21 December 2009

Be Prepared…

...and how being prepared turned a major disaster into just a major headache...

Ah, Christmas time! Family, friends, big meals, travel, and snowy weather. What could be a better wrap up to the year? How about forecasts of a major winter storm barreling your way, right through the route you need to reach your family that is 350 miles away?

Here’s what I did last weekend. A lot of my family lives in and around Huntington, WV so that is where we gather for holidays. I live in Richmond, VA. I decided to take off early from work on Friday, December 18th, and get a head start after seeing the forecast for a major winter storm predicting feet of snow in some areas. The predictions were that the snow would reach Beckley, WV about 5:00PM that evening. I’d be just about there at that time, and I figured that would put me enough ahead of the storm that I could make it to Huntington by about 7:15 that night. Note that my original plan was to leave after a Christmas party that night, about 9:00PM, drive halfway and “camp” in the jeep, then head into Huntington on Saturday morning. Well, that’s sort of what happened. At least the camping part.

I was tooling down I-81S towards Lexington, talking on the radio to a friend who was leaving Charlottesville, and he asks if I’m seeing any snow yet as it was starting to blow some flakes in C’ville. At just about that instant, I saw some light, swirly snow starting to fall. You know the kind, it just swirls around, and doesn’t stick to anything because it’s too dry and light. It came and went as I headed out I-64W. Covington was a fuel stop; I ate convenience store food, walked Bullwinkle the dog, and headed out again. At that point, about 4:15PM, considerably harder snowfall was sticking to the roads.

Leaving Covington, you start to climb into the Alleghenies, a beautiful range of the Appalachians that gives West Virginia its “Mountain State” nickname. I passed White Sulphur Springs and Lewisburg, the last real vestiges of civilization until you reach Beckley. My first warning should have been the Cadillac that was in the deep drainage ditch, facing east in the westbound lane. It was upright, but the driver’s side was up against the rock face that made up the other side of the ditch. But I was moving well, no slippage, nothing out of the ordinary.

By 5:40PM, I was sitting in stopped traffic with heavy, wet snow pouring down, at the foot of Sandstone Mountain. Sandstone Mountain, a nearly 2800-foot mountain in the middle of nowhere, is a 7 mile uphill slog at an average grade of seven percent; in places, I’m sure it reaches ten. The roads were getting bad, but I wanted to make it to Beckley, eighteen miles away according to the GPS. Surely this was a minor tie-up and we’d soon be moving. I hadn’t sat there long before a man in a bright yellow suit walked by telling us all to move to the right lane so a snowplow could get through. We dutifully squeezed into every available inch of space between the other stopped vehicles in the right lane, and as soon as the plow went by, I pulled in behind it, only about the sixth or seventh vehicle back in the line. We crawled up the hill, moving at a max of ten to fifteen miles per hour, but we’re moving. I moved five miles over three hours – there were a lot of pauses, and a lot of sitting still, but I was always able to get moving again. That’s from learning to drive in crap like this, and remembering the tricks you use to get started on slick roads. As we headed up the mountain, I noticed that the plow was getting farther and farther in front of us, and there were only two cars in front of me…what appears to be a small sedan, and a pickup pulling a U-Haul trainer (what kind of idiot is this?!).

Needless to say, the road looked like a battlefield with cars and trucks off the road in ditches, in the median strip, and in the travel lanes facing in all directions except up the mountain. The plow had cut a swerving path through the carnage, using both lanes and the right shoulder to continue his progress up the hill. Suddenly, on a rather steep spot, while we’re on the shoulder, we came to a stop. The driver of the little car has stopped beside a bigger car for unknown reasons. Someone walked past me to the car, then came back and gathered help to push her to get her going again. She is driving a front wheel drive Honda (which usually do quite well on slick roads owing to the weight of the car being over the driving axle). But she is “scared to be driving in the storm” and stopped because she thought she might hit the car she was passing. We pushed her, and off she goes. Idiot number one. Never stop when you are moving up a mountain in the snow!

Then I had another problem. The Toyota truck in front of me was sliding backwards as the driver tried to get moving. It started to jack knife and the driver came to a halt. I could see other vehicles making their way up and passing us, so I attempt to get out from behind the trailer but as I started to move, my rear end started to slew sideways towards the six foot deep drainage ditch that runs beside the shoulder. So I stop. Damn it. Other vehicles continued to pick their way up past this logjam and another plow comes by, this time over to the left, between other stuck vehicles. Suddenly a huge duelly pickup came spinning up beside me, pulling a huge camper, and starts to slide towards me. The camper missed my mirror by inches, but then it starts to jack into the Toyota in front of me. He stopped. Another block on the road. And I’m still thirteen miles from Beckley! ARGH!!!

There’s clearly nothing I could do about my situation that night. It’s almost 9:00PM so I called the family to let them know I was OK, but certainly would not be in that night, and I called roadside assistance. Their response was “no one is coming out tonight, period”. So now it was time to hunker down and try to make the best of a bad situation. The storm was at near whiteout conditions, there was no moving traffic at this point, and it was dark and quiet except for the wind of the storm and some emergency flashers. I ran the engine (with a window cracked) about ten or fifteen minutes every hour to keep some warmth in the jeep and to make sure the battery stayed charged. I dragged out the sleeping bag. I nibbled on the last ham sandwich I had, and ate some Chees-Its. I was thinking that I had the sandwich, some Chee-Its, a package of fudge and cookies, two quarts of water (intended for the dog, but he could drink melted snow if it came to that), and a twenty ounce bottle of lemonade. There were warm clothes in the back, and I had three-quarters of a tank of gas. The one good decision I made was to fill up in Covington, rather than barreling on towards Huntington with only half a tank.

I tried to wrap up and get some sleep. Hindsight tells me the dog should have been put into the front seat , and I should have taken over the back end, but the acrobatics involved didn’t seem worth the effort. I’d already been out in the storm a couple of times to let the dog pee and to assess the situation around me since my vision was pretty much blocked to the front by the U-Haul, and the back window was completely snowed over. It’s funny how I can fall asleep in a chair at home pretty much in an instant, but in the front seat of a vehicle, where I can’t stretch out, and where the angles are designed for comfortable driving, not sleeping, it’s hard to get any sleep at all. I was cursing myself for even thinking that I could voluntarily sleep this way and now I had no choice!

Sleep was fitful, and I doubt I got more than two or three hours total over the course of the night. If it wasn’t a cramp or ache or exposed skin where the sleeping bag had shifted and chilled me, it was the flashing lights of the snowplows coming by that woke me up. Oh yeah, and now I had to pee, and the pee bottle was in the back buried under layers of stuff that had been piled up to make room for the dog. So there went the forty-four ounce cup…but at least I’m not feeling chilled any more. Thank God it only got down to about twenty-seven degrees that night. At first light, about 7:00AM, I was as awake as I could be, achy and cramped, and ready to move about. I struggled to change my shoes to boots (steering wheels are a major impediment to changing shoes in a vehicle when you are as large as I am). Finally I stepped out into blowing snow, and the three feet piled up against the jeep. I could see an open travel lane twenty or so feet to my left. And I could also see that the driver of the Toyota had inexplicably slid backwards about eight feet and is now only six inches from my front bumper. We were the only two vehicles left on this stretch of the interstate. There was an abandoned car a quarter mile back, and some others farther on up the hill, but somehow the jam that had resulted in my predicament had cleared out, and even the duelly with the camper had somehow moved on in the night.

At this point, nothing was moving at all. There was a Department of Highways snowplow in the ditch on the eastbound side across from me, its diesel idling to keep the men inside warm. I took care of business. This may be TMI, but #2 in a blowing snowstorm is no fun at all. Those of you who have been primitive camping in the winter know what I’m talking about, and falling backwards into a snow bank just adds insult to frozen bits. I let Bullwinkle out and he leapt into the snow head-first, disappearing up to his rump and tail. He emerged covered with snow with a grin on his face. Clearly this is no inconvenience to him! He’s loving it. He romps through the three foot piles like he was born to it. Well, he is part Lab, part Shepherd and part Chow, so he’s got the coat, the feet and the energy to enjoy himself. He eats snow, and does his business, then I’m ready to get back inside where it’s warm so I called him back. He crawled in, shook off, and plopped down to enjoy the handful of dog treats I offered.

I nibbled on the sandwich and tried to figure a course of action. I called roadside assistance again, but find that there are no moving tow trucks, and no company in the region will even offer an eight hour ETA. I am told to call back every couple of hours to see if there is any change. I found a single radio station in Beckley that was broadcasting weather updates (it’s still coming down), travel conditions (there is no travel, all roads are closed, do not go out), and shelter information. There was a shelter about five miles from me off an exit that is only about one and a half miles from where I sat. I figured if I could get that far, I would wait out the rest of the storm, and head to Huntington when the roads opened up again. But five miles is a long way when you are two feet from a drainage ditch and six inches from an idiot in a pickup with a trailer – and more importantly, twenty-odd feet from the travel lane. I knew I couldn’t move at all without a winch or a chain. I kept hoping some good ol’ boy in a jacked up four wheel drive would show up willing to tow for bourbon (because part of my preparations involved not going to the ATM for cash, but to the ABC store for plenty of Evan Williams, which I kept discreetly packed away in the back). But I guess all the bubbas were pulling out their neighbors and trying to get the volunteer firefighters to their stations.

I was still feeling pretty cramped up, so I decided to clear the snow off the jeep. I figured if I looked ready to move, maybe help would come faster. Odd reasoning, I suppose, but some hope is better than none, and I sure didn’t want to spend any more time than was necessary on this mountain. If help did come in some form other than a tow truck, I wanted to be able to drive. And at least the jeep wouldn’t look abandoned. So back out into the snow. Yep, it’s still coming down, but the wind has died down, and it’s thirty degrees, so the chemicals are keeping the lane clear. I managed to clear the hood and front end, the windshield and the avalanche waiting to happen on the roof, and all the driver’s side windows and the rear. The jeep looked like it spent the night in a garage. Yeah, right, there was plenty I couldn’t reach without getting into the four or five foot deep drifts on the passenger side of the jeep, and I wasn’t willing to get wet to the waist until absolutely necessary. But I knew at this point I could drive without worrying about a huge lump of snow sliding down the windshield and blocking my view.

A snowplow pulled up beside the car that was way behind me, but that car appeared abandoned as it was completely covered with snow. You would assume it was just a deep drift were it not for a few square feet of dark red body panels that were still somehow exposed. It was sitting sideways with its front bumper jutting into what would be the right travel lane, if such a thing still existed in our shades of gray world. The plow sat there for perhaps fifteen minutes before moving up the hill again. He stopped again adjacent to me. The plow was not down, and he didn’t get out, but he did kill the engine, an unusual move in this weather. I got out and wandered over, happy to see a human from an official entity. He indicated he was merely trying to make it back the last mile or so to the top of the hill and the state shop, where he could get the fan belt replaced on his overheating engine. He’d only stopped to let the engine cool. His only information was that the state vehicles would not pull anyone out, they’re forbidden to “hook up” to anyone’s car. He said “they were working from the bottom of the mountain trying to get people out"; it’s a grader that would clear right up next to me. But that wouldn’t really be any help at all, and there’s no prognosis as to when he might make it the five or six miles up the mountain to where I was stranded. A few four- and all-wheel drive vehicles rolled past, and by 9:00AM I could see bare pavement and a lane marker on the concrete to my left. Groups of cars, including two wheel drives, are starting to stream past on a regular basis. I was frustrated. So close, and yet so far, and so damned helpless.

Another plow went by and added to the pile beside me. A state trooper heading eastbound stopped to check on us, more of a welfare check than anything – “Do you need anything? Anyone with diabetes or other medical needs? Do you have food, water, fuel?” At least they’re aware of where we are. I told him I wanted a Bubba with a truck and a chain. He laughed and said he’d do what he could. About 10:00AM, after another disappointing call to roadside assistance (eight towing companies were called, none would offer any ETA), another state trooper pulled up. He had filled the back of his Tahoe with bread, bologna, ham, and cases of water. I fixed a couple of bologna sandwiches and grabbed three bottles of water. He said crews were definitely working up the hill. They all call this thing we’re on a hill – from the troopers to the snowplow drivers, everyone. I wonder what a mountain is to them – one of those must be more like the Alps I guess. Bull wanted out after the trooper pulled away, so I let him play for a bit, and wee again, then heaved him into the back of the jeep, admonishing him not to touch my sandwiches. The dog who never steals food became the dog who just had to have a sandwich, and before I could make my way around to the driver’s side and get in, he snatched one of the sandwiches and was happily, but guiltily, chomping away on half my breakfast. I ate the other one before he got any ideas on that portion of my rations.

I’d now been stranded for thirteen hours, more or less. I still had well over a half-tank of gas, three-fourths of a ham sandwich, three bottles of water, the lemonade, and the fudge. It’s amazing how fudge can pick up your spirits in a bad situation, but I am just about resigned to another night out on the interstate, based on reports of most of I-77 around Beckley being closed, and almost nothing moving but emergency crews if they could get out of their bays. About the only cheery news, if you could call it that, was that the trooper told me that IF I could get twenty-five feet to the left, into the open travel lane, there was at least one open travel lane open northbound all the way to Charleston, and thus westward on to Huntington. The lower elevations only got a few inches snow, and roads beyond the Turnpike were wet but clear. But there was still that twenty-five feet of fallen snow between me and freedom.

I read, listened to an audiobook on the iPod, and listened to the radio but the news was getting depressing. Power outages, kids stranded in elementary schools, wrecks, closed roads. At least I had cell service, so I could keep my family apprised of my situation. Unfortunately, even Verizon doesn’t have 3G in this remote spot, so I couldn’t update Facebook and keep my vast sea of followers updated on the situation! I truly didn't think I had a chance of moving until Sunday at the earliest.

All manner of traffic was inching up the mountain in the one open lane. Apparently the road from the bottom was open again, and even two wheel drive vehicles were heading up Sandstone Mountain at what could be called a reasonable pace. I’d guess they were moving an average of thirty miles per hour.

At 11:00AM, a WVDOH pickup truck stopped by the car behind me. It didn’t stay long, then it pulled up beside me. Six brawny men piled out of the crew cab, and immediately grabbed shovels out of the load of cinders and salt piled in the back of the eight foot bed. The crew chief started evaluating how to get the Toyota and me out, and within twenty minutes, they had shoveled a path from the front of the Toyota to the travel lane! Now we find out why the truck is stuck, and as much as I hate stereotypes I’m afraid this driver and her companion fit the bill: dumb blondes, one female (the driver) and one male.

She put the truck in gear and the wheels started to spin. But just the rear wheels. SHE DIDN’T HAVE THE BLOODY TRUCK IN FOUR WHEEL DRIVE! And judging from the instructions of the rescue crew, she didn’t even know what it was or how to use it. Apparently, neither did her equally dumb “male” companion! (I use the term “male” loosely since I always thought it was instinctual in males to know how to put a vehicle into 4WD when 4WD was available!) We had to teach her how to put it in neutral, shift the 4WD shifter into 4L and viola’, off she goes! Holy Toledo! She sat there all night while snow piled up because she was too dumb to put it in 4WD to get moving again!!! Revoke that dumbass’s permit to own a four wheel drive truck, and give the thing to me!

Now the men started on me. I’d already grabbed a spare shovel and gotten part of the pile cleared, but it only took them maybe ten minutes to shovel the area around my jeep down to bare pavement. Thank God again that it didn’t get much colder than it was, or that bare, wet pavement would have been icy pavement. They threw cinders under my tires, and I used an old trick to get moving without spinning. Hold the emergency brake so it just catches the rear wheels as you give it a bit of gas. Slowly release the brake so the tires are turning slowly, but the engine is producing enough torque to pull you. I started moving. I was screaming out the window “THANK YOU” over and over again! I was BACK ON THE ROAD at least twenty-four hours sooner than my wildest dreams had let me imagine!

One interesting thing about the crew. None of them said much except the crew chief, and I noted that most of them weren’t in state issued uniforms, and only a couple had on Carhart coveralls though all wore yellow safety vests. I said to one of them, “I hope you’re getting triple time for this”. His reply was, “I’m not gettin’ nothin’. I’m a volunteer. I’m on work release.” That’s when I realized that he and the other four apparently were inmates from a local jail, out helping total strangers get back on their way! I hope they got three days good behavior time for every hour they spent out in the snow and cold shoveling poor souls like me out of our self-induced problems.

Travel was slow, but I was making progress. It’s at this point I realized that I was one mile from the top of the mountain all night long. One more mile, and I likely would been home free. There’s another stoppage on another hill…but wait, here came the work release calvary, and the four stuck vehicles were on their way in a matter of minutes. Miss Idiot in her 4WD managed to get moving again, as did the three tractor-trailers in front of me. I continued to inch towards Beckley, and the GPS showed I’d covered  six miles in less than an hour! WOOHOO, only seven to go until I could get more fuel – I was down to just under half a tank – and more food.

As soon as I hit the West Virginia Turnpike, the road was CLEAR! Wet, but clear. Both lanes. I guess the tolls are being used for something useful! The stop in Beckley was welcome. I filled up, grabbed a couple of hot dogs, and generally stocked up for the rest of the journey, which on a good day, can be made in about  two hours. Who knew how long it would take today, even though for the past seven miles I moved along at fifty-five miles per hour. I pitied the poor souls on I-77S, as they were backed up from the top of Flattop Mountain all the way into the Beckley proper. But there were almost no vehicles moving south towards this backup as I headed north once again. Interesting, as the road was as clear on that side as it was on mine.

But alas, the great progress was not meant to be. They weren’t even attempting to collect tolls at the Pax toll plaza; all the lights were green and the collectors were just waving cars through, but I’ll bet I got dinged for the $2 thanks to my EZ-Pass. While still in the merge-down lanes, traffic slowed to a halt. It took over two hours to proceed the next nine or ten miles to where we were forced into a single lane. Now I saw why. There was only one lane open, and it was awful! It was three or four miles of barely idling along because the single lane of road surface was covered with what I can only describe as “cobblestone ice”. It was like a rocky creek bed. It could not even be described as “washboard’, it wasn’t that regular. I thought my front end was going to fall out of the Jeep. First gear, lots of braking (you know you are going slow when the idle is too fast), and a lot of praying that nothing would break because there was no place to pull off on either side because the snow was piled up five or more feet deep. Finally I emerged from this gauntlet only to feel more relief that I wasn’t headed south on I-77 where once again I could see that traffic was backed up in all lanes. Who knows where in that previous stretch the problem was as the roadway is separated by high hills that form the median. This backup continued for at least twenty miles. People were out of their cars with the kids playing in the snow, building snowmen on the jersey wall between the lanes, and trying to make the best of a bad situation. Word on the radio was that I-77 South was completely shut down and it was apparently blocked all the way to the North Carolina line. Later reports said that it could be Monday before it was completely cleared for travel again.

But I was moving. There was usually a lane and a half of wet, open pavement, weaving back and forth from the shoulder to the inner jersey wall as the plows had bypassed stranded vehicles the night before, though I saw very few cars stuck on this side of the road at this point. The Turnpike Authority had done a yeoman’s job of clearing this section. I guess I shouldn’t worry about that $2 toll that no one else paid but me.

Suddenly there were flashing blue lights and headlights coming towards me! On my side of the road. The State Police were leading what turns out to be a convoy made up of at least ten snowplows of various sizes, a National Guard convoy including a High Mobility Multipurpose Transport (HMMT) which was carrying heavy equipment extraction gear (think tank recovery), and several power company contractors with their bucket and pole trucks. I can’t imagine what they were going to do when they hit that single lane stretch with no shoulders, but I guess they had some sort of plan (or maybe not, but with ten snowplows, I’d like to hope they could figure something out).

The rest of the trip was pretty anti-climactic. Once out of the higher elevations, the road opened up to a full two lanes. I felt sorry for the miles of trucks that were on the southbound shoulder, obviously informed by their CBs of the closure ahead, but they were pretty smart to have found relatively level road to pull off and sleep a while during the wait. The last toll booth was certainly collecting tolls so I rolled through the EZ-Pass lane and kept on truckin’. I did get to see an avalanche, something that is usually associated with the mountains out west, but this was an avalanche, even if on a smaller scale. What I saw was a huge pile of snow cut loose from the cliff edge it was perched on. It barreled down the near vertical slope and smashed into the right-side jersey wall that was there to prevent rock fall from making it onto the roadway. It exploded into a white cloud out over the road. It was pretty cool to watch!

Arrival in Huntington was about 5:45PM on Saturday evening. The family Christmas dinner was winding down, but there was still plenty of good food, and awesome desserts, and of course, my family was there. Needless to say, it was great to be home! It took me about twenty-nine hours to make a 350 mile trip that usually takes six. And as to the title “Be Prepared”…thirty years of scouting taught me to at least think about what might happen, and although I probably should have added a bit more food and water, I was a lot better off than a lot of others that night. I wasn’t in a ditch or median strip, I wasn’t in a place where I was likely to be hit by another vehicle, and well, I can bundle up pretty well when I have to. I had warm clothes, a sleeping bag, boots, wool socks and waterproof insulated gloves. Knowing to conserve fuel, and not run the engine with the windows up are simple things. One thing’s for sure though. I will continue to be prepared for lousy weather and the possibility of an unplanned bivouac. But I am definitely not going to plan on sleeping in the jeep again – unless I at least commandeer the six and a half feet of flat real estate that can be had when the seats are down and there are no motel rooms within any reasonable distance!

I guess the bad decision was continuing on after Covington into the “wilderness” that is West Virginia, and after seeing the first car facing me in the ditch beside the road, still figuring that I could make it to Beckley with the weather worsening by the minute. This overconfidence contributed to a major headache of a situation. But it could have been worse. Be prepared. For what? Any old thing! Especially adventures, even if they aren’t planned. Merry Christmas and be safe out there!

1 comment:

  1. Awesome Tray, You explain the situation so well. I was a driver in one of those cars in the I-77 southbound lane stuck on a bridge between two mountains in the fast lane with a fuel tanker beside me and a cop car beside him and miles of vehicles ahead and behind only 9 miles from the Beckley 44 exit where my hotel awaited, I had thought to make reservations. Although I didn't get there until morning, it was such a welcome site. Noone has lived until they can say they spent the night in their car in the WV mountains.