PESOTUM — There's probably a worse place to try to sleep in a near-blizzard than inside an interstate highway rest stop, although nothing comes to mind.
"It got cold last night and so I slept on the bathroom floor because it was a little warmer," said Matthew Feely of Charleston, who spent about 20 hours Sunday and Monday stranded at the Illini Prairie rest area on southbound Interstate 57 near Pesotum. "The lights kept flickering on and off, and it felt like we were going to lose power. So I just emptied out my suitcase and layered up. I've got about three layers of clothes on, plus my coat and hat and gloves."
Feely was among a couple dozen motorists and truckers who managed finally to get out of the southbound and northbound rest areas near Pesotum shortly before noon Monday.
A Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District bus was sent to the southbound rest stop Monday morning to ferry the stranded travelers to the Pesotum Village Hall. But by the time driver Chris Bell got there, all had dug out or been pulled out of the snowdrifts. He never got to take anyone to the village hall.
Feely and most of the other drivers at the rest stops said they had pulled off the highway Sunday afternoon because of poor visibility.
"It got so that I could barely see, and I saw the rest area and got off," he said. "Then I saw that the snow was getting too deep. I drive a Nissan Altima and I knew there was no way I'd get through. I've been here since about 2:30 yesterday afternoon."
He soon was joined by three Southern Illinois University students headed back to Carbondale.
"It got so windy that I couldn't see in front of my headlights anymore so we pulled in here," said Ricardo Lopez of Chicago, who was driving his 1995 Honda Civic. "I wasn't sliding around. I was driving perfectly fine. I was able to drive through the storm because I know how to pretty well, but it got to the point where there was zero visibility and I just decide to stop."
Soon the car was buried in a drift, and the trio spent a fitful night inside the rest area, where they estimated the temperature dropped to about 50 degrees. On Monday morning, a propane heater was brought into the rest stop.
How did they pass the time?
"Tried to rest. Just did nothing. Be bored," Lopez said. "I was more worried about my car, wondering if I could get it out and get all my friends to safety with me."
One of his friends, Mathew Geevarghese of Arlington Heights, said when they left Chicago on Sunday morning they didn't expect such poor conditions.
"It just kept getting worse the further we went. But there was no certain point where we said we cannot do this. It was like, 'It's not too bad. It's not too bad. We can still do this.' Then finally it was at a point where it was just too crazy for us to see.'"
The third member of the trio, Josehn Issangya of Bolingbrook, is a native of tropical Tanzania.
"I'll never get used to this weather," he lamented.
John McKee, who was headed back to Chicago on I-57, said he counted 158 cars stuck in the snow between Mount Vernon and Tuscola.
Julianne Paullin of East Troy, Wis., also was northbound with her three young sons Sunday afternoon when conditions became too treacherous, she said.
"We were probably going 10 miles an hour and we just couldn't see in front of us or around us. We followed a car off the exit to the rest area, and we have been there since," she said while enjoying chicken soup and hot chocolate at the Pesotum Village Hall. "We just had no visibility. My windshield wipers weren't working and the washer fluid wasn't working so I was putting my hand out there. ... It was just a nightmare."
She kept waiting for a snowplow to clear the parking area at the rest stop, but none came.
"If it had we would have been able to get right out. It was a long night, just cold and uncomfortable," she said of her 20-hour wait at the rest stop.
"And the Packers lost."