Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Perfect (Snow) Storm

Pennsylvania has four distinct seasons, each of approximately 3 months duration. Around here, March generally conforms to the old maxim "in like a lion, out like a lamb" - and was showing every sign of doing just that. Until yesterday...

What if a mass of moist air came up from the southwest? What if it chilled down to around the freezing point, right where ice cream keeps the best? What if every area meteorologist mistakenly forecast it as an afternoon rain shower?

What if it descended as a wet blizzard - AT RUSH HOUR?

Here the trailer fades to black for a moment, then the first clip hits for maximum impact - oh, say, a semi truck toppling sideways over an embankment. That scene, and many like it, were part of my drive home from work yesterday. I've been doing the same 15-mile commute since 1997, and I have never seen such a godawful mess on the roads.

The precipitation started as sleet and freezing rain, then changed to
fat, wet snowflakes, falling at the rate of 2 inches an hour. It coated the roads with an inch-thick sheet of ice, overlaid with slush, about the same as driving on axle grease. I left my office at 4:00, stopped at the store for a few items, then set about the grim task of picking my way home - along with ten thousand or so of my fellow commuters. What follows is an exercise in winter motoring survival.

My first choice was Interstate 81, my normal route and the most direct. The traffic report on my favorite FM station is no help: the reporter just made the blanket statement "Every road in the area is awful". Great. I tried anyway, but as I turned up the long ramp to the interstate, I saw a line of parked traffic over a mile long; I wheeled around and headed towards the mid-valley. It took me over thirty minutes just to go around the mall and hospital, about half a mile; in front of me was a logjam of cars, including two ambulances with their lights and sirens going; they were stuck fast, and I hoped there weren't critical patients on board.

At last moving away from the mall, I had to choose between the local Route 11 which runs along the river, and Route 315 which parallels I-81 and leads to the turnpike. Still no help from the radio; after five tries I get a cellphone call through to tell Gail not to wait for dinner. I briefly considered checking into a nearby freeway motel, while there were still rooms to be had; but hell, I'm a northerner - I resolved to push on. I chose 315, since in four miles it would reach a junction with the PA Turnpike and I-81; the 'pike is generally better-maintained than the Interstates, so I would have at least two choices.

315 rises and falls over the hills like a rollercoaster, was slick as Teflon, and bumper-to-bumper. Snow was falling at whiteout-rate. At every uphill stretch, we lost a few more vehicles - first, someone in a New Bug gave up. Then a two-wheel-drive pickup with an empty bed could go no farther. A new Lexus slid off the right shoulder - don't those things have traction control? Then the damnedest one, a big brand-new semi rig going the other direction. The trucker was sliding left and right, desperately trying to keep moving; then he dropped the outboard wheels over the shoulder, and the whole truck toppled sideways into the ditch like an oak. I boggled, wondering why he didn't prudently park his rig in the center and wait it out, as many of the other drivers did.

Amazingly, my little front-drive Ford Focus wagon continued to scrabble up the hills. It took almost exactly an hour to go those four miles. When I reached the highway exchange I saw that traffic was stopped going southbound, but creeping steadily north on 81. I joined the parade and made good progress, although at anything over 25 m.p.h. the car began fishtailing in the heavy ice and slush - the median and shoulders were littered with vehicles driven by the less prudent. I didn't see anyone stranded or injured, though; those who ditched were being picked up by the next vehicle along. I also didn't see any snowplows or PennDOT trucks!

Eventually I arrived at my exit and stood at the bottom of my hill, the last steep half-mile to my abode. There is another way to reach my neighborhood by circling around Lake Scranton, but it too was a stopped line of cars, so I shifted into low gear and pointed the Focus upslope. Following a minivan, we weaved around two more mired vehicles, and I managed to make it to my block! With a grin I skidded askew into my garage and switched off the ignition.

At ten-to-seven. Two hours and fifty minutes, for a drive that takes 20 minutes on a dry day. Phew! I've had some tough commutes, but this one deserves a folk song.