“Is there any way open to Omaha?” I asked the fireman in the yellow coat.
“Nope,” he said for maybe the two hundredth time as he stood greeting motorists on the I-80 offramp at Avoca, Iowa. Somewhere up ahead in the howling blizzard lay a couple of jackknifed trucks blocking the Interstate. Maybe I could detour around it, I thought, and get as far as my in-laws’ place before the rest of the highways closed. Just forty more miles. That’s all I needed.
Instead, I wound up coaxing my little car up and down the hilly streets of Avoca, population 1,500, looking for the Lutheran Church, one of the places where travelers were sent after the motels filled up.
The idea of sleeping on a church pew with a bunch of strangers didn’t appeal to me. Unlike our ancestors, most of us have come to expect our own private space for sleeping, something that’s “ours” even if it’s only a motel room. To be thrown in with strangers during those vulnerable dark hours can make you feel like a refugee. But it seemed like a better option than spending the night in a ditch.
Then I got lucky. My wife’s sister and her family, returning to Omaha from a weekend trip, got caught in that same unexpected storm and that same traffic jam. They spotted my ancient Toyota on the street while looking for the Lutheran church. When I had to leave my car at the bottom of a long, icy hill, they took me the rest of the way.
In hindsight the night at the church was a social experiment, the kind that plays out to a greater or lesser extent any time people are stuck in an airport or forced from their homes by some disaster. In our case it went like this: Take a random sample of travelers from a particular highway on a particular day. Place them together in a building they’ve never seen before in a town they didn’t intend to visit. Leave them at the mercy of strangers for their meals and bedding. Give them hours together with nothing to do. Observe the results.
Before we got settled, even before a smiling man opened the door and welcomed us into the building, my seven-year-old niece made friends with a girl from the car that pulled in next to us. The new friendship was formed on sight and based on two principles: 1) They were reasonably close in age, and, 2) They were both girls. They were together for the rest of our stay.
After that it went without saying that the other girl’s mother, Robin, would sit with us at what soon became “our” table in the fellowship hall. Just like that, Robin and her three kids became our extended family. During supper, provided by the church, Robin ate her sandwich open-faced, Scandinavian-style, and talked about her kids, about the weather, about trying to get home.
We met a young woman named Cherie. She was traveling alone. She narrowly avoided a head-on collision on the two-lane highway I’d considered earlier as a possible detour. She arrived at the church shaken, and then to her dismay found herself watched and followed by another stranded traveler. The “creepy guy” (Cherie’s words) soon left, but she felt alone and uneasy and asked to join us at our table. She, too, became our temporary relative and remained with us for the rest of our stay.
Around the room, other travelers bunched in groups, sometimes in pairs, but rarely kept to themselves. Some people spread out on the floor, designating space by the placement of bags. Others looked at laptops, or talked on phones, or found play rooms for their kids, or brought in travel carriers for two small dogs and a guinea pig. Ours was a generally happy community, built under favorable conditions: There was room for everyone, and our hosts (thank you, Trinity Lutheran!) provided sandwiches, hot soup, and blankets for everyone.
The next morning everyone awoke rumpled and stiff, having slept in their clothes on church pews, on couches, on the floor — whatever was handy. There were no strangers at breakfast. By now we all knew each other by sight if not by name.
So how do people react in the experimental condition? Here’s what they do: They make little homes for themselves and get busy forming temporary relationships and communities. They normalize their surroundings as quickly as possible.
The new day was bright and clear, and there were goodbyes and thank-yous to our hosts, and our extended family sent Cherie on her way east, while me and my relatives and Robin and her kids formed a three-car caravan heading slowly west past abandoned cars and smashed and twisted semi-trailers on the re-opened highway. In time our paths diverged and we waved our goodbyes through salt-splattered windows.