Thursday, April 6, 2017

Life and Death on Highway 83

Roadside memorial on Highway 83, Seward County, Kansas
It’s not uncommon to be driving along Highway 83 and to spot a roadside memorial with plastic flowers — and perhaps a wreath — marking where a deadly accident took place.
Friends and families place these memorials at the last place on Earth where their loved ones were alive. In South Dakota, the state places permanent “Think” signs at these spots when driving while under the influence, or without a seatbelt, are involved.
On my travels, I have sometimes pulled over to take pictures of these memorials, shaken off the prairie dust, put that vases upright and wondered about what happened there.
While I love Highway 83, these roadside markers are a constant reminder that it is a place of heartbreak for some.
I have kicked around the idea for this column for eight years, but never gotten around to writing it. I decided that it was time. That’s because Highway 83 made national news the other week, and for all the wrong reasons. Thirteen people lost their lives when a truck slammed into a van driving home elderly members of a church in Texas’ Hill Country. It is alleged that the driver of the truck was texting at the time.
The week before, some poor soul on the road between Anson, Texas, and Abilene decided that life was no longer worth living. He got out of his car and walked into a semi in an apparent suicide.
Since I have the search terms “Highway 83” set on Google, I see all of these tragedies on this road in my news feed. There are sadly, too many to mention in this column.
As someone who has kept tabs on this over the years, I urge everyone to be especially careful on Highway 83 from Interstate 70 on south through Garden City and Liberal. Locals have been asking lawmakers in Topeka for years to improve this dangerous stretch of road. But their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. The number of 18-wheelers and cars on this hazardous stretch is growing and it’s a crying shame nothing has been done about it.
Hughes County, South Dakota
Highway 83 from Laredo south to where the expressway begins near Mission was also once notorious, but I was glad to see that improvements were being made to the road the last time I passed through in December 2015.
Making a road wider isn’t always a guarantee that it will be safer, though. I was in the emergency room at a hospital in Bismarck (for a non-life threatening case of poison ivy, not an accident). The ER nurse, after hearing about my project, told me that they saw a lot of car-wreck survivors from the four-lane section of Highway 83 that runs from Minot to Bismarck. That surprised me. The fact that drivers are allowed make left turns onto side roads was the culprit, she said. They go to make a turn and don’t see or misjudge oncoming traffic. They lucky ones make it to her.
Tragedy struck my extended family as well when a cousin driving under the influence of prescription painkillers on Highway 83 north of North Platte wrecked the car, killing her daughter and causing severe injury to her granddaughter.
Depressing. But Highway 83 is no different in these regards than any other road. Last year marked the highest death toll recorded on America’s roads in more than a decade with about 40,000 losing their lives in accidents. Overlooked are those who suffered serious injuries in car accidents: 4.6 million over the course of 12 months, according to the National Safety Council.
But I see other stories in my newsfeed. Some are more heartening.
The first was September 22, 2009, when Jennie Goodwin was rushing to the hospital in Minot with her birth coach behind the wheel, according to the Minot Daily News. Her daughter Mollie made her appearance on Highway 83. The official birth took place in the hospital parking lot.
A pregnant Sheila Nobles was traveling with family from Orange, Texas, to North Platte. Nebraska on December 2, 2010, but had the OK from her doctor to make the trip because her due date was still a ways off, according to the North Platte Telegraph. She started having abdominal cramps when they crossed the Nebraska border. By the time they reached Prairie Mart south of North Platte, the pain became unbearable and her mother pulled over. While in the restroom, Sheila became incapacitated. Her mother got the key from the store manager and entered in time to catch the baby falling out. She named the girl Isabella.
Lynda Oldenkamp approached me after I gave a presentation about Highway 83 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. She was born on Highway 83 in 1948.
She later emailed me details of the story: “I was born in the back seat of an uncle’s car on December 20, 1948 on the way from Murdo to the Pierre hospital.  My folks’ car was broken down so they had planned to use my uncle’s car when it was time to get to the hospital in Pierre. 
“It was Saturday night when I decided to start the labor pains, and my dad had to go find my uncle who had gone out for the night with his car so that delayed their start to Pierre. They/we didn’t make it and had to stop about 18 miles south of Pierre on the older/original road for the delivery.”
And that is life and death on Highway 83.

Stew Magnuson is the author of the Highway 83 Chronicles, a series of three books about history and life found along U.S. Route 83. The final book, The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83 in Texas was released in March 2017 and follows The Last American Highway: The Dakotas, and The Last American Highway: Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma, edition.
All three are available ONLINE or in bookstores and gift shops along Highway 83.
For signed copies or retail opportunities contact him HERE.

1 comment: