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Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 – Advanced)
Topic: Autumn/Fall (08/27/09)

TITLE: Red Flag Warning
By Seema Bagai


“Red flag warning. High winds…”

I slapped the radio's off button and rolled out of bed. Outside, the trees swayed in the breeze. Hope there isn’t too much traffic on the freeway. A change in the weather and Southern California drivers act like they’ve never driven before. I slathered on extra lotion and lip balm to soothe my skin from the dryness in the air.

After making sure to wear a dress that wouldn’t billow and trading contact lenses for glasses, I climbed into my Camry, merged onto the freeway, and headed east directly into the oncoming winds. The hills on both sides temporarily protected the freeway from the strongest gusts. Behind me, swirling smoke smudged the western horizon as a wildfire careened through the canyons. Racing flames scattered families and erased everything in its path.

The sun peeked over the horizon to reveal a dazzling blue sky. The scorching breaths of the October Santa Ana winds had cleansed the sky of summer’s suffocating smog, leaving behind single digit humidity levels. Spring cleaning at the opposite equinox. To the north, I had a perfect view of the majestic peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains, finally visible after weeks of being shrouded by pollution.

Further ahead, I glimpsed wisps of smoke. Quickly, I switched the radio to the news. “Strong winds on the 60 eastbound. High profile vehicles advised to pull over. The 15 connector to the 60 closed in both directions.”

Taking a deep breath, I eased my foot off the accelerator and tightened my hold on the steering wheel. The freeway opened up to an area of flat land for miles on either side, offering no shelter from the fierce winds. What I had thought was smoke, actually was flying clouds of dirt. My car convulsed. Visibility rapidly decreased due to the gusting dust. A tumbleweed skittered across the lanes, followed by another one larger than the car’s front bumper.

I slowed down to a near crawl and switched on the headlights, straining to see the traffic ahead. The car shook violently and I grasped the wheel tighter. I’ve never seen the wind this bad before. Abruptly, I swerved to avoid a gigantic piece of debris jutting into my lane. My stomach plunged with the realization that it was half of the green interchange sign lying back there, as if an enormous hand had crumpled and carelessly tossed the sheet of metal onto the freeway.

Within seconds, I passed the under the closed connector. The three levels of steel and concrete paths stood vacant, while flashing signs ordered all trucks to pull over. Several big rigs had obeyed the warning and sat along the far right side of the freeway. In the lane to my right, I spotted an 18-wheeler speed forward. Just as it was parallel to my car, the entire truck tipped to the left, just feet from my vehicle. I pressed my foot on the accelerator as far as I could, while my heart battered my chest. In my head, I screamed, “Lord, Lord, Lord, Lord” unable to articulate more of a prayer than that.

Once past the wayward truck, I slowed down as the car continued being buffeted by the intense wind. On the opposite side of the freeway, three trucks lay overturned, looking as if they had all become exhausted and decided to take naps in the center of the road. By this point, I too, was ready to stop driving, but work beckoned so I continued driving, my mind attempting to process the astonishing scenes I’d just witnessed. I took rapid, shallow sips of air and my eyes darted in all directions, searching for additional hazards.

The haze cleared as hills once again hugged the freeway and offered some shelter from the fierce winds. The sun smiled in the freshly-scrubbed sky. I exited the freeway and arrived at work. After parking the car, I carefully unwound my cramped fingers from the steering wheel, took several calming breaths, and opened the car door to be greeted by bursts of warm wind.

Thirty-five miles from home, and still shaking, I entered the building. Lord, thank you for protecting me from the winds and the insanity of this morning. I think this was Your way of telling me to look for a job closer to home. I really don’t want to drive on that freeway for another autumn.

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Member Comments
Member Date
Rick Higginson 09/03/09
I commuted through Cajon Pass daily for some ten years, and spent most of my life before that just beneath it. I really don't miss those Santa Ana winds. Nice job of conveying that tension that goes with being out and about in them.
Allen Stark09/05/09
I agree with Rick. I'm glad I no longer have to deal with crazy California freeway drivers and strong Santa Ana winds. Now all I have to deal with is 85+-year-old drivers who've driven the rural highways and streets of the Midwest and tornados.Hmmm, did I make a good trade? I enjoyed your entry.
Anita van der Elst09/05/09
I was holding my breath as you took us down the freeway through the wind. Having lived in the Inland Empire & worked in Orange Co for a year I know how similar the 91 can be to what you described. I hate driving next to those big trucks in any kind of weather! Good job with this story! (Hope you got that job closer to home.)
Joanne Sher 09/06/09
Oh yeah - memories for sure (though NOT this bad). I was absolutely reliving this with you (and it helped me remember exactly WHY I hate driving next to 18-wheelers! I seriously had forgotten). Excellent descriptions and conveyance of emotions.
Gregory Kane09/06/09
Invigorating writing. I kept wondering what was so important about this journey that it had to be made in such difficult conditions. As such the eventual outcome was something of an anticlimax. Made me wonder if you couldn't have fictionalised it a bit and beefed up the suspense a little. But nevertheless an enjoyable and engaging read.
Laury Hubrich 09/10/09
Wow. That is very scary. I've been in a dust storm before but I was in the country, with very little to no traffic. I can't imagine this situation. Nice job telling this story. And I sure am glad it ended on a good note.