Little did Nathan Loker know that when he traveled to Florida more than a week ago his journey back would be marred by hazardous winter conditions.
Loker arrived in St. Augustine, Fla., Friday, Jan. 24, to accept a photography award. It was when he got ready to make the trip back home to Effingham on Monday that the storm that paralyzed the South hit.
Loker's flight was canceled. Desperate to find a way home he decided to ride with four others who also were at the convention he attended. At 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, the friends took off in a minivan thinking they would make it through the weather. They were wrong.
"We're from Illinois. We thought we've driven through this before," he said.
What the group of men were unprepared for was the ice and unsalted roadways that grinded traffic to a near halt.
The day before, Loker said, the temperature was 50 degrees, so when snow began hitting the ground, it was melting. The frigid temps that followed, however, turned the melting snow into "instant ice."
"It was slabs of ice rink on the interstate," he said.
"It took us nearly 7 1/2 hours to go 15 miles," he said. "We saw people walk away from their vehicles. It was the craziest thing I had ever seen."
By evening, the group barely made their way through Atlanta, where thousands of drivers were hopelessly stuck.
"We were trying to reach a friend's house 50 miles away and realized we wouldn't make it," said Loker.
The cooped-up travelers were growing hungry. With restaurants closed, the only place they could find open was a Kroger.
"We spent the first hour walking around, looking for snacks and calling wives and friends letting them know we're OK," said Loker.
The group soon found the workers there more than accommodating.
"The manager came out and said we've been making fried chicken, lasagna, whatever anybody wanted. They were going out of their way to help anybody that was coming in," said Loker.
One act of kindness that Loker remembers most is the help they gave one mother and her 5-year-old daughter. Workers took the daughter while she slept to give the mother a break for a while to make phone calls. Later workers were fixing a shopping cart with enough clothes for the girl to sleep.
"One of my friends had the idea since we had all the equipment from the workshop that we'll just set up and shoot some portraits to kind of give back to the workers.," he said. "We started realizing half these people have never had a professional portrait in their life. It was kind of neat to give back."
The group took portraits from 7 p.m. to about 1 a.m.
When they finished, the group decided to get back on the road. However, they quickly ran into another obstacle when they became stuck in the middle of the highway. As they tried to push their way out to no avail, a man came across the street and offered to help.
"He had been there more than three hours helping motorists who had become stuck," said Loker.
They made their way out only to find traffic halted about a mile out. They realized the stalled traffic mostly consisted of stranded vehicles.
"It's like Atlanta snowstorm apocalypse. It's abandoned cars everywhere. Semis stuck. Semis smashed against other cars. Cars in middle lanes sideways," said Loker.
After weaving their way through the mess, the group drove to Tennessee, where they spent the night in a hotel.
The next day the group would find itself stranded again, but this time it wasn't because of weather.
"We made it to the west side of Nashville, and the van dies," said Loker.
The vehicle had to be towed and the alternator wouldn't be fixed until noon the following day, meaning another night in a hotel.
The group finally arrived in Fairfield Thursday about 5:30 p.m. Because Loker was the only one who lived in Effingham, he had further to go before making it home.
"I had to call my wife to pick me up," he said.
With limited communication between the two, because Loker was trying to conserve the battery on his phone, his wife, Mallory, was only too happy to see an end to the journey.
"She was on edge the whole time," he said.
Loker said the experience is one he is not soon to forget.
"It's one of the craziest things I have ever seen. But seeing Atlanta deal with something that's all new for them, they were willing to serve. They made an impact in our lives that there still are good people out there."
For video of the group took as they traveled the icy roadways in Atlanta, click below