A Chronicle of the Commute from Hell

Life is such a precious gift, dear reader. Appreciate every second of it, even the terrifying seconds.

The weather outside was frightful, in the way that only seems possible in the Pacific Northwest. I’ll never get used to the weather out here. I actually had to learn a whole new vocabulary when I moved here from Florida. Microclimates. Atmospheric Rivers. The Pineapple Express. Rain Shadow. Graupel. And now, Freezing Rain.

There had been about an inch of snow on the ground when the freezing rain started around midnight. This was bad news, because I had to be back at work no later than 7 am the next morning. I usually leave early, because if there’s even the slightest delay in my 38 minute commute, it can throw a serious kink into my timeline, and the bridgetender whom I’m relieving might get testy.

It’s a good thing I got up an hour early. It was 18 degrees out and the freezing rain was still coming down. When I looked at Google Maps and saw what I had to look forward to on my commute, I knew I had to bolt out the door. The traffic was already horrendous.

I am not a morning person. I’d much rather sit in a stupor for a half hour and kind of ease myself into the day. Instead, I had to spring into action before the CPAP marks had even faded from my face.

Crossing the yard to my car was a challenge. Thank goodness I had the foresight to put winter trax on my shoes (another phrase that I’ve picked up out here) or I would have hit that inch thick, perfectly clear slab of ice that stretched from my front door to the horizon and probably would have slid 20 yards past Dear Husband as if I had been shot out of a cannon. He had actually gotten out there ahead of me so as to warm up the car. (How lucky am I?) In order to do this, he had to chip away at the ice on the door handle.

Instead of skating past him in an unchoreographed, flailing, screeching dance of utter helplessness, I minced across the yard as if I were a baby deer who was learning to walk for the first time. I was thinking about how I had won the lottery when I chose this husband, and also patting myself on the back for having put a frost blocker on my car the night before. At least I wouldn’t have to scrape anything off the windshield before I left.

But then I actually looked at my car for the first time. I discovered that it was encased in ice. Had there been time and motivation, we could have lifted it up in one piece and come away with a car-shaped ice shell.

Instead, we had to chip away at the frost blocker, which had adhered so solidly to the glass that I despaired of ever being able to drive the car again. Once we managed to rip it free, the sheet of ice that came with it broke in thick, gummy pieces like windshield glass does. That was an interesting coincidence.

I’ll say it again: the  freezing rain was still falling, and it was 18 degrees outside. I was not living my best life. And I still had a 25-mile drive ahead of me, after approximately 4 hours of sleep.

In retrospect, the fact that I made it down our sloping driveway without incident was pretty darned impressive. The street in front of our house is very well-traveled, so much of the ice had been worn away. Still, I didn’t risk going more than 20 mph.

The night before, Dear Husband had suggested that we put chains on my tires, but when he told me I wouldn’t be able to exceed 50 mph with them on, I decided to risk the trip without them. Since I normally drive to work going, let’s say, substantially faster than that, that snail’s pace would have made the journey seem endless.

My car is all wheel drive, and in fairness, none of the cars I was to see that day had chains on, either. But had I known that I’d barely go above 35 mph, even on the interstate, I may have changed my tune about the tire chains. I won’t be making that mistake again. Tire chains are our friends.

The end of my street slopes sharply down into the valley, so it wasn’t long before I saw “Road Closed” barriers blocking my path. If I were younger and less brittle, I’d have called in sick and taken a sled to that hill. It would have been epic. Instead, I was forced to follow the detour signs, which routed me southward, despite the fact that I wanted, ultimately, to go northward.

After multiple twists and turns on residential streets in unfamiliar neighborhoods, I discovered, to my horror, that I was crossing my street yet again, now heading northward at least, but only about halfway down the hill. This was to be a long day.

I creeped further along this narrow road, which I probably couldn’t find again if my life depended on it. (Did I mention that sunrise was still 2 hours away?) And then the detour signs directed me to turn left. Apparently I was the first person to reach this part of the detour, because what I was looking at was an incline that, under the current conditions, was as slick as goose grease.

I made the turn and gunned the engine. In this case, that meant that I was trying for 25 mph. I was hoping that the momentum would carry me up the hill. And it did. Almost.

But then just as my front tires reached the top, I began to slide backward. And then at an angle. And when I pressed on the breaks, I discovered that they were frozen solid.

I won’t share my expletives with you. Suffice it to say that I was standing on the brake pedal, listening to the ice crack off the brakes, and thanking God that there were no other cars in sight. I finally had the presence of mind to pull the emergency brake, and I drifted to a halt on the shoulder of the road. Another foot, and I’d have been back in the intersection.

I had to gather myself. If I wanted to deal with this brake situation, I needed a level street. That could only be found at the top of that stupid little hill. Even though my backward skid had broken up some of the ice, it took me three attempts to achieve that goal. I let out a triumphant whoop.

Another strange thing about the Pacific Northwest is that there are sometimes stretches of road that make you think you’re in farm country, even though you know you’re still in the city. The transition is so abrupt that it’s startling. I was on one of those stretches. There were no houses in sight. Great.

So I creeped along at 5mph, pressing the breaks intermittently and hearing chunks of ice fall from them. Believe me, if I could have gone slower, I’d have greatly preferred that. But one makes do.

Finally, the brakes felt functional again. Because of that, this Florida girl got cocky. I was on level ground, so I let myself speed back up to 20mph. I felt like I was in a racecar.

When I saw the curve up ahead, I gently pressed the brakes and made it around the bend without incident. Yay, me! But after the curve, the road took me by surprise by sloping downward. Before I knew it, I was skidding again. At least this time I was facing forward.

I was too busy thinking about whether or not to turn into a skid to even consider expletives this time. I wasn’t sure if that rule applied to all wheel drive vehicles or not, and besides, every instinct within me was telling me to fight the skid. Meanwhile, I was heading right toward the hill that rose steeply up off that side of the road. Did I really want to turn toward that?

Brakes. Emergency brakes. Again, I drifted to a halt. I sat there for a moment, with my eyes closed and my hand gripping the emergency brake handle like the life preserver it had been.

I knew that if I called Dear Husband he’d have come and gotten me (assuming I could adequately explain where I was). But I didn’t want him out in this mess either. So I looked around, and saw that there wasn’t much hill left, and after that there was what looked like a well-traveled road with some traction to it.

I gently eased off the emergency brake and instantly started skidding again. This time, toward the other side of the road. This was really, really bad, because I had only just noticed that on the other side of the road, the hill sloped downward so sharply that if I plunged over the side, people would probably drive right past me without seeing the car.

I remember thinking that I wasn’t ready to die. And at that moment the idea of no longer being with Dear Husband was so acute that it manifested itself as a sharp pain in my gut. I was saying “No, no, no, no, no, no!”

I don’t know how or why, but the car righted itself and started sliding right down the street… and into the intersection of that busy road. Fortunately, no one was there at that moment to crash into. Suddenly I had traction again. Three cheers for traction! I got out of there.

The only reason I didn’t give up and go home at this point was that now there was nothing but well-traveled roads between me and work, whereas I’d have to get back on these crazy residential streets again to return home. And I knew that the ice was supposed to be melted off before the end of my shift, so getting home after work would be a breeze. Especially since most people had been sane enough to take the day off, so traffic was light.

Onward.

The snow had obscured the pavement markings on the interstate, so most of us were going 30mph and giving the lanes our best guess based on the tire tracks ahead of us. It was slow going, but uneventful. I reached my bridge only to find out that the sidewalks and bike lanes were covered with that same shiny, inch-thick sheet of ice that coated my front yard. Thank heavens for my winter trax.

I made it to work at 6:59, and my coworker was very relieved, because the other two bridgetenders who were scheduled to man the two drawbridges to the west of me had called in saying they couldn’t get here, and our supervisor was scrambling to find replacements.

The bridge was covered in brine and pellets, and this sheet of ice seemed to be laughing at all our efforts. Nothing short of a flamethrower or a jackhammer was going to get rid of that thick blanket of ice. By now it was 26 degrees, so there was to be no thaw in the immediate future.

Seattle was quiet. It felt like I had the entire city to myself. So in the afternoon, with no one in sight, I decided to open the bridge for an invisible sailboat to see what would happen to the ice. I was hoping to see the entire sheet come crashing down. But no. It didn’t budge. What did happen, though, was still kind of cool. Water started pouring off the bridge from the underside of the sheet of ice. The ice was still there, but now, instead of looking like a sheet of glass, it took on a cloudy, milky tone.

Finally the end of my shift approached, and my coworker, bless him, showed up early to allow for the road conditions. That’s when the phone rang and a frantic supervisor asked if I’d be willing to work a double shift because he was still having staffing issues.

Four hours of sleep, a death defying drive to work, and then 16 hours before I got to go home after having moved to a second bridge? Ugh. So I suggested some alternatives. While he checked on those, I started driving. Some of the ice had thawed by now, but not all of it. I made it up one hill without incident, and was about to get on the freeway when the phone rang again.

I looked for a place to pull over, because the supervisor was now asking if I could at least work 4 more hours, and I could hear the desperation in his voice. I said I’d do it, but needed assurances that this 12 hour shift wouldn’t turn into a 16.

He said something, but I didn’t hear what it was because I had to throw the phone down. In my attempt to pull to the side of the road, I had hit a patch of ice which sent my car sliding sideways down a narrow side street with cars parked on either side.

What a helpless feeling. I was screaming and cursing and all of this was being heard over the phone, to my utter mortification. I slid for two blocks. But at least, when I finally settled gently next to a telephone pole, having caused no damage to my car or anyone else’s, the supervisor understood completely why my plans had changed and no, I couldn’t go to another bridge on that day for any amount of hours.

I sat there for quite some time because my heart was pounding, and I was feeling slightly nauseous from the adrenaline. I always thought I’ve been acutely aware of the fragility of life ever since someone I loved very much died unexpectedly, but this little caper made me realize I had slipped partway back into taking it all for granted. Now the hyper-awareness is back with a vengeance. Life is such a precious gift, dear reader. Appreciate every second of it, even the terrifying seconds.

I think I was in a little bit of shock, because I have no idea how I got my car out of its soft little nest beside the telephone pole without scraping the side or ripping off the side view mirror. The next thing I knew, I was headed toward the interstate. From there it ought to be smooth sailing. And it was. For a while.

Something told me to call Dear Husband to ask him to remove any lingering ice from our driveway. I didn’t relish the idea of going up even one more icy slope. I had had enough.

Unfortunately, I forgot to mention that I was actually running early because there were very few cars on the road. (Because they’re smart.) So when I got to the driveway, there he was, at its top, just starting the ice removal.

I was having several thoughts at once. Abort the mission! But there was a car right behind me. Gun my engine up the driveway. But what if I skidded into Dear Husband? So, stupidly, I turned into the drive without gunning it… and of course I slid back down into the street. Then, since DH had gotten out of the way, I decided to take one more run at it, gunning it the whole time. But I slid back down again, this time with the tail end of the car sticking into the street.

After the six slip day I had, I just sat there, feeling hopeless, and praying no one hit my car, while DH removed all the ice. Finally, I was able to summit our driveway, park, and head straight for our living room recliner, where I stayed for the rest of the evening.

That night, I dreamed that I woke up and every single thing in the world that didn’t belong to me personally had disappeared. I was crying and screaming for help, and wondering if everyone I loved was just a figment of my imagination. Thankfully, I woke up.

The next day I drove in to work. As one does. A few hours later, Dear Husband sent me this photograph. That particular ditch is very close to our house. This could have been me. I’m so glad it wasn’t.

An attitude of gratitude is what you need to get along. Read my book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

2 thoughts on “A Chronicle of the Commute from Hell”

  1. What a harrowing day! 😱Glad you made it through physically unscathed, but wonder how many years the stress took off your life. Thank the gods and goddesses you only suffered a ptsd induced nightmare. The mother in me wants to scold you for taking such a risk, but having raised 3 risk taking children, I know that’s futile. Learned to drive in snow, sleet and ice and the 1st rule taught about driving in the conditions you faced was… don’t, unless it’s a life or death situation or you may actually create one. Your story telling was so effective it created such concern for your safety that my motherly instincts are riled up. Glad my children don’t give such detailed accounts of their numerous close calls or my blood pressure would be off the charts.🤯 Please be safe as there’s bound to be more dangerous weather as winter progresses and never trust that roads still opened are safe. That type of weather changes quicker than safety crews can keep up with. 🚧🧊🚫
    Next time mother nature 🌬️encases your vehicle in ice🥶, please take that as her warning to stay home and read a good book. (You’re never too old for loving motherly advise. )

    1. Yes, I learned my lesson. Sorry to crank up your blood pressure, but it IS nice that there’s still someone out there who feels maternal toward me. And we’re back to our usual Seattle winter: rain, rain, more rain, but lows in the upper 40’s. Never thought I would prefer that to anything. Perspective.

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