Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Winter Does Its Worst

Today St. Louis is getting buried under yet another winter snowstorm. We seem to have had far more severe weather than usual this winter. Reckoning by road conditions, this may be the worst so far.

It was hard to judge whether it was going to be safe to go to work or not, with conflicting forecasts of anywhere between two and nine inches of snow accumulation. But no one had called me from work to say, "Stay put until we know more." So I assumed the consensus was that we should go about business as usual.

I drove to work between 5:20 and 6:45 a.m. I expected to arrive at 6:30, but falling and accumulating snow were already making an impact and I started to realize that I might have been better off not going to work at all. When I showed up, the boss said he was surprised to see me.

By 8:20, the snow had really started to boogie on down. My boss said it was time to decide whether to hit the road or stay overnight. I decided to hit the road.

I took it extra careful. With my 5-speed manual transmission providing a helpful layer of control ("engine braking") I managed to keep my speed down to where I could get up and down hills and around curves without losing control - except three times: twice I was able to pull myself out of a skid, and once I ran off the road but was able to drive right back onto it without stopping.

The weirdest part of the trip was driving east on I-64, where it didn't seem to have snowed at all. Nothing was on the ground, little to nothing was falling - I was starting to feel guilty about leaving work early when I took the exit onto southbound I-270 and immediately drove into dangerous road conditions, with traffic crawling along a snow-choked highway where, even at 12 mph, I went into a skid at one point.

I took the I-44 exit and got on Watson Rd., and drove that all the way into the city. Conditions deteriorated, sometimes with alarming rapidity, as I oozed along in second gear, blessing the angels of God for ensuring that most of the lights were green, because when I did have to stop it was hard to get going again. With a clutch, in these conditions, I often had to choose between spinning my tires and stalling the engine. I erred on the side of spinning the tires, which meant I eventually got going - but slowly. I drove with my flashers on, stayed in the ruts of previous cars - until I could no longer see them - and kept the heat cranked up to the max, the fans blowing full-blast on the windshield, and the rear window on defrost.

For much of the trip, especially the I-270 leg, I could only see through a small patch of my windshield (requiring me to bend over sideways as I drove) because my wipers were too clogged with ice to clean the glass effectively. I learned that turning the heat down, even when I began to swelter, made this worse; the maximum heat helped thaw the wiper blades so that they aided visibility. When conditions worsened so that even this didn't work, I cranked my wipers up to their highest speed and let them rub irritatingly against the dry windshield - at least, what little of the blades actually made contact with the glass. I guessed, correctly, that the friction would heat up the wiper blades a little more, prolonging my ability to drive safely as the weather worsened.

As I passed the city office of the company where I work, visibility was below one block. I toyed with the idea of pulling off the street and stopping at the office, either to crash there for the night or, perhaps, to go the rest of the way on foot. I decided that I might have a hard time parking, and that walking would be no safer than driving. So with what felt like desperate courage at the time, I kept going into a neighborhood where I almost couldn't see the street, or tell what lane I was in, or make out what color the next traffic signal was. My last left turn was tricky; I nearly got hung up, spinning my wheels while the driver behind me helpfully blew his horn.

I cussed out several trucks that drove by with snow plows attached, their blades lifted clear of the snow. I finally reached home where over an inch of snow had accumulated (with no signs of being cleared), and more snow was falling hard. By that time I felt silly about my earlier feelings of guilt over leaving work. The fact is, I risked my life going to work at all today, and risked it again driving home - and the risk I took driving the last two miles past the city office was nearly equal to the risk I had run up to that point. I thank God for granting me a safe homecoming; I don't know how else I could have made it. And what was it all for? Over three hours of driving, compared to less than two hours at work!

While I was blogging this, someone called me from the city office - someone who has to commute as far as I do, but in the opposite direction - to ask whether she should leave work early. I had to frankly advise her not to leave at all. If things continue to worsen at the rate they did during my drive home, she might not make it. She was determined to get home tonight, so I said the earlier the better - but having seen what the roads are like, I'll be praying for her.

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