Feb 3 2014

Snow and Tell (a not so tennis-y post)

Birmingham | Weather       Clif Render      

The highs in Birmingham this past weekend were in the 70's (Fahrenheit) - perfect weather for tennis. This was not the case, however, last Tuesday, January the 28th when the entire Birmingham Metro area froze solid. Tuesday and Wednesday of last week (January 28th and 29th), tens of thousands of people were stranded away from home, thousands of cars were left abandoned, very few roads were left passable and no one's life went untouched by the furious grip of mother nature. These are the details of my journey and of the people who shared in it.

9:00 A.M. Tuesday, January 28th - Snow begins to fall. It is so beautiful. Falling peacefully, blanketing the ground, quiet and serene. I see it fall, but I know it won't last. It never does. Spending the bulk of my life in Alabama, I haven't had a lot of experience with snow. I could probably count on one hand the number of times I have seen it fall and actually stick. Typically, the snow falls, lands, melts, and is heard of no more. When school closes in anticipation of snow, it never falls. When school doesn't close, it either melts as soon as it falls or never falls at all. This time, though, things would be different. So, so different...

10:45 A.M. The building that I work in notifies all its tenants that, due to worsening weather conditions the office will be closing at 11:00. There is a mass exodus from the building. I have only worked here for a few months and the stories that I hear paint a bleak picture of leaving the parking lot in inclement weather. Where I work, there are three large office buildings that share a parking lot right behind a major metropolitan hospital. The only way out for us is a single two lane road that runs down a fairly steep hill to exit onto a heavily trafficked major thoroughfare. From the stories I hear, the line to get out of the parking lot gets backed up at times like this and people end up waiting around for hours just to get out of the parking lot. Having no desire to wait around for several hours just to get out of the parking lot, I decide to keep working until 2:00 or so to let things clear out. Certainly things will be cleared out by then.

11:00 A.M. Schools have begun notifying parents that they are closing and that they will be sending kids home on the bus. My wife is at home so my son will probably be there within the hour.

11:30 A.M. The schools are now notifying parents that the roads have become too dangerous for the busses to travel, so they are bringing them back to the school and are asking all parents to come and pick their kids up by 12:00 if possible. I receive a panicked call from my wife. If the roads are too dangerous for the busses then they are certainly too dangerous for her to drive to go get him. I reassure her that this is just a precaution. The school is worried about potential litigation and also about calls from worried parents. With all the kids safely back at school, the parents will be reassured by knowing exactly where their kids are, and there won't be any risk of a bus full of students sliding into a ditch or getting involved in an accident. My wife, however, will not be consoled. She proceeds to call everyone she knows asking if any of them can pick up our son. No one can. They have either already agreed to pick up multiple kids for other parents already, or they are far away from school and aren't sure when or if they will be able to pick them up. I am still not worried, but things do appear to be different than before. Kids have never been recalled to the school like this before. I have minor misgivings, but I decide to stick to my plan. The snow continues to fall.

12:45 P.M. I hear from my wife that she has made plans to ride with another parent to pick up our son. This is good, I think. Things are starting to stabilize. My son will be home soon. All is well. I am getting ready to leave but want to give the parking lot just a little bit longer to clear out. The snow is sticking, but it isn't falling very heavily now. It has tapered off to intermittent flurries. Not much happening. I knew it wouldn't last long.

1:30 P.M. I hear that a few people from my office have given up trying to get home and have come back to the office because the traffic was so bad. More than a few people are saying that there's no use in leaving now. They say that you can't even get down the hill without sliding into oncoming traffic. This might be the case for some people; I think, but not for me. I have relatively new tires with good tread, and I know what to look out for. I'm not worried about getting down the hill. Besides, it's only going to get colder. I certainly don't want to wait until nightfall to try to make it out. I'd better get going.

1:45 P.M. I made it out of the parking lot fairly quickly. Just as I thought, most people had either cleared out or given up. I am waiting on the hill. Cars are abandoned on the side of the road, and they are stopping any traffic trying to come up the hill. We are proceeding slowly and carefully. There are a couple of good Samaritans directing traffic and reminding people to go slow. No problem.

Riverchase At Dusk

2:30 P.M. I have made out of the parking lot and am part of the way down the hill to the main thoroughfare. I've only made it 1/4 mile down the road, and it has taken me an hour to do so but I'm sure things will get better when I get out on the main thoroughfare. Certainly things will be moving along better out there. There is a gas station on my left. It is completely overwhelmed with people. They are lined up out of every driveway. People are angry and honking their horns trying to get into the parking lot. I only have 1/4 tank of gas myself, but I'm not worried. It's only a 25 mile drive home. I can make it home on much less than that 1/4 tank. Besides, since I won't be going terribly fast, I will use far less gas than normal. No problem. I have a good book on tape. I'm an introvert, so I don't mind being alone for a while. I'm good.

3:30 P.M. I couldn't go the normal way home because it's up a pretty steep hill, and it's covered with snow, ice, and other cars. I have planned for an alternate route down Columbiana Road that usually sees less traffic and will allow me to avoid Interstate 65, which I have heard is knotted up with several accidents. I am almost to Columbiana. I'm keeping the heater going and keeping my phone plugged in and charged. For a while, I was running the rear window defroster, too, to try to melt all the snow of the back windshield but I gave up trying. It wasn't really working anyway.

Four Wheelers in Hoover

4:00 P.M. Well, I started down (or up) Columbiana - there is a bit of a hill to start it - but it was pretty heavily knotted up with traffic. The traffic didn't seem to be moving at all, and I saw a couple of cars twisted in unnatural positions. People are out driving around in 4 wheelers having fun in the snow. Normally that would be dangerous in this heavily trafficked part of town but no one is moving very anywhere right now. At least I'm warm, and my book on tape is good. I think I'm going to have to give up on Columbiana, though. It's not moving, and I already see two accidents up ahead that don't look like they'll clear anytime soon. I really didn't want to drive I-65, but it looks like I don't have much of a choice now. The only other route is much farther away and winds around the top of a mountain - the very last place you want to be in an ice storm. It's taken a lot longer than I thought to get to where I am but I'm sure things will speed up when I get out on 65. Even if there is an accident, it should be getting cleared out pretty soon. They're not going to leave a major Interstate like 65 stopped up for long.

Hitchhiking in Birmingham

4:30 P.M. You're not going to believe this. My car just died. I just started up the hill to the on ramp to I-65 and my car just died. It was the battery. Apparently, I was pulling more power with the heater, my phone charger and the rear window defroster than I was making. Bad move. Now I'm stopped in the middle of one of the most heavily trafficked roads in the city. Oh boy. What do I do now? Well, first thing's first. Get the car off the road. Let's see who is around me right now. There's a van immediately behind me, and there are cars to both my left and right. That van right behind me is a really good thing. They'll have a strong metal bumper. I can ask them to push my car off to the side of the road. And there's a gas station nearby that may be able to offer some shelter after that. Okay, I've got a plan. Traffic is starting to move slightly, so I've got to get started. "Excuse me, sir, my car just died on me, can you help me move it off the road?"

(He's on the phone) "Um, hold on, hon…what was that?"

"Can you help me move my car off the road? It just died on my and I don't want to leave it out here in everyone's way. If you'll just slowly come up to the back bumper and push me off right over there that would be great."

"Well, yeah, I guess I can. I wish I could get out and push it with my hands, but I just had arm surgery and...."

"No, no, no, that's fine. It's a 95 Chevy. I drive an old car for a reason. No worries."

"Okay, sure. And, if you need a ride, I've got room."

"Awesome, thanks." I run over to the driver in the next lane over and ask if he can hold back and let us cut in front of him. I explain that it's either this or things get really stopped up, and he is more than happy to oblige. I jump back in the car. Hoping for a miracle, I try to start it up again. I had hoped that letting it sit for these few minutes would be enough to get it started up again but that just wasn't the case. Oh, well. Probably better this way, anyway. No way that I could keep it going indefinitely with traffic moving this slow. The white van comes up behind me and, as traffic allows, slowly nudges me off onto the shoulder. I grab a few things out of the car - phone charger, toboggan, Kindle, extra phone batteries (My phone has terrible battery life, so I usually carry around three extra battery packs just in case). I go back to the van and ask if he was serious about giving me a ride. He says that he was, and I ask where to. He says Valleydale. That's only about half way for me, but it's my best option at this point, so I accept. Three hours on the road, I've only gone about 4 miles, and I'm already abandoning my car and jumping into a big white van with someone that I've never met. Not exactly the way I thought my afternoon would go.

5:00 P.M. We're just now getting onto the on-ramp to I-65 south. It's one of those big loopy ones where you exit off to the right to make a full circle and go the other way. Greg (that's the name of the driver of the van) and I discuss what we should do at this point. Should we take 65 south or pull over into the Wal-Mart parking lot and just spend the night there or keep going? I say that I am up for anything. He is driving, and I am along for the ride so I'm not going to be picky. We decide that we want to go just a little farther down the on ramp to see how 65 is moving before committing to either option. By the time we are where we can see that I-65 isn't moving at all, we are too far gone to turn back. There is a concrete barrier between the on-ramp and the off-ramp and no room to turn around anywhere. 12 or 13 cars sit abandoned on the grass of the on-ramp, and we consider doing the same. While we sit there, wondering what to do, a 20 something year old mother with a baby in her arms and a toddler in tow pulls her car off the road and starts walking through 6 lanes of bumper to bumper traffic 1/4 mile toward the Wal-Mart we were also considering for shelter. By this time, there really aren't any good spots left open on the shoulder for us to pull off into. Nearly the entire shoulder is lined with cars; the shoulder is covered two cars deep in some places. We are now at a place where we can't pull off right now if we wanted to. My heart sinks a bit as a realization finally starts to sink in. This is not going to be a typical Alabama Snow.

I-65 Backed up for Miles

6:00 PM. We've finally made it onto I-65, but it's barely moving at all. We're moving maybe 1/4 mile an hour at best. We're both regretting our decision not to ditch the van and head for Wal-Mart. The sun has almost completely gone down, and things aren't looking very promising at all. Tractor trailers are stopped in the middle of the road with their flashers on, and cars are abandoned everywhere on the shoulder. We're not even in a position where we can get to the shoulder to pull off the side of the road easily. Cars in front of us are stopped - not moving - and have been for quite some time. I'm starting to get a headache. This is not good. I receive a text from my wife telling me that she was able to pick up our son successfully but could not get home before the roads froze over. She called around and found a friend of a friend that had a spare bedroom and was willing to put them up for the night. "Great," I texted back. I also text her some info on my status, "Broken down, Car Abandoned, picked up by a stranger, probably spending the night with him at his home on Valleydale." Needless to say, she wasn't too happy about me spending the night at the house of someone I had just met. At this point, however, I was up for almost anything that involved a good night's rest. Ironically, a few minutes later, Greg's sister would call him expressing the same kind of concerns about him taking in a stranger for the night. We just laughed about it. No, it definitely wasn't an ideal scenario but we have gotten to know each other a good bit, and we are very like-minded about our situation. We could be upset and bitter or just make the best of it. As the old adage goes, "When life hands you a freezing ice storm, make a lemon slushy". Lemon slushy, it is...

Walking can be Faster than Driving

7:00 PM. Traffic has still not moved at all. People are getting out of their cars and walking up the hill looking for shelter. I'm not even sure how they're making it up the hill - it's so tall and so steep and so snow covered. I am wearing shiny slick bottomed work shoes so just the thought of it makes me shiver. I see other people getting out of their cars and walking south down the Interstate. I'm not sure where they're headed because they're not coming back. I should clarify that south is the direction that we are going, but that it is up-hill. It is this hill that is the cause of the majority of the problems here. The road is almost completely covered by a 1 to 2 inch thick sheet of ice. Most Alabama drivers are completely unaware of how to drive in conditions like this and are completely unprepared. Over my two day trek, I saw only one vehicle with chains - a local municipality vehicle. Folks with rear wheel drive vehicles didn't stand a chance. Rear wheel drive Pickup Trucks were especially bad off because of their high center of gravity and stiff suspension - especially the shiny ones. A shiny truck is a sure sign of someone who wants to look like a good old boy (or girl), but just isn't. My headache has gotten worse and now I'm starting to get nauseous. I'm a scuba diver, so I know the signs of Carbon Monoxide poisoning when I see them. I'm getting a little worried. We've had our windows down for some time now, but it's just not helping. Besides, there are cars on either side of us all belching out exhaust. There's not a breath of fresh air anywhere. I'm not sure which is worse, windows up breathing in Carbon Monoxide with the windows up or breathing in exhaust with them down.

Interstate Gridlock

7:30 PM. We have still made almost no progress. We can still see the on-ramp behind us. Greg and I are getting to know each other pretty well by now. He's a really good guy - An entrepreneur. He's run any number of businesses: a number of restaurants, real estate, right now he's in the antique business. He travels around buying discarded items and furniture for pennies, refinishing them, and selling them for dollars. Not something that I'd enjoy doing but he loves it. He does shows, booths, and flea markets all around town and makes a really decent living doing so. He's a really smart guy, too. He and his wife would like to retire, buy an RV and see the world. He may just do it. I get the feeling that he's one of those secret genius types that can actually do anything he puts his mind to, but disguises himself and his abilities by appearing to most people to be just an ordinary Joe. My thoughts are broken by the sight of a guy out walking around on the ice. This guy was just up the road a bit looking at the state of things and has walked back this way toward his car. We noticed some time ago that the traffic immediately ahead of us looks deadlocked but ahead of that, there appears to be a gap - an open space that, somehow, has yet to be filled up. "Hey, what did you see up there," Greg asks. "It looks like it opens up a bit in front of these cars."

The guy just shakes his head. "Well, yeah, it does but we're not going anywhere. These trucks are stopped, and the only way around is over there," the guy points to the shoulder of the road, "or over there," he points to the second lane from the center. This road usually has only three lanes on its south bound side with a high concrete divider dividing it from the Northbound side. Since the ground is covered with snow and ice now, though, the normal lane assignment system has become completely irrelevant. Traffic has overtaken all of the paved space out past the outside lane to include the grass shoulder beside the road itself. All in all, we now appear to have about 6 lanes with one of them being the shoulder, itself. The lane farthest in is blocked by a turned off tractor trailer. We are in the next lane over about 5 cars behind the mysterious break in the traffic. the next lane over is stopped just like we are. The next two are populated mainly with abandoned vehicles except for the shoulder which, as he explains, was moving along nicely until someone got stuck and shut their car off and left. "Now no one's moving," he says. If the guy up at the front of your lane would move then at least we would have one lane going."

"You think we could push it out of the way," Greg asks.

"Yeah, probably," he says. "Want to give it a try?" He looks right at me.

What I am thinking is "There is no way I can even walk on this stuff in work shoes much less push a two ton vehicle WHILE walking on it. Don't ask me to do this". What I say, however, is "I'm not sure that I can. I mean; I don't really have the right shoes for it but I'm willing to try if you think it will help."

"Let's do it!" he says.

Crap. Against my better judgment, I now proceed to open up the door of the van. Papers and plastic bags fall out onto the ground. Greg's not exactly the neatest person around. In fact, there's a metal box sitting awkwardly at a funny angle under my feet so I can't even sit in my chair straight. Because of all this, when I go to exit the truck, I am caught up in this avalanche of debris and, since this is the first time that I have ever exited his vehicle and am unsure of the distance to the ground (about a foot and a half), as soon as my slick bottomed shoes hit the ground, I slip and fall flat on my back and slide about two feet away. And there it is. My first "Epic Fall" of the night. It will not be my last; I am sure. I scramble back up into the cab (not gracefully at all) and shut the door again without even so much as an "I'm sorry about that but it doesn't look like I'm going to be able to help you after all." The gentleman in question politely looks the other way and pretends like nothing happened, and he moves on to another car to ask for help.

Greg asks if I'm okay and I'm pretty sure that I am. I used to practice falling a lot when I was a kid. I wanted to be a stuntman. I would sometimes climb up onto low roofs (about 8 to 10 feet off the ground), and I would jump off of them to practice "the stunt man roll." It was pretty impressive to my friends at the time, but I have often wondered if this might not be the reason that I had to have major back surgery at age 25. Anyway, suffice it to say that I am very good at falling without seriously hurting myself so I was fine despite completely wiping out on the road and risking a major concussion. Greg apologizes for not getting out and trying to go help himself, but he's just had surgery on his arm. He hurt himself moving a piece of furniture. Of all things, the doctor told him it was a severe case of "Tennis Elbow" and needed surgery. My ears perk up when he mentions the diagnosis, but he assures me that it's not from playing tennis. Oh well. At least now I have an excuse to include the story on my tennis blog. :)

By this time, the guy who tried to recruit me to help him push the stoppage out of the way has found a couple more recruits with some decent shoes. They were able to get the car moving and out of the way. Awesome! He and his compatriots head back to their vehicles excited at the prospect of advancing a couple hundred more feet. We were excited, too.

Now that the problem car has been cleared, the car behind it starts moving in the direction of the gap that was created. Unfortunately, this car is just as unable to move past the problem spot as that other car had been and spins to a stop, as well. This time, however, there is a gap on the other side of the car that makes it possible for the traffic two lanes over to trickle on through. As luck would have it, this lane includes all of the people who had helped move the first car out of the way. Great. We're still stuck, but all the pushers are free. Karma. Ugh.

8:15 P.M. Tired of watching the lead car spin his wheels in vain, Greg decides head up to the problem car and offer a little coaching as to how best to free themselves of their predicament. Exiting the truck very cautiously, Greg makes his way up the road to the stuck car giving several suggestions to the other driver - none of which seem to help. Eventually, he gives up advising and, with the help of a couple of other folks from nearby, gives the car just enough of a push to get it moving. It's now moving slowly but surely, and the way is becoming somewhat clear. Greg hurries (carefully) back to the van, climbs in, and off we go determinedly making our way up the hill until we hit the same perpetually problematic stretch of road and become stuck ourselves.

Unwilling to succumb to the same fate as the others, he spins and spins and spins, turning the wheel in every way imaginable. Spinning fast, spinning slow. Nothing works. As a matter of fact, it eventually gets us into an even more precarious situation. Putting the van in park now won't hold the van in place. It continues to slide backwards towards other nearby cars. Only by keeping the break depressed completely, can Greg keep us from sliding into our neighbors. Casting about for some idea of what to do next, he turns on the light in the back of the van and starts glancing around for something - anything - that might help us get a little traction. Spying two blankets in the back of the van, he says "Yes!" and then looks at me tentatively - almost apologetically - and I know exactly what he is thinking. Time to go ice skating.

As with most things, the second time around is never as bad as the first. I now know that it is a really long way down to the ground. I also know that I won't be able to jump the distance and keep my footing. I have also discovered that the handle that they put on the front of the window on big trucks like that really does have a purpose. Using this handle and the step that I discovered conveniently placed just under the cabin of the van (right where it should be, incidentally), I hit the ground far more securely this time than I did before. I still slip around a bit but, ultimately, I am able to stay erect. I am even able to make my way to the back of the van with some semblance of grace, maintaining my vertical positioning by leaning against the van. I open the back of the van and pull out the two blankets. I put one in front of each of the rear tires. Giving Greg the signal, he is off scrambling through the gap and continuing on slowly as I grab up the blankets, toss them into the passenger floorboard and climb back into the passenger seat full of hope and excitement. A minute and thirty seconds of blessed movement later we slide to a halt once again as we made it up to the next big knot of cars. This is where we will spend our next half hour or so.

9:15 P.M. My headache and nausea are back, and I have to pee something fierce. I decide that I can wait no longer. Our new location has a nearby stand of trees and several abandoned cars to block people's view of what I intend to do. Slipping and sliding across the road, I make my way off the Interstate and over to the trees. Once there, I melt a hole in the snow (you know how) and breath in some of the freshest air I had ever experienced. I was just far enough away from the other cars that the exhaust smell was not there. I probably stayed out there for a good 10 minutes just breathing in the smell of good, clean, untainted air. Once I get too cold and am shaking too much to stand, I clamber back over to the van and climb back in.

9:45 P.M. After being back in the van for 10 or 15 minutes and seeing very little movement, I notice a hefty bald man in the car in front of us clambering out of his small beat up Honda civic in a full three piece suit. This guy’s shoes and suit are far more formal (and inappropriate for the environment) than my business casual clothes and shoes. He is bald, as am I, and he is a good bit heftier than me. He's was a lot like me; actually, only he is much worse off. What is this guy going to try to do? Slipping and sliding, he makes his way up past several cars and a tractor trailer to a shiny Pickup Truck (yes, one of those shiny pickup trucks) that is stuck in front of everyone else and starts pushing it. Barely able to keep his footing, He moves backwards down the ice more than the truck moves forwards. I watch this dance of his for a moment or two before I finally wake up and realize that if this guy could do all this in what he is wearing then surely I can, too. I exit the Van to Greg's encouragement and slowly make my way up to the truck. By this time, another gentleman has joined in the cause. We push and push and push, but the truck just won't get any traction. Remembering the blankets, I slide back to the back of the van, retrieve the blankets, and return to the truck placing one in front of each drive wheel. The driver gives the truck gas, and it grabs onto the blankets happily and begins to move forward. I grab the blankets, run back and get in the van, and we start forward. Things are moving forward nicely, now. We were going a steady 1-2 miles an hour. Mr. three piece suit is now gone as is the other pusher. Several lanes of cars have begun to move now and will continue to do so right up to the point where the shiny truck passes between two stalled vehicle and stops again. Encouraged by my earlier success, I carefully clambered out of the van, retrieved the blankets and run back up to the Shiny truck. The blankets get the truck moving for 5-6 feet and then it spins to a stop again. I replace the blankets and then another 5-6 feet pass by and then it stops again. I have no idea how long I keep this up, but I must do it 10 or 11 times, all the while looking back at our van as it struggles to keep moving in our wake. By the time Shiny truck is moving without stopping, it is a good 100 feet ahead of the van, so I make my way back to the stopped van with the blankets. Placing them under the van's wheels, I repeat my exercise a few more times with the van until it, too, is moving along consistently. Now, though, there is another problem. One of the things that we have learned is that once you start moving, you need to go as far as possible before you stop. It is far easier to keep moving than it is to start moving. Greg knows this, and so do I. This causes us a bit of a problem. Once the van is going steadily, how will I get back in? If he were to stop the van to let me back in it might be stopped for good. For this reason, once the van is moving, I pick up the blankets and walk behind it silently praying that Greg won't stop to wait for me. All the while, he keeps going feeling guilty about not stopping. In the end, he and I are both on the same page. He is looking eagerly for the top of the hill, and I am, too. After 100-150 yards of walking, jogging, and sliding, the van has finally made it to the top of the hill, and I am able to catch up with it, fling open the door and jump back in without it having to stop at all.

Cars Spinning Out and Backing Up

10:15 P.M. And just like that, we're through. It's like our entire world has changed. My headache and nausea are gone. We are no longer deadlocked on a jam packed toxic six lane interstate with thousands of our closest friends. We are now in the single sanded lane of a three lane road with only a few cars visible in front of or behind of us. We are moving along at a steady 15-25 mile per hour without any resistance. Greg and I are both too scared to say anything for fear that we will jinx it and find ourselves once again grinding to a halt. As we ride through this, the greatest and best of all roads, we are able to finally look over at the northbound three lanes of traffic. They are even worse off than we had been. Where we were grid locked with one or two spinning cars blocking things up, they are completely blocked off with Tractor trailers angled diagonally across the road in multiple places. For nearly three miles, we see nothing but cars sitting still full of cold stranded people. They look nothing like we looked hours earlier. We all had our engines running with our lights on waiting for the break that would allow to pass. Somehow, though, these people have all received word that their plight is hopeless. Their headlights are off. Some cars are running; some are not. Some have their parking lights on, some do not. They make up a vast wasteland of cars with seemingly no hope of reaching their destination. It is a sobering sight. We pass a tiny six person municipal bus that has pulled up with a big ladder over the center wall to evacuate the sick and elderly. I am thankful to have hooked up with Greg and to be on the "right" side of the interstate. I feel as if I am home free although I still didn't know where my home actually will be for the night.

Greg and his wife Susan live in the town of Riverchase in a really nice 2 bedroom condo right near Susan's place of work. Knowing how unpredictable traffic is and having heard about all the road closures farther south in my community, I know that there is no way that I am going to make it home for the night. Greg knows this, as well, and feels really bad about it. He has graciously offered me (a stranger, remember) the use of their guest bedroom and I, very thankfully, have accepted. We are now moving along the interstate unimpeded. There is no traffic of any significance all the way down to his house. We only had one more stop to make. We still have to rescue his wife.

10:45 P.M. Greg's wife works for one of the state's largest employers, and their building is only a few miles from their condo. Driving as far as we can over dangerous hills and past numerous disabled, wrecked, and/or abandoned vehicles; we finally stop at an office building not far from Susan's employer. She has been there all day and night and is more than ready to go home. She has been playing cards and eating vending machine junk food and is now trying to sleep on a conference table. I stay with the van while Greg walks over hills and through snow covered forests to her building to get her. He is gone for maybe a half hour or so during which time I sit, dozing occasionally, awaiting their return. While they are gone, another guy with a flatbed trailer loaded with stuff pulls up and gets wedged in with us trying to get to a hotel in north Birmingham. The hotels all over town were sold out by noon as folks did their best to secure a warm place to stay. He already has one reserved, he says. I don't tell him that I'm sure his room is gone by now, but I do tell him about the condition of the roads and that his chances of getting there are almost zero. He is still determined to give it a try, however, so I wish him luck, and he is on his way. As Greg and Susan have returned, we are now on our way, as well. Greg's cargo van only has two available seats - both are up front with a cage door separating the cabin area from the cargo area in the back. I insist that Susan take the passenger seat next to Greg, and I climb into the cargo area in the back. Now, as you may remember, Greg isn't a very tidy guy and the back of his van is a minefield of partially spent paint cans, buckets of nails and screws and large wood and metal pieces in varying states of disarray. As I climb up into the darkened cargo area, I hear a loud pop. I apparently just stepped on a light bulb. Great. Now there is glass all over the floor, too. Oh boy. Thank heavens we are almost home.

11:30 P.M. We are within a mile of Greg and Susan's condo now, and we are really surprised at how far we have gotten. As we approach one especially high and icy hill, I heard Greg say, "Hold on" and I began to pray. This hill is not just your normal icy hill. No, this icy hill is unusually steep, has an abandoned car taking up half of the road half way up and has a gradual curve at the top that makes it impossible what's on the downhill side of the hill until you are on your way down it. We aren't able to make it up the hill. Greg tries and tries and tries again with no luck. The truck finally spins out a final time, sliding back partway down the hill, jumping up on the curb with one of its back tires and flipping around in a tight arc, coming to rest at a frightfully disconcerting tilt. Half-standing in the back of the spinning van, all I can think about is how I need to go limp when we flip over and how I hope that my only injuries will be superficial caused by glass shards, tacks, and nails. Luckily, I don't end up with any injuries at all (thank you, Lord). Because a single back tire jumped up over the curb as we spun around, it has anchored us in place and kept us from sliding any further down the hill or flipping over. The van slides to a standstill, and we sit there completely still for a few seconds trying to take in everything that has happened. Stumbling out of the van, we leave it where it sits and wearily walk the last quarter of a mile thankful to finally be somewhere we don't have to worry about Carbon Monoxide poisoning.

12:20 A.M. Wednesday, January 29th. A Cozy condo left over spaghetti, and two gracious hosts who go completely out of their way for someone they don't even know. They go so far as to offer to throw together an impromptu salad to go with supper. I thank them profusely, eat my supper, and close my exhausted eyes. What a day.

7:26 A.M. I wish that I could say that I slept like a rock all night long, but I didn't. I did sleep like a rock until about 3:30 AM. From that point on, though, I jerked awake about every half hour. I'm not sure if it is because I don't know where I am or because I am afraid that daylight will come without my knowledge, and I won't be up to help Greg with the Van. For whatever reason, I have a fitful night sleep. For Greg, it is even worse; he keeps waking up all night long with nightmares of the van spinning out of control and him helpless to regain control. I feel bad for Greg but also thankful that I didn't have to drive. Once again the gracious hosts, Greg and Susan offer me a robust breakfast that I respectfully decline in favor of a granola bar and a banana. I'm really not much of a breakfast eater anyway, and I don't want to spend too much time doing something like eating right now. I am worried about my family and eager to get back to them. Greg loans me a pair of jeans, a long sleeve shirt, and a pair of real shoes with real tread - Awesome! Okay, so the tread on the shoes is a little on the light side of the spectrum, and they are a full inch too small for my foot but hey, beggars can't be choosers. We leave the house to go take a look at the final resting place of Greg's van. As it happens, the van ended up in an exactly perpendicular position across the road with one wheel over the curb locking it firmly in place. There is no way we are going to move it ourselves. As a matter of fact, even if we could move it, we would probably end up smashing into the abandoned car from the night before which, as it turns out, is a mere six inches away from us. How we missed hitting it last night, I'll never know.

Greg calls a wrecker service to inquire about getting someone out there to pull the van free so that he can park it somewhere out of the way. With every major road in the Birmingham Metropolitan area frozen over and covered with wrecks, however, there doesn't seem to be much hope of freeing it up anytime soon. Greg is sore and hurting a good bit and is still tired from lack of rest. His plan for the day is to take care of the van (somehow) and then head back to the house to spend the day resting and checking on family. He says that I am more than welcome to continue to stay with them until the roads were passable again. He wants to try to get out and take me home but, the roads are still really bad off and, honestly, I don't want him to try it. I am concerned that he might end up getting me home but then get stuck himself and I would feel terrible about that. For this reason, I decide to try to walk the remaining 12 to 15 miles home. We have already met one guy who said that he walked 11 miles from near my house up the interstate to where Greg lives last night in just under two hours. I didn't think that there was any way that he could have actually walked that far in temperatures in the single digits in that amount of time, but; nevertheless, I was encouraged to know that it was possible to make it that far on foot in any amount of time and I determined to give it a try, myself.

Riverchase At Dusk

8:35 A.M. Saying goodbye to Greg and thanking him for all his hospitality, I head out on my way. Pretty quickly I discover that I need to stay off the roads as much as possible. They are completely covered in ice - slippery and difficult to navigate. The part of town where Greg lives, Riverchase, has lots of intersecting roads which, for me, means that I'm going to have to cross over asphalt far more than I like. I slip and I slide but somehow I keep my balance. Thank heavens for the shoes that Greg loaned me. Without them, I would be in a world of hurt. There's no telling how many times I would hit the ground with my work shoes on. Gradually I begin to make my way down the 15 mile stretch that will take me home. As with all things, it helps to break big goals up into a series of smaller, more easily achievable objectives. My first objective is to get the supplies that I need for my trek: Shoes with more substantial tread (and preferably not an inch too small), some kind of food, water, and a backpack to carry it all in. Lucky for me, I will pass by everyone’s favorite general store, Wal-Mart, in about two miles. I'm pretty sure that it'll be open because most of the Wal-Mart stores in the area were open all night last night sheltering the displaced and stranded. Say what you want about Wal-Mart but they really do step it up during times of crisis. The stories of the way they led relief efforts during Katrina were really impressive. While this disaster isn't anything like Katrina, it is nice to see that they care for our community like they cared for the people of the gulf.

9:25 A.M. As I slip and slide down the driveway into the Wal-Mart parking lot, I am glad to see cars in the parking lot. That's a good sign. As a matter of fact, there are a good many cars on the road in general. The roads are still icy, but most of them have at least one lane sanded, so traffic is able to move along pretty well. Abandoned cars are everywhere, but most of them seem to have been either piled up in the median or pushed off to the side of the road. It's a really strange sight to see hundreds, maybe thousands of cars of all makes and models side by side. A BMW will be wedged right in-between a Ford Pickup and a Hyundai. Natural disasters, unlike so many aspects of our daily lives, are no respecter of class.

I walk through the doors of Wal-Mart and am momentarily shaken by the incongruity of what I see. Outside is a world rocked by disaster. Very little traffic is on the road; overturned cars are everywhere, and lots of people are out walking through a city normally hostile to foot traffic. Inside those doors, however, I hear the calm, serene music of Wal-Mart. The aisles are clear and clean. Everything is in its place. It seems like nothing at all has happened. There aren't many people about, of course, but those that are milling around looking for this, looking for that, just like normal. It just seems wrong. I want to walk up to people and say "What's wrong with you? Do you realize what's going on out there?" but I don't, of course. I feel like this is one of those scenes in the movies where a mom is calmly picking out which cereal to buy when a Zombie horde unexpectedly rounds the corner and buries her just before the scene change. But, of course, no Zombie horde appears. Thankfully.

I gather up all the things that I think I need: A few bottles of water, some snacks, a correctly sized pair of hiking boots, warm socks, a pair of shoe inserts to deal with the Plantar Fasciitis that I've been suffering with for the past few months, gloves, a backpack, and a walking stick. More than I need. I proceed to the checkout also getting a little cash and sticking it in a separate pocket from my wallet. After all, who knows when the looting might start? I walk outside, and it's like flipping a switch. Just that quickly, I'm back to reality - An icy parking lot with dirty cars here and there in funny positions along with rows of driverless cars lining the road in the distance. It actually feels better out here. It was a little too spooky in there. I might have seen too many movies.

On the curb outside Wal-Mart, I am putting all of my supplies together, changing shoes and socks, replacing the shoe's insoles with the corrective ones, packing the backpack with snacks, water, and the shoes that Greg loaned me. I'll have to return those, of course, once sanity returns to the world. I start back out on my trek. First order of business, figure out how to get out of this icy parking lot...

10:45 A.M. I'm really tired of slipping and sliding. Here I need to cross another driveway. This one's really steep. Should I cross it down here where it's drier or up there it's flatter? Flatter is probably better, but that's really close to where the traffic is...

"Hard to tell where to cross, huh," a voice startles me.

I didn't realize anyone else was nearby. A guy in his early fifties has come up behind me. He's a pretty good-looking distinguished guy with greying salt and pepper hair. As it turns out, his name is Terry, and he's from New York. He's here on business. He tells me that he's an IT manager with a local Oil Change chain. I know that chain, and I really don't remember ever seeing a computer in there but they recently merged with a regional auto-repair chain so maybe there's some integration work going on. How much IT do they really need to change my oil or replace my fuel pump, I wonder. I wonder, but I don't ask. As it turns out, Terry's just made sure the last of the employees at the closest branch have arranged for transportation home. They were stuck there all night and are ready to get home to their families. I know the feeling. Terry's a really smart guy and he's seen me struggling to walk on the ice.

"The trick is to scuff your feet," he offers.

"What's that," I ask.

"Scuff your feet," he says. "If you scuff your feet when you walk, you won't slip."

"Wow," I say. "Thanks, I'll give that a try." And with that, he is gone.

I'm skeptical at first. The technique he showed me feels really awkward initially but once I've done it a little few times and started to get used to how it feels, it really does work pretty well. Scuffing your feet can break up the ice or, if the ice is too frozen then, at least, your feet keep in contact with the ice, so you don't have that momentary uncertainty when your foot comes down. It's really cool how much better it works. Thanks Terry.

Snowy Traffic on Highway 280

11:30 A.M. I'm made it 3 or 4 miles down the road now (tough to tell exactly how far on foot). I'm now walking through Pelham. This is where I play tennis. as a matter of fact, I'm just up the street from the tennis courts. I'm wondering if I should walk by them. What if there's someone there who can give me a ride? Silly me. Nobody's going to be at the tennis courts. What about all of the people that I play with? Certainly some of them ought to be out and about. For the next few moments, I look intently at the passengers in the cars as they pass by looking for a familiar face. I don't see any. Most of the faces I see are either scared or nervous or both, intent on keeping their vehicles under control and not paying any attention to those of us walking on the side of the road.

I should probably throw my thumb out and see if I can get someone to give me a ride. Hitchhiking is not something I've ever done before. For starters, I've always had transportation available but beyond that, I'm really terrible at asking for help. If you'll remember, I didn't even ask Greg for a ride. I was planning on going to the gas station nearby and just waiting it out. But Greg offered, so I accepted. I can accept help; I just have lots of trouble asking for it. Part of my problem comes from being an introvert. The other part of it is my strong sense of self sufficiency. The last thing I want to do is inconvenience someone else. If there's any way that I can do it myself, then I will. I'm fairly healthy, and I CAN walk the rest of the way home so I don't necessarily HAVE to have help getting there, right? But I am worried about my wife and son. I really don't want her to get out on these roads and trying to drive. If I can just throw out my thumb and get a ride then maybe I can get there in time to drive her home. Wait a minute, there's my phone. Oh, it's Greg. "Hey Greg...Yeah, things are going well...I stopped by Wal-Mart, got some food and water, and I'm now walking through Pelham making good time...What? No, no one's stopped yet but I've not really stuck my thumb out yet or anything...Yeah, I will...I'm sure someone will stop...Yeah, I'll let you know when I get there...Thanks, Greg." Okay, so it seems like God is telling me something. Time to throw out the thumb...

11:50 A.M. So, I did it. I threw out the thumb, and it didn't work. Maybe a dozen cars have come by. Most of them were single women or families or teenagers. None of them looked capable enough or confident enough to offer help. No problem. I don't want to be a burden, after all. And I will get there walking eventually. One thing that I am being careful about is where I am standing as the cars drive by. Since the roads are still icy, I know that it's possible for passing cars to lose control and come sliding off the road toward me, so I'm being careful to watch as they approach. One vehicle, however, just snuck up on me. And it snuck up really close. This one isn't over on the sanded lane in the middle but has come all the way over onto the shoulder where I'm walking - a mere six to eight inches away. That's bad, because the shoulder drops off really steeply, and I'm doing my best to stay right on the edge of it. I really don't want to slip. I'm thinking really unkind thoughts about this vehicle. It pulls to a stop, and this little kid - maybe 5 or 6 years old - leans his head out the window and asks, "Mister, you wanna ride?"

12:00 P.M. So, I'm in the car with a guy named Justin and his son, Lance. Justin is, maybe, in his late 30's and is driving a 4 wheel drive SUV that he's custom modified for recreational purposes. He's attached an external tachometer to the dashboard and has heavily customized the suspension so that it has maximum gripping ability. "The suspension's the key," he says. "I love this!"

Justin had the car in pieces when the storm hit, so he stayed up all night putting it back together and getting it ready for today. He's spent all morning driving around on the ice looking for people in need of help. He's taken people to work, to the grocery store, to a relative's house to check on the heat, and taken more than a few people home when they were stranded. I would be another one of those. I tell him to drop me off a mile or two from home on the main road, but he insists on taking me all the way home.

"I'm afraid the roads will be impassable," I say.

"We'll see," he says. "You'd be surprised what this thing can do."

"Yeah, this thing can go over anything without getting stuck," Lance chimes in.

"Well, don't Jinx us, Lance," Justin warns. "I suspect we'll be fine, but you never know."

"Okay, Dad."

A Lonely Snowy Road with an Overturned Car

12:30 P.M. I'm home. Lance was right. My neighborhood, no matter how hilly, was nothing Justin's customized 4x4 couldn't handle. I'm home and Mitzi's on her way, too. Justin offered to head over and pick her up but, by the time I got her on the phone, she was half way home. So, it's over. Well, it's almost over, anyway.

As I sit down now, I think about my journey and the people I met along the way. I am struck by the amount of providence involved in the whole experience. Final totals say that the city only received about 2 inches of snow on Tuesday, but those two inches fell so fast and so unexpectedly and the temperatures dropped so quickly that every road in town turned instantly to ice and left our fair city littered with danger in a matter of hours. It would be two days before all of the children were picked up from all of the schools around town. Teachers and administrators would stay on site the entire time. Many people who went to pick their children up from day care found the numbers of kids left there in the dozens with only one or two workers still on premises. In many cases, they stayed overnight to help out. Local colleges will continue to be closed for the next several days, but many of the staff will decide to stay around to help out the other staff, students, and strangers who remain there, stranded. Network engineers work the cafeteria. Provosts walked down the street to get pizza, and everyone shared their Netflix password without a second thought. Miraculously, only 5 people died on the roads in Birmingham on Tuesday night but many more were injured.

Free Coffee: A Sign of Civilization

My journey included many memories, most notably Greg, Susan, Terry, Justin, and Lance. All tiny points of light in a constellation of stars far too numerous to notice under normal conditions but much more radiant, up close, than I ever imagined. How hectic is my life that I speed past these people on the Interstate every day and every night never giving them a second thought? When needed, however, they were there both for me and for so many others saying things like "Need a ride?", "Scuff your feet," and "I love this!" It is such a humbling thing. So many people from so many different walks of life all thrown together by fate or, perhaps, by something greater. Thank you, Lord, for this experience. I am so thankful to have had it and to have been provided for and taken care of by such kind and thoughtful people. I am safe; my family is safe, and my world is a far more beautiful place than I realized. Selah.

Comments (2) -

Christy Christy says:

What an awesome post, Clif. The length was nothing. You had me at "My car just died." I haven't had something to this scale happen to me, but there were a lot of aspects to your story that I could relate to (battery dying, forced to walk through ice/snow, etc). Plus, I was on the edge of my seat to read about what would happen next - it was just like a movie. I loved each new "character," and I loved your observations on life during the crisis. I'm so glad the good in people got to be highlighted during an extremely trying time. Smile

Clif Render Clif Render says:

Awww, thanks Christy, your encouragement is much appreciated! I'm amazed that you were able to read all the way through. There were lots of parts that I probably should have edited out but I just couldn't bring myself to do so. It was an amazing adventure and I wouldn't trade it for the world.

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