Serenity in a blizzard

How I survived a near-death road trip with my hillbilly Zen Master

BY AUGUST TURAK – I was 21 years old. And for the first and only time in my life, I was sure I was about to die. I was in the passenger seat of my 1963 day-glo green Ford Econoline van with a bubble-shaped skylight on the roof and a madman behind the wheel – a West Virginia hillbilly who happened to be my Zen Master. We had been on our way out West when he’d gotten news that his son was in trouble back in Wheeling, and now he was barreling home with me in tow to do what he could.

The trip had started out two days before on an almost comical note. On a cold dark morning at 5:30, his usual starting time, I was coming up his front steps to pick him up. My van was parked across the street and according to his careful instructions, was full of enough tools, extra tires, and spare parts to rebuild it on the fly if necessary. And because of the Arab oil embargo that year, it was stocked with fifteen gallons of spare gasoline in three five-gallon cans.

Before I could knock, a shadowy apparition, backlit by the hallway light, burst through the door. He obviously had about five layers of clothes on over his short, stocky body. On his head was one of those ridiculous fur-lined black vinyl hats with a fur-lined bill that fastens to the front. The chin straps, which no one who owns one of those hats ever seems to snap, hung loosely to his shoulders, and in his hands were two rope-handled paper bags with enough turkey drumsticks, hard boiled eggs, and bananas to feed us both for a year. This menu was his way of saving time and avoiding restaurant expenses on the road. But what really caught my attention were his outlandish calf-high boots which I am convinced were one of a kind, and which are beyond my powers to describe.

Sensing the question behind my slack-jawed look, his blue eyes lit up with a twinkle. “Yeah,” he said, “I got my mukluks on and I’m ready. I’ve rid’ these stage coaches before. That van of yours has no heat, no seat belts, and it drives like a greased pig. But I reckon I’m more than a match for it. Give me ten square feet to land on and I’ll bring you home OK.”

Blind faith

I was about to find out if he was as good as his promise. On that black, bitterly cold night we were racing home in white-out conditions down the mountainous section of Interstate 70 just before it reaches Wheeling, West Virginia. There were several inches of icy snow on the road already, and he was going way too fast for me and that rickety old van. He had the little 170-cubic-inch engine (which some engineer had decided belonged under a thin metal cover between the seats) wound up so tight I couldn’t hear myself think. Everywhere I looked I saw only imminent disaster.

The windshield wipers barely worked under normal conditions; if the blades had ever been replaced it hadn’t been by me. All I could see in front of us was the fuzzy red glare of what I guessed were tail lights swirling around even faster than the snow. The wind, gusting continually, was pushing us all over the road. Then with a loud shloomp a huge clump of slushy snow splattered the windshield.

Involuntarily recoiling, I jerked my head toward my passenger-side window and found myself staring straight into the wheel hub of a tractor trailer. It was intent on passing in the right-hand lane and was busily spewing wet snow onto my windshield in the process. The wheel was getting closer and closer. Hypnotized with terror, I just watched it inch up.

With a whoosh the truck’s back draft hit, bucking the unstable van left toward the face of the mountain. Looming huge in the headlights, the mountain seemed to lean over, ready to grab us.

In a panic I ratcheted my head toward my driver. He was desperately working the wheel and trying to turn us out of the slide and into the truck’s draft all at once. I’d purchased the van from the phone company. It had a broken frame, and though I’d had it welded, now the front didn’t quite line up with the back. Worse, the steering linkage was old and tired, leaving the wheel with way too much play in it.

This, combined with the snow, the wind, the truck’s buffeting, the nonexistent visibility, had my Zen Master frantically whirling the wheel first one way and then the other faster and faster, like some cartoon character steering a storm tossed ship. The only thing needed to complete the scene would be the wheel coming off in his hands.

He finally pulled us out of the slide, but was now relying only on the steady push of the truck’s draft to keep us from sliding under its wheels. All I could think was: What the hell are we doing in the passing lane? My God, why doesn’t he just slow down and let the damn truck pass? But slowing down just wasn’t in his nature. I was struck by the bat-out-of hell determination etched into his face. It was a face that had made a habit of staring down life and had gotten to like it. If most of us are like candles, this guy was a laser.

My driver never looked back. At that moment, the expression on his face and his purposeful glow seemed to light up the van. With his seat pulled so far forward that he loomed over the steering wheel, that small man looked large.

After what seemed like an eternity, the truck finally passed, and the vacuum this created literally picked the van up and sucked it toward the cliff on our right. Somehow we didn’t go over but instead reverted to wobbling along at what passed for normal in that crazy van on that crazy night.

Moment of truth

That’s when I snapped. I was scared stiff and an hour or so of this was all I could take. Trying unsuccessfully to catch my breath, I heard a voice in my head screaming, How did I get into this mess? What was I thinking? Who is this guy? This can’t be happening. Then I heard the gasoline sloshing around in the cans behind my seat and decided I had to make my move before the next tractor trailer bore down on us.

“Don’t you think we ought to cool it?” I said, shocked by the contrast between my firm intentions and the plaintive plea squeaking from my constricted throat.

“What?” he shouted over the whining motor.

“Don’t you think we ought to cool it?” I repeated loud enough for him to hear me, then glanced furtively in his direction.

I was about to mention the gasoline, but his face, contorted with effort and concentration, swung around and fixed me with those amazing blue eyes. An instant later, all the tension drained from his face. It moved from amusement to a grin that grew wider and wider until all five layers of clothing, goofy hat and mukluks began shaking with laughter.

“What’s the matter Oogie, scared to die?” He shouted with mock seriousness, unable to stop laughing. “If you are, then ride the roof, my boy, ride the roof! From there you can jump off any time you want. You told me you wanted adventure. Here I am riskin’ my neck to deliver, and you’re busy pumpin’ Hail Marys out one end so you don’t make a mess at the other. I know how it is. This Zen stuff’s fine for a sunny day, but when things get tight, call in the cavalry.” He went off into another fit of laughter.

The little blood I had left in my extremities went rushing to my head. I had been saying Hail Marys, but when I’d started and how many I’d said I couldn’t say. In fact if he hadn’t mentioned it…but how did he know? Had I been praying aloud? But the noise… we were shouting just to be heard, and it was too dark to read lips.

When I recovered a bit, I noticed something had changed. He was still a whirling blur at the wheel, but when he looked over, he had the look of someone genuinely concerned.

“Listen,” he finally said in a voice so soft it was almost feminine. So soft, in fact, that amidst all the noise I wonder to this day if he actually spoke or just projected his thoughts into my head.

“Everything’s all right. Everything’s got a purpose and everyone a destiny. I don’t know exactly how things between me and you are supposed to play out, but I do know this: They ain’t going to play out tonight. You’ll see. We’ll be home soon. Everything is all right.”

It was as if an invisible hand reached out, stroked me gently, and pushed me back into my seat. I took the first real breath in what seemed like days and closed my eyes. I noticed with fascination that my racing pulse returned to normal without my help. In that moment I wouldn’t have traded my seat on that 1963 Ford starship with anyone. The next thing I knew we were pulling up to his house, back in Wheeling, safe and sound.

August Turak is a seeker, writer, and speaker who has dedicated his life to teaching others how to prosper spiritually, professionally, and personally through his philosophy service and selflessness. Winner of the Grand Prize in the John Templeton Foundation’s Power of Purpose Essay Contest for his essay Brother John, he is a frequent contributor for and AdvertisingAge. He is currently working on a book based on his highly acclaimed article Business Secrets of the Trappists that chronicles his fifteen year journey living with the Trappist monks of Mepkin Abbey as a frequent monastic guest.  For more, visit, follow him at, or email

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2 Responses to “Serenity in a blizzard”

  1. This is so excellent. Perfect as everything always is and so well written I could feel that semi outside the window, I felt my shoulders tighten until you were out of that moment. And now I would like to share your ‘Brother John’ with my mates and tribe. Thank you,

  2. Thanks so much Nancy. In my old age I now see this story as a metaphor for the spiritual path. We like to think we are in control, but sooner or later we realize that we are hurtling down Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole into the Unknown in a rickety old van called “me” with some other force at the wheel.

    We desperately want to think this other force is God but we are never sure until we arrive back in Wheeling safe and sound.