The Trip From Hell (1)

The Trip from Hell  (1) 

Sinkhole on Interstate 5, Roseburg, Oregon.

We'd gone over it just a few hours before the collapse.

You never know when you're going to leave on a trip from hell. They always start off with fun and anticipation. But then, after you leave...

There were two trips from hell. The first one, in 1996, would be five weeks in duration and range from Michigan to Seattle (WA) to Fresno (CA) to Fairfield (IA) and many points in between. This would actually be the first cross-country tour of our career and we were anticipating this like a dream come true. But then, of course, as we were painting trim on the back porch (pictured) my ladder capsized and my left leg was shattered in many places. We were scheduled to leave in two weeks. 

1st Stop: The Redford Theatre

The Redford Theatre is 50 miles straight south of us. This historic old place, which opened in 1928, has hosted vaudeville shows, ragtime, silent movies, and literally all kinds of shows over the decades. On this occasion I was asked to be part of a Barbershop Quartet evening, and just play a tune or two between the various acts. Since this would be my first time touching a piano since the surgery, I was happy to have an easy gig to start with. 

The Redford Theatre

Ornate and colofrul interior

After the first act I rolled out onto the stage in my wheelchair to play two tunes. I could slide myself onto the piano bench - that was easy enough. What I didn't realize was that I was in for one heck of a surprise.

I began with a peppy rag and, as usual, I unconsciously started tapping my left foot. Within seconds I was doubled up in pain. I'll explain:

There's two ways to tap your foot while playing. 1) leave your heel down and raise your toes, or, 2) leave your toes down and raise your heel. I had used toes-down-heel-up method, meaning that my whole shattered leg was pushed up into the air when I exerted pressure down on my toe. The pain almost sent me to the floor. 

I somehow recovered and realized I'd have to tap from my heel tonight and for the entire trip coming up. I couldn't be unconscious about it anymore. 

The pictures on the left show me tapping from my heel.

The picture on the right shows me tapping from my toe. 

 De Tour Village: Nov. 8, 1996

De Tour Village: friends had lined up a gig in the town hall. I was pushed into the place in my wheelchair. The concert was both sold out and well received. Afterwards we went to a dinner place with the friends, only to find it had just closed. So we went to the lumberjack's bar for burgers. I used my walker.

The place was packed and roaring, but they'd saved a long table for us. We were joined by about eight others who had been at the concert. As I was studying the burger menu a very strong lumberjack-looking type pulled up a chair across from me, flipped it around backwards, sat down and introduced himself:  "Howdy there, Mr. Suit 'n Tie. My name is (we'll call him...) Jim and I'm a working man. We're up here building the casino. What the hell are you wearing all this shit for?"

Our waitress was taking our orders while Jim was relentlessly telling me about "how much ass he had kicked" in this place. One look at his powerful arms made it clear he could do it. And he was slamming down shots and beer.

"So," Jim interrupts when I tried to talk to someone else. "Why aren't you staying in town any longer, 'Suit n' Tie?' Don 'cha like us up here? Are you a troll?"

"Troll" is upper peninsula slang for those who live under, or south of, the Mackinac Bridge which connects upper and lower Michigan. Usually it's cute or funny, but with Jim raging in front of me it was frightening. 

The waitresses delivered our drinks. Since I don't drink I had a Coke.

"Coke??!! What the f___ are you doing drinking Coke?" bellowed Jim. "This is a bar! Men and women drink here! What the f___'s wrong with you?"

"Your order is almost ready," whispered the waitress into my ear.

Everyone in the place had quieted down and was looking in our direction as he raved at me while pounding his fists on the table. We'd been there at least 20 minutes with Jim launching from one tirade into another. I was helpless sitting across from him with a broken leg that still needed another eight weeks to heal. All he had to do was to throw the table over on me and I'd be on the floor, resulting in all the surgery being broken and me being in line for an amputation again. Now he was bragging about beating everyone in the place at pool, shuffleboard, and cards. 

A waitress whispered to me, "He's my uncle. I'm really sorry this is happening. If I can round up enough people we're going to throw him out."

That did it. I had to leave before chairs and tables started flying. I got up and started hobbling on my walker towards the door, fearful that he'd go into a rage and tackle me. He didn't. Instead I heard him raging in the background as I limped between the tables towards the door,

"It pisses me off when this happens! It really pisses me off!"

We got into our car. The waitresses rushed out with our burgers and fries in bags. 

"There's no charge for these," said one. "You'd better get out of here. They're throwing him out right now. This is really a nice place and I'm sorry my uncle is such a drunken jerk. Please come back again. We're barring him."

We said "thanks" and floorboarded out of town.

It's a long drive back to the bridge and to Mackinaw City where we'd find a motel. Plus the upper peninsula roads are havens for deer and animals after dark. Linda calls it "driving through the zoo." 

We drove about ten miles out of town and stopped at a roadside pull-off where we ate the burgers. We feared that Jim, having been thrown out of the bar, would be driving by in a drunken rage and find us there. We ate in haste, then blasted off for Mackinaw. 


We have since revisited the De Tour Village Inn on several occasions. I can't recommend this place highly enough. The food is great as is the service with a friendly smile. Please go there if you're in the area. What I just described took place close to 30 years ago and was a highly unusual incident. We will be going back soon as I have another upper peninsula trip coming up. Please join us if you're in the area. 

Next to Olivet, Michigan: Nov. 9, 1996

We left Mackinaw City and drove 260 miles to Olivet. Linda's parents lived there, as well as her sister and husband plus their family. After the events of the previous night we looked forward to a night with the family. The concert would be in the First Congregational Church. Now, with our handicapped tag on the windshield, we would have our own reserved parking place wherever we went in the next six weeks

A fund raiser for the Lions Club, the event went smoothly. I played gospel favorites as usual with any performance in a church. In fact, the evening went too smoothly. It meant we weren't prepared for the events of the next day. 

A Highway Horror Show:  Nov. 10, 1996

After spending the previous night at Linda's parent's house we now had a 200 mile drive to Peotone, Illinois, where our friend, George, had lined up a performance at his church. It was a nice sun-shiny day, but it was also November. 

Winter months mean "lake effect snow."

If you don't know what "lake effect snow" is, it's a phenomenon we have here in the Great Lakes area. Moisture above the lakes suddenly freezes and turns into snow. It's not predictable on the weather channels, and the picture to the left is what it looks like coming in. 

Above is the lower region of Lake Michigan. Most people don't realize that Lake Michigan is roughly the size of Maryland, Delaware, and Massachusetts combined.  A lake that size can produce huge amounts of lake effect snow.

We also get freezing rain or "ice storms," as they're sometimes called. Another phrase is "black ice." The road in the picture is so slippery from ice you couldn't possibly stand up on it. Your car will start sliding sideways into the ditch because the roads are made to drain water to the sides. This is how slippery and dangerous black ice is. You can be driving along at normal speed and the road suddenly turns to glare ice underneath.

Approaching Kalamazoo, the red arrow on the map shows where we were when the lake effect snow and black ice storm hit at the same time. 

We were driving straight into a blizzard of lake effect snow and didn't know it. Suddenly our sun-shiny road turned into swirling snow and black ice. We slowed to crawl speed as did everyone else. What happened next was frightening beyond words and a display of big-truck driving like I could never even imagine. And it all happened during a period of about 30 seconds. 

I have included two photos to demonstrate snow in the Great Lakes area. The snow on the car photo is from a Buffalo, NY, blizzard in 2014. Note 5' of snow on top of the car. Adding in the height of the car, that means there was 9' on the city street. 

 The telephone pole photo is from Michigan's upper peninsula in 1938. I can't estimate the depth of that. 

Suddenly an 18-wheeler appeared in the mirror in back of us. He was unable to stop or even slow down because of the black ice, and we were in the middle of a solid mass of cars that couldn't move. I watched the truck approach the cars behind us and waited for the crash that would turn us all into an accordion. That truck couldn't slow down.

But suddenly, at the last second, he somehow steered this 35,000 lb. rig into the median. The momentum carried him over to the opposite side of the expressway, but those cars were also locked in a snow-swirling traffic jam the same as we were. However, as we would see, the driver was no rookie.

Unable to slow down, he continued at full tilt going against the mass of stranded cars, but he somehow was on the shoulder of the road and missing them by inches. Snow and ice spray flew from his tires as he dodged and danced past cars that were slightly extended into the shoulder. But then a worse problem became apparent: he was headed for a bridge abutment and had no place left to go. But this driver was no amateur. 

Just before hitting the abutment he swerved this massive rig back into the median ditch, hurtling downward into the blinding snow. But then we saw there was a car that had spun out of control and was in the median directly in front of a truck barreling at him. If that wasn't enough, a State Police vehicle was down there next to the car, trying to assist the stranded people. We saw a total disaster unfolding as the truck hurled towards them.

But the truck managed to careen around the car and police vehicle. Somehow managing to maintain speed to get back up to the road, he thundered up the slope of the median to hopefully land intact into what was literally a parking lot full of cars. We watched in amazement as he used the median incline to actually slow his speed! Then, miraculously, there was an opening in the cars ahead of us. He dragged this rig back onto the road and was somehow able to bring the monster vehicle to a stop. No one was hurt (or killed), no cars were damaged or smashed, and cars on both sides of the interstate laid on their horns to scream our thunderous applause for the heroism we had just witnessed. 

After about an hour's delay traffic started moving slowly again. In a mile or so we saw he'd pulled his truck out over to the side and was taking a break, presumably to calm himself down after that harrowing experience. Everyone tooted a horn of "thanks" to this unknown hero, but he was too shaken to acknowledge any of us. 

I doubt if anyone who was there to see this ever forgot it. 

That night I played the gig at the church in Peotone. Because of bad weather, only 42 people showed up. Most importantly our friend George and his group enjoyed it.

 We found a motel somewhere later and Linda schlepped our bags in again. We were learning to ask for the “handicapped” room. These rooms had handles in and out of the showers, plus was always on the first floor. 

And I needed it. Tomorrow we started a long, long drive.

Jamestown, North Dakota: 775 Miles: Monday, Nov. 11, 1966

We missed a turn in Chicago and ended up on the road to Milwaukee. This added another 30 miles or so to a trip that was already 775 miles. By now we were getting used to schlepping all our stuff in and out of motels. Linda had to do all the schlepping because I was in a wheelchair. We stayed somewhere along this road that night and made it to Jamestown the following afternoon. 

We would run our gas tank pretty low before stopping for gas. The reason was that I had to get out and hop around on one leg to manipulate the pump. There was no cast on my leg, just heavy bandaging around my knee to keep everything from moving during the healing process. 

Truck stops, such as the Flying J, Loves, Pilot, and others became our go-to fuel stops and dining rooms. They were always close to the exits, clean, fast, and with good food. 

We have no idea how many of these places we stopped at during our million miles on the road. 

         The drive to Jamestown, North Dakota, made it clear that we were much farther north than our home back in Michigan. It was cold and snow seemed to come out of nowhere. Constantly watching for snow drifts, black ice, and a variety of other things that can kill you in an instant on northern roads, we pushed the car across Minnesota, across the Red River at Fargo, and two hours later arrived at our destination. 

Worn out from long distance driving, the weariness of having to use a wheelchair or walker every time we stopped for bathrooms, we were finally at Yvonne’s place on Tuesday afternoon. Linda was worn out from schlepping and her legs and knees were beginning to hurt dragging stuff in and out of places. Jack and Yvonne gave me a couch/bed just inside their door so I didn’t have to walk very much, and I basically slept all the time there except when I was performing.

Yvonne had arranged for a performance at the Arts Center. After i played it we went out for dinner. I fell asleep on the table. 

         On Wednesday, Jamestown College had arranged for me to do a Master class in the afternoon and a concert at night. I managed to do these, but was exhausted at the end. Since my next gig was in Billings, Montana, on Saturday (three days later), I spent most of Thursday sleeping. We learned that Billings was 530 miles away on Friday morning, so Linda schlepped out of the McDonalds’ house and we got back into the Chevy Caprice for more fun and adventure. As we were leaving, Jack said to us,

“You’ve got three mountain passes after you leave Billings between there and Spokane, Washington: Bozeman pass, Butte pass, and Lookout pass.. Be very careful.”

        Having never driven out west before, I asked Linda,

         “What’s a pass?”

Billings, Montana

Nov. 16: 500 miles later, and after schlepping in and out of somewhere, we arrived in Billings and met with Ian Elliot, a local musician/agent who had lined up two gigs for us. The first one was at the Round Barn Theatre outside of Red Lodge. (visible on map SW of Billings)

It was 90 miles to Red Lodge, and we left early because of light snow and dark skies. We had 12 people in the audience for the same reason, dangerous driving conditions. Following dinner downstairs I learned that the theatre was upstairs. Since my walker wouldn't fit in the narrow staircase, I sat on the stairs and scooted backwards, navigating them one at at a time until reaching the top. Linda stored her CDs and such in a small, rolling cart which we called "the wheels." Somehow she got the wheels upstairs as well.  Following the concert we returned across icy roads back to Billings.

The next day Ian had lined up an early afternoon concert at the Rocky Mountain College. When we arrived we saw that I had to ascend approximately 25 stone steps to the entrance of this grandiose building. I sat on the cold, icy stones and again proceeded backwards to the top while Linda schlepped both the wheels and the wheelchair.

     We had dinner with Ian afterwards and informed him we couldn’t stay long: I had a gig in Olympia, Washington, the next night. Ian looked up at me in amazement and said,


Ian Elliot on left. Sadly he passed in 2021.