Angels on the Highway: The Floods of ’95

Note: When the Russian River overflowed the banks during one of Northern California’s most violent storms, residents fled for higher ground. This story is not about them. It’s about me, a single woman who was simply trying to drive herself home through the storm, and on the way discovered that in the midst of seeming calamity, gentle hands were at work.

Angels on the Highway: The Floods of ’95
by Sharon Rockey

The phone lines to the Highway Patrol had been jammed all afternoon. From my office window in Marin, I watched forty mile an hour gales snapping trees and hurling branches across the flooded roads. We had just lost our power and I wondered if I would ever get home that night.

At 6:30 pm, in the pitch-blackness of the worst winter storm in a decade, I skidded onto the freeway. It took all my concentration just to stay in my lane, dodging fender-benders while torrents of rain pounded the windshield. Highway 101 was already impassable at the Marin/Sonoma border. That meant Highway 37 and the smaller country roads were the only access back to Sonoma. Even these were about to close.

The twenty-minute stretch of freeway became an hour-long lesson in self-defense. Finally, I turned off the main highway at Sears Point Raceway onto the narrow winding two-lane road. The traffic ahead had come to a stop and a highway patrol car was escorting cars, one at a time, through a lake of water that had completely obscured the division between the road, shoulder and ditch.

I waited and wondered if this was going to be a rerun of the great flood of the 80’s, when sections of northern Marin County had literally became islands, and I was marooned and forced to camp out in somebody’s home with co-workers. That was the year that ducks were spotted swimming down First Street in front of the Sonoma Plaza, and the frantic long distance call I made to alert my daughter via downed power lines, would have been more effective using two tin cans and lengthy string of dental floss.

Minutes later, however, it was my turn to trust the flashing red lights to lead me safely to the other side. They did.

Feeling sure my adventure had peaked for the evening, I continued on, clutching the steering wheel. The taillights ahead were the only things visible through my steam-streaked windshield. I was nervously approaching the first blind curve when my car suddenly lurched violently—the rear tire had just slammed in and out of a deep pothole. When I felt the aftershock and shudder, I knew I had no choice but to pull over and investigate. And quick!

I bumped through the rest of the curve and pulled off the road, precariously perched on a narrow muddy shoulder. The only light for miles came from my own headlights and from the cars that came blazing out of the blackness from the other side of the sharp bend. I pulled myself together, took a deep breath and centered my thoughts away from the nerve-wracking sound of the pounding rain. Opening the door forcefully against the wind, I stepped out into the downpour.

I remember hoping that those cars racing by so closely were wearing new raintires, the kind you see on TV commercials with cute chubby babies sitting cross-legged inside, the kind that grip the road on wet curves and miraculously stop just in the nick of time, the kind I keep promising I will buy every time I hydro-plane up a hill in the rain.

There was just enough reflection to see that my right rear tire was ripped and smashed flat against the mud. Instead of panic, an unexpected sense of calm and resolve swept over me and inwardly I chuckled at the total ridiculousness of the situation. It was like the cliche opening scene of a 1940’s horror movie starring me as the stranded victim!

I walked to the front of the car already soaked to the skin and stood in the glare of my headlights, raincoat flapping, holding a useless red umbrella. I looked straight ahead into the black void on the other side of the road not sure how to do what needed doing, but knowing I had exactly one option . . . a dark stormy night hitchhike!

When the first car whizzed past, I turned and faced the direction of the oncoming traffic and reluctantly raised my hand. Moments later a second car braked and stopped a few yards down the road. I ran after it and was overjoyed to see a friendly looking young woman reaching over to unlock the passenger door. No sign of fangs, no cape, no evil grin! We shouted our greetings above the howling wind and I raced back to grab my belongings. After turning off my lights and locking up, I gratefully settled into the care of this gentle fellow traveler who was no longer braving the elements alone.

As we pulled away, I turned back and took one last look at my car abandoned on a dark and dangerous curve— the car I always diligently park in remote spaces to avoid even the tiniest ding from somebody else’s car door. I knew this was going to be the ultimate test of faith!

We drove about eight miles to the service station next to the old Ford’s Cafe where I’d recalled seeing tow trucks. I thanked my driver for her kindness and waved her on assuring her that I would find help here, even though she offered to stay with me right to the end.

The only man on duty at the station that night was already overwhelmed with a long line of frantic drivers lost in the Napa/Sonoma flooded-out maze of detours. I was just one more problem he had to deal with, but he took me inside while he phoned for one of his two tow trucks. Neither answered of course.

It was beginning to look like a long hard night and I could think of at least seven different ways I would have preferred spending it, but at least for the moment I was under a roof. I wondered how long it would take before one of the tow truck drivers would answer their phones. I wondered how long it would take before the attendant would remember me and try phoning again. I wondered if the two tow truck drivers might actually be home having a nice hot dinner. Through the station window I could see the storm picking up speed, and after a few minutes I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands.

At the risk of hurting my host’s feelings, I picked up the phone and called Stu’s Chevron Service, another tow service just a couple blocks from home. In a few minutes their familiar yellow truck appeared and I jumped up onto the seat next to a gray-haired, able-bodied, genuine homespun Sonoman.

He was completely undaunted by the storm, in fact it seemed as if he were enjoying it. As he pulled out onto the road he began calmly telling me tales about how this storm compared to others he and his family had survived, about how deep the water had been in his pastures, where he had had to move his cows and how he was saved one year by pulling himself onto land hand-over-hand on his barbed wire fence. He knew most of the people in the valley and he told me names of his friends who owned the vineyards and the herds of cattle that I had driven by countless times over the years. His slow easy manner was a welcome contrast to the scene raging on the other side of his windshield.

At last I spotted my car, and thankfully it was exactly as I had left it. He jumped out and I watched in amazement as the tire was effortlessly changed in minutes. The old tire was beyond repair and the spare turned out to be one of those ridiculous looking little things good for emergencies only. I had fleeting visions of missing the next day of work while I did some serious bargain tire shopping. Judging from the rough gouge marks on the side of the wheel, the pothole had been at least six inches deep. He suggested I follow him directly to the station in town to check the axles and the underside of the car.

He drove back to Sonoma slowly, guiding me around falling branches and holes. He phoned ahead and when we got to the station, they were waiting with an open bay and motioned for me to drive right in. The car was hoisted up and inspected. A new tire was quickly mounted. It was all so easy. I began to be more fully aware of how everything had been taken care of from the very beginning and had fallen into place in a way I did not even have time to visualize. In a matter of minutes I was on my way.

I arrived home little more than an hour and a half later than usual. Even though the threatening weather outside continued to rage on, inside I felt calm and protected. I reran the events as they had happened. I had just hitchhiked for the first time in my life and had lived to tell about it. I had been rescued and comforted by total strangers. I had been forced to buy a new tire, which I needed anyway. Insurance would cover the cost of the tow truck. Clothes and shoes will eventually dry. There simply was no damage to survey. I had just survived what would have looked to any observer like a woman’s worst nightmare and had come away feeling an afterglow.

At first glance it all seemed so amazing, as if none of it had happened. But when you really stop and think about it, haven’t you noticed how angels always appear just when you need them? And in Sonoma, angels are abundant!