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My recent trip to Knoxville. Or “What a weekend I’m having!”

A little catching up in order to begin this story…

My father-in-law Ernie Guldbeck is 87 and living in a nursing facility in Bowling Green, Ohio. He’s been ill lately and ended up in ICU again this past week with a touch of pneumonia. We weren’t sure if he was going to pull through or not, so my wife, Karin, made plans to fly up and see him–rather in a rush.

She looked at several options for flying out of the area. Asheville, Greenville, Charlotte, Atlanta–all of these were either prohibitively expensive or involved multiple layovers (one of them included 14 hours of layovers to get there–longer than it would have taken to drive there and halfway back). But she did find a flight from Knoxville to Chicago, then to Toledo. The down side? It was scheduled for 7:45 am Saturday morning, but she booked it as the most reasonable of the bunch. Then we made certain to go out and do our early voting, but decided to skip dressing up for Halloween.

We were up at 4 am on Saturday to drive the two hours to Knoxville in order for her to make the flight out with the requisite hour for check in and security stuff. Made it there in reasonable time–in spite of an early snow that you may have heard about. It wasn’t too bad at 5 in the morning when we crossed the state line into Tennessee. There was NO snow in Knoxville, but a bit of it in the high elevations between our house and the airport.

I have to say that the Knoxville airport (McGhee Tyson) is a charming smaller airport and other than the fact that it’s 9 miles South of the city and not on the main interstate, not a terribly busy place (at least not at 7 in the morning). I might consider using the facility again–if I ever have to.

But Karin hopped out of the car and grabbed her carry-on bag and asked me to wait for a minute to confirm she was in the right place (it just looked a little too small, you know?) In a moment or two my phone buzzed and it was her saying her flight had been cancelled and they were trying to book her on another flight. Since I was in a “white-zone” I couldn’t stick around and either needed to find a parking space or go home. So she said I should go on.

Here’s where things get interesting for me. I was driving up the Airport Highway back toward Knoxville, I-40 and civilization but the car was pulling to the right something fierce. Well, we’ve been having alignment problems and I was intending to take the car in to the shop this coming week anyway–so I figured it was a combination of the storm winds and the front end being out of whack.

Around 7:30 I stopped at the Strawberry Plains, TN McDonalds to use the restroom and grab a second breakfast before heading home to make sure our cat, Sam, got fed properly.

I headed down I-40 Eastbound and experienced little traffic at first (though that pulling to the right was bothering me more and more). Got into the mountains proper and was starting to feel the effects of the lack of sleep, but avoided any serious accidents (thank you, Lord) in spite of the falling snow. But when I crossed the state line back into NC there was a huge back up at the tunnel at Harmon Den.

I actually managed to pull into the tunnel, out of the snow and wind and get about halfway down in the left lane, when traffic came to a complete stop.

This was around 9:15.

And there we all sat, for four hours.

I say “we” because I was in the midst of a bunch of cars containing people in Orange sweatshirts–UT fans and students, all headed to the game at USC. They were in a jovial mood, in spite of the traffic and many of them took the time to get started with some tailgate party events–such as finding a place to use the bathroom outside the tunnel. I mean, it WAS four hours. Even I had to go somewhere. Fortunately there is an access road around the tunnel from the last time there was a rock slide there, and so it was possible to walk around that pathway and find a semi-secluded spot for such activities. I don’t know what everyone else did, but I found a spot in the cliff-face with a fallen boulder on either side and made sure there was no one in sight.

I kind of wanted to sleep, but was afraid to do so thinking traffic might begin moving sometime soon.

It was pretty boring just sitting in the car.

That is, until two UT fans (who were heading forward, ostensibly in order to find a reasonable place to use as a facility) stopped by my right front tire–tapped on my window and said, “Hey mister, you’ve got a flat tire.”

So God provided a diversion for me that took much of the next hour or so. Pumping up the tire and checking to see if it was a hole or a slow leak.

That lasted long enough for a Highway Patrolman and several emergency vehicles to take that access road around the tunnel and emerge on the downhill side of the tunnel to clear the mess.

The “mess” appears to have been based on an accident where a sports car had been hit by a transfer truck. I didn’t get an official report, but it appeared to me that the sports car driver was okay–at least I think he was the driver. He looked cold (we all did) and shaken up, but otherwise seemed okay.

But the real “mess” was that even after traffic got moving again people kept trying to cut around–in 8 inches of snow! They got stuck and then blocked the emergency vehicles. One EM guy from Tennessee had come across the border to help and he got stuck trying to get around all the lane jumpers and so had to be pulled out of a ditch himself!

Okay, so I got the car out of the tunnel about 1:15 and then traffic came to a stop again–because of that sort of thing. We were backed up for another 20 minutes or so–which gave the tire a chance to leak down again!

I got out in stopped traffic (except for lane jumpers who couldn’t wait or see that they were the problem) and pumped the tire up again–twice.

The traffic began to move at about 15 miles an hour. But it WAS moving.

If you know anything about the region you’ll know that there is an exit at Harmon Den that does not have any amenities–people live there, but there’s not really any access to another road bypassing the interstate. Pretty much the same for Fines Creek–people have some lovely homes there, but don’t pull off at that exit expecting gas or Micky Dees.

With the interstate just barely plowed I didn’t dare pull off to fix my tire. Figured I’d stop at the NC Welcome Center a couple of miles down the road. But, of course, that was closed as well. Not complaining–with all the highway to clear it makes sense they wouldn’t have time to clear that parking lot.

But it was closed and there was something like 14 more miles to drive on a tire that was not at all well. Believe me, I thought I felt it collapse somewhere around mile 6.

I drove as slowly as I could (what with a pack of UT Vols on my bumper) and limped off I-40 at the Jonathan Creek exit. Pulled into the nearest parking lot and checked the tire. It was intact enough to take another charge of air from my handy plug in pumper unit (a Christmas gift from Ernie, years past) and drove as far as Barberville Baptist Church, where I checked the inflation once more–it was okay.

I arrived home around 3:30 pm, fed Sam (who mewed a lot in a semi-furious, but cute manner), fed me–then changed from the partially deflated one to the compact spare (a.k.a. “donut”) so I could make it to church in the morning.

Irony number one: Karin had been on the ground for several hours. She’d been re-routed to Detroit, rented a car and driven to Toledo where her sister picked her up. While I had been on the road for almost 12 hours–long enough to have driven her up to Ohio.

Irony number two: In the Sunday School lesson (which I wrote before any of this happened) I actually mentioned an analogy of having to use a jack and tire tool. Those items being “set aside” for just such a purpose, as are believers. Once again I find myself asking, “Lord, could we maybe do these things without the object lessons during the week?”

Irony number three: The lesson overview for Sunday School was about God’s perfect timing. So I guess I have to learn to live with things like this.

Anyway, Ernie is doing better today. He was on a respirator, but they have taken him off of that and have him on a regular oxygen mask (with humidifier) now. He has been talking to the family and plans are being made around moving him to a rehab facility. We’re much relieved.

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