Jan 28 2011
Wednesday’s icy, blizzardy, tree-littered commute was Thursday morning’s front page news. There were oodles of stories about people stranded in gridlock, progressing a tenth a mile an hour. Trapped in cars overnight. Even reports of roadway mutiny as drivers commandeered oncoming traffic lanes. People ran out of gas and took to the streets on foot. It was utter commuting disorder.
My pilgrimage wasn’t quite so harried but it was slow, stressful and plagued by poor visibility. At 4 pm I joined the ant-like procession of tail lights fleeing cities for suburbs and rural locales. As traffic crept along, I listened to the weather report re-spool and watched my wipers surrender territory to the ice on my windshield.
By the time I hit the back roads, daylight was dwindling and I peered hard through the shrinking windshield. With no street lights and the glow from rural homes blotted out, I relied on snow-bowed trees — hovering over the road — as my guide.
This snowy drive reminded me of another white-knuckled excursion years ago: a jaunt from central Pennsylvania to western Massachusetts. It was a long journey for a weekend visit with friends — 325 miles each way — but I was determined to do it, no matter what.
In this case, “no matter what” was a snow storm — a massive, swirling blizzard that stalled out over the northeast.
In my defense, this was before the internet’s warm blanket of information, before emails flashed storm warnings and meteorologists warned of weather systems weeks out. Still, I must have had some idea of imminent bad weather. But I set out anyway.
Because I was a college student. And that’s what college is all about: exercising the power to be stupid.
My mode of transportation was a blue ’83 Volvo station wagon, four gears plus overdrive (yes, that ultra-sexy, ultra-sporty station wagon came in stick shift). I set out on the snowy interstate with a tube of Pringles, a tank of gas and four bald tires.
I hadn’t gone far — maybe 50 miles — before I hit black ice and spun out across several lanes of traffic. The car made one and a half rotations and I recall that it took forever. “Okay captain, it’s time to land this bucket of bolts,” I thought at the time. Finally, with the grace of an elephant, the Volvo touched down, ramming the right lane shoulder.
I’d barely peeled my hands from the wheel when there was a tap on the window. Two guys in a truck had seen the accident (“You okay? Yea? Hey, that was awesome!”). They were plumbers, driving around because they could — “no work ’cause of the snow.” I was their first entertainment opportunity.
The Volvo looked okay, except for two blown-out tires. We called the cops. The cops called a local garage for a tow. The plumbers drove me there.
I can’t recall where this happened — nowheresville Pa — but we followed a web of snowy back roads dotted with shotgun shack houses, convenience stores and dark, squat taverns. Outside one particularly grim town we stumbled on the garage, a timber structure that looked one wind gust away from collapse. Inside, it was filled with junk — clearly the mechanic chopped up more cars than he repaired. Metal parts, spools of wire, broken appliances, rusted signs and bottles lined the walls. But what sticks in my mind was The Leg.
A manikin leg, curvy and feminine, jutting out from the ceiling rafters. One of the plumbers admired the leg with a grin.
My car was outside the garage — the front end hanging off the back of the tow truck. Rather than unload the car, the mechanic wedged a two-by-four under the front bumper, then lowered the truck ramp… leaving my car suspended in air by a slab of lumber. The poor Volvo looked cartoonish, frozen and poised to free fall. I quickly paid to replace the two bald, flat tires for two used — and bald — semi-new tires, and drove out of there.
And this should be the story’s end. But no. Here’s where I really flexed my stupidity muscle.
I kept on going.
I wasn’t willing to surrender to blizzard conditions. I wouldn’t let black ice or bald tires get the best of me. I had friends to see in western Mass. So I plowed on. Literally.
By the time I reached the state border, heavy snow settled in. Ice claimed a windshield wiper in New York. In Connecticut white-out conditions descended and traffic crawled along. Ten hours had passed since I’d left my college dorm. Then 12 hours… 14, 15… I was getting slap-happy and delirious with only myself to talk to. By Hartford, I’d lost all perception of distance. I pulled over, thinking I’d missed my exit on the Mass interstate, and cried when the gas station attendant told me I was still 20 miles shy of the border. Still in Connecticut.
After 16+ hours in the car, sometime after midnight, I pulled up to my friends’ apartment. It was quiet and every car, tree and building was batter-dipped in gloppy, glistening snow. I pulled the key from the ignition and rested my head on the wheel. I was giddy, relieved and spent.
My friends greeted me at their door. They were perplexed. What the hell took me so long?
Nowadays, Martin chides me whenever I set out on snow covered country roads. “What’s the point? What do you have to prove?”
If only he knew.