“I remember well that January day back in 1987…”
The forecast was for a light dusting. At the most, three inches of the fluffy white stuff would fall. Like any sensible Northeasterner who had been transplanted to our nation’s capital, I listened intently as the monotone little man inside my radio told how this winter event, innocuous as it first appeared, would likely affect the metro area.
Even as a relatively inexperienced driver fresh out of college, I knew what to expect—or at least I thought I did. Having been raised in the rural hills of North Central Pennsylvania, I had spent the better part of an eon watching my parents navigate treacherous roadways and had logged bazillions of hours at the helm myself—spinning and skidding all over that infamous learning curve (i.e. it wasn’t pretty, but I managed). Who knew the D.C. area would be my proving ground less than a decade later.
Barely a flake was in sight as I made my usual trek to work that morning; however, the crazies were out in earnest (i.e. those adversely affected by the so-called Snow Craze). Just about everyone I encountered had that characteristic white-knuckle-death-grip-hunched-over-the-steering-wheel look I knew so well. Faces were ashen and strained as if bracing for the worst. Same story, different chapter in the elevator. Anxiety hung in the air, thick and unyielding. Urbanites clad in high heels and snappy suits were in a virtual panic over the forecast, clutching their beloved briefcases and cappuccinos as if they promised protection from impending doom. Paranoia had officially arrived, never mind the actual storm.
“How LUDICROUS,” I thought. “Snow is falling, not the fucking sky.”
Upon reaching my floor and department, I went about my normal morning routine which included organizing my memo-littered cubicle, gazing out the wall of windows at the tiny speck-like people below, skimming through the USA Today and downing an ice-cold Pepsi—my less-than-nutritious, caffeine vice. Who knew it would serve as my entire caloric intake for the day?
Not long after I had settled in, a voice bellowed from our office intercom, “DUE TO INCLEMENT WEATHER, ALL EMPLOYEES ARE HEREBY ADVISED TO LEAVE THE COMPLEX IMMEDIATELY. ALL FEDERAL GOVERNMENT OFFICES HAVE BEEN DISMISSED. DELAYS MAY BE EXPECTED.” It was as if someone had announced a two-for-one wrap special in the deli. People delirious with panic bolted for the doors, still clutching those precious briefcases and clicking those three-inch heels. Naturally, I joined the mass exodus—sans Stilettos.
Humongous flakes, the ones my kids revel in catching on their tongues and eyelashes, were falling hard and heavy now at the rate of several inches an hour. By the time I hiked to my car, everything was completely shrouded in white. Roads were beyond slick and fast approaching perilous. Just getting onto the highway was an adventure in and of itself. Droves of frenzied people, no doubt anxious to leave the city, careened through the streets as if tuned to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds. Never before had I witnessed such pandemonium—not even during a blizzard back home. All because of a simple, little four-letter word—snow.
Great multitudes of vehicles were lined up bumper to bumper, snaking westward like a giant convoy of snails. The complex maze of roadways leading into and out of the capital had morphed hideously—into a tangled, slippery mess choked to the extreme with cars and trucks. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to escape the lunacy—not only instantaneously, but simultaneously—which was a recipe for disaster.
Ironically, an hour later I could still eyeball the building where I worked in my rearview mirror. So much for the mad dash to avoid the crowds. And so much for listening to that stupid little man in my radio. Blasted liar. Those measly three inches he estimated wound up being a foot. Worse yet, a second storm pounded the region just two days later, bringing the monstrous total to 20+ inches. It may as well have been 10 feet. No one appeared to know what to do with it or how to drive in it.
As I inched along Route 50, snow crunched beneath my wheels and silently blanketed my windshield. I felt like a prisoner in my own mobile igloo—barely mobile, I might add. Every half hour or so, I was forced to get out and brush away the growing heaps that my wipers couldn’t reach on a bet. From there I gazed at an endless procession of cars hopelessly immersed within a sea of snow and decided there was but one befitting word to describe the ordeal: PATHETIC. Better yet, four befitting words: UTTERLY AND INCOMPREHENSIBLY PATHETIC.
Periodically everyone was standing outside, smack dab in the middle of the highway (which was more like the suggestion of a highway, really), sweeping piles upon piles of snow from atop their cars and off their windows. I felt like part of an enormous pit crew. We were family in a sense—in it together for the long haul. A unified bunch of derelicts with a common goal—getting home. No gallery was present, however, to cheer us on to the checkered flag; but plenty of those in attendance chipped in by filling the air with colorful language galore. As if cursing at the stormy skies or at each other would improve the situation.
Creative driving was in full force as well. People attempted to circumvent traffic snarls by using ENTRANCE ramps to EXIT the highway. Not surprisingly, most of those particular idiots got buried half-way up or down the ramps, which infuriated all the other drivers who had followed.
Stupid pills had apparently been the drug of choice that day.
Ridiculous as it might sound, the scene itself was almost circus-like. The only thing missing: A ringmaster. Nervous Nellies and Neds putzed along at a painfully slow rate—and got stuck. Fools raced around like a bunch of deranged squirrels at an acorn festival—and got stuck. Tank commanders, who believed their 4×4 wonder machines could orbit the earth—also, got stuck. Competency, it seemed, was nowhere to be found. Common sense had unfortunately taken a hike as well.
Soon massive piles of snow clogged the roadway and the shoulder vanished completely. Route 50 became a narrow channel through which we were herded westward like cattle bound for the slaughterhouse. No one could enter. And no one could leave. Our only alternative: To continue rolling ahead millimeter by millimeter, hour after hour like the mindless drones that we truly epitomized. Gas stations, shopping plazas and convenience stores lined the route, but sadly, were out of reach. They served merely to taunt us with their warmth and coziness, hot coffee and clean restrooms. Never mind THOSE amenities. I wanted a one-way ticket to the Bahamas.
Or snowshoes, size nine.
Abandoned cars cropped up left and right—planted like trees in the center of the lane. Cautiously, I made my way around them and peered inside the fogged over windows as if passing the deceased at a wake (saddened and stunned by the loss, but at the same time, thrilled that it wasn’t me). Perhaps those who had vacated were in search of snowshoe bargains nearby or for those tickets to the Bahamas. Both possibilities were entirely viable.
Apparently, people had been running out of gas and couldn’t pull over to fill up. So they just got out and walked away from it all, leaving behind their beloved yuppiemobiles. Damned quitters. I sat behind one such snow-covered vehicle for 15 minutes before deciding that maybe I should check inside it. Nobody home. Naturally, I felt like a blithering idiot as I stared at the empty seat, but quickly reminded myself that I still had plenty of fuel and front-wheel drive. What’s more, I had snow boots. Probably could have sold them for a grand that day. Maybe two.
By now our marathon driving session had stretched to several hours. Tempers had begun to flare, patience had all but disappeared and everyone’s bladder (including mine) had surpassed its natural limit. But what to do? Each of us could certainly employ a few anger management techniques picked up here or there and we could all try being a little more patient or perhaps even search for the hilarity in the whole wretched experience. But there was no arguing with urinary urgency.
I only wished I had skipped my morning Pepsi—just this once.
Longingly, I gazed at the multitude of gas station restrooms I passed by, even the ones with less-than-desirable facilities. I wouldn’t have cared if mold were growing on the toilet seat and a BEWARE OF DOG sign hung on the doorknob. I needed to go. The dog would just have to fend for itself.
Eventually, I had to act. I was desperate, and desperate times often call for less-than-intelligent measures. So I threw my car into park, turned off the engine, got out and began trudging through the knee-deep snow toward what appeared to be a church. Of course, my bold move failed to go unnoticed. People angrily honked their horns, yelled out their windows and shook their fists at me, demanding that I get back in and “Drive, stupid!” I decided it would have been pointless to try and explain my dilemma to this very long line of irate folks. So with my face buried deep inside my coat and my teeth beyond the buoyancy stage, I plodded on toward the refuge I hoped would welcome me, ignoring the adamant requests that trailed behind me.
After circling the entire building and testing each and every door to no avail, I mulled over the alternatives. I could circle again and continue to bang on the doors, trusting that someone would eventually hear me. I could wade through the toe-numbing snow to another deserted building and try my luck there. Or I could return to my car—defeated. None of these options promised immediate relief.
Cautiously, I eyed some rather large shrubbery that framed an entranceway at the back of the church and thought, “Hey, what do I have to lose?” No one from the road would be able to see, the houses behind the building were fairly distant and not one solitary soul was in sight. Clearly, the benefits outweighed the costs and the risk of being caught was minimal—unless, of course, the Fairfax County police were busy citing people for yellowing the snow that afternoon. I banked on that being highly unlikely.
So I went about my business, safely tucked between the building’s brick wall and an enormous, shoulder-high hedge that was buried under nearly a foot of snow. Beneath it, however, not one flake had fallen. It was the most perfect makeshift outhouse I had ever seen. Then my glorious plan fell apart at the seams. Apparently my persistent knocking and rattling had paid off. Someone had heard me. And that someone was now less than three feet away. I listened intently as keys jangled together, a metal padlock snapped open and heavy chains slipped through the door handles, cascading to the floor in a thunderous heap.
Shortly thereafter, the door swung open and my heart sank. Surely, I’d die of embarrassment if not hypothermia. I didn’t dare move a muscle and could scarcely breathe. I prayed and prayed that whoever was standing there would simply go away, never having noticed me—or my pants, bunched at my ankles. The seconds that passed before he spoke seemed like an eternity, but I just couldn’t bear to turn around and face him—it was too humiliating.
Finally, I heard a deep voice, “Oh.” And it wasn’t the, “Oh!” of surprise (although I’m sure he was); it was more the “Oh, now I get it.” He may as well have said, “I got here as fast as I could ma’am, but I see you done solved it yerself. I’ll just mosey on back to work, then.” Sight unseen, he could have passed for James Earl Jones with a southern drawl. I wanted to disappear into a snow bank somewhere or crawl under a rock and die.
At last, “James Earl” did go away. The heavy door clanged shut and I heard him walk down the hallway that I had been longing to enter just moments before. Now was my chance to gather my wits, regain my composure and escape with the mere shreds of dignity that remained.
Despite the mounding snow, the hike back to my car was remarkably short. No doubt, I was eager to put the past behind me. Besides, there was no sense lingering to hear peals of laughter echo throughout the church. I had suffered enough humiliation already.
As I neared my car (which amazingly enough, no one had smashed out of spite), I noticed that the irate folks who demanded I stay had been replaced by other irate folks. Joy. I had no time to be bothered by that, however. The sun had begun to set and soon it would be dark—making a bad situation worse. At this point, I was about six hours into the commute from hell—tired, cold and hungry—just like everyone else that day. My 20-mile jaunt had mutated into something utterly hideous—something virtually unimaginable—an urban Iditarod for the soon-to-be certifiable. “Next time,” I vowed, “I’ll sleep in my sillyass cubicle and eat computer chips before I’ll subject myself to this lunacy!”
For the life of me, I simply couldn’t comprehend the crippling nature of this storm. Never before had I remembered a foot of snow wreaking such havoc. Then it dawned on me; I had yet to see a single solitary snowplow. Not even so much as a cinder or salt truck had appeared since I had begun driving that morning—at least none that I had seen. What in God’s name had they been doing—waiting for a formal invitation?!
Snowplows or not, however, I persevered. So into my car I clambered one last time, hopeful that the plows had somehow managed to find the parking lot of my apartment complex—so I could end this nightmare. After plodding along for another hour or so, I did, in fact, reach my long-awaited destination. Surprisingly enough, those plows had been there and without question, I could have kissed one of the drivers (had I seen one). Instead, I settled for kissing the snow-covered earth beneath my feet—no longer a slave to my vehicle, my home-away-from-home, for what seemed an eternity.
Undeniably, I had learned plenty that day—particularly, about assumptions. Never again would I bank on what that monotone little man inside my radio prattles on about with regard to weather. Nor would I assume that each and every driver on the planet possesses a modicum of common sense or a reasonable degree of competency behind the wheel. Furthermore, I now realize there is at least one more reason not to drink and drive.
Copyright 2007 Melinda L. Wentzel