29 January 2014

NASCAR Drivers Can Eat My Snow

EDIT:  In my original post, I very insensitively excluded any mention of my wife and children, who were waiting at home for me through this whole ordeal, and who excitedly greeted me upon my return.  My wife was especially worried for me, and was very sweet throughout, even if it did sometimes make me feel worse because it made me feel even more helpless to do anything to allay her fears.  She was very loving towards me when I arrived home, and let me sleep all day despite being exhausted herself from one of our boys being up crying with an upset stomach for two hours in the middle of the night.  I love you very much, and I'm sorry I mentioned the cat and not you in my original posting.  I'm a dick.

Yesterday, it snowed in Atlanta and much of the southeastern United States.  Some places received over 6 inches of snow, which is a real problem, even for places that are used to snow every year.  Atlanta received about 1 to 2 inches, which for any city that receives snow on any kind of regular basis is a joke.  Unfortunately, Atlanta gets snow accumulation of any kind only once every few years, and the region was utterly unprepared for this calamity.

Now, I'm relatively new to Atlanta, but I had heard stories.  The last time there was a major ice storm here, about five years ago, they said the city was essentially shut down for four or five days.  But this was not predicted to be a major ice storm.  This was going to be 1 or 2 inches of snow.  It was going to be warm enough to melt from the streets by the next day, and probably all from the lawns in two days.  No sweat.  Atlanta drivers are terrible, and the road system is horribly susceptible to systemic and widespread traffic jams, so I expected that it would probably double my commute time home, but I really had no idea what this city could turn into, which was more akin to The Walking Dead than I ever thought I would see short of a major natural disaster.

The snow began falling around noon, and for most of the afternoon it was falling at a significant pace.  Some people began to leave the office in the early afternoon, and the initial reports I heard back from people were pretty bad.  It took 45 minutes to get out of the parking garage and another hour to get on the highway, things like that.  I figured that by the time I was going to leave, half the people would already be off the road, so while the traffic would be bad, it wouldn't be ridiculous.  I left at 4:40 and it took me 85 minutes to drive about a half mile down a side street to get to the other side of the Perimeter highway.  I had decided long before I left that I would not be trying to take the highway at all on the way home, but in the end it would make little difference.

One of the things that you need to understand about Atlanta traffic, especially in the northern suburbs, is that there are several "barriers" that you might need to cross in your journey, and the crossing points are extremely limited, creating awful bottlenecks even on a normal day.  The roads surrounding my office building complex are particularly poorly designed, which is why it took so long just to get that first half mile, but the Perimeter (I-285) was just the first of three major barriers I needed to cross to get home.  The second is SR 400, a major north-south freeway that serves northern Fulton County.  I had planned to make a crossing westward about 2 miles north of the Perimeter, but after three hours, I was still just short of the turn and traffic had come to a standstill for the previous half hour.  My gas was running low (I had started the day with a little over 1/4 tank, but now the light had come on), and I needed to get past the 400 to find gas stations, so I turned around and headed to the previous cross street.  The temperature was also dropping rapidly, and the streets were becoming sheets of ice.

Here was where I first saw what I had only previously suspected was causing much of the traffic problems.  The bridge over the highway here is part of a rather steep hill, and people were just spinning their wheels and failing to get up the hill.  There was a cop at the highway entrance ramp, so I couldn't just drive up the empty lanes on the other side of the road as I would have liked, and had to wait a bit for enough room to fit between the flailing motorists who simply did not understand that pushing the gas pedal harder was making their situation worse.  I cruised past many idiots, nice and slow up the icy incline, waved at the cop and was able to proceed for the next mile and half virtually unimpeded.

Here, I'd like to give a few basic tips for driving on icy roads, lessons that I now know people from the South have never learned, despite their disturbing love affair with cars and big trucks, which almost rivals their disturbing love affair with firearms.

1.     If you are driving up a hill, DO NOT STOP.  Your (even minimal) forward momentum is critical to not losing traction entirely and ending up vainly spinning your wheels and slipping sideways or backwards.

2.     Pressing the gas pedal hard is guaranteed to make your wheels spin.  All these good ol' boys with their big-ass trucks, you'd think they'd driven in mud or sand at some point in their lives.  The concept is the same.  You spin your wheels, you dig a hole, or in this case smooth the ice, and lose your traction and ability to move forward, OR backwards.

more lessons later...

The first gas station I got to on the other side of the 400, I was shocked to find, had NO GAS.  It was at this point that I began to give up on the capability of anyone in this town to survive anything approaching an ACTUAL natural disaster.  So, I rolled my eyes and moved onward, cutting through a strip mall parking lot to avoid another 15 minutes of traffic, and to arrive at a second gas station, which was ALSO OUT OF FUEL.  Now I was actually a bit worried, as my gas should have been able to get me home on a normal day, but in traffic like I was encountering, I was unsure if it would, as I didn't quite know my conversion of miles per gallon to gallons per hour idling.

This gas station was at a cross street that I knew I could follow to cut off a lot of traffic, as I'd used this route before, so I headed into the residential streets.  At the first right turn, I saw a car that had piled into a brick mailbox tower because he had failed to make the turn.

Next lesson:

3.     DON'T USE YOUR BRAKES.  Seriously, on ice, you shouldn't even touch your brakes if you are going over 10 miles per hour, and if you cannot slow yourself to less than 10 mph before needing to use your brakes, you're driving too fast.  Hitting your brakes is only going to make you lose control of your steering because you have lost your traction.  If you have ABS brakes, they will make a horrible sound when you press them, and this is NORMAL.  DON'T PRESS THEM HARDER.  You'll lock them up, stop your tire spin, and lose control of your car.  Often times, when you feel a spin begin, or your traction begin to slip, you can just take you foot off the brake and regain traction and control.

So, how can you slow down without using your brakes?

4.     Use your gear shift liberally.  Even if your car has an automatic transmission, you can gain a great deal of control over your car by using different gears for different times.  Use high gear (D) for going up hills, and use low gear (2 or 1) for going down hills.  A car with an automatic transmission in gear 1 will go very slow, even down an icy hill, and you will be in MUCH more control than if you are riding the brake pedal.  I drove past MANY people who stared at me in awe as I slowly maneuvered between crashed and stuck cars on hills, simply by cruising slowly through them in first gear.  Importantly however, do not use 1st gear for going UP hills, as this is more likely to make your wheels spin.  You want to be in the highest gear possible when you need to accelerate, as this will turn your wheels slowly and in control.

When I emerged from the residential streets back onto the major road that would eventually lead me almost all the way home, I was disappointed to find a cop there who informed me that the road was closed at the bridge over the river.  The Chattahoochee River flows from northeast to southwest across the north side of the Atlanta metro area, dividing northern Fulton County from southern Fulton (Atlanta city), and Fulton from Cobb County in the northwest.  This particular crossing, which I use every day to and from work, is the only crossing for 3.5 miles in one direction, and over 5 miles in the other direction, and that's "as the crow flies" along the river, not how far you must drive on surface streets.  But the road approaching from both sides of the bridge is rather steep, and I can understand why the police were forced to close the road to all traffic.  I can only imagine what that road looked like, with accidents and abandoned cars on the icy slopes.

Since it was the only way to possibly get home, I doubled back, and headed north towards the next river crossing.  Unfortunately, everyone who was commuting home to Cobb County was in the same situation, so the traffic moved VERY slowly, and I had still not found gasoline.  I knew there were stations up ahead on the road, but I didn't know if they too would be sold out if I eventually made it to them.  At this point, I began to think that I might not be making it home at all, and I needed to think of alternate accommodations.  A good friend from work lived on the road I was now on, just a few miles away, and I was hoping I could crash at her place long enough to let the traffic subside.  After all, my issue was not with the roads being undriveable.  I knew I could drive home, if everyone else would just get out of my damn way.  Even on limited fuel, I figured I could make it home if the streets cleared of cars.

Unfortunately, when I reached my friend on the phone, she was even further behind than I was, since I knew the streets better and had the all-wheel drive to help get past some places that were giving others fits.  After travelling about a mile up the road towards the bridge, and having about 4 more miles before the bridge, and again reaching a stand-still in the traffic, I finally decided that my only chance of not freezing to death when my car inevitably ran out of gas was to turn around and head back to my office.

It was 10:15, and I had traveled less than five and a half miles in five and a half hours.

The drive back to the office was actually pretty easy, except for one spot where there was some traffic, there were very few cars going the other direction.  I got to see a MARTA bus sliding backwards into a power pole with numerous pedestrians gleefully shooting video of it with their phones.  But mostly I just saw empty streets on the roads I had recently traveled, with a few cars parked on the sides of the road.  I arrived back at my building a little after 11:00, where the night watchman informed me that I was not alone, and that about 140 people were still in the building.  I found a couple dozen people in my office, mostly sitting around chatting, some trying to accomplish some work, and I related my story to them and then finished off my leftover lunch, which was a better dinner than most had had there.

As uncomfortable as my night was going to be, it was a pretty significant victory that I had actually made it to someplace warm and familiar without having to walk through the sub 20 degree weather in my dress shoes and slacks, with no hat or scarf.  I had to try to sleep on the floor under my desk, as it was the only place dark enough since the fluorescent lights lit the entire office and we couldn't turn them off.

At 7:00 am I started trying to find a gas station that was not sold out, and fortunately found one about 2 miles away, the wrong direction from home, but in that neighborhood there had been no rush on the gas stations.  Knowing where I could go, I left the office with all my things at first light, hoping that the roads would be clear enough of cars for me to make my way home.  I nearly lost my shit when no gas came out of the nozzle, but it seems they were just out of regular.  I happily paid the extra 20 cents per gallon for mid-grade and felt secure in my situation for the first time in 12 hours.

The entire drive home was like a scene out of The Day After or some other disaster film.  Almost no cars were driving on the roads, but I saw literally hundreds of cars abandoned on the sides, some barely on the sides and more accurately "in the middle" of the road.  It took me 12 minutes to get back to the point where I had been forced to turn back the night before, and I smoothly cruised past the bridge over the river, with my biggest obstacles being the cars lining the road on every hill along the way.

When I reached the main east-west road that was going to lead me home, I had my first real taste of treacherous driving.  From the town square in Roswell, Marietta Highway starts with a pretty steep incline downhill to Willeo Creek, and then another equally steep climb back up on the other side.  The ride down saw the need to weave around stranded cars and trucks and a school bus.  There must have been at least 100 vehicles just on that incline alone, but I relatively easily slid through and climbed the next hill.  At the top, I encountered traffic for the first time in the morning.

I know that on the other side of the hill, there is another pretty steep slope down, at least as steep as the last two, and obviously there was an accident or something blocking the way.  At this point, I was only 5 miles from home, and I had come too far to let something like this get in my way.  Besides, I had said that once I was across the river, I could be resourceful again and find some alternate route home.  So I turned and crossed the grass median (a trick I was not 100% sure my CR-V could accomplish), and headed back down the hill to the cross street at the bottom.

The first alternate route was a residential street that had obviously seen many people try and fail to climb the night before as it was lined left and right with abandoned cars.  I made it through, nice and slow and easy, to the top of the hill and after a mile or two, I was on a cross road that I knew would take me right home.  Then, just as I crossed the line into Cobb County, I found the road completely blocked by an accident.  That was extremely frustrating as there was no traffic, just several cars on the road on a slope, and two cars crashed into each other in the middle of the road.  So close, but I had to turn around again.

Back at the last intersection, I met a guy in a big truck, and I asked if he knew if the road was blocked any other ways.  He confirmed that I could not turn right and end up back on the original Marietta Highway, I already knew alternate route #1 was blocked, and I asked if he thought I could make it across on the next street north.  He said that was blocked as well and laughed.  Said he'd been out all night trying to help people, and he thought the only way to get across was to go all the way back to Roswell and take Hwy 92.  In addition to not wanting to climb back up that hill into Roswell (the one with the 100 cars on it), going all the way to 92 seemed excessive considering how close I was to home now.  I'd rather wait it out in my car at this point, since I had gas and heat, than to go that far just to see IF the road was open that way.  Besides, I hadn't given up on finding an alternative route through the various residential subdivisions, which were unlikely to have crashes and pileups.  I just had a feeling I could sneak through some way.

I did sneak through to the next major east-west road, and just as the man in the truck had said, the road was blocked.  This one was particularly infuriating, because there was one car that if it could be moved just a little bit, I could possibly squeeze through.  But that icy hill was actually the first place where I though I might lose control myself, so I turned around and consulted my Google Maps to see what way there might be around.  I turned down the first side street and parked to check it out.

A woman walked up to my car and asked how the roads were, since her husband had also been forced to stay at his office and had not been home yet.  I told her I had made it all the way here from the Perimeter North in only 75 minutes, but that I wouldn't necessarily recommend the trip to someone who did not have 4 wheel drive on their car, as I had driven up and down some hills that i'm not sure a different car could have done.  Her family had recently moved here from Kentucky, so they were a bit more used to snow and ice than these Georgians, but still, they were not Northerners, and he was not in the best car for the conditions.  I told her where I had encountered trouble, in case he wanted to try, and she informed me that this street I was on, which I had planned to use to get around the accident on alternate route #2, actually went through to the south to alternate route #1, and it looked on the map that it would come out past the accident that had previously turned me back!  I said good bye and good luck, and a few minutes later was back on my first route home, with no further obstacles in my path.  Stick it, Mr. Truck Guy!  I found the path through!

One of the hardest parts of the trip was those last 2 or 3 miles, knowing I was going to make it, and trying not to get too excited and drive out of control.  I had to keep it very cool and controlled, as the roads were even more icy and treacherous in Cobb County than they had been in Fulton.  I don't think Cobb has a single salt spreader, and if they do, they would have concentrated on the major highways, and not the feeder roads that I was now traversing.

What a feeling to pull into my driveway and enter my house the conquering hero!  I felt like Gordo Cooper in The Right Stuff.  "Who's the best pilot I've ever seen?  You're lookin' at him!"  After checking in with friends on Facebook and by text who had been anxiously waiting to hear if I'd made it home safely, and after giving my kitty cat (who had obviously missed me terribly the night before) some love, I crashed out for about five hours to recover from my daunting adventure.

And just as I'd said last night on my ride home, when I thought I would actually make it home, however late, "I'm sleeping in tomorrow, and I'll show up at work when I damned well feel like it."

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