Karma

Highway 36

“We should have stayed for two more days, at least wait out this shitty snow!” The driver ranted and pounded hard on the steering wheel. “Now we are stuck in the middle of nowhere!”

The yellow Camaro now serves as a detour sign.  The car is in 30-inch-deep snow; horsepower hardly means a thing when the car is being suspended by the snow beneath it. Any attempt to escape this huge heap of snow by hitting the gas pedal is simply an exercise of wasting fuel – which was exactly what this desperate driver has been doing for the past 10 minutes.

The flashy Camaro with neon ornaments is merely off the road by roughly 50 feet, yet the truck driver on the highway can barely make out the outline of the unfortunate car. Same goes to the ranting driver, but his attention is not on the truck. He is rather staring at a queue of cars meandering slowly toward the hazy horizon – a 50-foot-away horizon due to the terrible visibility in an abnormally bad weather; to his frustration, those cars are also off the road and the only reason why they are moving is because he got stuck where he is. Detour sign.

The blizzard continues; what used to be a withered grassland is now a blanket of marshmallow – trapping any driver with a bad judgment. The sky grows darker, and highway 36 is still congested due to the heavy snow; some bold drivers are testing their luck by driving off the road trying to bypass the congestion while others are discouraged by the yellow Camaro and are forced to wait for the highway rescue coming from the nearest town 90 miles away. Neither way in this situation is a safe play, going off the road risks getting trapped; waiting for rescue seems like a wiser option, but the highway is completely buried in deep snow from here to heaven-knows-where – it would take snowplows ages to peck their way here.

“If you had bought an all-wheel-drive car instead of whatever this stupid thing is, we wouldn’t be sunken in this snow dump, would we?” His wife retorted back. “And why the hell did you have to be a pioneer? You couldn’t just have waited for others to scout before we set off?”

“Just shut up!”

Some of the cars have been trapped for more than three hours, and the snow shows no sign of dwindling. From the truck driver’s point of view – being the first one in this long queue, highway 36 is beginning to look a lot like a desert during sunset. One can literally see the dunes crawling by the minute. People are becoming distressed as the sky goes pitch black; no one knows whether the ones who drove into the haziness have made it out of this swamp of snow.

Nothing can turn people into horrible creatures like a blizzard in January; when temperature plummets to -40°F and food and fuel become a scarcity, everyone only thinks about themselves. The yellow Camaro has been caught up at the exit of highway 36 for an hour now, and none of the passing cars are offering help to the young couple. The husband, realizing the futility in wasting fuel, decides to clear the snow beneath his car with bare hands, but for every handful of snow he digs away, the wind inexorably brings more. At least his effort is not in vain; had he not done so, the car would be half-buried by now.

“Yeah! Just keep on driving, you pricks!” The driver shrilled at passing cars. “I can do this all day!”

The Yellow Camaro

“Did you book the hotel rooms?” My dad asked me, turning down the music.

“I did. I told them we will be arriving at eight p.m.,” I replied. “We left a few hours late than usual, so we should be able to get there around eight.”

“Don’t drive too fast, it’s snowing, keep it below 70 mph.” Said my dad. “I’ll take a nap, wake me up when you wanna switch.”

We had just celebrated the Spring Festival with our family in Manzhouli, and it was time to go home and prepare for my final semester in university. My dad didn’t want to drive because Hohhot – where we live – was 1,200 miles away from Manzhouli; plus, it was an extremely cold winter that year, he thought some roads might ice up and hamper this long-distance drive. I, however, insisted on driving because Mury – the family cat – would have otherwise spent a lonely holiday at home; the last time that happened, we came back finding Mury had an anorexia resulted from depression. It was a hassle to get animals on planes and trains in China, driving seemed to me the best resort. I looked into the rear-view mirror; Mury was sleeping on my mom’s lap.

My dad’s assumption was right though – the road was beginning to narrow as the less traveled part gradually became covered with snow; the asphalt eventually turned into two parallel black lines stretching from our car to the horizon.

The highway condition was less than ideal for driving, I conceded; since we left Manzhouli, there had been seven car accidents we witnessed along the highway. The most recent one was a tanker truck, making a sharp turn at a highway entrance, that tipped over and rolled off the highway; the silver lining of this incident was the truck had just left town, so the local highway rescue arrived at the scene in less than 10 minutes. My family saw the whole thing as we were on the other side of the highway, refueling our car at a gas station. That truck driver was the most unfazed man I have ever seen in my life: he climbed out of the window, dialed his phone and lit up a cigarette while sitting against his tipped-over truck. I didn’t expect to see this image from anywhere other than a Jason Statham movie; then I guessed driving in extreme conditions just makes people see more unusual things.

Speaking of unusual things; how often do you see a sports car driving on snowy roads? As I was maintaining that 70-mph speed limit set by my father, a yellow Camaro overtook us with spectacular speed, leaving behind a trail of misty snow that blocked my vision. My dad woke up upon hearing that swooshing sound of the overtake, he then quickly looked at the dashboard; I knew he was checking if I was speeding.

“Don’t mind that, that driver is an idiot for driving that fast in this kind of weather,” my dad said. “Safety is paramount.”

“It could have at least slowed down a bit, now I can’t see anything,” I complained. “That low chassis is going to cause problems in this kind of snow.”

The good thing about driving an SUV, it rarely got stuck in anything; Mury also had a little more room to roam around. I turned up the music, my favorite song was coming up. My dad and I switched soon after – I have been driving for three hours straight and I was starting to feel dizzy.

The Wine Shop

Mr. Zhang’s Repair Shop was refurbished from an old warehouse that used to store wine and sell them in bulk. People never changed the habit of calling that place by its previous name; even today, three years from the grand opening, local residents still refer to it as “The Wine Shop.” It might have something to do with the irony of the sheer contrast of its previous and current businesses: what had served as a wine monger now became the place where people visit after DUI.

The new business has been booming for Mr. Zhang after the strategic shift. Local people loved drinking, and one can’t really blame them for that – winter essentially took up half of a year in this part of the country – because Vodka is a great agent for body warmth. 10 years ago, when the town was still in poverty, most people couldn’t afford good wines; Mr. Zhang saw the opportunity and opened Mr. Zhang’s Wine Shop. For a while, his shop had monopolized the local alcohol supply; that changed when the town started to develop its tourism, and soon people were becoming richer. Subsequently, the wine shop began to lose its business to other upscale wine retailers. But Mr. Zhang saw another opportunity: as people were becoming richer and consuming more wine, the number of minor car accidents rose significantly, hence the transition to Mr. Zhang’s Repair Shop. Now his business has expanded to all-around vehicle services including major and minor repairs, inspections, interior decorations and other peripheral products.

It was a bleak morning even for the local people. Mr. Zhang has never lived through a winter this cold before; in fact, according to the radio he had listened to yesterday, there was going to be a blizzard in the region sometime in the afternoon. He opened the front gate and thought to himself, I won’t be expecting any customers in this kind of weather, should have slept in instead.

He was wrong. Five minutes after he opened his shop, a black SUV pulled over in the front yard. A man walked out of the car and the wind almost ripped the door off.

Damn, people really drink early during the holiday. Mr. Zhang thought.

“I need an inspection for my car before I leave town,” the man had to yell to Mr. Zhang in this terrible windy weather. “I think the tires are a little flat too.”

“Consider it done!” Mr. Zhang gave that man a thumbs-up, thinking how he had misjudged the man a moment earlier. “Now drive inside, it’s too cold out here!”

Mr. Zhang had his men start the inspection while chatting with his first customer of the day. He knew how to develop regular customers by being helpful and friendly; he started with some holiday greeting routines and then expressed how impressed he was that the man’s car was in such a good shape. He offered the man a seat and a cup of hot tea since the inspection would take a while.

The car was a black Hyundai Santa Fe. Mr. Zhang was hoping to find some scratches or faded paint but the car was indeed in good condition; technicians pumped the tires and added antifreeze, they double-checked the engine to make sure it was functioning perfectly. The inspection finished within 20 minutes. Mr. Zhang returned from his office with a print-out bill, he wasn’t too excited about the double-digit number – 79; he honestly thought his men might have been able to find something that would warrant a major repair.

The man handed Mr. Zhang a 100 CNY bill and didn’t ask for change; perhaps Mr. Zhang’s cordial attitude made the gloomy morning less depressing for the man and this was his way of returning the favor. Mr. Zhang was very happy but he didn’t feel like he deserved the extra money; as a smart businessman with professional ethics, he knew from his gut that this man would be a great regular customer to have in the future and that extra 21 CNY needed to be returned with a nice gesture.

“Weather forecast said there will be a blizzard in the afternoon,” Mr. Zhang said. “Take this snow shovel, it might come in handy.”

“Thanks, this could be very useful indeed.” The man replied with delight.

Mr. Zhang helped the man put the snow shovel in his car when he saw something furry in the backseat.

“Cute cat,” Mr. Zhang said. “What’s its name?”

“Mury.”

The Blizzard

I must have not been sleeping for long – the sky was just a teensy bit of darker than when I had closed my eyes. I was awakened by a sudden jolt of the car, I looked outside the window and found the highway was completely covered with snow; dad just hit a snow bump and now we came to a halt.

The snow had definitely become heavier; the wind had also grown stronger. I couldn’t see anything beyond 50 feet, what I could see was dozens of cars parked in the middle of the highway in an askew line before us.

“What’s happening?” I asked as I squinted my eyes trying to make out what was causing the congestion in front of us. “Can’t be another car crash again.”

“It’s probably the snow,” my mom said. “It’s turning into a blizzard.”

I scanned around. We were not the last car in this queue – there were just as many cars behind us as were in the front. The grassland on either side of the highway was buried in snow, too, just like the highway. I felt like we were in an expedition convoy in Antarctica.

“I’ll take a look at what’s happening.” I said.

I grabbed my hat and got off the car; my feet landed in knee-deep snow as I closed the door. The crisp air almost pierced through my lungs for the first few breaths. When I finally acclimatized to the cold, I was amazed by the gorgeous view set before my eyes. The sky was light blue with an amorphous veil of snow, the part closer to the horizon appeared slightly pink; what used to be a grassland has transformed into a milky ocean, with waves propelled by the brisk wind.

I walked to the front of this line of vehicles, the first was a tall truck transporting logs. Behind it, some cars were maneuvering off the highway. I didn’t know what they were trying to accomplish by driving into the grassland, but I hoped they knew what they were doing. The truck driver was leaning against his truck and looking into the distance. I approached him and offered him a cigarette – an extremely efficient way to start a conversation with male strangers in China if the one being offered does smoke; he gladly accepted it and we began talking.

“What’s happening here?” I asked, lighting up my own cigarette.

“The snow is blocking the road,” the truck driver took a deep drag and then continued. “The snow gets deeper ahead of us; we’ll just get trapped in there. Highway rescue is coming from the nearest town but I don’t think they will make it anytime soon, with snow like this, at best they can get here at nine.”

“Then what are these people doing?” I pointed to the cars which were moving off the highway, into the grassland.

“Oh, there is a trail from that exit to the next gas station, but it’s kinda risky in this kind of weather.” The truck driver said. “Look at that car over there, it has been stuck in the snow for an hour.” He pointed at somewhere near the exit.

My eyes followed his finger and there was a car by the exit. I’ll be damned. It was the yellow Camaro that had rudely overtaken us earlier in the afternoon.

“Thanks. I am gonna head back, it’s freezing out here.” I said. “Shitty day, huh? Take care!”

“I’ve been driving all my life, I’ve seen crazier shit,” the truck driver replied. “Thanks for the smoke.”

Kaaaaaaaaaaarma

I sprinted back to my dad’s car and jumped right in; I explained the situation to the folks and specifically emphasized on the yellow Camaro. After a short discussion, we agreed that we should follow the trail to the next gas station. Dad had made a call to his friend nearby while I was out and had learned only the next 20 miles of the highway was affected by the snow because apparently, this area was geographically called a “wind gap,” which attracted a lot of snow because of the constant strong wind.

We drove slowly to the highway exit along with other bold drivers while most of the sedans chose to stay put and wait for the highway rescue. When we drove past the yellow Camaro, the driver was digging the snow beneath his car with bare hands – low chassis never was a good idea in heavy snow.

“Yeah! Just keep on driving, you pricks!” The driver shrilled at passing cars. “I can do this all day!”

The image was too pitiful for me to feel any resentment from the rude overtake earlier and we decided to give him a hand, so dad stopped the car and I stepped out with the snow shovel that we got from Mr. Zhang.

Even with a tool, the driver and I still spent almost 20 minutes to clear most of the snow beneath his car. “Hey, careful! Don’t get snow on my shoes, they’re expensive.” The driver vociferated. Excuse me? My feet went numb from standing too long in the snow, but at least I helped someone and I felt pretty good about myself regardless of his attitude. However, things went the other way quickly.

“Yo, give me the shovel, what do you say?” The driver asked. “It’s pretty useful in a weather like this.”

What enraged me was not the question he asked, well, not entirely. It was his condescending tone and his smug face – as if by driving a nicer car and wearing better shoes he was a superior human being. I looked at him with surprise; how did he even have the courage to ask for something that is a life-saver in a blizzard without even showing gratitude to my help.

“No, we might have to use it later ourselves,” I said. “I am aware what kind of weather this is.”

“Meh, selfish,” he snorted. “Thanks.” But the way he said thanks didn’t sound like thanks, it was more like an ungrateful equivocation. He then got into his car and drove away.

Forget about how I said I felt good about myself for helping someone; at that moment, I felt like a complete moron for even thought about lending a hand. I walked back into my dad’s car feeling upset and told my parents how that spoiled driver had behaved. They comforted me by saying karma and some things about it; I thought that was just a lousy excuse for losers but didn’t say anything back. Carefully, we followed the cars before us down the trail, hoping to reach the gas station soon.

Dad was a very cautious driver, for the whole trail he never switched to 3rd gear or above; thankfully, after 40 minutes of struggle, we finally saw the flickering light coming from the gas station ahead. Highway entrance should be close. There was another source of light coming from that direction; as we drove closer to the entrance, I got a better look of what was emitting that fancy uppity neon light – the yellow Camaro. It was making its way up the ramp and onto the highway. However, that car was rear-wheel drive and the driver was a douchebag, so of course it kept slipping down. Dad switched to first gear and steadily climbed up to the highway, I rolled down the window and gave that yellow Camaro a middle finger.

We arrived at the hotel around midnight that day. Dad heard from the reception that the highway rescue had just passed the hotel 30 minutes earlier.

“I hope those people will be okay.” Mom sympathized.

“Yeah,” I mumbled. But the hell with that douchebag with his Camaro.

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