of us patrons. We “eaters.” Some people are crying. We’re all in the basement, and there are plenty of chairs and even an old abandoned microwave to sit on. We can hear the wind rushing by upstairs, knocking on the windows and doors. There are sirens going off. We take some pictures of course. It’s unsettling, and scary and Bob says we should all look for flashlights in case the power goes off.
No one has flashlights. The woman who made the announcement upstairs brings some candles and starts lighting them. I realize there’s the light from my cell phone if I get desperate. Then the power dips and goes out but comes back almost immediately. People start asking about what we’re doing and we all start talking about the Lincoln Highway. All the folks from Iowa consider how close they live the country’s first transcontinental highway. “My house is just a half block off 30!” Everyone says they’ll watch the show. Never miss a promotional opportunity.
Then someone ventures upstairs. It’s not so noisy. There’s a radio up there, and in a few minutes someone says it’s passed by, and we all traipse back up to the dining room. The woman in charge says, “Let’s get your order.”
“Are you still going to cook for us?” I ask.
“Of course,” she says. “We’re gonna feed you. We’ve bonded.”
We order, eat dinner and are winding down when someone comes in from outside and says the window is broken on her car. Bob says he’ll go and get our van from the A&W. Glen and I look out the window and can tell the back passenger window is gone. Our window is broken too! It’s still pouring down rain. Everything changes. We decide we’re never going to get to Denison. The restaurant woman offers to help “The Lincoln Highway Boys” get rooms at a motel owned by a friend of hers. We accept her offer of assistance.
That’s how we got the last three rooms in Carroll tonight. Bob and Glenn have worked hard to rig up a plastic bag temporary fix. Our big suitcases were right beside that window, and it rained into the van, but all the equipment looks OK. We’ve seen where the Dodge dealer is located, across the Lincoln Highway from the Crossroads Bistro, and we figure we’ll have to get there early tomorrow.
Then we drive here to the Burke Inn.
There’s a NO VACANCY notice posted, but I pick up the outside courtesy phone and identify us as “The Lincoln Highway Boys.” The innkeeper says he’ll be right out. He helps us in a thousand different ways. (These Iowans are extraordinarily nice and helpful.) We empty the van and bring everything into the motel. We’ll figure out how to recover from our tornado in the morning. If it really was a tornado. We think it was.