Weathering the Storm

Flat broke and disgusted. Almost all of us have been there at one time or another. Sometimes it turns into an extended stay. And sometimes you get a gentle reminder that there is still a lot of good in the world. You just have to look for it.

In the early 1990s I was working on a college degree in journalism, and occasionally transporting lease cars back to their point of origin. It was a tough time for me. I often found myself questioning whether I had made the right decision to leave the road and begin a new career. I was poor when I was helping pull mobile homes and transporting cars, but at least I always had a couple of dollars in my pocket.

Whenever the bills at my small college apartment were stacking up (and utilities were being turned off), I would carve out a few days away from college – often using the weekend and skipping a couple of class days – and beg my former employer to give me a quick trip to earn some money for living expenses. I usually would drive a three-car transporter and do pick-ups, either in Texas or the Midwest, and bring them back to Alabama.

I was sometimes angry with others who seemed to have it made. I was angry with myself for getting into such a vulnerable situation. I tried to use this time as motivation to work harder on my chosen career. My emotions regularly bounced around between determination and self-pity.

In 1993, I entered the final year of college with serious thoughts of chucking it all and finding a full-time job. But an inspiring story at a small Alabama truckstop helped change things. That spring the South was buried under the worst blizzard in its modern history. There was 18 inches of snow in many places, like Atlanta and Birmingham, which were not accustomed to the white stuff.

The North Alabama Truck Stop, just south of the Georgia border along Interstate 59, was well known to truckers and locals for its hospitality, and especially its barbeque. It wasn’t a 24-hour stop, but it opened early and closed late at nights when the crowds thinned.

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For more than two days after the April storm dumped an unprecedented amount of snow on the area, the owner of the truckstop couldn’t get from his house to open the establishment. Neither could his employees. When he finally pulled into the parking lot of his business, he found it filled with tractor-trailers and the cars of stranded travelers.

The front glass of one of the truckstop’s doors was shattered. But what the owner found inside surprised him more. The place was bustling with business. The smell of food cooking and strangers working as cooks and waitresses greeted the owner when he walked in.

A person he had never met before, greeted him and asked would he like to order. When he explained he owned the place people started apologizing for busting the glass. Someone quickly pulled out an envelope of money that stranded people had taken up to pay for the door.

Another person presented him with a moneybag of cash and receipts from food and supplies that people had bought over the two previous days. The strangers who used his place for survival had even calculated the tax on everything they had bought. The owner refused the money for the busted door because the main reason he had wanted to open as early as possible was to help those who might be stranded in the storm. His place had actually been helping – and clearing a tidy profit – when he was sitting at home worrying about not being able to help.

When my mother, who lives less than 30 miles away from the truckstop, told me what happened, I got a lump in my throat. This kind of story was exactly why I wanted to write for a living.

The little truckstop closed a couple of years later, but every time I pass the boarded-up building I think about what happened there almost a decade ago. It reminds me of what people can do when they pull together – no matter how bad things look on the outside.