The Commute from Hell

Do they say "from hell" anymore? Maybe I am dating myself. Oh well.

I was told by a friend at Microsoft a couple months back...

If you see that its about to snow, get your ass home as quickly as you can.

His rationale was that Seattle folk simply don't know how to handle driving in ice and snow, and the road system locks up almost instantly and will snarl traffic for half a day. And you'll be stuck in it. He relayed a story where it took 8 hours to cross Redmond, primarily because people just abandon cars, run out of gas, etc, and it becomes hell.

So far, I've heeded his advice. I've made sure to miss the major snowstorms.

Not yesterday. Sure, I was in US2 (one of Amazon's downtown buildings) at 4:05 when I saw the first snowflakes, and I instantly jumped up and said "meeting over, gotta go." I grabbed the shuttle to PAC (another Amazon downtown building where my office is and where I park), and literally ran to car. Got in, headed to the backstreets, and was on I-90 at 4:41pm. I assumed it would be longer than my normal 25 minute commute, so I called Amy to let her know I probably wouldn't be home by 6 (she had to work).

45 minutes later, I've traveled 2 miles, still stuck on the bridge. I called and told Amy "uh, it's going to be a while." Mind you, at this point there are some flakes, but no ice on the road, no accumulation. According to the radio, there was an accident at the express lane/local lane junction that blocked traffic on both. But, we were assured that once past that, it was clear sailing.

At 7:15, I called my neighbors, who were watching Spencer and Garrett, and let them know I would be a while (at that point I had only gone 3 miles). My neighbor had gotten home already by taking the backroads, which was not an option for me. They were very helpful and understanding, and assured me they would get the kids to bed. Very cool of them. Good thing I helped them move furniture a while back.

And, during this time, upon a lot of reflection, something sinister occurs to me: I have my summer performance tires on the car. Shit! I never put all seasons on them. I've been waiting for the tread to wear down, then I was going with all-seasons. In Chicago, I would have had my winter tires, which on an Audi is friggin awesome (I've pushed cars out of ditches with my Audi in the past); now it occurs to me that if I hit ice I am driving a four-wheeled curling rock.

So, finally, about that time, traffic starts to move. By move I mean 1 MPH, w/o having to hit the break, and slowly up to 5 MPH. Finally, we're past 405, I can get going up to 25-30, and I approach Issaquah.

And then the fun began.

Little did I know that the 2.75 hour parking lot would be the EASIEST part of my commute.

Now, before we go any further, I am someone who is very comfortable driving in the snow. Whenever we had a snowstorm in the midwest (every month it seemed), I would go out at night and drive in the snow to learn how the car responds in it. Heck, as I mentioned, I would even. In fact, it was downright fun. Maybe crazy, but fun. I even drove from Columbus to Michigan City seven hours in a blizzard and foot of snow, and while I didn't talk to Amy the entire time (the reason I was driving in a blizzard is because we didn't leave on time), I never lost control of the car.

I wasn't thinking fun tonight.

By this time, between 7:30 and 7:45, a lot of snow had fallen. This is where the Cascades begin, and precipitation here is always 3-5 times what falls in Seattle (the Cascades just squeeze the water out of the atmosphere, which is why east of the Cascades its just a desert).

And I am now worried that I don't have the right gear to be driving in the snow. And I was right.

I-90 between Issaquah and Snoqualmie is a winding freeway through the moutains. Up, down, turns, angles, etc. A roller coaster for cars. Very fun when it's dry. A nightmare last night.

So, understanding the principles of winter driving (no breaks, keep speed up, don't turn, lots of distance between cars, yada, yada, yads), I head into the Cascades past exit 18.

First alarm: first turn past Issaquah, a parking lot of cars on both sides of the road. You can see the cars still there (and where cars were).

So I get around the first bend, and descend into darkness and blizzard-like snow falling, along with 9 inches of snow on the ground. Lots of cars on the side, some I'm wondering how they got that way, mostly I'm trying to stay in traction and a safe distance from the folks in front of me.

A couple bends later, a couple cars in front of me start to slide into the medium (the road is sloped down to the left), so I let up on the gas, start to slow down... and then I start drifting. Give it gas (normally Quattro would kick in and pull me wherever I wanted to go)... nothing. So I whip the back end around so I least I would be pointed the right way when I try to get out. And I slide into the side of the road. Not the ditch, but on the side. Right in front of 6 other cars, and behind another car 200 feet down the road.

After chatting with everyone on the side, figuring out if people were ok, and where they lived, I decide I really didn't want to spend the night on the freeway, so I decide to try and get out. I point the car uphill, put it in 2nd (I have a stick) give it gas, and the wheels start a spinning. I gain a little traction, drift a little, but before you know it I am out, heading across lanes of traffic. Wheel back left, now I'm pointed straight down I-90. I roll down my window and wave and beep at my new friends, hoping they can make it home tonight.

So, that occurred at mile marker 21. Four miles to go. Shit. And that's just the exit. How the hell am I going to get up the hill on the parkway? Oh well, first things first.

I pass exit 22, and what's that I see to the right? A snowplow. Is that good? Sure it is! He's dumping salt or sand on the road. And he's making quite a path on the road. So I slow down and let him get onto the freeway, and give him some space. Cool, now at least I know I am on the road.

We don't get half a mile, when the plow decides to slam on his breaks and u-turn in the median to go the other way on I-90. Shit! I'm not hitting my breaks, there's a half a foot of snow to my right, but no cars. So I try and change lanes and... it worked. Whew.

And this is where it got fun. I see barely see cars several hundred feet in front of me, and I can't tell if I'm moving faster than they are (I was going the speed of the plow who was moving at a good clip) or not. I am probably at mile marker 23 by now, but who knows, and at this point you can't tell the road from the ground, it's dark, and you can't even see the trees. So, I decide I have to stay with the cars, else I will for sure end up in the trees.

Sure enough, I'm able to keep up, and even close the gap. But now I have a new problem. I am getting really good traction, and another rule I have about winter driving - if it's working, don't mess with it. So, what to do. I assume there is a lane to my right, even though no cars are over there, so I drift over there. Whether it was a lane or the shoulder or grass, I don't know, but I keep my traction and speed. And I pass mile marker 24. Yay! The snow is still really coming down, I can barely see anything, but I know I got to start looking for signs of the exit here in the dark. After a while I start to panic thinking I actually missed it, but sure enough, I'm able to barely make out the overhead sign at the exit. I get off, am able to slow down, and coast around the corner onto SR-18/Snoqualmie Parkway.

But there's more.

I am now close enough to home (about 2.5 miles) that I could walk if I had to, so I start to think in terms of "if I can't make it up the hill, the car is going into the ditch, and I'm walking home" (didn't occur to me until later that wasn't a bright idea to walk in the dark on a slippery road... by now I had been in my car four hours).

So, there it is, "the hill." One car way in front of me, and I start to build up speed on the straight before heading uphill. I made it, albeit with a little drifting. So now the next fun part, going down the hill. So I'm cruising in 3rd gear, letting Quattro do its work, and I start to pick up speed. The car in front of me was approaching the bottom, and he hits his breaks, and I decide I need to slow down. So I downshift... and I start to drift to the right. No problem, give it gas and pull out... nothing. No gas, no power. WTF? Turns out I stalled it. Oh well, that's just a guardrail on the right, not another car. Boom. I tapped it, it straightens me out, I restart the car, and head into Snoqualmie Ridge without incident.

Now 1.1 miles from home, again, down a hill, I downshift, STALL. WTF? Boom, hit the curb.

A minor dent on my front right quarter panel from the guardrail, that's all to show for my four hour drive. Not fun. All because of a dumb accident on I-90. And that was my friend's point. It just takes one domino to knock the rest down.

This really caught Seattle by surprise. Over the weekend they predicted a big storm Tuesday night. When everyone woke up Wednesday, saw that it was a dusting, we were like "huh" and began our day. There was a prediction of more snow late Wednesday evening, but only an inch or two, and I thought I would be missing that by leaving early. Argh.

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