What I thought would be a normal trip home from work turned into anything but.
The freezing rain – the rain that the weather folks told us wouldn’t freeze – threw a wrench into an otherwise decent Friday afternoon commute. As I got further south in the city, the traffic grew heavier and slower. The roads got slicker. By the time I got out of the city proper, everything ground to a halt. I could see the northbound lanes on the other side of the wall and there were cars everywhere they shouldn’t be – against the wall, in the median, slid off on the shoulder. There were more accidents than there were emergency crews to deal with them.
After white-knuckling it for two hours (a part of my trip that normally took 30 minutes), I was exhausted and still 50 miles from home. Worried that I would either slide off the road or get slid into by another vehicle, I decided to take the next exit and wait it out. The temperatures were supposed to climb through the evening and travel would be safer later. The ramp was slippery and I felt my tires slide. Turn into the skid. Turn into the skid. Not too much brake. Easy does it.
At the bottom of the ramp was a gas station, a McDonald’s and a Super 8 hotel. Stopping for the night was probably the safest decision, but I wasn’t too hopeful when I saw the packed hotel parking lot. One quick call to the front desk confirmed my suspicions. No vacancy. I weighed my other two choices, knowing it was going to be a long night.
McDonald’s it was. Any port in a storm.
I quickly realized that many others had the same idea. The restaurant was busy. The stranded travelers were easy to spot. We were the ones huddled in the back, looking out the big glass windows at the interstate up the hill, frantically talking or typing into phones. It was 6pm, though, so others just decided to order food and sit and eat before making a plan.
It didn’t take long before people started to talk. To commiserate. To share stories. Where did you come from? Where you headed? North or South? How long did it take you to get here? How many accidents did you see? Every time someone new came in, we would get more stories. More information. Between the apps and word of mouth, we knew which highways were shut down and where. One person would share their destination and the group would share their collective data on how bad the route was and possible alternatives. There was a group of four truck drivers who were particularly helpful. They settled in for the evening and got comfortable – a sure sign that travel was a lost cause. If anyone knew a way out of this hell it would be them. The whole region was paralyzed.
Everyone had a story the night the ice shut down the city. Some were like me and just trying to get home from work. Another woman was trying to get to a town even farther south than my destination for a concert. She was an elementary music teacher. I talked to her for hours. It turned out she knew my middle/high school band teacher. She knew she couldn’t get all the way to the concert so she was going to turn around and go back home. But that required her to go North and the northbound lanes of the interstate were closed (and would wind up being closed the rest of the evening). An older man (who resembled Richard Dreyfuss, in my opinion) was trying to get home to his wife who was babysitting their grandchildren. He lamented about missing time with the little boys. A family was travelling to a wedding. Another family was passing through the region from Memphis, unsure whether to keep going or to turn back and head toward home. A couple was heading south to their rural home after spending the day in the city attending medical appointments. A young couple was heading home after the girl had just picked up the boy from the airport.
The people came and went for the most part. There was a group of us – the music teacher, the four truckers and me – who stayed all evening. Others came in for an hour or two and then left again to take their chances in the traffic. And everyone who came was welcomed into the fold. We watched the overworked crews clear accident after accident on the interstate above. The traffic was neverending, thick with volume and backed up for hours from accidents. About 10pm a volunteer firefigher came in exhausted to grab a quick meal before heading out again. He had been helping clear accidents all night. We paid for his food.
The truckers finally left around 10:30pm. The restaurant was clearing out by that point. I stayed until about 11:15pm. The southbound traffic had eased by then and the temperatures had risen above freezing. My MODOT app was telling me that the roads that would take me home were mostly clear. The northbound lanes were still closed so my teacher friend stayed.
Five hours. Five hours of my life were spent unexpectedly at the little McDonald’s just south of the city. I met countless people. We shared more than just routes and destinations and travel headaches that night. I heard a little slice of their life story. Connecting with strangers like this can be very uplifting. There are still good people – many good people – who are willing to help others, to reassure and support them when they are scared and frustrated.
I am thankful that I spent five hours of my life with some of those people Friday night.
True Story. Friday, December 16 an unexpected ice storm moved through the St. Louis area causing massive accidents and crippling travel. The temperatures got just a bit colder than expected and by the evening rush hour the rain turned into an ice event of epic proportions.