At 2:00 a.m. Wednesday morning Peggy woke me up again.
“I’m getting cold.”
I mumbled, “Okay” and started the Toyota.
In a few minutes, warm air flowed through the dashboard vents. I wiped the fog off my side window and looked across the Love’s Truck Stop parking lot in Kingsville, Texas. A freezing drizzle glazed the scene around me in ice.
I’ve had some sucky vacations in my day, but this one might top the charts. We had arrived in Corpus Christi on Saturday, February 6th, and it was sunny and beautiful. We’d enjoyed four days of mild weather.
Among other reasons, we’d chosen to stay in Corpus Christi because it was a beach town on the Gulf of Mexico. It’s almost as far south as you can go in Texas, just 165 miles north of the Mexican border.
Surely this would be a safe spot for a month-long escape from our Indiana winter.
But there were ominous weather forecasts on TV. Reports warned that Texas was facing a rare bout of record low temperatures thanks to a descending polar vortex. Sub-freezing temperatures and single-digit wind chills were predicted for most of the coming week.
Basically, the normal Indiana winter weather that we had driven 1200 miles to escape was chasing us down to Corpus Christi.
Sorry Texans, we never meant to curse you with our presence.
We were disappointed to have our first month-long “snowbird” retirement trip interrupted by such a cold snap, but figured we would just hunker down for a few days, let it pass, and then resume playing outside.
But we did not realize how unprepared the Texas electrical grid was for freezing weather.
As the weekend approached and temperatures began to drop, it was obvious that people were freaking out. Long lines at gas stations, grocery store shelves wiped clean, alarming news stories on TV…it was going to be a tough slog.
But we had enough food and water on hand for several days, so we thought we’d be fine.
We felt a bit sorry for the locals. When you live in such a mild climate, you just can’t handle the cold. There are many older homes in this area with no heating system at all. There are exposed water lines everywhere. The laundry machines at our condo sit at the end of a covered outdoor walkway.
It was amusing to watch the feature segments on the local news explaining how to drive on ice and how to keep your pipes from freezing. One weatherman spent several minutes teaching viewers how snow forms in the atmosphere.
Believe me; a snow storm in Texas really grabs people’s attention.
The local news reports were pretty alarming, but I thought we’d be fine for a few days as long as the power didn’t go out.
I woke up at 4:20 a.m. Monday morning. The condo seemed chilly. I went to the bathroom and discovered the lights were out. Flushed the toilet and discovered the water was out.
A sick feeling in my gut told me it was going to be a long week.
Even though temperatures in south Texas had fallen into the teens, we managed to stay warm enough inside our dark sanctuary, at least for the first day.
By Tuesday morning, our indoor temp was down to 54 degrees. Outside the wind-chill was below zero. Weather forecasts called for overnight lows in the teens again.
We decided to travel further south from Corpus Christi and try to find a hotel room. It should come as no surprise that everybody else around us had the same idea.
So we spent most of Tuesday looking for a room. No room for us…or anyone else by that time. Every hotel that still had power was booked solid. There was nowhere to go.
We did not have the option of cutting our trip short and driving back home. As bad as things were in Corpus Christi, we were in better shape than the rest of Texas.
North of us was nothing but single-digit temperatures and ice storms. San Antonio had eight inches of snow. Fort Worth had endured a 125 vehicle pile-up on a frozen stretch of interstate that killed five people and put over 50 people in the hospital.
State Police were closing frozen bridges and overpasses all over the state.
Gasoline supplies were unpredictable, as many stations were closed with no power. The stations that remained open soon ran out of gas. Travel in these conditions was literally risking your life.
So we had no choice. We needed to hunker down and stick it out with the rest of Texas.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) was finally admitting defeat in its efforts to restore power to the over 2 million households shivering in the dark. It issued a public notice to customers that power outages might continue until the weekend.
More freezing weather was in the three-day forecast.
After failing to find shelter on Tuesday, we decided to drive back towards Corpus Christi and spend the night sleeping in our Highlander in the parking lot at the Love’s Truck Stop in Kingsville, about 40 miles southwest of our condo.
The truck stop still had fuel, so we filled our tank.
It also had power, food, running water, and toilets that flushed. After that last cold night in the condo, sleeping in a warm vehicle with comfort facilities close at hand seemed like a good idea.
But spending the night in a truck stop parking lot is not as glamorous as you might imagine.
Big loud semis keep driving in and out all night long! Who knew?
25 mph wind gusts rocked our Highlander and drove the wind chill down around zero. A steady drizzle of sleet coated the parking lot, making a trek to the bathroom inside the truck stop a hazardous journey.
We didn’t want to sleep with the engine on, just in case exhaust fumes might build up. So we ran the motor for 10 minutes at a stretch until we were toasty warm, then shut it off and tried to sleep.
Within an hour, it was cold enough to wake us up, so we’d start the engine for another warm-up cycle.
By 6:00 Wednesday morning, we were wrung out. We gave up trying to sleep, and went inside the truck stop to get some breakfast.
We decided we’d be able to sleep better back in our chilly condo as long as we piled enough blankets on the bed. At least we’d be lying on a comfortable mattress, and no trucks would be driving by.
We stocked up on some snack foods and a few bottles of water in case food became unavailable (the few grocery stores that still had power were mostly empty) and drove back up to the condo.
We were tired when we arrived Wednesday afternoon. We hadn’t showered since Saturday night. The breakfast at the truck stop would be our last hot meal for a while.
We climbed three dark flights of stairs to our igloo on the 4th floor.
A bitter cold wind funneled its fury against us as we trudged down the dim outdoor hallway.
Once inside, I checked the thermostat. 46 degrees.
Now that we were back “home” without running water, I had to make another trip downstairs to the swimming pool and fetch water for flushing the toilet. I knelt by the pool and pushed the first jug under the chilly water while the icy wind whipped around me.
Visions of our warm living room in Indianapolis danced in my head. Did we really drive 1200 miles for this?
I lugged the water back upstairs. We got ready for bed. It would be dark by 7:00 p.m. so that’s when we wanted to go to sleep.
We piled three heavy blankets onto the bed and snuggled up underneath them like we were newlyweds. I gained a new appreciation for Peggy’s body heat that evening.
“Been quite a week, huh?” I whispered into her ear.
“Hmm,” she grunted.
I just couldn’t resist teasing her a little.
“This could be a romantic moment,” I suggested as I gave her an affectionate squeeze.
“In your dreams, buster. Talk to me when we have heat and water.”
At least she didn’t smack me.
As we drifted off to sleep, I gave her one more little squeeze.
“Are we having fun yet?”
END OF PART 1