A Tale from the Snowpocalypse

one-inch-of-snow

“Atlanta, we are ready for the snow.“ — @KasimReed via twitter

The Snowpocalypse of 2014 is strangely not a weather story so much as a traffic story.  One or two inches of snow, after all, is hardly a tsunami, a flood, or even a moderate earthquake.  It may, however, have the singular distinction of being the first time a governor of the great state of Georgia has declared a state of emergency due to a bad case of gridlock.

Which is not to say that road conditions were particularly good. They just weren’t the initial problem.  As first flurries and then larger flakes fell shortly before noon on Tuesday, January 28th, people started to realize it was time to abandon Atlanta.  The digital marketing agency where I work is located in midtown.  The email announcement went out at 12:36 that the office was closing at 1 pm. 

People had an inkling that traffic would be bad.  Even Atlanta’s mayor Kasim Reid has said that as it was happening, he thought it was a bad idea that everyone was leaving at once.  Of course, everyone thought this, which is why they all rushed out of work at the same time to beat everyone else headed toward the freeways and highways to go home to their families – most people who work in Atlanta, after all, live in the suburbs around the city.

As I peered down at the cars filling up the roads around my building like syrup overfilling a plate of pancakes, I decided to hunker down and wait a bit.  This choice was driven more by necessity than forethought as I had a meeting with a potential technology partner and then a performance management meeting.  True forethought was exercised by my friend Wells who simply called in and said he was working from home that day.  After all, we all knew there would be snow.  Our smartphone weather apps told us so.

It wasn’t until 5:30 that I finally left.  The immediate roads around the office had dried up a little.  Additionally the online traffic cameras colored all the routes out of town black so it was unlikely anything would get better in the near future.  I had no idea what a “black” road actually meant, however, so I wasn’t as rattled as I should have been.  I expected a simple three hour commute – which was about the worse I’d ever experienced on the 25 mile drive back home to the city of Lilburn – next to Snellville – northeast of Atlanta where I live.  Little did I know this was only the start of a fifteen hour odyssey through the Snowpocalypse that would give me nightmares for days and show me things about the true nature of my fellow man I’d just as soon never have known.  The performance review went relatively well, by the way – thanks for asking.

Muscle memory is an amazing metaphor for how the mind works.  Whatever the actual biological process, the story of muscle memory says that actions we perform repetitively are stored in a Lamarckian way in our bodies themselves – as if our minds, home to our memories, permeate through and suffuse our arms and legs.  In my experience, though, the notion of muscle memory ought to be extended into geographical space, for surely we leave impressions of ourselves in the places we abide and the routes we frequent much as a person leaves a depression in the easy chair when he gets up from it.

As I headed home, my car followed its own muscle memory around and around the parking deck, then right on Cypress Street, Left on 4th, crossed West Peachtree and finally made another left turn on Spring Street.  And then it was two hours to crawl south on Spring, past J.R. Crickets on my left (established 1980), then past The Varsity on my right (surprisingly good onion rings).  Two hours as the sun went down.  Two hours to struggle down three blocks at which point I reached a decision.  I could either make a right turn onto the I-85 headed north or continue on to the I-75 South, which would take me to the 20 West and eventually the Stone Mountain Highway toward Athens and Snellville. 

The odd thing is that after spending two hours despising the herd of cars around me, when it came time to make my choice North or South I followed the herd.  No one was getting onto the 85 (I discovered later it was totally blocked) so I didn’t either.  Instead I spent another hour crawling even more slowly along to get onto the 75 South.  As the Honda Accord in front of me let in one person after another in front of him (and, of course, in front of me) I slowly seethed.  Since it was taking ten minutes or so to move each car length, the Accord was adding time to my journey, taking time from my life, taking money from my pocket. 

And as I seethed, the lizard part of my brain took over.  I imagined the zombies from The Walking Dead and felt that I was coming to understand them.  I slowly shuffled along, to the extent a car can shuffle along, and tried to stay close to the cars in front of me – even if this was probably an unsafe distance.  I no longer even saw the cars in front of me so much as patterns of tail lights.  When someone appeared to move faster than the standard shuffling pace, the entire herd became hungry and would look toward the sudden flash of movement – only to realize nothing was really happening, there was no fresh meat.

I shuffled forward for a half hour.  Then I shuffled another half hour.  I was now approaching a 270 degree turn on my right onto the 75.  The whole turn was perhaps 600 feet long.  And here we reached a sort of standstill. No motion for another half hour.  I had been texting my wife (at this speed, I couldn’t see the harm) but my phone finally gave out with a defeated beep.  The main excitement during this extended wait occurred when a Lexus pulled up along the right shoulder and sped past everyone making the 270 degree turn.  At first I was angry.  And then I was envious.  Why didn’t I do that too?  This dude was speeding along at almost fifteen miles an hour.  As he reached the 180 degree point, however, he was brought up short, too – and when it came down to it, just thinking of leaving the order of the herd made me anxious.  

Over the turn was a large digital sign.  It lit up the whole area and cycled through something about a new sitcom, then something about a new reality show, then a Coca-Cola spot, then the sitcom again.  All of midtown Atlanta is hooked up for communication, every pocket has a smartphone with a data plan streaming information, every car has a radio allowing our government to speak directly to us.  Despite all this, the massive sign positioned to communicate to hundreds of people in terrible trouble could only tell us was to tune into TBS for a few giggles.  The smartphone, that miraculous device which allows me to call anywhere anytime, dies in less than a day because that’s just the state of battery technology – especially when the GPS is turned on.  And finally the radio, which once a month or so starts bleating, then tells me that it’s only having a test and that if this were a real emergency it would tell me what to do next – the government, the governor, the mayor apparently had nothing to communicate to the stranded motorists, so there was not emergency bleating to be had.  Again, I thought of those zombie movies where lone survivors sit by their radios waiting for news from the army about safe zones and instead hear only static.

More time went by and I was finally on the 75, but now stuck behind a big rig truck.  It was spinning its wheels faster and faster and faster but couldn’t seem to make any progress forward.  At the same time it was freaking out everyone around the 18 wheeler as we imagined what would happen if it the tires actually caught and the truck went flying forward.  As I waited behind this truck, I noticed another rig pull up to its left and get stuck, then another beside that.  Eventually there were four tractor trailers side by side and stuck, blocking all movement on the 75.  For a time I thought they must be getting secret communications from the government and that this was a complex maneuver intended to shut down the Interstate because there were worse things ahead – government and truckers working together for the common weal. 

This was not true, of course, and I found out later that it was mainly the big rigs that were shutting down all the freeways and highways running around and through Atlanta.  They would either just freeze in place or, worse, slide until they were sideways and blocking all lanes.  Things would probably have turned out differently if the people who are in charge had simply called up all the truckers on their radios and told them to pull over.  Then we all might have gotten home, freeing up the big roads and as a by product all the capillaries blocked by people trying to get onto the big roads.

Something snapped in me.  Fresh vitality came back to my mind and warmth flowed into my fingers.  I pulled around the trucker, I weaved slowly around other cars that appeared stopped, and took the first exit onto Courtland Street.  I drove up to Peachtree Street and then took it all the way to Ponce de Leon Avenue where I turned right.  Ponce is basically two blocks from my office where I started out.  I was about four or five hours into the journey at this point.

Ponce was beautifully clear.  I had left the zombies behind and now felt as though I was on a different, more exciting adventure.  I glided down the beautifully tree-lined Ponce – driving / skating along its winding path.  As I approached intersections, the lights kept turning green for me.  One time I stopped for a red light but discovered it was hard to get moving again once I’d stopped.  I panicked and started pressing harder and harder on the gas.  Then I remembered the 18 wheeler on the 75 and got a grip on myself.  I reversed slowly, the moved slowly forward and was free again to glide.  I don’t know when it happened but I eventually fell behind a White Passat.  Whereas I’d previously secretly despised everyone driving around me, the White Passat became my special friend, and I like to think he felt the same way.  We were comrades traveling through a post-apocalyptic world and nothing could harm us.  Other travelers joined us and were welcomed gladly.  We few, we happy few.

There were whole stretches that felt like we were driving through the Christmas day scene from A Christmas Carol – not the ghost bits but the morning with Scrooge running around wishing people happy Christmas and carolers in scarves and big smiles.  Just like that except I’m driving through Dickensian London in a Toyota Scion.  I even have false memories of snow covered cobble streets lined with gas lamps decorated with ribbon.

And then we finally came to the 78 – Stone Mountain Highway – and my dear friend headed toward Decatur while I continued toward Snellville.  So much had been left unsaid between us.  Perhaps it was better this way.

I was able to go several miles on the 78 without seeing anyone.  And then I started to see cars slowly headed toward me the wrong way on the highway.  It was like a movie in which the protagonist is headed into a forest and suddenly all the birds burst out from the trees and head towards him and then overhead – a clear indication that the protagonist, rather than the birds, are headed in the wrong direction. 

Oddly, I was still hoping to get home before midnight.  The last message I’d sent my wife before the phone died was “Is there food?”  I knew she was worried and hated that I didn’t have a way to let her know I was safe.  And what if things got worse?  Who wants their last words to be “Is there food?” 

Perhaps the headlights coming toward me where a bit too uncanny.  It was at this point – the only point in the whole adventure — that my car started to spin.  I remembered that I was supposed to turn into the spin and looked down at my hands, which had all on their own turned completely in the opposite direction.  Stupid muscle memory.  Of all the stupid things I’ve picked up over the years – baseball stats, D&D rules, obsolete computer languages – knowledge of how to drive in the snow suddenly floated to the top like the submerged pyramid in a magic 8 ball.  Pump pump pump on the breaks, slow down, turn the wheel slightly into the spin – and suddenly I was back in control again.  I’m sure there was a metaphor buried somewhere in that experience that I could have pulled out in order to live my life better and be a better human being, but I was really too tired and hungry to care.

Up ahead I started to find cars turned around in the direction I was headed, sparse at first, but more and more dense as I headed further north until the traffic came to a standstill.  And for the most part that was how things were for the next nine to ten hours.  It was like being in a parking lot lit only by the headlights of the cars in it.  We would be stopped for an hour at a time and then get ten minutes or so of forward motion, then stop again.  No one had any idea what was happening ahead to allow for the forward motion, which by now had become the exception rather than the rule.  I never wondered why we were stopped – only how we ever progressed.

Occasionally during these forward movements I’d realized I was parked behind a completely stopped vehicle.  At first I was dumbfounded by the thought of someone not taking the opportunity to move forward when given the chance, but I got used to it.  People were just stopping in the middle of the highway and going to sleep in the snow like wanderers in a Jack London story.  Sometimes, I’d pass cars that were simply abandoned.  The lights and engines would just be off – surely if someone were sleeping they would leave the engine running to heat their car.  Mostly these cars were well situated.  Early on they’d be abandoned on the right and left shoulders of the road as if someone had taken care to park them carefully before abandoning them. 

Later – at the eleven and twelve hour mark, I’d pass cars that were simply left in the middle of traffic, correctly positioned in an appropriate lane.  Drivers had simply said screw this, turned off their engines and walked into the woods – at least I imagine they walked into the woods because there weren’t really any hotels or houses or stores around us on that patch of highway.  The drivers vanished into the cold.  Later still, as I began to pass the various cars that had created the original pile ups, I found abandoned cars facing a variety of different directions.  Sometimes I’d see one car oriented perpendicularly to another car and barely kissing each other, the result of a slow motion crash in which no one was injured, not even the body work on the cars, but which was no doubt frightening enough – and in slow motion at that – that both drivers just said fuckit and walked off into the snow.

As I passed these wrecks frozen in time – perhaps even still occurring so infinitesimally slowly that no one noticed – I came to realize that getting past a pileup like this was never the end, for just a mile ahead there would be another one, and a mile in front of that another one.  Like a series of dominos, each slow collision between two cars caused other cars to brake badly and slide further behind them and so on and so on.   This was simply the pattern of things and even had a beautiful cadence that I learned to appreciate.

I remember strange moments breaking up the interminable boredom.  The snow occurred during a new moon, so the light during the odd patches when there were no cars around was provided solely by stars and was beautiful.

I remember the people who got out of their cars to walk north along the side of the road, either to see what was going on or to find a discrete place to urinate.  I would wait for each of them to come back and worried when it seemed to take too long.

The stretch of highway going in the opposite direction was empty.  A hitchhiker walked south along that stretch with his hand out and I wondered who he was hoping to get a ride from.  I was also amazed at how fast he was moving compared to me, as if he had wings on his feet.

I was entertained for an hour by a small truck headed in the opposite direction that had gotten stuck.  The engine would rev and over rev and the wheels would whine at higher and higher pitches which I learned to recognize as the sound of futility.  Then the truck would stop for five or ten minutes, gather up courage, and proceed to do the exact same thing again with the exact same results.

For the most part, the massive trucks that are common to Atlanta had absolutely no advantage in the snow and were even more likely to get stuck, for some reason.  Chances are they got stuck due to overconfidence while the cautious tortoise-like commuter cars fared much better.  Those fantastic commercials of trucks driving over glaciers, it turns out, have been lying to us and planting false knowledge in our collective unconscious.  Even sadder, we probably all already knew this.

Occasionally black all-terrain vehicles with S.W.A.T. bumper stickers would pass by and national guardsmen would jump out.  They’d look around for a while and then get back into their trucks and drive on, pursuing their mysterious missions.  They never talked to anyone but each other.

One time a large truck with flashing police lights came along the left shoulder and told everyone over a megaphone to get out of the left two lanes.  We magically transformed a slowly crawling traffic jam over five lanes into a fully stopped traffic jam over three lanes.  According to the megaphone, we were clearing the way for a salt truck to come through and treat the roads.  He insisted that this was the only way to clear the traffic and that we had to stop traffic to unclog traffic.  Over the next two hours that open left lane was a great temptation but no one took advantage of it.  We believed in following rules and working together for the greater good.  We believed in foregoing immediate gratification in order to achieve a higher outcome.  Like a nasty scab, that open lane begged to be scratch, but we did not.

Until slowly we began to realize that there was no salt truck coming and we just picked and picked at that scab for about five minutes until all lanes were backed up again.  And it felt good.

I mostly entertained myself by listening to AM radio, hoping for some news about what was going on or signs that someone in authority was taking charge.  Apparently, though, no one in authority really had anything to pass on to the stranded motorists.  Home Depot, bless their hearts, were opening up fourteen stores for people to take shelter.  Sadly, though, this didn’t really help anyone out except the people stuck in traffic in front of a Home Depot.

The radio announcer was apparently going well beyond his appointed duration.  He acknowledged that since we were suffering, he wanted to be there right along with us.  He then talked about how nice it was to be at home drinking bourbon in front of a raging fire and wished we could be there with him.  It was actually pleasant listening to him take calls and listen to other people vent about the troubles.  They called in and complained about the poor preparation exhibited by the state of Georgia and the city of Atlanta.  This being AM radio, these calls were followed up by others extolling the virtue of personal responsibility and reminding people they had no one to blame but themselves.  I actually couldn’t follow the logic of these callers since I didn’t know what I was responsible for other than coming in to work that morning and going to a performance management meeting.

Speaking of performance management, the host of the show also passed on comments by the mayor of Atlanta explaining that contrary to popular opinion, the city was actually doing a fantastic job of managing road conditions.  I think I heard this at around the thirteen hour mark.  It occurred to me that people often lie to themselves and others when it comes to performance.  Which led me to dwell a bit on my own relatively good performance review and I realized that when I asked about the possibility of a promotion my boss said let’s wait and see how things go – and it suddenly dawned on me that this is what I say to my children when they ask me for something and I don’t want to say no but I also have no intention of ever giving it to them.

That’s the problem with long drives.  Too much time to think.

As I mentioned, I was curious why the AM radio host was staying on for so long and then I finally understood, as he understood, that he had a captive audience.  He started laying out a theory about James the brother of the Lord being the actual rather than half-brother of Jesus, and then something complicated about Jesus having had to be a historical person otherwise we’d be saying that Polycarp and Tertullian never existed or something.  And slowly it dawned on me that he was simply laying out a Da Vinci Code- liite theory of his own in which Jesus has nephews and nieces with their own nephews and nieces spread throughout in the world.  He never quite said it but this seemed to be where he was headed, and he had a captive audience to spin it out to like a drunk uncle at a family get-together.

He had almost gotten to his point when the thread of the argument was lost due to some real news.  The government (not sure which one) had decided not to do anything further until sunrise.  It was about four-thirty when I heard this and I realized that now I had two hours to go before anything more would happen.  I could actually plan … to do nothing … but having the ability to exercise forethought was exciting.  I looked at the cars around me.  The fellow in the lane to my right leaned back and closed his eyes.  I found this deeply offensive – he had an obligation to maintain the night watch with the rest of us.  He felt my critical gaze, opened his eyes, looked over at me and just shrugged.  Then he went back to sleep.  I looked at the car behind him and saw two people watching a movie on their phone.  Again, what amazing devices smartphones are, so potentially useful in an emergency, and it turns out best used to catch up on two-and-a-half men.  In the back seat of the Lexus in front of me I noticed a small child’s hand weaving back and forth hypnotically.

I snapped awake a little later, slid forward a few car lengths, and slipped back into my coma.  This went on several times over the next few hours.  The logic of waiting till dawn was that the sun would help melt the snow despite the freezing temperatures.  I think it was really an opportunity for a respite and permission for people in authority to finally admit that they were out of ideas.  The fault was with planning, after all, and no amount of frantic response after the fact would really make up for it.  There was also probably something mythological at work.  The dawn chases away evil.  It chases away vampires, werewolves, and even makes zombies less frightening.  Sometimes it even helps us forget bad choices.

Dawn was beautiful when it came.  With the dawn came hope.  A black truck with a S.W.A.T. bumper sticker sped by and moved out beyond the tiny circumferences of the world immediately around my car.  And then ten minutes later cars started moving, just as promised.  I looked at my speedometer and realized I was actually moving at five miles an hour.  I was worried that at those speeds, I would spin out of control – it just seemed so much faster than I was used to.

After passing the gates to Stone Mountain, I was happy to discover that none of these people I had been stuck with for hours were actually headed my way.  So why on earth had they blocked me for so long?  It was another skating drive like I’d had on Ponce de Leon, with familiar streets made unfamiliar by white powder.  I would occasionally pass gangs of curious children out playing, getting supplies, breaking into abandoned cars, whatever.  The rules had changed.  I didn’t even stop for red lights anymore, having shed all muscle memory of traffic regulations in the night.  I simply slowed down at intersections and enjoyed my newfound freedom of movement.

A left turn onto Hewitt road to get to my own street, carefully maneuvered.  I didn’t want to slide into the gutter a mile from home – that would just be embarrassing after all that.  On a tiny two lane street, I finally passed the last signs of the Snowmaggedon.  Seven cars, all turned in different directions, some half on the road, others on people’s lawns, all abandoned.  I’d seen scenes like this all night but in the light of day the abandoned cars were particularly striking and more like the panoramic scenes of a disaster movie.  People who leave their cars in the middle of the road must really think life sucks.

I navigated slowly around these cars, watching for zombies to jump out, pumping my breaks the whole way, and finally made a left turn onto Oak Road.  There had been a single car behind me, matching my speed and following my lead as we passed cars and avoided icy slicks.  I was happy to pass on the survival skills I’d learned in the night to this fellow traveler of the post-apocalyptic highways and byways.  My little buddy, however, went right when I’d gone left, and I was alone again.

I slid into my driveway, walked up to the door, found that my house key wasn’t working and banged on the door, desperately, until someone let me in.  Have you ever played the Xbox game Left for Dead?  At the end of each level you find a safe house and after everyone has freed themselves of their zombie pursuers, you can shut and bolt the door behind you.  That’s how it felt to finally be in my house again after that fifteen hour ordeal.  I was home again, I was warm, and I was loved.

And you know what?  There was even food.

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