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...