Tuesday, February 23, 2010

About the snow...

Snow still clings to the ground in patches and piles, a continuing reminder of the weeks of bad weather that began before Christmas, despite a few blessed warmer days recently. I've been meaning in all the weeks since that first storm to write some of my experience, but also have kept waiting for the pictures to show some of it. There are more to come, but now I have the story of my commute...

Normally, my drive to work from Lexington to Roanoke is like what you see above: often early, often in the dark (it's hard to make a picture of that -- though the wag in me is tempted to post a black rectangle). There are a few cars, usually more trucks, and quiet smooth hours running at speed on the interstate, occasionally interrupted by bits of debris and dead deer. But the snow changed all that.

My bosses at WDBJ, warned by the meteorologists, anticipated the big storm in December. They reserved rooms in a neighboring hotel, and cautioned me to pack a bag. I was skeptical -- any number of hyped storms have fizzled in past years here -- but became a believer when, on Friday afternoon, the storm rolled in and the snow fell in a continuous curtain. By the end of the six o'clock news, it was beginning to seriously accumulate, and when we adjourned to the hotel, travel was becoming difficult ... even down the short run to there from the station.

By morning, the 4-wheel-drive vehicle I borrowed from the station was well buried in a foot of snow, and the drive back was an adventure. Traffic on the highways ground to a halt, trapping thousands. I spent a second night at the hotel, to my wife Jennifer's increasing jealousy. Trapped in the house with five cats and two children, she envied my quiet nights spent in a soft double bed without company.

By Sunday evening, the snow had stopped falling for a full day. Roads were clearing, those trapped and then rescued -- having spent the night in ad hoc shelters at fire stations and high schools -- were setting out again. Roads in Roanoke were clear, though narrowed to the lane or two the plows could clear, but easily passable. It was time, I thought, to head home.

The temperature remained cold, so the snow had to be moved aside. Still, I drove out 581 and onto Interstate 81 easily enough. Things were moving well, with two de facto lanes of traffic moving in each direction, hemmed in by berms of snow. As I passed mile 156, about five miles north of Roanoke, I was amused to pass a snowplow that had slid off the highway into the median and been abandoned.

Then, with horrifying, inescapable certainty, the traffic began to slow ... and then stop. I imagine this was how it started on Friday, everyone thinking that they would start up again shortly. Maybe, if things remained slow, they would get off at the next exit. How far was that? Five miles? Ten?

We sat. I began to worry. As I left, people in the newsroom had questioned how clear the interstate was. Maybe I should take Route 11, the old two-lane state road that follows the highway, weaving back and forth under and above it as it goes. But I was confident; how bad could it get? Time passed.

But, soon enough, we began moving again. I was right. It wasn't so bad ... until it stopped again. After a while, I began making pictures.

Note the rear-view mirror: you can see the cars stacked up behind me. Looking forward was all but impossible for the trucks. Exits were miles away. There was nothing to do but be patient, creep forward when we could, relax and listen to the radio when we couldn't.

Across the median, there was no backup on the southbound lanes. It was a mystery; I have never learned the solution. Nor have I ever learned the cause of my delay. We would slow to a stop, wait some period of time, and then finally start again. Sometimes we would inexplicably run back up to proper highway speeds, and then some miles down the road -- usually just long enough to give me confidence that it was over -- the brake lights would flash on and we would rapidly decelerate to a stop again. Sometimes we would creep forward, a few miles an hour for a few miles, and then settle into another wait.

At one point, I looked out my window to see some orange peels tossed into the snow piled up against the guardrail separating me from the median. An earlier driver, stopped in the same spot, decided to have a snack. There wasn't just one piece; it was the peel of an entire orange. He had sat there long enough to completely peel the fruit ... and probably eat it too.

I never did find a cause: no wreck, no fishtailed truck, no piles of snow spilled out into the road ... nothing. Well, there was one stalled truck in the left lane once, but that was all. Oddly insufficient for all the stops and slows, the waiting and the creeping forward.

In the end, a drive that takes some 45 minutes on a good, normal day took some two and a half hours. It wasn't frustrating so much as ... absurd.

And when I came home, I found this:

That's some 22 inches of snow burying the house, car, driveway and yard. There was no getting in or out, even in the SUV (we tried some time later, repeatedly ramping it up on pile of snow, backing off, and rushing forward to a skidding stop again). Entrance and escape was finally brought by Cliff, the fellow who mows our yard, showing up with his tractor and a plow some time later. But I was home at last...

Saturday, February 20, 2010

About Al Haig...

I was surprised and saddened to hear this morning of the death of Alexander Haig, former Secretary of State among many other, highly respectable and important jobs. (And probably the one in which he had the least influence on history, as compared to Supreme Commander Europe -- where one Army officer once told me the Europeans thought Haig "walked on water" -- or Nixon's Chief of Staff, to pick two others.) I had the pleasure of a week-long trip with him to Moscow in 2000.

We were election monitors (a title more technical than real in my case, as my wife, Jennifer, and I were primarily spending our time making pictures for the group that sent us, the Jamestown Foundation), along with a number of others, including journalists Roland Evans and Michael Barone, and former DCI R. James Woolsey. It was quite an experience to be "inside the bubble" with a crowd like that. I still have the white, red and blue pass that marked me as an official observer -- it was like having an All Access Pass to an entire country.

Haig took to calling me "Mr. Snappy Snap" as Jennifer and I kept popping up with our cameras. All I could think of was how Navy pilots don't really have cool call signs like "Maverick" or "Ice Man" (as in "Top Gun"), but rather often silly and embarrassing ones, usually drawn from some event, like "Goofy Foot." (It's true; check out the technical advisors and pilots on that movie's credits some time.) I knew that I was lucky to be among this crowd and in this situation, for fear of having "Mr. Snappy Snap" forever printed on my nametag and locker somewhere.

But the greatest moment came at the end, at baggage claim at New York's JFK Airport. Haig's aide, "Woody" Goldberg, had gathered his luggage on a cart as the rest of us had collected ours, and Jennifer and I were turning (talking with Goldberg, as I recall) when we heard a voice call out, "Mr. Secretary!" A Customs officer had recognized Haig, and was beckoning him to the rope to let him bypass the regular check. As he turned to the opening, the officer noticed us clustered behind, and asked, "Are they with you?" With a quick glance in our direction, Haig answered yes, and we all sped through. I have never, before or since, felt so important.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Day the Snow Storm Broke...

I don't know the future, and I don't know how to predict the weather (there's a half-dozen guys where I work who get paid a lot more than I do for that), but I do know a rolling panic when I see one.

The snow is falling again here, and it would be a picturesque and delightful sight but for the fact that it's the third time since a massive Christmastime storm brought the area to a standstill, closing the interstate for tens of miles and stranding thousands. Meanwhile, a larger low pressure system is approaching to strike in two more days. What will it bring?

On Facebook, a friend described a woman busting into his downtown store saying "there is potential for 3 or even 4 feet of snow." Another friend, who labors at the city's public works department, said they were getting calls from people asking about a possible 30-inch snowfall -- a figure he could find no source for. Nor could I. A quick trip to the station's most recent forecast warned of a "big low pressure system," but said nothing of massive snowfall. As a matter of fact, I sensed a reluctance to even predict snow at all, as the temperature line falls so close to us. (Should it move north, we get slushy rain.)

This is like James Thurber's "The Day the Dam Broke," but with lower temperatures. I envision increasingly jittery crowds slowly gathering into a great flow toward the Kroger's, washing over the milk and bread aisles like a great tide. Quickly, toilet paper must be bought!

Well, I'll be packing an overnight bag again this weekend as I head to work, just as I packed one last weekend (unused) and packed one in December (two nights in a hotel next to the station, and even getting to there and back was a struggle), because I don't know the future. Welcome to my World in the snow...