I turned right out of the gas station parking lot with a determination I have never experienced before. This absolutely had to work. We passed, again, the remains of the house that fell victim to the river, the vertical car, the mud-caked roads, and the standing water. We passed parking lots that looked more like beachfront property. At every turn there were onlookers, and I wondered about them. Did they have houses to go home to? Were they still going through the motions of a normal day? Were they mad to be inconvenienced? Where they scared? Were they looking for someone?
I followed a line of cars closely into the town of Kumano. The residents there were using everything they had to clear the main road — buckets, stick brooms, rakes, shovels. Kids helped. The elderly helped. Once through the main drag, I turned right, against my better judgment, onto a residential road that snaked alongside the angry orange river. I had a terrible feeling that this was a mistake, but, needing to focus more on the road than the map, I heeded the directions.
Gut feelings are often right, and they were right this time.
As I rounded the corner, I slammed on my brakes to avoid driving into the river. Just beyond my front bumper was an orange traffic cone. This cone was the only deterrent to keep a driver from driving straight into a hole in the road where the left lane once was. To the right of this was an 18-wheeler trying to reverse in my direction. I sat there stunned.
If I had been looking down at the map, we would be in that river right now.
Frozen, I tried to figure out what to do. Now as far west as I’d managed to get, there was no way I was turning around and, given the water level over the road in some of the spots I’d just traveled, I knew in my heart that backtracking wasn’t even an option.
Not giving the truck time to pull us down into the river with its heavy load on an unstable road, I pulled into a driveway to my right, turned around and got us back to the main road, GPS be damned. I just kept going until I eventually found route 34 — my targeted winding mountain road. It sat there tempting me behind a wooden roadblock and some Kanji lettering I’ll never know the context of. As I sat there having my internal conflict of whether or not to chance going around the barricade, a car from the opposite direction went around it, up the mountain and it was followed by a few more. I had my answer. We were going.
We snaked up the saturated mountain behind three, maybe four cars. Getting far above the river, this was the most comfortable I’d been in more than seven hours. But, driving this two-lane road was like an obstacle course — swerve to the left to avoid a tree limb, swerve to the right to miss falling off the road, swerve left then right to dodge the mudslides and rockslides, then slam on the brakes at the sight of water on the road, never knowing for certain how deep it was or how strong the current was pulling it down the mountain.
With white knuckles, we hit the summit, but lost our lead cars there when I got stuck behind a tree limb. I waited for oncoming traffic to pass (honestly just encouraged that there was some oncoming traffic — did this mean the road was open all the way through, or were these the cars I’d been following that had to turn around up ahead). Once it was clear, I whipped around the tree fast enough to dodge an oncoming car, immediately braking when I realized my road for the descent was an actual waterslide due to all the runoff. To stay in control of my Japanese car older than my kids, I had to go slow.
I rode the brakes all the way down to the bottom, but in an encouraging development, I made it to the bottom! And we just kept going.
The next time I stopped was in a Lawson’s parking lot near Saka. This was the first time all day I’d chosen to stop. I still had road ahead of me. I dropped a pin and sent it to my husband, as promised. When I zoomed out, I couldn’t believe I’d actually made it as far as I had. I was almost to Hiroshima. I had hope again for the first time in hours. My husband asked if I thought I could make it into the city. If so, he would book us a hotel room for the night. Cautiously optimistic, I said we were going to try.
Not knowing the state of the flood in the city limits, I decided to plug in destinations just a few minutes ahead of me, stop upon arrival, and reassess the next move. My first stop was Saiseikai Hiroshima Hospital. I thought that if any road in a flood-ridden city would be passable, it would be the road leading to the hospital.
It was six minutes away. We turned onto a muddy bridge, meaning not long ago this bridge was under water. On the other side of the bridge, we saw it. We saw the buildings of Hiroshima. I lied when I said I only cried twice the entire day. My eyes welled up a third time here. My determination was back, and we were in a familiar place for the night.
I made it to the hospital, but I didn’t stop. I got onto a bridge that would take us over the port area, not knowing what water levels would be like there. The toll booth was operating, and we were charged 100 yen that I hoped was an indication we would actually get to the other side.
Photo Credits: Associated Press | Unsplash