Sunday, December 20, 2009

Nightmares of a White Christmas (Or: John's Mad Winter Driving Skills Save Some Kitties)

As I mentioned in my previous post, our area got hammered by snow yesterday: over a 24 hour period, Mother Nature and Jack Frost dumped on us to the tune of 21 inches. Normally, that would have been a great time to hunker down and just enjoy some hot chili, a cup of 'nog, and perhaps a Hot Buttered Rum or two. Unfortunately, Beth had a petsitting appointment, and her client was a diabetic cat who needed insulin injections. Thus began a day of adventuring and nightmares of a White (pre-)Christmas.

So I got up at the unholy hour of 5:00am and helped Beth shovel out her car for her morning visit, when we had "only" about eight inches of snow on the ground. Her Mini seemed to drive okay on our cul-de-sac, so expecting the main roads to have been plowed, Beth headed out to the kitty's house without further incident.

Beth shovels the driveway for her pre-dawn petsitting outing
This "winter wonderland" quickly turned into a nightmare for anyone traveling in the Washington, D.C., area as another 8-10 inches of snow fell between Beth's morning and evening visits. In my sleep-deprived state in the pre-dawn gloom (with thoughts of the warm, toasty bed awaiting me), I didn't think to tell Beth not to park behind me when she came back...

That led to much shoveling, and not just of the driveway itself this time, as we had to shovel out a space for her to back her car into so that I could pull out around her and switch the order of our cars. Beth thought I was getting a bit of an early start when I went out at 3:00 pm to start digging us out (for the third time that day, I might add--I can't imagine how awful the shoveling would have been had we not invested time and effort earlier in the day each time our tracks and trenches filled in).

Oh, those oh-so-clever Germans; Beth's Mini (a brand owned by BMW) wouldn't engage power to the wheels at all, since their "we know BETTER than YOU!" computers (intoned in a decent Sgt. Schultz impression--and probably should have echoed the Hogan's Heroes patsy's infamous words disclaiming all knowledge as well, if you ask me...) decided the tires wouldn't have traction. I took over behind the wheel and imposed my will on the Mini and got it to at last back out of our driveway, then got my car out of the way and hers back into the drive before it could ice up and the temporarily-cowed German Engineering would reassert its authority.

Beth helps shovel the driveway and dig out my car for our afternoon trip outIt's now almost dark, by the way, and closing in on 5:00pm. It took an hour and a half to dig out the cars (and this was after I'd cleared the driveway twice already in the day) and transpose their positions. I turned on my fog lights just to be able to see the snow drifts, because from watching a hapless Ford Explorer try to make it out of the cul-de-sac once already only to fail and fetch up on the curb about 50 feet away, I knew we had to stick to Beth's set of tracks from her morning excursion if we were to have any hope.

Beth clears a spot to move her car out of the way
Let me pause for a moment to say that I know how to drive in icy, wintry conditions. That puts me in the distinct minority, I'll have you know. From growing up in mountainous southern West Virginia to going to college in the Appalachian plateau in Blacksburg, I had plenty of practice. Winter driving is something that I enjoy, so long as all the idiots who don't know how to drive stay out of my way and off the roads. I drove my '93 Chevy Cavalier home through a blizzard on more than one occasion, so my Subaru Forester XT and its all-wheel drive (and more ground clearance than a Ford Explorer, or so the commercials say in a bit of real truth in advertising) would be a pleasure in comparison.

Pre-driving prep, beyond shoveling, included me packing a set of dry clothes and socks (shoveling in knee-deep snow will tend to soak you a bit), loading some food in a box of Town House crackers (we hadn't time to pause for dinner), and loading the bags of concrete mix which had sat sheltered on our stoop since Halloween--the latter for the added weight of a couple hundred pounds and some thus-improved traction--and our snow shovel. One thing we missed, though: the jumper cables I'd pulled out of storage. More on that in a bit.

Getting out of the cul-de-sac was definitely an adventure. I got stuck at least three times--largely due to the Explorer having messed up the ruts I'd planned to drive through and then fetching up to create a narrow funnel I had to navigate through without sliding into it or the car directly across from it, and we had to get out and shovel free the wheels (followed by much "rocking" on my part: shifting to drive, moving up a bit, then shifting to reverse, and moving back a bit, until we worked free). On one occasion, our neighbors gave us a good push as well to surmount one of the humps of snow the hapless Explorer had made across Beth's morning tracks. Byrd Drive wasn't that much better, but Beth's morning ruts had been widened by at least a few more cars, and from there, it was simply a matter of slow-but-steady in 2nd gear to clear the neighborhood and get to the main roads. As we neared the neighborhood entrance, things improved as more cars had been out and about.

We decided to take the same roundabout course I'd suggested to Beth that morning: 29 (Lee Highway) to 123 (Chain Bridge Road) to 7 (Lessburg Pike) and into her client's neighborhood out near Wolf Trap via the back way--but thus taking major roads the whole way and staying off such perils as Hunter Mill Road. The ramp from Main St. in Fairfax over to Lee Highway had not been plowed, and we got stuck there, too, as we had to yield to a passing plow and thus lose all momentum to push through. A truck had come up right on my tail, making rocking free a bit of a chore, but we did manage to make it onto the relatively-plowed Lee without having to get out and dig.

What I found amazing at 5:30pm was how many other cars were out and about--many driven by total idiots who figured putting on their hazards and going 3 mph would suffice to get them through the mess. What was more amazing, though, were the pedestrians.

Yes, pedestrians. Walking in the middle of a main highway.

And not out because their cars were stranded and stuck, no. Not out because of a life-or-death emergency. Some were out clearly just to see the sights...

... and others were out for a BEER RUN. Indeed, one group walking three astride in the smack-dab center of Chain Bridge Road (123) were carrying a case of Budweiser, mission accomplished from a trip to the convenience store at the foot of the hill.

Three astride pedestrians who refused to get out of my way as I had to drive up a hill in the snow. I was about to lay into them with the horn when I was finally able to get around on one side without losing traction and without plowing down these moronic dopes out for no better reason than to get sloshed. I wish I had time to grab my camera and document this moment for posterity--but I was more concerned with focusing on my driving and not plowing down these goobers.

The pedestrians continued the whole way up 123 as it became Maple Avenue in Vienna; I had to slow and squint and swerve as many folks apparently thought it a good idea to be out after dark in a dark blue coat and black snow pants and walk in the middle of a main road. As I finally got to the ramp onto Route 7 out near Tyson's Corner, I breathed a sigh of relief: surely there would be less pedestrians to encounter on that highway.

And, indeed, I was right: getting to the kitties' house took us a good 45 more minutes of me driving 25-30 mph tops (some morons in pickup trucks whizzed by me at 45 or more--fishtail central, eh?; some morons lazed along at 5 mph and refused to pull toward the side to let us pass). But no more pedestrians. Just windows that at full blast from the heat managed to fog up, wipers whose blades picked started to ice and lose their effectiveness...

Arriving at the kitties' house found the neighborhood road plowed, but only narrowly, and with the driveway 30" deep in snow--it came up over my knees when I got out, and almost to Beth's waist as she furrowed up the front walk--so I stayed in the car in case I needed to move out of someone's way. Mission accomplished, we set out back out of the neighborhood and for home, with my executive decision to head farther west on Rt. 7 to pick up the Fairfax County Parkway and then US 50 for the trip home instead of chancing another bevy of drunk and wanna-be-drunk pedestrians in Vienna.

As I pulled up to the intersection with the Leesburg Pike, my antilock brake light came on. Knowing I needed my brakes to function and hoping it was merely a fault brought on by snow buildup around the tires (the sculpted "mud flap" area behind the tires which looks so nice serves quite poorly in trapping snow thrown up by the wheels), I made a terrible mistake: I turned off the ignition to see if restarting would reset the brakes.

Here's where things took a turn for the worse: my battery is nearly 6 years old, and I'd been intending to replace it at Costco or Sam's Club several times already leading into winter--but had not had time to stop at either. Running the front & rear wipers, the wiper deicers, the rear window defogger, the fog lights, the head lamps, and the mirror defoggers had taxed the battery's reserves, and my car engine turned over once and started clicking.

Dead battery! I turned everything off (should have to begin with, in retrospect) and gave it a minute, then tried again. The engine turned over twice but didn't start. Great.

Several people stopped to ask if we needed help; one clearly Muslim family in a SUV (I only mention this due to all the negative press Muslims get) offered me a hat and gloves (my hat was in the car; I'd gotten out for just a moment without it, and I'd taken off my gloves to be able to use my cell phone)--what great holiday spirit! Unfortunately, no one had jumper cables with them, and as I said earlier, though I prepared by packing a change of clothes, shovels, and extra weight in the car, I had left the jumpers at home.

Worse, our curbside assistance with our insurance and with Subaru both said it would be 2-3 hours before they could get anyone out to give us a jump. Beth walked back to the kitties' house to look for jumper cables there while I stayed with the car and used Google to track down and call several tow companies, and had to argue with several receptionists that no, all I needed was a jump, and my alternator was fine, my charging system A-OK, that it was just an old battery and my stupidity of running all the electrical systems, until I at last found one who said they'd be able to make it in 45 minutes, for the low, low price of $65.

This is when I discovered I had left my wallet at home.

Beth had fortunately left her purse in the car, so I read off the credit card # to the company and settled in to wait.

About 30 minutes later, a young man in a compact car stopped to ask if everything was OK; I explained (as I had already about 6 or 7 times to others) that I had a dead battery and needed a jump--and this time, unlike the rest, the kid said, "Sure thing!" He pulled up beside me and in short order, the Exerda was up and running again.

MAJOR thanks to this unknown Virginia Tech senior (I noticed his commuter pass; he noticed my plates, and we chatted shop a bit about school) who had jumpers with him and stopped to help a stranded driver. If you're out there: THANK YOU! (As an interesting aside, this senior with a minor in chemistry had the same thing to say about "German Engineering" as I did, mentioning out of the blue that such cars simply wouldn't drive in this weather due to the electronics deciding they know better...).

A quick call to cancel the tow truck and a drive back to the kitties' house (about a quarter of a mile or so) to pick up Beth, and we were on our way again, delayed only an hour and a half or so in total.

This is when things got more interesting.

Tabitha, my GPS, wanted to route us on several back roads which I'd traveled before and knew would absolutely not work--so I drove past them on Route 7 and kept heading northwest, out of my way a bit but with the goal of a main road. We turned down one which was slated to take us onto the Reston Parkway and thus down to Route 50 about two miles from home... and came upon two cars parked side-by-side in the middle of the road, blocking it, and a third parked behind them with his hazards on.

Now, why would you park next to another car on a plowed street, blocking the whole road, when there was enough room to park on one side and only one side and still let people by? We got out to check on the cars and see what the deal was; that's how we found out the one gent had been waiting 30 minutes. He claimed we should go over the median--even said, "I'm a teacher; follow me and see how it's done..." and then proceeded to sit in place, confusing us as to whether we should try going around him, too, or whether he did intend to lead & "teach."

(My mad winter driving skills need no tutelage, let me just pause to say.)

In the meantime, a pickup came up behind, passed us, laid into his horn at the parked cars (one of which had people in it--and was running idly there, oblivious to the traffic building behind him). This truck cut between the parked cars, somehow, and then made tracks cutting over the median to head back the other way. Before we could follow, another pickup pulled up, this one blocking the path we'd been about to take. Cursing the idiocy afoot, we got ready to hit the horn, when finally the new arrival moved on, and we were able to slowly mount the tracks the first truck had made.

We decided to go back to Route 7 and head a bit farther west yet, to get to the Fairfax County Parkway (as I'd originally thought to do, Tabitha be damned). That turned out to be a good decision, as there were few cars to be encountered, no pedestrians, and no one stopped in the middle of the road--though several had fetched up in the median earlier in the day from what we could tell!

As we came back around to our neighborhood--50 is a straight shot onto Main Street at the 50 & 29 intersection, saving us having to cross any berms of snow piled across intersections due to plowing--we found the adventure still not yet complete.

Byrd was blocked by a tow truck working to free a stuck car. Fine, we'll just back up to go down Del Rio and come up San Carlos, then, to get to our cul-de-sac that way. Problem was, someone had parked their car in the dead center of Del Rio, right between two other parked cars on the sides of the street, put on their hazards, and disappeared. Totally blocking the street: all they had to do was pull up 15 feet, and we (and other traffic) could have gone around.

We started to take another side road, but the ruts of earlier traffic didn't look passable, and I sure as heck wasn't going to contribute my car to the street-blocking idiots who'd abandoned theirs, stuck. Fortunately, by the time I backed up Del Rio, the tow truck had gotten free, though all the pedestrians who'd been out to help now walked in the same tracks we needed to be driving in. Argh!

At last, we reached our cul-de-sac at the back of the neighborhood, and started into it. My car slid a little, so I had to let up on the gas to avoid driving right into the cars parked at the mouth of the street. That meant digging and more rocking, as of course I was then stuck.

Finally, then, at 9:30pm and a good 5.5 hours after we'd left, we were home, safe and sound.

A long-exposure shot of the back yard at 11:00pm on day 2 of the snowstorm
I'm just glad I (1) have a car which can drive in this weather; (2) have mad winter driving skills honed by much practice; (3) was able to drive Beth to her appointment--there's no way she'd have been able to do it on her own, even in my car.

It was an exhilarating, frustrating, fun, worrisome trip out and back, and quite the adventure when all was said and done.

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