There are large flashing yellow lights, required safety chain stations, and giant steel arms that gate across the road denying access on every US highway that crosses the rocky mountains. 5 years earlier I crossed the rockies in a blizzard half of an hour before they mandated chains on my way from San Fransisco to Boston, so I am not naive to the humbling respect of nature that is necessary for a safe cross country trip. No matter the season, every last acre of this country is prone to treacherous weather, and some can be engulfing and some deadly. My father, being and air traffic controller was always in my ear about the weather as a kid. He couldn't stop it. His inner monologue would run wild as a freshly harvested corn field would give way to an endless sky, and dominant roll cloud.
"Snow, in 17 minutes. Big fluffy flakes," confidently predicted my father; not 15, not 19, but 17 minutes, and big fluffy flakes, not small icy ones.
I could pry a bit, but it really didn't take much to get him rattling. So I would listen as he explained how he came to this precise conclusion, seeing the gray streaking in the distance behind the first roll; knowing the temperature, the pressure systems, etc. etc. Before I knew it 17 minutes was up, and we were in the middle of a Winter Wonderland.
I had not much of a choice but to learn how to understand weather, and most importantly, respect weather. It was written into my code. So I prepare.
Over the rockies in 2006 I used my father. He tracked the storm on a doplar radar and gave me updates as to the storm intensity and movement. We navigated the storm with great patience and I reach the monotonous Midwest byways in good time, safe and sound.
Now, as she and I tucked into our first and short stint with Pennsylvania we were pretty equipped. Dual smart phones with real-time satellite doplar applications coupled with navigation systems as well as a very bright and attentive co-pilot gave me plenty of confidence about our ability to navigate around or through any type of weather that She could throw at us.
And there it was. It was that confidence in my ability to control the ultimately uncontrollable that led to my lack of preparation needed for Lake Erie's sneak attack.
It started off as a small anomoly, a gentle mist that mimicked what you would see on a small fishing vessel on a slightly rough day in Mass Bay. It wasn't on the doplar, no sign of it at all, and the eutopic lull the filled car had my head far from the indiscrepencies between reality and and the doplar. It didn't take long for the mist to turn into ice pellets. A sudden drop in temperature patched the wet road with strips of ice, halving our driving speed. It seemed to happen almost instantaneously.
The ice popping off of our car like a constant stream of ball bearings hitting a tin roof exploded over the music coming out of the car speakers, rocking the rhythm of our trip. Music was one of the tools that would keep our own comfortable universe safely inside of the car. Immediately outside of the car a change in temperature, rain, snow, the darkest of all darknesses would only change our view, not our conditions. The warm inside temperature, muffled external noise, steady rhythm of smooth pavement, and the music offered a steady atmosphere that protected us from the elements that engulfed our car and lay just a strong flick of the wrist away. We were 8 hours from Boston, so the impeding racket of the ice pellets drilling the roof was enough to rattle our warm internal reality, and when the car would skid for just a moment, the external realities would become very real, and hearts skipped.
Her eyes were wide open, every moment staring at the road ahead. She saw each inch of the first accident we passed, no more than thirty minutes into Erie's sudden and dangerous adventure. She gasped at the freshly laid tracks of the crashed cars left scratched across the highway, diagonally, wheel tracks twirling. A sedan lay on the right side of the highway tucked neatly into the tree line, headlights beaming through a slow rolling mist that disappeared into the dead black backdrop. I wonder if the internal reality inside that car had changed. Was the music still on? Was it still warm?
We called 911 and reported the accident unaware that this 5 hour trek through our ghost storm would bring us 4 more truck wrecks, 2 flipped sixteen wheelers, and and a steady stream of red, white, orange, and blue flashing lights, stretchers, cops, flares, and a significantly heightened heart rate.
As we traveled further towards Cleveland, maybe three hours out, two snow outlined tire paths appeared slowly on the pavement ahead. Within moments our trip's pathway lost the yellow and whites. The highway ahead had only two thin paralleled tire tracks, each canyonned between 3 inches of freshly dumped fluffy snow. What a misleading jerk this doplar radar was, nothing at all conveniently graced the screen of our fancy intelligence machines south of Erie on Rte 90 in the middle of the night. Giant snow flakes began glittering the air out of our windshield and whizzed by as the car swiftly glided through the night, leaving a whirling trail of red flakes in the rear view.
These snowflakes were fantastic. They were so light and fluffy that virtually none of them actually landed on the windshield. Engaging the high beams during snowfall like this self-inflicts a blinding view. If you have ever played outside after a fresh snowfall under blue skies than you know how blinding snow can be as a reflectant. I can only imagine that it could be a compared to a trip through space with the stars whizzing by, a movie effect that gave the experience an extra zest of excitement that grapled our reality smack-dab in the middle of a real life adventure. The snow, falling mostly vertically, would hit a forcefield of air about two inches off the exterior and get instantaneously vacuumed parallel along the flow of air separating the sleak, 1200lb, streaking vehicle, from the moderately stagnant, vertically falling air, hundreds of flakes at a time.
The one thing that we had going for us at this moment was that it was the middle of the night and the road was somewhat clear. I remember my father's words whisper a memory into my ear from a decade earlier, "I'm not worried as much about you Marc; I'm worried about everyone else on the road." It's unfortunately true. The less potential flailing three-quarter-ton boxes of aluminum in the same approximate slippery area, the better.
The peak of the trip arrived when a large snow bank appeared mid-lane in the distance. At this point in the dark trip there was only one lane on the highway in which it was safe to travel, only one with tracks, and the snow bank was directly in the middle. The barrier grew quickly as we approached, trying to slow down so as to not lose control of the car. So deadly now was this element previously associated with feelings of glee, wonderment, and happy moments in childhood.
The car jolted upward and my foot came off the brake; I focused on the tracks ahead. Accompanying the momentary vertical was a large bang followed by a long, loud scrap that ripped us immediately out of our comfortable reality once again. The outdoors was real. Indoors was just a 21st century mechanism maintaining a delicate balance of dangerous speed and manual finesse. The car tailed quickly a few times, the wheel stayed straight and steady, and we slowly found the tires settle back into the carved tracks. Hearts racing, we finally blinked, took a deep breath, and drank in the thought altering adrenaline rush.
Turns out a highway plow had left a giant drift in the middle of the highway; the little car wore that drift with a weathered resilience...
After the frosty dance with the devil we popped open a map, altered our route to avoid Erie and slid south of Cleveland towards Columbus. The giant snowflakes steadily faded into the night sky and in under an hour all that was left of Erie's attack was a road lined with muddy and icy sludge and the remminance of recent accidents: fresh tracks in the median snow, pieces of a shattered tail lights standing out in the bright snow like Christmas lights, brightening as our headlights approached.
Before the snow that outlined the road melted away to reveal the underlying fallen foliage and bare tree limbs, returning us to the appropriate early November season, we met an uncomfortable sight. It wasn't deadly, from what we could gather, but it placed mortality out our window for thirteen seconds straight. It doesn't seem like a lot of time, but thirteen seconds contemplating mortality can feel like hours. Time slowed during this moment, as it often does on road trips. Relevant time is entirely experiential on a road trip. Kansas took 10 hours, but it felt like 15 minutes in the end. These thirteen seconds lasted for hours.
I saw the sixteen wheeler skidding down the breakdown lane when my eyes finally turned focus from the truck speeding in reverse down the far lane on the opposing side of the highway. The truck was was traveling in reverse quickly and calmly to get to the sliding sixteen wheeler and although my eyes had seen a lot in the last few hours, it was still a hard adjustment. The moment passed in slow motion. The expectation of reality is broken in moments like these, emergency moments. You can expect a giant truck or even tank to be sliding down a highway on a television screen, or on the movie theater screen, but the expectations on a real highway are much more mundane.
We passed the accident still in motion. Directly to our left laid the under-carriage of the sixteen wheeler outlined by a series of small orange lights, the metal scrapping against the road spotted pockets of sparks all along the friction. The wheels were spinning at different speeds, some in opposite directions. Although this highway mammoth's girth hid the speed and power of the raging battle between aluminum, steel, rock, gravity, weight, and speed, the expulsion left no doubt. Chunks of rubber, aluminum, and highway tarmac exploded out of a firestorm of sparks at the tail end of the troubled vessel.
Just beyond the accident was an overpass, overlit by a thorough but orange tint. Median lights, and the lights from the overpass gave our eyes prime view of the live event. We traveled under the bridge and our attention turned forward as we took in the moment.
Then nothing. Darkness. Calm. An abundance of adrenaline in an impotent environment. The yellow and whites returned. The autumn surroundings Erie was over, the adrenaline took me another two hours until the sun began its return to light our rolling habitat when we traded viewpoints, responsibilities.
The passing of the Cross-Country Torch takes great Respect, and even a greater Trust.
Read about it in #4 Indiana and the Changing of Guard