Thursday, January 27, 2011

Winter Wonder Damned

Between last winter and this one I figure pretty much everyone has a snowpocalyptic revelation or two of their own, and now I have mine. I mean, sure, last year during the first blizzard we moved houses, but as arduous as that was it didn’t really seem all that bad. It was in fact much worse in hindsight when we considered how foolhardy the whole misadventure had been and thanked the Norns that we got off as lightly as we did with zero vehicular or bodily damage. But moving is hard anyway, even under the best of circumstances, and digging out a moving truck stranded mid-cul-de-sac was more of an interesting wrinkle. Yesterday I got a first-hand taste of a much purer classic snowstorm calamity: The Unconscionably Long Commute Home.

I had made up my mind before I even left for work in the morning to bail out of the office earlier than my normal departure time. I was eyeballing the 2 pm to 3 pm timeframe, and then the federal government essentially dismissed everyone two hours early so I was feeling pretty good about staying until 3 and getting the best of both worlds – leaving ahead of my personal schedule but not technically abandoning my post, either. Unfortunately, as usual, the Metro system was at its most appallingly incompetent, running trains at 3 pm as if it were not yet rush hour, even though the entire federal workforce was at that moment headed home. I think there may also have been some train malfunctions here and there, as luck would have it, slowing things down even more. I waited on the Rosslyn platform for fifteen minutes before I ever saw a train, and that one was overcrowded already, so I waited some more. When the fourth overcrowded train in a row pulled in, I shoved my way on with the rest of the crowd closest to the doors, and endured the press of bodies until the train started emptying outside the city. All in all what would normally take half an hour (getting from my office onto the Metro and off again and into my car) took an hour.

At that point the snow was coming down in all its fury, heavy flakes falling at a heavy rate. Normally, pulling out of the Metro parking lot, driving all the way around the station and its parking garages to the westernmost entry point to 66, and merging onto the highway takes about ten minutes. It took another hour. Thankfully, my wife had been sent home early from her job, so although it was nominally my day to pick up the little guy from daycare, she popped in for him on her way home and I didn’t need to stress about getting to the center before it closed or anything. I just had to get myself home at an average speed of six miles an hour. My wife was a little worried about even that modest goal, not so much because she thought I would skid out of control and into a truck pulling a trailer loaded with full propane canisters, but just because if the snow got too deep and the plows couldn’t keep up I might get stranded in a drift somewhere and be more or less screwed for want of a good pair of cross-country skis.

Batman's super-power is that he thinks of EVERYTHING.
But, again, I was right there in the thick of everyone else who had been sent home early at the exact same time, so while the snowplows couldn’t be everywhere at once the sheer volume of traffic was keeping the road surface accumulation from getting too nasty. At the very least everyone could follow the tire tracks of the car in front of them, and it was only changing lanes that was peril-fraught. So of course, inevitably, I had to deal with that peril at some point.

I was dressed for winter weather in my heaviest coat and also running the heater and defroster at full blast, and the cabin got uncomfortably warm after a while, so I was gradually turning down the temperature and the blower speed. I mention this because I suspect that might have been a factor in the buildup of ice along the bottom of my windshield, which otherwise presumably would have melted if I had been keeping the glass as toasty as possible. But one minute I was rolling along feeling like things were tediously slow but under control, and the next I tapped my brakes, some snow fell forward from the roof of my car to the bottom of my windshield, and my windshield wipers were frozen in the down position. And it was still snowing pretty hard, so my windshield immediately became a watery blur. At this point it was dark and relatively easy to see the brakelights of the car in front of me even through an unwipered windshield, but I still recognized the need to do something to improve the situation.

I had already passed several people on 66 who had simply stopped in the middle of a travel lane, put on their hazards, and gotten out to re-scrape their windows, but I just couldn’t let myself be that guy. So, with extremely poor outward visibility, I signaled and cut across two lanes to get to the left shoulder just beneath an overpass. (I did not cut across one lane to the right shoulder because there was actually more traffic that way approaching an exit.) I jumped out, knocked all the ice off the windshield wipers, jumped back in (praying I hadn’t burned out the wiper motors trying to force them to move by trying all the different speeds in rapid succession) and darted back into traffic. OK, not so much “darted” as “wafted” since the flow of traffic was still in the single-digit MPH.

That was my only real moment of excitement in the whole slog. My patience started to wear a little thin as we approached my exit, where there had been an accident requiring emergency vehicles. When there was no one to blame but the weather and the overall volume of traffic, I had a very sanguine we’re-all-in-this-together attitude, but when one particular person loses control of their vehicle and makes things that much worse for the rest of us, I know it was an accident in all senses of the world but it still triggers more of the rage instinct. Which was not made any better by the person ahead of me on the exit ramp to my town, who insisted on taking its entire curving length at about one mile an hour despite the fact that it was reasonably clear of both snow and other cars. Gah.

Luckily the multi-lane main drag of town was in good shape and I passed the avatar of timidity and concluded my journey relatively easily, except for the absolute final moments. As I approached my house I hit the garage door opener and nothing happened, which was when it finally dawned on me that my entire street was darkened and presumably without power. At the same time, I had slowed down while trying to open the garage so as not to slam into the unresponsive door, and by giving up my momentum I found myself mere feet from the end of my driveway but unable to proceed any further. Living at the very end of a cul-de-sac has its advantages, though, as I felt no compunction about leaving the car in that exact spot and hustling into the house at about 8 pm. So, door-to-door, the trip home took five hours.

I got home just in time to say goodnight to the little guy as my wife was putting him to bed, and then she and I sat downstairs by the light of the woodstove and while she exchanged texts with some other co-workers to see how they had gotten home (or not, in some cases, which was very vexing) I came down from the adrenaline high I hadn’t even realized I had been on and sprawled semi-lifelessly on the couch. Fortunately the power was back on about an hour later (and had only just gone out right before I got home) and we were able to heat ourselves some dinner just before Blackadder and bed.

So – it could have been worse! We turned on the news this morning to see if the federal government was closed or only delayed (only delayed, booooo) and the anchors dropped a passing reference to some people spending all night trapped in their cars on impassible roads, as well as hundreds of thousands who still have no power. And my up-north brethren got even more snow than we did, and will no doubt have a harder time digging out than we will. But by my own measure I now have survived to tell the terrible tale of another snowstorm and, personally, thought it was a tale worth telling.

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