By now, my story is not only one in a huge anthology of the Epic Snow Disaster of Atlanta 2014 (my title), it is actually seeming quite mild compared to the ones of people camping out in drug stores and Home Depots, sleeping in their cars, running out of gas, and giving birth on the side of the perimeter highway I-285. While my experience might pale in comparison to other dangerous horror stories coming out, it was by no means less traumatic or valid an experience, and it must be documented. In case you're wondering, after five hours in your car and only a couple miles' into a 22-mile commute, you are feeling all the same emotions as the guy next to you. Whether your journey takes 5 or 10 or 15 or even 25 hours at that point makes no difference. I'm calling mine a "mental metamorphosis," because that is the only way I can describe the course of my day, me and my automobile, alone together for that many hours, watching everyone go crazy around me, spinning out and spinning around across sheets of raw, treacherous, menacing ice. Just after my eighth hour in the car, still miles from home, I realized the progression, and noted the various phases of my mental state during disaster. It went like this.
Cool, there's snow outside my office window! *Walks outside, takes pictures of dusting. Returns to office and drinks cup of hot chocolate.*
Annoyed. 12:30 - 2:00. This started everything off, as I was feeling excited to have a surprise half-day, which turned quickly into a surprise insane commute day (thanks to Shellie Haskins for perfectly phrasing the initial reaction). Ugh, I get this half day, and I'm not even going to be able to take advantage of it. It took me ninety minutes to get to the I-75 southbound ramp from KSU's campus, which is literally right next to the ramp. I cannot even describe or fathom how this is ACTUALLY possible, except to say that I spent the whole time idled on Frey Road. I most certainly could have walked at least three times this speed. It's now been beaten to a pulp, but everyone evacuating at the same time was a terrible, truly catastrophic event that created the larger event in store for all of us. There were two cars in one of the two lanes of Frey Road facing the wrong direction, both abandoned. Perhaps that had something to do with it. No police, except the ones directing traffic. It was not a day to call 911. (I'm not faulting the police, just saying that people can't resolve the scene of an accident by themselves, so the scenes remain, are abandoned, cause more havoc. That's the progression of things.)
Scared. 2:00 - 2:30. After I got to I-75 southbound, I started to actually get scared that I might not have enough gas, as I had 3/8 of a tank, but spent an hour just trying to get one exit down on the interstate. So I got off and navigated through the parking lot that was Barrett Parkway (more than it normally is!) and filled up my tank. I was actually surprised to find an open pump and find that it still had gas. But quickly feared leaving the place, as the parking lot was madness and cars were sliding down and up and back down the hill with the entrance. This is bad, I'm nowhere near home. I walked inside to pee and get snacks, afraid to leave my car in that madhouse parking lot, but sure as hell not going to try to move it away from the pump just to park and walk inside. But panic struck again when I saw how long the line was to the bathroom. Quickly resorted my priorities, knowing I had two slices of wheat bread in the car, I would only have time to use the restroom and would have to hightail it out of there before it got any crazier. There was a definite end-of-days desperation and chaos going around in everyone's conversations, people stranded here or there, walking to their cousin's or to somewhere they had managed to get a hotel room. Hotels were already booked solid, and this is when I first heard that students in Cherokee County Schools would be staying overnight at the school, unless parents could get to them (doubtful if you looked out the window), because the buses wouldn't be able to traverse the roads. Honestly, that is the safest decision they could have made in the situation. But the Hispanic mother in front of me was panicked. Keep in mind that this was hours before the State Of Emergency was declared, and our city and state leaders would, the next day, claim that things only began to get really bad after 5:00 or 6:00 PM. We would hear plenty of tales of students who had gotten on buses and were stranded out on the roads with the rest of us into the night.
Thankful. I made it out of the gas station lot, onto the Barrett artery, and onto I-75. By now, I was no longer annoyed at losing my day, and just thankful that I had a full tank of gas and as long as traffic was slow or stopped, I wouldn't be in much danger or wrecks, by my doing or another's. Slow and steady. That quickly turned into stopped and stalled. The lanes were entirely masked now, so people began forming lanes where they thought they might be, including on the two shoulders. This annoyed me to no end, because if an emergency vehicle did have to get by to aid what was clearly a billion accidents ahead that had us all stopped, there would be no way to do it. Has everyone lost it? Obviously. I ate my two slices of bread in a quick frenzy, realizing it was long past lunchtime, thankful I had grabbed them. My original thought had been that I would stop lazily by the grocery store for egg salad to accompany said bread, back in the normalcy of my office. What a stupid, stupid notion. There was no time for grocery stores anyway now, and certainly they had all shut down too, and sent their employees out here to join me. I wonder if any of them have egg salad?
Complacent. I listened to my audiobook, the fittingly apocalyptic 1000-page epic The Stand, which is a 47-hour audiobook. And sat in my car in traffic on the interstate, waiting for something to give.
Content. Around 3:30, after I was over the character's woes in The Stand, I propped my iPhone up against the edge of the dashboard and watched the full hour-long episode of True Detective that aired Sunday. I enjoyed it even more the second time through. I was stuck behind a truck that hadn't moved in half an hour.
[There are no lanes!!!!]
Angry. 5:30 or so. Expletives and banging the steering wheel phase. I realized that the truck I was behind, blocking any chance for a larger perspective of what was going on, wasn't moving either because he was stuck, or he was stuck because he was too near behind two other semi trucks that were stuck. I yelled and screamed and roared. I only ever roar when I am alone in my car and angry, because it is a pathetic thing probably. I bang my hands on the steering wheel. This is what I did as I pulled out from behind the truck. Lanes were long gone by this point, and we all just drove around the interstate like tiny players in video games, speeding past obstacles in the road. More accurately though, we crawled past obstacles. This was literally like I was in a video game. It required driving skill against the ice while we also snaked through, one singular car at a time, around the jackknifed trucks that seemed to stall in clusters. Throughout the day there would be three spots where we were bottlenecked by jackknifed trucks blocking multiple lanes, and they were always in pairs or trios.
Then it also got dark. Oh, shit. Excuse me. But that's all I could think.
Below is a picture I shot of the second set of jackknifed trucks blocking all the lanes. Cars on the right, you can see, are turned off and have been abandoned, blocking the shoulder or rightmost lanes for passage as well. So we drove, single file, through the slot in between the big rigs.
Terrified. What I wasn't expecting each time we got through these tiny passages was the absolute solitude of road afterward. You and couple other cars, spaced well apart, gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles. Because now you can go as fast as you want. There are no lanes and no cars and certainly no law enforcement. But there's also no one to help you if you flip, careen, spin yourself into a rut, injure yourself or your car at all. Proceed at your own risk. Every muscle in my body was tensed, my left foot pressing as hard as it could into the floor to calm the rest of myself as I drove, concentrating hard on my slow, even acceleration and braking.
(No lanes. True video game style. That's just a sheet of slick, thick, totally untreated ice. This picture is INTERSTATE 75. All six-odd lanes. Insane to me.)
Confident. When I navigated the inclines and declines like a total pro, it was exhilarating. This phase was a short-lived one in between and immediately following each terrified phase.
Terrified. Yep, back to that. Just keep driving, steady steady. It was around this point that I watched a car fifty yards in front of me do an entire 360 turn after losing traction. They came to a stop in their fancy Infinity ahead of me, then slowly pulled over to the left shoulder/lane/part-of-road-no-longer-distinguishable. I was getting very comfortable with the terrifying situation of witnessing cars lose their traction and spin furiously. I yelled vehemently at them inside my car. THAT IS NOT HOW YOU FIX THIS HAVEN'T YOU EVER DRIVEN ON ICE EVER ONCE IN YOUR LIFE OR HASN'T SOMEONE EVER TOLD YOU HOW IT WORKS? SLOWSLOWSLOWSLOW. Easy on the gas, easy on the brakes. The downhills, they are still filling me with terror. But I do every single one like a pro.
Tired. I joked to myself that at least if I was still in my car tonight NPR would be airing the State of the Union Address. (By the time it actually did air, I was certainly still in my car but far too delirious and strung out and exhausted to care what the president said.) I'd seen one of those electronic signs that said that ALL LANES were BLOCKED at West Paces Ferry, so I got off, thinking I would take 41/Northside just for a mile or so and bypass it. An hour and a half later, after watching half a dozen cars struggle, fail, and slide back down the small hill I hadn't even recalled on Northside, I turned around too and was back at the exact same exit I had gotten off at before. There were a number of phases included in this smaller highway period, which was probably between 6:00 and 8:00 or so.
Excited. I'm going to go around this! Oh wait, definitely not. A random guy heading the other way that helped a girl turn her car back around after it was clear she wasn't making it up the hill rolled his window down at my expression and said "It's really bad that way. Don't go if you have any other option." Cars were parked by the dozens all along the sides, too. Pretty much at every phase in this story, that is a fact, a sideline decoration.
Resentful. Starting to fume at those who failed us. This is when I start to blame. If they had closed the university a mere two hours before they did (they notified staff and faculty around 10 AM) that the university would be closing, I would have just stayed at home to begin with. Never would have left, or would have at least turned straight back around again. I hadn't yet seen one salt truck or sand truck, even though weeks before, just for some extra cold, I had seen sand laid on the surface streets of my city. Where was all this preparedness we supposedly had after the last time we had a "Snowpocolypse" in 2011?!!?#$)(#$%*(@#)&*&*($*&()$%(#*%& That was this phase. Resentful to everything that had landed me right here in this logjam on the side of the interstate, seven hours after i'd begun my journey home.
[Below: Hmm, I haven't seen the Icy Mix yet but I'll keep my eye out...]
The Irish Music Phase. Giving in. Perhaps, delirious. The highlight of being stranded on Highway 41, by this point deciding I would turn around again and head back toward the scary interstate I'd just left, began my Irish music phase. I am most thankful for iTunes Radio, which has a killer Celtic channel. It was just the mood booster I needed, to get me out of the actual mood I was in, the I Want To Take A Nap Here On The Side Of The Road phase. Actually, the next day, I saw photos of people sleeping in the aisles of the CVS right by there, West Paces Ferry and I-75. In fact, whole reason I had gotten off the interstate was because right at that point in the highway, there was another cluster of stalled, jackknifed, or otherwise traffic-blocking vehicles and trucks. So at least, by getting back on the interstate on the on-ramp there avoided me going through that. It did cost me almost two hours of my life though...
Defeated. Yes, by this point it was getting pretty hard to feel encouraged or keep up the energy. Hunger sets in deep. At least if you don't drink anything, you also don't have to relieve yourself on the side of highway. In the real apocalypse people might stop caring about decency. But see, we're all going to have to face each other next week when it's 60 degrees out. Do not be fooled by this state of chaos. Do not leave your car on the side of the road, Jessie. Commandment to self. By now, stories are all over my Facebook of people just abandoning them and walking the last miles to their houses. All I can think of is, how is anyone going to be able to fix the roads later if we're all littering our cars on them? Also, WHO is going to DRIVE me back a few days later? I won't send Ben out in this because I gave up. I will not be defeated...
Exhaustion. When you stick with it past the defeated phase, it's just exhaustion. I guess by this time the president was talking but I could not concern myself with matters of governance when the ones protecting me and fellow Georgians were failing so grandly right before my eyes. All the previous emotions are still in there somewhere, especially resent. The most basic purpose of government is to keep citizens safe, right? I have now been endangered going on nine or ten hours -- who even knows now? -- along with thousands of others. My car and body are healthy, but what if they weren't? You do see how fragile it all is. No one could help anyway. In The Stand, hours earlier, I listened while a small group tried to perform emergency surgery on one of their own, who survived the Superflu that ended civilization but then had an appendix attack in the weeks after. He dies in the middle of surgery. But, as they point out to each other, he was certainly going to die anyway. They tried. I thought again how I might have stopped and bought some beer or liquor, because not a damn soul would have been there to tsk-tsk me for drinking in my car in the middle of this mess. My friend Katie said via text that reports were saying 911 was useless, they wouldn't answer even if you called. So just don't call. This reminds me of a very particular part in The Stand, as the survivors who have not yet gotten sick realize the responders they depend on are stuck in the same thing. EMTs and police officers and firefighters get the Superflu too. Those same responders are stuck in the same gridlock as me. We're on our own, citizens.
Stuck. Stuck. Stuck. This is the Rite Of Passage Certain Failure Ice Hill of Interstate 75-Southbound at North Avenue. Turns out the reason I have been idling under the 17th Street bridge for over an hour isn't because of all the GDOT trucks salting the road or freeing stuck trucks. It's just because we're all faced with this particular little stretch of the interstate where you slide and spin and slide and collide until you make it through the patch, or you block everyone while you fail. There is nowhere to go and no one to help, so you may as well just keep on turning your wheel, accelerating slowly, inching up. This is where, for the first time all night, I lose my traction and start spinning. But it is the most insane thing I've ever seen, where pickup trucks and school buses and semi trucks and trucks pulling open trailers full of stacked up, ramshackle rocking chairs (yes, there were two of them, traveling together) all slid around on the ice together, just trying to surmount this one single little patch of road. I was less than a mile from my exit. And less than two miles from home. It was after 10:30. I'm in L gear (which I assume is 1 on my little Scion) and I'm trying, trying, trying. People are honking, people are angry, people are pushing one another up the stretch. I think well over 1000 accidents were reported. But I'm telling you, if I had hit anything, I would have said, "screw it." There was no way I would have waited for the police or anything. I would have just kept driving. Like everyone else.
I took this picture of one helping another up at the very peak of the bad patch, when I was spinning myself. The only thing to do was keep trying, because the alternative was creating even more of a blockade to those behind us. Nowhere to go but forward, slowly, in mayhem.
20 MPH! I make it up, I regain my traction, I haven't collided with anyone! It's all downhill now, towards the North Avenue exit and finally, to my exit, Williams Street/Georgia Dome/Downtown. I take it at my fastest speed all day, about 20 mph, and even the hilly Ivan Allen Boulevard doesn't phase me, because as long as I can maintain my speed without disabled cars ahead of me, I got this. I drive the mile to our building with ease, and slide into my designated parking spot inside the lot.
Relief. Joy. Overwhelming tears. I stand up for the first time since 2:30 when I was in line for the restroom at the gas station. My legs feel the fire of blood again, of motion. It feels otherworldly. I am instantly crying. By the time I'm in the elevator I'm sobbing. I fall into Ben in the kitchen, he hugs me there. I open a beer. We eat taquitos, scrapping the scheduled red curry that would involve exertion beyond pressing a button on the microwave. He was sweet and waited in solidarity for me to get home before eating dinner. Four taquitos each. I was home almost exactly at 11:00, 10.5 hours after I'd begun the 22-mile drive.
[Below: Atlanta Tuesday Jan. 28 compared to the iconic Walking Dead image of the city after the zombie apocalypse. Image via Reddit.]
That was Tuesday, January 28, 2014. Since then, I have not inched anywhere near my car for 36 hours now. It is now Thursday morning, and hundreds of stories have been shared. Truck drivers who've spent decades traversing the country who say they'd never experienced anything like this, not in any state or storm, not ever. If I have any say, I won't be going anywhere today either. KSU (my employer) has been closed yesterday and today, thankfully, because I most certainly would have taken yesterday as a sick day, to recover from the mental and emotional and physical trauma, and I'm thankful for today too. Yesterday it was all national news coverage about this, and there were many stories more severe and desperate than mine. But this one still matters. It was awful. It was failure. It was not organized. It was pure chaos.
So I'm interested to see what it's like when I do go back out. Not because I'm concerned about road conditions, I expect those are shaping up to be ok by now. No, it's because my relationship with these roads has changed. There is no way you can spend an hour under the 17th Street bridge waiting to approach the Rite Of Passage Certain Failure Ice Hill of Interstate 75-Southbound at North Avenue and then get to it, having never lost your traction yet that day, spin out at least 40 times as you accelerate slowly, shifting your wheels and your steering wheel, sliding backward, sliding right and left towards other cars as they try to pass you too, and finally, pass through it, without significantly altering your perception of that road forever. Was it even an incline? I'd never considered it before. Once you've seen the Howell Mill Road exit littered with abandoned cars, several facing exactly backward towards you, each an additional barrier to your passage, you can never unsee this. It was as I imagine an apocalyptic event. But one in which actually we're all going to have to get our cars back after, false alarm guys, so it's really not the same kind of reckless abandon people might feel in an actual end-of-world event. Oh, you mean I can't just ram my car into everything and then leave it to die there, as I set out to find a small community with which I can start afresh? Damn...
I am so thankful I was able to get my car home with me that night, and that it incurred no damage. There were many times I considered all the cars flailing around on the road, times the sheer number of miles I had to travel, and thought there was absolutely no way I would get through this without some collision. It seemed inevitable. I am quite proud of my slow accelerating and deceleration, something I've shied from many times visiting my hard-ass brethren up in Northern Michigan. It's the downhill that scares me the most. I let the sheer panic stay in my tense limbs, but drove to success better than I expected of myself.
But I cannot unsee the roads the way I saw them. Absolutely lawless. Why not make two new lanes on the two shoulders? This isn't an emergency type situation where a medic or firetruck or police car might have to get through, right? You know, the reason that shoulder lanes exist? No, surely not, we'll just use those for our sliding bumper cars, thanks. If I'd have been drinking, there would have been absolutely no consequence. There wasn't enough manpower to aid in all the actual emergencies, let alone enough to badger some emotional basketcase with a beer in her hand. Alas, I was running dry.
As in any good survival story, I have a few thanks to issue. I would like to thank the good people in line with me at the BP station on Barrett Parkway in Kennesaw, for sharing our early fears and stories in solidarity while we all waited impatiently to urinate and scrunched our noses when someone had to go Number 2. Hey, it's all out there now, guys, we're seeing the world fall apart together. I would like to thank the people who sent me text messages (phone calls weren't going through after 2 pm) sending their love, prayers, well wishes: normally I wouldn't thank you for texting me while driving, but my actual driving was limited this day. And don't worry, I wasn't thinking of you guys when I was petrified-on-ice-driving anyway. I would like to thank my new Midas tires, purchased a mere two months before, for your blessed, blessed traction. I would like to thank my Michigan roots. Somewhere inside me, you knew what to do... even if I was outwardly panicked. I would like to thank the two slices from the loaf of bread in my office that I happened to grab, on a last-minute whim, as I walked out the door. It was the only food I had. Thank you, Wheat Bread. I would also like to thank Audible, HBO Go, and iTunes Radio for their major support in this saga. How ironic that my current audiobook is the epic saga of the end of the world, The Stand. So thanks, also, Stephen King.
This was not about Atlanta and her citizens freaking out over 2 inches of snow. This is about a confluence of events that created a perfect storm of chaos that no one "saw coming" that led to immense failure and breakdown of the system. We were endangered, left stranded, and it was a terrible failure of officials and their preparedness in the face of disaster. I hope that the memory stays fresh enough for all of us, taken in and helped by strangers, walking miles and seeing insane things on the highways, that it can lead to a very real discussion about how this happened and what we can learn from it. All I've wanted is an apology from leaders. We messed up, it wasn't great, we're working to ensure we learn from this. It's been all exhausting blame game, which is frustrating. It's many things, that fault lies a dozen places.
My story is a single episode in an epic saga that has played out on national news and within the small lives and communities throughout the metro area. It was a day of mental and emotional range I have not ever experienced. It belongs in the compendium of this event.
[Below: Atlanta from the bridge above Freedom Parkway, the same vantage point of the famous Walking Dead image, on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014. Image via WABE News.]