Thursday, January 27, 2011


So what's it like when everyone in the Washington DC area tries to get home at the same time on roads that are impassable? Well from where I sat last night, caught up in that mess, it was a lot like one of those "Day After" post-nuclear attack scenarios, with hundreds of thousands of people trapped on every outgoing road. Most of us wound up being trapped--repeatedly and for prolonged periods--not by the actual event but due to the careless, selfish or downright irrational actions of a relatively small number of other people.
First a bit of background. For those of you not caught in it, the whole Washington DC metro area got hit with a winter storm that brought down 6-8 inches of wet, heavy snow in a fairly short period of time. There was even more to the north and west--by the time I got back here to the safety and security of the Lair, there was over a foot on the ground. Fortunately by then, most of the weak were already off the roads and out of the way.

The snow started coming down heavy a bit before the normal rush hour kicked off. Almost immediately, car crashes began to pile up all over the area because people weren't exercising common sense in the weather. By the time I was able to conclude my business and attempt to escape, it was 6PM and there were a couple of inches of wet snow down. naturally, every road going over a bridge out of the District was a solid ribbon of red tail lights, none of which were moving. The crashes that were occurring and blocking the roads were mostly all very minor ones--people sliding into each other or into guard rails at very low speeds--but a lot of these people appear to have been stuck in "dependent lemming" mode because they were leaving their cars right where they were and waiting on the police to respond and take reports. When I got to the first of many that I encountered, it was a full-size SUV up against a guard rail at about a 45-degree angle, with it's tail end projecting out into the roadway, blocking one lane of the traffic and bottle-necking the bridge as people were trying to get around it. It had some front quarter damage but I suspect that it was still drivable. I saw it's operator standing by with his phone and called to him to move his truck. He angrily called back that he was waiting for a police report. Since I was literally stuck there by the traffic, I told him to go home and call the insurance company in the morning or at least get out of everyone's way. His response: "No, I want them to come out and see it just like it happened!"

So he was the first one of a fair number of people that I briefly contemplated shooting, just as my gift to the gene pool. Because his dumb, selfish ass could not drive, he's going to remain as an obstruction and mess things up for everyone else so that a police officer can come and see his truck after a one-car crash that was 100% his fault anyway. The only thing is, the police, like the rest of the area government, were overwhelmed and not responding to minor crashes, and even if they'd wanted to they could not get to them due to butt-heads like this guy blocking up most of the other roads on the way to this one.

And the local government was paralyzed, just like the rest of us. No disrespect intended to all of the police and fire folks who were out there trying to do what they could, but they were in the same boat. I saw several police cars that had slid into snowbanks or ditches and become stuck right alongside the motorists that they were trying to held. I saw ambulances and fire trucks sitting with their lights all flashing just ahead of or behind me in the same gridlock, taking 20 minutes to move a block because people would not and usually could not move out of their way. Then power lines and trees started coming down, the latter blocking part of roads or whole roads, and the former knocking out lights and traffic signals over large areas. And of course the tree crews and utility workers could not get out and reach the trouble spots any more than the police officers ambulances, tow trucks or snow plows could. It was chaos, and I was reminded of this quote from the movie Full Metal Jacket that described it perfectly:
(Link) View more Full Metal Jacket Quotes and Sound Clips
Now during my efforts to "Escape from DC", I saw some of the best as well as the worst of people. I saw people banding together to push stuck cars out of the snow or off of the icy patches that many were sitting on with their (typically) one little wheel spinning. I saw locals out with snow shovels walking up and down the roads digging random cars out. I saw a couple of SUV drivers who had tried using tow straps to pull others out of ditches only to torque themselves into the ditches too because they apparently lacked a basic understanding of the physics surrounding objects at rest and the problems of frictionless surfaces such as the ones that their vehicles were sitting on when they applied power.
And I saw government incompetence repeatedly in the form of bus after bus after freaking city or county bus, all stuck in the snow and blocking major roads. I'm sorry, but we all saw this storm coming. Who was the gutless wonder that refused to cancel these buses or call them back in off the roads when it became apparent that they weren't going to be able to get through? I saw well over a dozen just on my route, which suggests that there were probably hundreds of them out there across the whole area, all sitting empty with their "not in service" lights flashing as they blocked a lane or an intersection. Fucking thanks for that, eh?

Worse though were the jackwagons who, as soon as they found their little yuppie one-wheel-drive car bogged down on the road (or in a highway center lane), abandoned those cars and walked away, leaving thousands of obstacles in the pathways of all of the rest of us. I quickly lost track of the number of times that I had to maneuver around what appeared to be a perfectly fine car that was just sitting in the middle of the road for no apparent reason. Next time, I'll have a long-handled hammer in my vehicle that I can reach out with and whack a dent into each one as I pass it. Those cars really made a bad situation worse for a lot of the rest of us who were still moving.

And then there were the lines and the open fighting at the gas stations. People stuck in traffic for many hours were running low on gas and it seemed as if they were all trying to shoe-horn into the same gas stations that still had power. There were lines backing up into traffic lanes, much horn-blowing, and not a few unkind words being yelled back and forth as I passed some of these gas stations. Could you imagine these people if it was really an emergency, like a nuclear evacuation or the re-election of Nancy Pelosi to Speaker of the House? I could see shots being fired, especially later when many of the gas stations began to run out of gas. As for me, I'm thankful for a longstanding, unbreakable policy that I follow under which I never, ever head downtown without an ample fuel reserve. I didn't have a full tank when I went down yesterday, but I had more than enough to get me back home without the need to fight for a refuel, even with all of the extra idling and detouring that I had to do. I was also grateful for my emergency Bug Out Pack that I knew was in the back of my vehicle. I knew that if things got worse, I had what I'd need to wait things out for a bit or even walk home if I'd had to. And of course I was armed, and the presence of that firearm and it's extra ammo was an added reassurance more than once as I had to thread through crowds of newly-minted pedestrians or locals out for a lark. (Yeah, I had a firearm with me in Washington, DC. Sue me.)

I also had a real 4x4--a no-nonsense full-size SUV with high ground clearance, a powerful engine, and tires appropriate for the weather and terrain. Many of my peers and neighbors have mocked it over the years for it's less-than-stellar gas mileage compared to their little yuppie-mobiles and hybrids, but that machine was sure-footed and had what it needed to claw over, around or through whatever it needed to, and it needed to do a lot of that stuff on the trip. Of course it helps that I know how to operate a 4x4 effectively and don't mistake it for a "go-anywhere, do anything" wonder machine. Even my 4x4 has it's limitations and I know and respect them. That's why I got home and didn't wind up in the ditches like so many other trucks and SUVs that I passed in the night.

But more important than the SUV, the survival gear and the gun, I had the survivor mindset. I quickly realized that this was going to take a while, so I put time-frames out of my head. My only goal was to get home, period. I also realized that I was responsible for my own progress and that I could not depend on the government to get me out. This point was driven home in spades as I found myself stuck on one roadway for nearly two hours, blocked in on all sides by other motorists and moving so sporadically than many times I shut my vehicle off to conserve my fuel. When I finally met up with a police officer who was manning a barricade to keep us from another road that was blocked by a stuck tour bus across both lanes, he told me that they were still waiting on tow trucks for the bus and a few other stuck cars.
"Where are those tow trucks?" I asked.
"Behind you, about four miles or so. They can't get here because of the traffic jam."
So the only trucks able to free up traffic were stuck in the traffic that they were sent to un-stick. Wonderful. And when I pointed out that his bosses clearly knew that this roadway was impassable but had declined to block several of the the ramps leading to it and countless more cars were trying to merge in, adding to the problem and finding themselves also now trapped unnecessarily, he just shrugged.

That road was blocked for most of the night, and many thousands of people were trapped for several hours. I might still be stuck there too except that I'm not a lemming. I respect the law, but sometimes when I have to, I'm willing to override it.
I used my 4x4 to get up out of that mess by crossing a median, driving on a shoulder, and going the wrong way up a ramp that had actually been cut at the top, exchanging friendly waves with the guy manning the closure barricade at the top. He obviously understood.
And I did this despite the horn-honking and light-flashing of several other lemmings who just sat there waiting for "the authorities" to re-open the road. For all I know, they're still there waiting. If, instead of a snowstorm, it was the threat of a mushroom cloud rising over the National Mall, I suspect that archeologists would find their remains centuries later after the area cooled down, still sitting in the remains of their cars, waiting forever.

Still, the prize for planned incompetence had to be the brain trust in charge of the Dulles Toll Road, who, when faced with a loss of power at their automated toll gates, decided to just funnel everyone through one or two lanes that actually had human toll-takers instead of just opening the other eight gates and letting traffic flow free for a few hours. They even reportedly held gates closed when someone got to one with no cash and made that person fill out the "promise to pay" collection form while everyone else waited in line behind him or her. Needless to say, the back-up caused by that bone-headed move was epic.

I admit right now that I committed numerous traffic violations getting out of that mess. I drove into oncoming lanes where there was no traffic, I drove where there were no lanes. I cruised through intersections with red lights where there was no cross-traffic, exchanging stares with sheep sitting at those lights who didn't comprehend that everyone driving now on this road is going the same way, and that by sitting through whole cycles of red lights, they were just slowing everyone more. In short, without taking undue risks or subjecting anyone else to risks of my own causation, I did what I had to do to get home, including whipping out the map book that I always keep in the truck and plotting new routes when the ones that I usually use (like the Dulles Toll Road) were stalled. And I eventually managed to get here at 2:30AM, just EIGHT AND A HALF HOURS after leaving on a trip that should normally have taken no more than an hour, or an hour and a half in average traffic.

Ironically, after all of that, I was almost ditched twice in the last half-mile by two local idiots who each abandoned their vehicles partially blocking the small, steep and un-plowed one-lane dirt roads that I live off of. If I wound up stuck within sight of my house after all of that, I'd have snapped, of that I'm certain. One is a neighbor that I know to be old and in poor health. I went down this morning to help dig his vehicle out. The other...It was gone when I got there, otherwise I might have just completely buried it in snow out of spite. And of course I had to walk up my drive, get a snow shovel, and carve out a niche at the end of my driveway for my SUV to fit into. Then I had to play with Murphy for a bit. I felt bad getting back so late, especially after watching him pee for almost a minute solid, but not bad enough to resist tossing a shovel-full of snow on him. Big mistake. He dropped right into that "play crouch" and I knew it was on "full-contact" even before he leaped onto me with his whole eighty-plus pounds and knocked me down into a snowdrift for some wrestling. But I didn't mind a bit. After all that I'd been through, it was just good to be home with my friend.

News story on abandoned cars and government inability to deal with problem.


  1. I do not miss living in Northern Virginia.

    I'm very glad I live somewhere people know how to deal with snow and weather.

    When are you joining me?

  2. Soon as I can find a job like mine up that way, my friend. Don't think I'm not looking.

  3. Me, I'm glad you made it, didn't bother to call, as I figured you were in conserve mode on everything. Good post and all good points. The sooner I can get out of this madhouse the better... And I'm SURE Murph was glad to see you :-)

  4. How evil to own a gas-guzzling SUV. Who could possibly need one of those? Better you should have been in a Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf so your battery could quietly hum itself to nirvana as the flakes entomb your transportation until spring or global warming recommences.

  5. I have been looking forward to your commentary on your trip home. It was everything (and more) than I expected.

    I felt foolish asking to work from home on Wed. until about 3:00pm then I felt pretty darn smart and not at all paranoid about the weather. I had my doubts about the ability of VA, WV, and DC drivers and municipal authorities to deal with it. It was nice to know I was right again (unfortunately)

    So glad I did not have to make that trip or stay in Silver Spring in an unheated apartment (thanks Pepco) - even though I love my spouse, there is only so much I will do.

  6. Anonymous5:10 PM

    I am glad to hear you made it home safely.I am glad you did not have to dump some bleach in the gene pool.Even though it was badly needed.

  7. Yeesh, sounds like you had a lousy time.

    Let me guess, you didn't see a single plow or salt truck out making the rounds while you were struggling through traffic eh?

    I am proud that you didn't pop anybody, even those that probably deserved it. I've seen how you get in heavy traffic when your stuck amongst moronic drivers ;-).

  8. Anonymous10:19 PM

    Yeah that was too much fun, and the mountain roads of course had not been plowed at all. Too much fun in WV.

  9. And this is why I moved where it doesn't snow! :)