Turn Around. Don’t Drown.

“Turn Around. Don’t Drown.”

That’s what the National Weather Service says — they even trademarked the saying.

I remember the Memorial Day floods in 1981. I heard later that people drowned trying to drive when they should have turned around. But what I remember most about them was the afternoon my brother and I were going stir-crazy, and my parents took us to see “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” That movie is even better when thunder accompanies John Williams’ score.

Our town had some flooding in 2007, and a man crossed where he shouldn’t have, trusting his pickup truck to save him. It did not. From then on I determined that if I saw a sign warning about high water, I would turn around.

But what if there’s no sign? What if you’re 15 miles out of town on a  bicycle on a one-lane road and folks are too busy to put out a sign? Or too flooded.

About this time last year, after days of rain, the sun came out, right as we were leaving church. The whole sky was bright swaths of blue. It was time to do the Luckenbach loop, a ride I hadn’t been able to do in two years because of construction.

I was worried about the low-water crossing on Jung Lane. My husband, John, thought it would be fine.

The ride was lovely, full of red firewheels along either side of the road. The low-water crossing at Jung was dry, although there was a lot of water running beneath it. Across Highway 290, Luckenbach Road had light debris from the previous night’s storm. South Grape Creek was rushing under the bridge like it was fleeing.

After a quick turn through Luckenbach (yes, the town immortalized in the song), I started up Grapetown Road. The sun was high. The breeze was cool and not too strong. The creek beside the road was rushing with brown water. A man in a tractor was pulling a downed tree off his flooded driveway.

All of a sudden I saw coming toward me the group of tandem cyclists. They were coming down the road I was going up, wearing matching neon yellow jackets. A woman called out, “High water up ahead,” and I think she also said the word “two.”

What did they know? They were obviously tourists, evidenced by their matching jackets. I’m local. And Grapetown runs uphill.

Oh, but there is that dry creek bed. Or is it two?

By the time I reached it, the dry creek bed had become a genuine creek, overrun with water. Not 2-3 inches like I suspected — more like 6. Why wasn’t there a Turn Around Don’t Drown sign?

But those tandemers looked fine. They had to have just crossed the creek; there were no other roads. I’d be OK.

The running water was cold and halfway up my shins as I edged my hybrid bike into the water. This is why you practice balance in yoga, for moments like this, I told myself, moving only a couple of inches forward with each step. Don’t look at anything but the opposite shore. You have all the time you need.

If I were to slip, I’d abandon my bike. If I were to fall, I’d need to avoid the barbed wire stretched across the water to my left. A few tense minutes, and I made it across.

Every muscle hurt. I realized I should have turned around when the tandem cyclists warned me about the water. At least that danger was behind me.

And then I came to the second creek. This one had tiny whitecaps.

I wanted to cry, but I was too tired to summon the energy. I pulled out my phone and dialed my husband. No answer. No signal. Why is it that whenever you need a rescue on a bike, there’s no signal?

I stood there in the middle of the road, trapped between two swollen creeks. If I could reach John and he came in the truck, he couldn’t cross — it was too dangerous. The best he could do would be to park and wait for me to cross the water to him.

I had to cross something.

I could either go back and cross creek No. 1 and try to call from Luckenbach. From that direction, it would take John about 20 minutes to reach me. If I crossed creek No. 2 and climbed the steep hill beyond it, the road would be literally downhill the rest of the way, and he could reach me in 10 minutes.

So I crossed creek No. 2. Same self-talk. Less steady. One hill left.

My gears squeaked. Shoes and socks soaked. Body spent. At the top of the hill I had cell coverage again.

I texted John, “Come get me.”

He texted back, “On my way.” No explanation required.

He reached me at the bottom of the hill we call Alpe d’Huez, after the mountain that is frequently featured in the Tour de France. He’d brought me lunch.

I nodded my thanks. Once in the car, after I’d eaten, I told him Jung Lane was fine, just like he said it would be. “Do you remember those two dry creeks on Grapetown?” I asked.

He didn’t until I mentioned them.

“They had water.”

“How much?”

“About 6 inches.”

He was silent. I didn’t mention the whitecaps.

“If I hadn’t seen those happy tandem people, I would’ve turned around,” I said.

He didn’t comment.

We both knew better.


  1. Oh my oh my OH MY. Even knowing you survived to write this, I’m still shaking. Oh my precious Friend. And in a bright, sunny morning tears come. Please promise to always turn around hence forth.

  2. “I had to cross something.” I was all caught up in this, I knew for sure at this point.

  3. Wow. This story reminds me of Bridge to Terabithia, and now I’m all nervous and sad.

    • Forgot to mention, a couple of years ago I started seeing signs around town that said, “Ditch playing in ditches.” A friend told me that those signs were made and put up because of a boy that died bicycling in a ditch and died in the flash flood (the sign has a picture of a bike overwhelmed by floodwaters). And then she told me she knows the mother of that boy.