When Life Leaves You in a Ditch

February 23, 2024

The first mistake was the suede ankle boots.

I wouldn’t know that at the time, so I’ll refer to those as a “less than ideal choice of footwear.”

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“Less Than Ideal” Footwear For The Trip

The pilot alerts the descent into Indianapolis might be bumpy due to “the snowstorm,” I peek from my aisle seat through the window.

Snowstorm? What snowstorm?

We land in a white-out. I power up my phone to find a text from my son, “It is snowing here.”

Later he would text, “I did not know it was going to snow this much” and “It was not supposed to snow this much!” and “I’m sorry.”

The airport is packed. All outbound flights are grounded due to weather. I got in just in time.

I pick up my rental car and select an SUV because, you know, this isn’t snow, it’s SNOW. But, after 15 years of living in central Connecticut where we recently got a foot of snow, I’m pretty adept at driving in both snow and SNOW.

It’s a straight shot from the Indy airport to Bloomington where my son awaits. I’m familiar with the drive which typically takes no more than an hour. I have my Waze and my show tunes on Spotify and a package of mini black and white cookies that are my son’s favorite that I can open in a pinch.

I’ll be FINE, this will all be FINE.

It’s clear when I leave the airport that others are NOT FINE. I see skidouts everywhere. Cars on the side of the road, cars in the median, every quarter of a mile, another car in a ditch.

What I do not see are plows. Not a single one. No salt trucks, no tow trucks, just heavy snow and cars in ditches.

So. Many. Cars. In. Ditches!

I feel sorry for these drivers with their cars in ditches and I hope someone will be along to help them. I’m also feeling a bit of snow schadenfreude. They must have been going too fast, not taken proper care in the SNOW.

“Who are all these idiots who got themselves stuck in a ditch?” my arrogant self thinks, testing the karmic boomerang.

Unlike them, I AM AN EXCELLENT DRIVER. Even in SNOW. That doesn’t stop me from offering occasional praise to my rental. “Good car,” I tell it. “You can do it,” I say more than once, hoping positive affirmation will mean continued good performance.

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The car seems to like that. And although my ETA is delayed by half an hour, then a full hour, then 90 minutes, my ride is a steady, 25 mph on the highway, despite the SNOW.

That’s when I make my second mistake.

Traffic stacks up in front of me and Waze sends me on a less familiar two-lane highway. About 15 minutes later, the two-lane highway ends and Waze turns me onto a rural route. There’s a silent warning in my head that sounds something like, “DO NOT GET OFF THE HIGHWAY.”

This is where you really don’t want to skid into a ditch. They won’t find your car – or your body – until spring.

“Good car,” I say to the car, while reminding myself, I’M AN EXCELLENT DRIVER even in the SNOW and that it will be FINE.

There are few cars on the road except for a Lexus that is inexplicably tailing me. I carefully slide to the shoulder behind another stopped car to let the Lexus pass (if you’re in such a rush, sir, then you go first!) and follow this confident driver and my Waze with little issue.

Until we come upon a hill. Who knew there were hills in Indiana?

There’s nowhere to go but up. But we can’t go up because that hill is blocked by a half-dozen cars. And they’re not going anywhere because in front of them is something I can’t fully see but am pretty sure it’s a car facing sideways, blocking the entire road.

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Red Tail Lights Mean No One Is Getting Through

This is where I realize things are not quite FINE. I am going to be very late on my arrival. Also, I have no cell service to alert my son of my delay.

Can’t use the phone, can’t find another route, can’t go forward, can’t go backward.

Dummy. Didn’t I tell you DO NOT GET OFF THE HIGHWAY?

I’m typically the problem-solver (“I can produce this situation!”) but in my slippery suede ankle boots with a snowstorm raging outside, I stay put and wait for someone else to get us out of this mess.

Eventually, a woman in a truck behind me walks past my window, curious enough to take the trek on foot to the top of the hill. I learn she, too, is headed to Bloomington so I’m not the only one taking this alternate route.

She shakes her head grimly on the way down. (Things are NOT FINE!) We’ll all need to turn around because no one is going to be able to get that car out of the way.

The turn-around is treacherous given the snow accumulation and narrow roadway. (DON’T FALL IN A DITCH!) I make a careful 3-point turn (12-point turn) and am now facing in the opposite direction with the Lexus once again behind me.

We caravan out of there. It’s going to be FINE after all.

Eventually, cars peel off, each in their own direction. My brain warns GO BACK TO THE HIGHWAY, but Waze has another suggestion, a parallel country road.

I’m driving carefully enough that I lose the cars in front of me (nerve-wracking) but not the Lexus once again following too close behind (even more nerve-wracking, WHY SO CLOSE?)

If it weren’t for the potential disaster of this situation, I might enjoy the surroundings – a narrow, curved roadway between trees glistening with frosted snow, large fields in the distance.

The sun setting and light dimming, my eye catches a pack of animals racing across one of those distant fields.

Deer? Hyenas? Zombie clowns?

My mind goes into overdrive. I grip the steering wheel tighter.

In the Hallmark movie version of this story, I stumble upon a quaint cottage for sale which becomes my midwestern outpost for my women’s writing retreats.

In the Lifetime movie version of this story, the zombie clowns get me.

Waze tells me it’s only 4 miles to a more major thoroughfare. I’m going to make it.

“Good car,” I say. “Good car.”

And then I hit THE HILL.

It doesn’t appear intimidating, but halfway up my tires lose traction and start to spin.

My “good” car has decided it is now a “go-no-further” car.

Can’t go forward. Can’t turn around. Lexus right on my tail, flashing me to get out of the way.

My only option is to reverse and allow gravity to lead my good car backward to the bottom of the road. Maybe after doing so, I can make a second attempt, hit the gas harder, get up the hill, and follow the Lexus out of here.

This is when I make my third mistake.

I reverse (“Good car! Good car!”) and edge myself to the side of the road to allow the Lexus room to pass. I’m so THOUGHTFUL and CONSIDERATE, aren’t I? And did I mention I’M AN EXCELLENT DRIVER?

And that’s when the “good car” slides right off the left side of the road.


Into a ditch.

“Who are all these idiots who got themselves stuck in a ditch?” my foolish, judgmental, karma-is-a-bitch words echo in my head.

Me. That would be me.

I’m stuck in a ditch.

Not only am I stuck in a ditch, but I’ve damaged my driver’s side mirror against a telephone pole on the way into that ditch.

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Don’T Make Fun Of People In A Ditch

To be clear, I AM AN EXCELLENT DRIVER! I have never before damaged a rental car and I have driven many. I have never before fallen into a ditch and I have passed many.

But here I am, on the side of some road 4 miles from the highway in the middle of Indiana.


Also, with no cell service. There’s no getting out of this one. THINGS ARE NOT AT ALL FINE.

As someone who works with the power of words and always finds the right words for any situation, here’s what I had to say about that:


I realize how few survival skills I possess. I don’t have the strength to push my car out of a ditch or the smarts to have avoided landing in one.

My power of words and the pen are meaningless in this situation. (What am I going to do, WRITE about it? How’s that going to help?)

The good news is (and there is ALWAYS good news), I may be in the middle of nowhere but I am in the middle of nowhere where someone lives. I’m maybe 100 yards from a house with lights on.

I hoof it out of my car through the yard (4 inches of unexpected snow? 5?) to the front door. I should have waterproofed these suede boots when I bought them. (See “less than ideal choice of footwear” from the start of the story).

I’m prepared to knock but there’s already a woman standing on the porch.

I raise my hand in silent greeting. Friend or foe?

I am aware others in this country have made this approach to deadly results. I recognize my privilege. I’m a middle-aged white woman in weather-inappropriate suede boots, stumbling in the snow and breathlessly saying, “Hi, I’m sorry to bother you, but can you help me?”

Also, I’m trying not to cry. Because this is not how the story was supposed to go. (DO NOT GET OFF THE HIGHWAY!)

In the Hallmark movie version of this story, the hapless big-city lady meets the rich, single cousin of the homeowner, they have an unlikely romance, and live happily ever after in a nearby cottage. To be clear, I’m not looking for romance. I’m looking to get to my son in Bloomington.

In the Lifetime movie version of this story, the hapless big-city lady is offered help but held hostage for a ransom her family cannot pay.

Neither is true in this case. I’m simply allowed in. I apologize profusely for tracking snow into the house, for bothering her, for my stupidity, for existing.

Her name is Sally. I will need to ask twice because I’m forgetful. I will learn later it’s spelled Sallie.

Sallie seems nonplussed, maybe even a tad amused, but also kind. She had watched me slip down that hill, says it’s a treacherous stretch, wonders what I’m doing here.

I try to explain the GPS, the alternate route, the Lexus on my tail.

Sallie asks if I need water, if I’ve had a “proper supper.” She’s got chicken and dumplings, homemade.  This is all straight out of the Hallmark movie version of the story, but I don’t want to be a bother, I just want out of the ditch.

A teen in a t-shirt and shorts (in this SNOW?) who I will learn later is Sallie’s grandson’s friend comes trotting in after checking out my car. In the ditch.

I inquire about a tow. A plow.

They look at me with sympathetic incredulity if that’s a thing.

“I reckon you’re in a bit of a pickle,” the kid in the t-shirt says to me.

(Upon hearing this story later, my friend Nathalie says I should get this printed on a t-shirt).

Sallie lets me use her phone since mine has no service. Miraculously, my son picks up the unfamiliar number. I explain my predicament.

He’s a good kid. He tells me to send a pin of my location, offers to reverse order me an Uber to come get me, but he doesn’t understand. No one is coming out here to get me. He says he can borrow a fraternity brother’s truck and come pick me up. He still doesn’t understand. Even if he could make it IN, no one is making it OUT of here.

Parked car when life leaves you in a ditch

Gps Says I’M Somewhere Here, In A Warmer Season

I’m told they never get this much snow here. There won’t be a plow for a while. Maybe not ‘til morning.

Sallie tells me not to worry. Worst case scenario, I can stay on her couch.

This is where I need to tell you a little bit about Sallie’s house without sounding like a middle-aged, big-city asshole in weather-inappropriate boots baiting karma.

Sallie’s house is small and modest. It is also filled with stuff. Lots of stuff.

I glance around. I’m not sure there is room for me on the couch. My OCD minimalism is in hyperactive mode. I want to stress clean.

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Despite Not Having A Lot Of Space, Sallie Offered To Make Space For Me

I’m mentally folding items, organizing, recycling, creating a local “Buy Nothing” group for giveaways. This is my anxiety talking but my current predicament keeps me quiet. I’m not in a home renovation show. I’m lucky to not be outside, freezing in a DITCH.

I call my husband to explain the “pickle” I am in. It’s a bit of a detailed story, as you’ve read thus far, and it comes out in a jumble of words. He interrupts to stop me. While I love details, he’s all facts. You’re stuck? Oh no. You’re safe? OK. Update me when you can.

“Just take a breath,” he advises, which everyone knows has the same effect as “Just calm down.”

It’s Sallie who helps calm me down. She assures me they’ll be able to “winch” me out of the ditch. Her husband, Will, is the volunteer fire chief one town over. He’s on his way home. He’ll know what to do.

I’m wary. I’ve never winched anything. If Will will winch, I’m willing to winch.

Word spreads about the lady in the ditch who is now in Sallie’s house. It winds up being a family affair.

Sallie’s daughter Liz lives in the house across the street with Sallie’s two grandsons, Elijah and Peyton. The t-shirt-wearing teen is Elijah’s friend. Sallie also has a son Josh, a brother Mike up the hill, and another brother Dan in the neighborhood.

I also meet her dog whose name I think is Betty (good girl!) but then think is Benny (good boy!) until I realize its name is Buddy (still a good boy!) and everyone is just soft-spoken with a slight midwest twang and my mind is elsewhere like HOW DID I GET MYSELF STUCK IN A DITCH WHEN I AM AN EXCELLENT DRIVER AND WHILE I’M HERE WOULD YOU LIKE ME TO ORGANIZE YOUR BELONGINGS FOR YOU AND WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME WHY CAN’T I ACT LIKE A NORMAL PERSON AND JUST CALM DOWN.

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Betty / Benny The Dog Whose Name Is Buddy

Everyone in this family (minus Betty/Benny/Buddy) seems to own a truck. Everyone seems to know what to do. They are used to winching. IT’S GOING TO BE FINE.

But now there’s a queue for winching.

I may be the original hapless lady in the ditch, but I’m not the only one. In the time I’ve spent inside, other cars have attempted the hill and few have successfully made it.

Sallie is within shouting distance of her daughter’s house across the street, so this is how they update each other from their front porches:

“Here comes another car!” Liz yells. “Someone tell Mike to get out of the way!”

“Mike!,” Sallie yells, “Get out of the way! Another one’s coming!”

“He’s not going to make it,” surmises Elijah’s friend.

“Aww, he’s trying! He’s going to make it!” someone yells.

“Naw, told you he wasn’t going to make it,” someone else reports another car in a DITCH.

There are now multiple cars on either side of the road in various states of ditch-i-ness. Somehow, this makes me feel better like I’m just one of the hapless idiots in these parts, not the only one.

And it seems there is a long line of idiots coming our way. A string of car headlights approaches.

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Cars Off The Highway Heading Towards Sallie’S House

It feels like the “If you build it, they will come” moment from Field of Dreams except that no one wants them to come here. Even the ditches are filling up.

I learn more about the street.

No one salts roads around here. They use a liquid brine. (How’s that working for ya, Indiana?). Sallie’s road was paved just a year or so ago but without a shoulder, meaning once you’re off the road, you’re in the DITCH.

I learn more about Sallie.

Among the many items populating her enclosed porch is her work-from-setup – a series of monitors and a keyboard overseen by the snoozing Betty / Benny / Buddy. On the other side is a set of 3 restaurant-size coolers.

In the Lifetime version of this story, this is where the organs of hapless drivers who wind up in a ditch are harvested!

One cooler is for the pigs Sallie humanely raises. The other is for lamb. The final one is for beef. She pops a lid to show me. Yes, that looks like lamb. I think.

In the Hallmark version of the story, the big-city traveler is also an executive chef at a 5-star restaurant and expands her operations to a southern Indiana outpost.

Sallie wants me to know she’s a good cook. Am I sure I don’t want some of those chicken and dumplings? I don’t, but I do want to hear more about the cooking she does on Monday nights.

Each Monday night, Sallie leads a team of volunteers who cook a community meal for anyone who wants one at the Paragon volunteer fire department where Will is the chief. The food is simple, non-fussy, and available in drive-through take-out containers.

Meatloaf with mashed potatoes and peas. Mac and cheese. The aforementioned chicken and dumplings.

150 meals are doled out on Monday nights to anyone who wants one. Last week they did 230. There is a need and they meet it.

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A Facebook Post Advertising The Monday Night Free Community Dinners

I ask Sallie how it works, how it is funded and staffed.

In the Hallmark movie version of this story, the big-city lady has millions in the bank and fully funds all future efforts.

I don’t have millions. But I make a note to donate. It’s the least I can do

Finally, the fire chief arrives. That’s Will, Sallie’s husband, who had to turn on his red lights to get through the traffic to his house. I sense he’s frustrated by the number of cars on his rural street, the foolishness of these drivers, the hapless lady in his house.

Will calls 911 in an appeal to get them to send a plow, close off the road, prevent other cars from traversing in.

They hang up on him.

This bears repeating. 911 HANGS UP on the volunteer fire department chief.

Meanwhile, Sallie’s brother Mike and brother Dan can winch my car out of the ditch. It’s now parked on Sallie’s snow-filled lawn. I’m free to go.

Except there’s nowhere to go with all these cars stacked up. And, frankly, I don’t want to.

I don’t trust myself (but I swear I’M AN EXCELLENT DRIVER!) or my car (which I’m no longer sure is such a “good car”) to not get stuck elsewhere.  It would be far worse to slide into another ditch in an area with no cell service and far from Sallie’s house.

They don’t advise I do this either. It may be only 4 miles to the highway but it’s a windy four on an unplowed road. I get the sense they don’t understand I’M AN EXCELLENT DRIVER even though my current predicament suggests otherwise.

I also trust the locals. Always trust the locals.

I ask whether brother Dan or Mike or husband Will or Elijah’s friend might be willing to escort me out of town. This seems to be a possibility except for the fact that the line of cars that have come into town can now no longer turn around and depart the way they came in because ANOTHER car is stuck in the opposite direction.

What a mess.

More time to chat. Sallie asks what I do for a living and “it’s complicated” seems rude but the full story of my multitude of roles, my workshops and my teaching and my current state of affairs seems taxing to explain so I settle on, “I’m a writer.”

Sallie asks what I write about. This, I say. Maybe I’ll write about this.

Sallie is supportive. Non-judgmental. We become Facebook friends.

Eventually, the snow slows, then stops. There are rumors of a plow.

The roads aren’t clear but the line of cars begins to depart, slowly, one by one. A few take their chances on the hill. Most retreat the other way.

The time has come for me to leave as well. And here’s where helpful becomes above and beyond.

Sallie offers to provide more than an escort. If I’m agreeable, brother Mike will drive me in my car. He knows these roads well and even though I’M AN EXCELLENT DRIVER even in the SNOW, he’s more in his element here. Brother Dan will follow behind in his truck to give Mike a ride back. They’ll take me to the highway. I should be able to handle it from there.

We snap a photo, promise to stay in touch. I pet Betty / Benny / Buddy goodbye.

My suede boots are soaked, my feet freezing, but my car is fine minus the driver’s side mirror and I’m on my way.

I hold my breath as Mike guns it up the hill (Good car! Good car! Yay Mike!)

He points out his mom’s house. She has since passed but it’s where he grew up. They all know each other. They know the land. The family has 13 acres here. Or maybe it’s 13 houses. I’m so relieved to be on my way I keep interrupting him with repeated expressions of gratitude.

I’m glad I didn’t attempt this on my own because it’s not the only hill we encounter.

We may be four miles from the highway (DO NOT GET OFF THE HIGHWAY), but we are very much in the middle of nowhere.

In the Hallmark movie version of the story, the big-city lady is saved by the country brothers with big hearts! 

In the Lifetime movie version of this story, the big-city lady is murdered by the country brothers and left in the field with the zombie clowns!

If he senses my discomfort, we fill it with chatting. Mike tells me this is just what they do. He’s a Shriner – am I familiar with Shriners? – and their mission is to help. I make a note to donate in Mike’s name to Shriners Children’s Hospital. The money I would have spent on a tow will go to a few good causes.

We’re deep in rural forestry. We pass an Amazon delivery truck on the side of the road. Someone won’t be getting their package on time. I see a sign. We’re on the edge of a wildlife refuge area for deer or hyenas or zombie clowns.

That’s when a giant buck skitters across the road in front of us, reminiscent of my last big driving challenge (Oh, Deer!). Mike not only brakes in time but does so without skidding into a DITCH.

“Look over there,” Mike points in the distance. “You can see the lights from the highway.”

Indeed. Signs of civilization. THE HIGHWAY! DO NOT GET OFF THE HIGHWAY!

I’m going to make it out of here after all.

I tell Mike he can drop me with the car at the highway entrance but he offers to drive me the remaining few miles. He wants to pop in at the Kroger on the outskirts of Bloomington.  He’s been trying to get his hands on Crown Royal Blackberry. It’s a special edition, and he thinks they might stock it.

I’m not a whiskey drinker so I ask about it. Mike’s a big fan of the peach, but the blackberry is only available in limited batches, and he’s hopeful he’ll score a bottle.

I decide I must go with him to Kroger to see if they have it. I’m curious. I also want to buy it for him. It is very much the perfect ending to this story.

Except, it’s not a perfect ending. After we hoof our way through the parking lot (does anyone PLOW in this state?) and make it to the liquor aisles, we discover several Crown Royal varieties but no blackberry. I offer to buy Mike a bottle of peach if that’s his second choice, but he declines. He has a high school friend who works at the liquor store in Paragon. She’s got a delivery of 9 bottles coming in soon and two of those are reserved for Mike.

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Dan’S Truck Escorted Me To The Kroeger Parking Lot While Mike And I Search For Crown Royal Blackberry

There’s not much more to do. We shake hands. I once again offer my profuse gratitude.

I text my son “I’m on my way!!” and he replies “YAYYYY.  I only get lost once more while pulling up to my hotel when I attempt to check in at the Fairfield Inn by Marriott rather than the Town Suites next door.

What can I say? I’m a hapless woman from the big city, a bit out of my element.

I arrive five hours after landing with soaked suede boots and stiff hands from my tight grasp on the steering wheel and a cracked car mirror, but I’m here.

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Happy To Make It To See My Son

And that’s better than sleeping on Sallie’s couch. Which would have been far better than sleeping in a cold car in a DITCH.

I am lucky. Perhaps karma has my back after all. The local news reports they haven’t had this much snow since the winter of 2022.

I text Sallie to let her know I’ve arrived safely, as she asked me to. A day later, she sends a picture of the plastic casing to my driver’s side mirror which she found in the ditch. She offers to have Mike drive it out for me. I tell her to keep it as a memento of our time together.

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Sallie Finds My Cracked Driver-Side Mirror In The Snow

My weekend with my son is extra special due to the challenge of getting here. My return to the airport is uneventful except for the obvious message staring me in the face when I follow a man through TSA who sweatshirt sports this beautiful Jackie Robinson quote:

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

Fitting, huh?

I snap a pic, text it to Sallie. There are no coincidences in life, I tell her. She wishes me safe travels.

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When I get home, I tell friends, “You won’t BELIEVE what happened to me on the way to visit my son!”

“How did you get yourself out of the ditch?” they want to know.

How can I properly summarize the boots and the snow and Waze and the Lexus, and Sallie and Will and Mike and Dan and Elijah’s friend in the t-shirt and shorts who reckoned I was in a pickle and the number of vehicles they winched out of ditches that night?

Because what skills do I possess, other than to write about it? I can only hope I’ve gotten the details right and done the story justice.

The story doesn’t end here. I make the donations. Sallie and I text each other daily. She calls me her “new friend.” I know we’re greater in a group than we are alone. I share pictures of my dog, my cats, my kids, and the wild turkeys in my yard.

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My New Friend Sallie

She asks about my weekend plans and tells me about hers. Sunday she will start cooking for the Monday night community drive-through dinner.

Lasagna is on the menu.


You can follow the good work the Paragon, Indiana volunteer fire department does on their Facebook page. I encourage my readers, my friends, and anyone grateful to Sallie and family for getting me out of the DITCH to consider making a small but meaningful donation. Checks can be sent to: Paragon Volunteer Fire Department, PO Box 225, Paragon, Indiana 46166. Note Monday night community dinners in your donation though I know these helpful folks will put it to good use.

Valerie gordon web3 when life leaves you in a ditch

Valerie Gordon is a former television producer, author, and adjunct professor. In the Hallmark movie version of this story, Valerie’s article goes viral and lands her a book deal while leading to thousands of dollars in donations for Sallie’s Monday-night community dinners. In the Lifetime movie version of this story, only Valerie’s mom and a half-dozen friends read this tale and despite being AN EXCELLENT DRIVER, she can’t outrun the zombie clown that chases her through the next snowstorm.

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