My boss let me off at 10 am on Friday. I headed home got packed and pushed the family out the door. We had planned on leaving later in the afternoon, but the snow was actually coming down, and I felt that we would be able to make the drive to Roanoke. I have plenty of experience driving in winter weather and knew that we could make it.
We left Asheville and headed up I-26 over the mountains. It was a raining at this point which was fine with me. Traffic was flowing nicely. We attempted to hit the Chic-Fil-A in Johnson City but that place was jam packed with traffic. After finally getting out of there, we headed on up the interstate and found a Cracker Barrel that was not too crowded. After stuffing ourselves we hit the road again.
Around Bristol, TN the rain started to mix with snow, and within the next 5 miles, it was all snow. A steady snow, sticking to everything. We had to slow down to about 45-50 mph but traffic was flowing well. People were really good about not blocking the left lane too, so we could cruise on part the slower drivers.
Then we started to see carnage. Cars in ditches, a charred truck on it's side, a couple of vehicles on their roofs, a mini van in front of us sliding, swerving, spinning before finally getting wedged in a ditch. At this point we could have turned back, but being half way, it didn't make sense. It would be slow going either direction.
As darkness fell, I was surprised that traffic was still flowing. It was around 6pm when I decided that we should stop and get some food. We only had about 50 miles left in the trip, but I knew that there was a good chance that the interstate could turn into a parking lot at any moment.
As we got back on the interstate, after buying a lunchable for Jubal and a gas station pimento cheese sandwich and chips for me, I mentioned to Rhonda that I thought it was a good idea to get some food. Less than 10 minutes after finishing my sandwich, traffic slowed to a crawl and then stopped.
At this point, the time line gets a bit fuzzy, but I will do my best to recall the events as they happened.
My first thought was to be thankful that i had a full belly. On the south bound lanes of I-81, we could clearly see the reason for the back up. We were facing a downhill which placed the opposite lanes on an uphill. Trucks and cars were getting halfway up the hill and slipping, not able to keep the forward momentum. They would then stop and spin their wheels in a futile attempt to gain some ground. One thing about driving on the snow is that if you lose your momentum you are done.
I think that we sat there for about an hour, I vaguely remember that a wrecker or two, and a couple of state patrol vehicles went past on the shoulder during that wait. Traffic started to crawl, then slowed to a slow motion crawl, then sped up to a speeding crawl. We went through this cycle several times. We stopped for a small duration of time several times. Once we were moving again, traffic had gone into a single file line for some reason. I noticed that both lanes had snow on them but both were plowed. I got into the left lane and started passing people.
Suddenly, traffic there was no traffic in front of us. We were at the front of the line. The hold up was a tractor trailer going about 25 mph. We led the charge and were going about 45 mph. Nothing but snow and darkness in front of us. We got very excited about the prospect of getting to the in-laws within one hour. That would put us there around 8pm.
We made good time for about 8 miles before traffic appeared in front of us and we came to a dead stop. The road here was wide, with wide shoulders. There were tire tracks on the shoulder on both sides of the road. Occasionally an emergency vehicle would come past on the shoulder, then some 4 wheel drive vehicles came by and then a mini van. We debated for several hours about whether of not we should make a dash for it up the shoulder. My reason for caution was that I did not want to be the one to block emergency vehicles.
I recall that we sat there and debated it for about 3 hrs. I finally decided to go for it. I walked up to the guy in front of us in a Jeep Cherokee and told him I was ready to go for it, but I could not go unless he went. Someone behind me yelled something so I walked back and chatted with her; a super nice African American lady in a big Chevy Tahoe 4-wheel drive. I told her that I planned to go for it, and she said" Honey, I'll be right behind you, I've been following you, and I'll just go where you go".
So we went for it. Weaved over to the should and started going, the shoulder was fine. At this point, I should mention, there was about 1 foot of snow on the ground. From the feel of the traction, the left wheels were on pavement while the right wheels were not, it was difficult to tell though. As we drove, there was a car stuck on the shoulder, blocking the way. I watched the jeep weave back into the parked traffic, I followed, we were able to get around the car and back onto the shoulder. The forward progress felt good.
As we neared a tractor trailer, and were about to pass it, some dude stepped out in front of me. Knowing that if I stopped I would be stuck, I hesitated......then hit the breaks. The dude turned around, looked at me and shrugged before walking away. I was mad but focused on the task at hand. I gently coaxed the accelerator and spun, then felt the front of the van sink into the snow. It appeared that we were done, stuck on the shoulder, blocking the remaining open lane.
I jumped out of the van and went back to chat with the Tahoe driver. I told her why I stopped and she was upset. I then had a thought. I said," Hey, I'm stuck and we are not going to get out. I lost my momentum and got stuck. But, if you give me a push we can get going again". Fortunately, she thought that was a great idea. I was not really worried about any scratches that would come from the push, I just wanted to get my family to safety.
I coaxed her up until she made contact with the van, the bumpers barely matching, jumped in the van, heart pounding. She pushed, I eased onto the gas, I spun the tires, let off, she pushed, the tires got traction and we were moving again!! We went another hundred yards and were forced to stop next to a tractor trailer.
For some reason this truck driver was spinning his tires trying to get unstuck, even though there was nowhere to go. The cars in front finally moved up enough that I could pull up, but now the lady in the Tahoe was next to the spinning truck tires. So I started going forwards and backwards and edging over in front of the truck, so the lady could get out of the way.
The truck driver jumped out of the cab and made a bee line for the van. He was yelling and cussing about his 80,000 lbs load and how if he slides into someone, he would kill them and if someone runs into him it won't be pretty.... So, I stopped for a moment, he got back in the truck and started spinning again, I went back to making room for my friend in the Tahoe. This set him off again, and he came to my window yelling again. So, I stopped. He went back to his truck and started spinning again!!!!
I got out of the van, went over to his cab where he sat towering above me. He rolled down his window and I said' " Look, I'm not trying to be a jerk here, I'm just trying to get my wife and kid to her parents house, our exit is 2 miles up the road. I'm also trying to get out of the way so the lady in the Tahoe can get out of your way. It looks like I'm not going anywhere and you are not going anywhere so I will chill if you will chill". I repeated the offer once or twice, he calmed down and agreed to chill. ( though he did calm down, he did continue to spin for about an hour or two before finally settling down).
By now it was close to 10 pm and we were stuck, several 4x4's went up the should but every single one had difficulty. The shoulder on the left was decent, but blocked by a truck about 100 yards up. If it moved over about 1-2 feet we could get through.
Bored, and not wanting to sleep for fear of missing a chance to get through, I dozed here and there for 5-10 minutes. Jubal finally went to sleep around midnite and Rhonda dozed. I got out of the van, walked around, talked to people, dug a latrine down the median for Rhonda, walked the dog. We were prepared with winter clothes, food and enough water for now. Around 1am, we were running low on water, and apparently others were too. There was lots of freshly fallen snow though, so I was not too worried.
A little after 1am, we got word from the trucker that the National Guard had been called out. I figured we would not see them until day break, and they would most likely make sure everybody was safe, before trying to clear the road. Around 2pm I dozed again. I woke up every time the truck's fan cycle kicked in as it sounded like a snow plow coming along side us. I woke up disappointed every time.
2:45am, I was once again wakened by loud engines. This time it was snow plows coming up the right shoulder. I had to take a second look to make sure. The rolled past us and stopped. I jumped out of the van to see what would happen. I walked up to talk to the drivers who had walked up to talk to the truck driver whose truck was blocking the road. They said that we were stuck, because they were afraid that if the truck moved, he would slide into another truck beside him. I went back to the van and made sure the path in from of each wheel was clear. I cleared the snow out, down to the pavement so I would be sure that I could get going when it was "go time".
Suddenly, I heard the truck crank it's engine, saw the snow plows moving forward, and the line of cars moving past. I jumped in the van, cranked it up, waited for a gap and pulled in. Rhonda hurriedly got Jubal buckled and we were moving.
Cautiously elated we got passed the truck that had been blocking the road. Beyond that was smooth sailing. We were about 5 cars behind the plows and got up to cruising around 35 mph. We were about 2 miles from the next exit, where we could take city roads to Roanoke. But which would be a better choice. Stay on the Interstate where the National Guard would be focusing, or risk getting stuck on a deserted city/ county road.
The 2 miles gave us time to think, though. There were trucks and cars all over the place, mired in the snow, but only one lane was blocked, if we could have gotten past 6 hrs ago, we would have been clear.
I hesitated at the exit and headed down the ramp. I figured that if we had to, we could get back on the interstate. Once we got off the ramp though, the roads were plowed and there was little traffic. We were at the in-laws in less than 30 minutes from the time we got off of the interstate.....4am.
Have a great day!!!