Life Lessons from a Muddy Ditch So Close to Mardi Gras

It was a perfect idea. My girlfriend and I weren't yet old enough to rent a car, so we caught a ride with someone who owned an '87 Ford Taurus. My girlfriend had an aunt with an apartment in the French Quarter who fled every February, so it was a fair swap. Five of us squeezed into the Taurus, intent on partying at Mardi Gras. But, 18 hours later, we were covered in mud in a ditch in rural Arkansas.

That was 22 years ago. Reflecting on all of the things that went wrong, I've only recently recognized there are lessons that could be learned for business and for life. Of course, I wasn't looking for wisdom from this trip, which started off as a smooth drive from the northern suburbs of Chicago to Missouri.

I've always been a light packer, and had packed a few pairs of underwear, a few t-shirts, one sweatshirt, two pairs of shorts, a pair of socks, and I was wearing sneakers. By the time our car was sliding on the icy highway in southern Missouri, I knew I had not properly prepared. None of us had been prepared in different ways. Life lesson #1: Yes, "be prepared" is great advice, but "imagine every worse case scenario" is better advice. I say that because, by the time we were parked in front of and behind Mack tractor-trailers on the southbound lane of Highway 55 near Birdsong, Arkansas, my girlfriend of two months had to pee. And she packed blankets and sweatshirts and prepared for cold weather in a way I hadn't, but she was wearing a "bodysuit." I didn't know what a bodysuit was--it's kind of a one-piece bathing suit, but not for swimming (apparently weirdly popular in the early 90s)--but we all realized she had a problem. Thousands of cars and trucks were parked on the long flat highway, and, as far as we could tell, there was not a tree in sight for her to duck behind.

At 4 in the morning, she and I got out of the car into the complete darkness and could hardly move. The road beneath us was literally a sheet of ice, and we struggled to make it to the trunk, where we could grab blankets for warmth, and a towel for wrapping around my girlfriend's waist. This was all very embarrassing, but at least it was dark, right? Life lesson #2: People will always try to help you, but if they do not know what you really need, they may take actions that you really don't want them to. The Mack Truck driver, watching us flail about next to the trunk, must have figured we couldn't see, and turned on his high beams, just as I was wrapping the towel around my urinating girlfriend.

She turned beet red in the bright shining, and I just laughed, which was wrong, but I couldn't help myself. I actually slipped on the ice, but still managed to keep the towel wrapped around her, all the while howling with laughter. She yelled at me, "This isn't funny!" But I knew it was. Life lesson #3: Things aren't as funny when they're happening to you at the time. But, if you have a sense of humor, you might be able to appreciate even the most horrifying moments years later.

When we returned to the car, the owner of the car had decided she had enough sitting on the highway, and that we were going to turn around and head back to Chicago. I begged and pleaded to wait until sunrise, when the ice would melt and we could continue to New Orleans. But the driver taught me my next life lesson: Don't try wresting control from an owner who has made up her mind. Minds are almost impossible to change once they're made up.

We headed across the gully to the northbound side of the highway and... got stuck in the ice-covered grass. The four passengers got out to push the car, most of us in t-shirts and sneakers, but we were not strong enough to push. We didn't know what to do... until we saw high beams driving southbound on the northbound side of the highway. We ran over to the northbound side and flagged down the driver. He got out and said, "Are you going to Mardi Gras?!" We said we were, but we were stuck. He responded, "I can help you! Let me tell you, I'm not letting a traffic jam keep me from New Orleans. I'm going to go south on the north side until I pass the jackknifed trailer, and then it's a quick shot to Mardi Gras!" He had a couple of wood planks, and helped push us out. Life lesson #5: Sometimes it takes someone driving down the wrong way on a one-way street to help you discover a way out.

So there we were, following this Lincoln Town Car south on the northbound side at dawn, and we passed miles of parked cars, and we passed the jackknifed tractor-trailer, and we were high-fiving. We were going to Mardi Gras after all! Life lesson #6: Don't ever celebrate early.

He turned on his indicator to let us know he was heading back to the southbound lane. We shouted, "No! No!" But he couldn't hear us. We flashed and honked, but he went across the grass, and... he got stuck. And, of course, we were now obligated to help him, because the "Law of Reciprocity" is near impossible to resist (see my discussion of New York's squeegee men for a complete understanding of how powerful that law is). He took out the planks, and we helped push, but this time, the rising sun was melting the ice, and the wheels simply covered us in wet cold mud, from head to toe. Life lesson #7: What works under one set of circumstances cannot be necessarily expected to work in another. He was stuck in the mud, and we couldn't help him in the way he helped us. 

We decided we would head back to Chicago in our mud-covered clothes, and would go to the next gas station and call him a tow. We made it back to Chicago 24 hours after we had left. My girlfriend and I walked back to my dorm room, and, for the first time, we told each other, "I love you." After all, we had been through an icy hell and back and had managed not to strangle each other.

Four months later, our relationship was more stuck than that muddy Lincoln. We gave up on each other before the school year ended. Perhaps the most important life lesson: Don't first discover or declare your undying love right after a stressful or traumatic moment. True love is always clear-eyed.