12.23.2008

Virginia to Maine - a tale of two travelers

4:08 am, Sunday morning. Tim and I embarked on the final leg of our journey to Maine from Southern. We had stayed at Tim's brother, Christopher George's house over Sabbath, having driven up the Friday before. That trip was much more uneventful, taking us just 7 hours of easy driving. Today's trip would prove to be quite different.

We had received warnings of impending doom awaiting us on the road, in the form of a nor'easter heading for Maine in the evening, hence our early departure. We were going to try to beat the storm. The trip would take us 12 hours, under normal driving conditions, and 4 pm would be just after sundown in Maine, so it seemed like all would be well.

It was cold as we started out - cold, but not too cold. A light rain was falling, and there were droplets of ice on the van when we got in. The ground was warm, though, so the roads were not frozen. However, as we made our way northward, I started to notice ice building up on the edges of the windshield, due, i deduced, to the chill factor of 75 or so mph winds, generated by the accelerator pedal of the Tomato. I thought this humorous at the time, and cranked the defrost up a bit.

We sped northwards, and within a few hours were crossing the border into Pennsylvania. Ninety miles later, I started to see a light dusting of snow on the ground. Welcoming this harbinger of winter weather, we anticipated future snowboarding trips. I surmised that the area had experienced some snowfall, perhaps a couple of days ago. A few minutes later, I started to see flakes mingled with the rain that was hitting my windshield, and realized that we had a bit of early snow to enjoy for a few miles.

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The cheap Wall Mart wipers i bought two years ago were just not doing a good job. Mine was leaving a wide swath in the middle of the wiper, and Tim's was wiping only that portion. I decided that maybe they were getting stiff in the cold, and cranked the defrost to the max. I noticed that the engine temperature gauge had not quite hit the 155 degree mark, so the air coming in was not amazingly hot.

Soon the ice on the edges of the windshield began to creep toward the middle. Ice was now building up on the wipers themselves, as well. We stopped for gas, and cleaned off the windshield. The lady at the counter said that the storm was moving north, but that we should be able to outrun it before too long. I hoped so. We got back in the van and hit the highway again.

Finally the sun began to come up, making the sky gray instead of black, and giving me some much needed visibility. For a while, I had been leaning toward the middle of the van so i could see through the clear spot in the windshield. The ice covered wiper was not cleaning the ice covered glass very well. Finally Tim hit upon an idea: I should reach out the window, grab the wiper as it came within reach, and snap it against the windshield to knock the ice off. This worked decently well, and the wiper eventually cleaned off most of the ice. It was quite hot in the van now, so once the ice was off the windshield, and if I kept the wiper clean, the buildup on the glass was abated for the time.

Later on, I found that the snow was light and cold enough that it wasn't sticking to the windshield. There were no more raindrops mixed in, and I was able to turn off the wipers, at least until I passed a semi and got misted by his tires on the wet road. Then I would have to turn them on, clean them, wipe the windshield, and wait for it to dry before i had a clear view.

This became our routine over the next hours. The snow gradually got thicker as we went north, and I began to lose hope of it ever stopping. The road was getting more and more snow on it, and every once in a while we would spy a salt truck, making an attempt to keep the road from turning into ice, for which i was grateful. I was also grateful for my anti-lock brakes and smart all-wheel-drive technology that kept my wheels spinning when they were supposed to and not spinning when they weren't.

We continued our trek. The sparse traffic (I saw maybe 1 cas in 10 miles at times) was traveling slow, but I had a mission. I really didn't want to turn a 12 hour trip into a 24 hour trip. I continued as fast as i dared, and maintained an average speed of 60 mph for quite a long time. The snow really wasn't too bad, I had driven in much worse in Maine. What made me most nervous were the other drivers, when I encountered them.

We drove through New York with little incident, but when we got into Connecticut, we began to hit traffic, and our average speed plummeted. I came upon a pack of cars moving at 20 mph, and got stuck behind them. Up until this point, I had only seen one car off the road, and it had appeared to be fine, just stuck. Now, almost every time I hit traffic, it was because of some car that had gotten stuck, or sometimes, even a small wreck. At one point, a van spun out just ahead of me, in another lane, and several of the other cars, including me, narrowly avoided a collision. I know that God was watching out for me, especially because I knew that people were praying for our safety. I am grateful to those people, and to God for keeping us safe.

The bright side to all of this was I was not having any trouble staying alert. I generally get bored while I'm driving, and if it's a long trip, I start to get drowsy. I've never actually fallen asleep, I can will myself to stay awake, but it is much better to be fully alert, even if the cause of this is challenging driving conditions. When I was not in traffic, I could only make 55 mph tops now. I didn't want to have Tim drive, because he "thought" he might have driven in snow before but he wasn't sure, and I didn't think the highway was the place to start learning.

We passed through Waterbury and Hartford, seeing more cars stopped on the side of the road - the worst wreck i saw was an SUV completely upside down sitting on it's roof. I'm not sure how the driver managed that, but the vehicle looked in great condition, despite it's peculiar position, and the guy was walking around on the side of the road talking on his cell phone, the picture of health, so I wasn't too worried for him.

All the time the snowfall was getting heavier, and the buildup on the road was getting thicker. The plow trucks were starting to get more competent as we moved into snow country, but they still didn't have a huge force, and therefore the clearing attempt was sparse. Slush was beginning to make driving more tricky - if I wanted to change lanes, the slush piles in the middle of the lanes would pull at my tires and jerk the van about. The lane markers themselves were now largely obliterated, and cars tended to huddle toward the middle of the road, making passing more difficult, especially if it was a semi.

At some point along the way, when we were stopped at some gas station, we noticed the front of the van - every surface that was somewhat vertical and facing forward was acquiring a buildup of compacted snow, which was turning to ice. This included the front of the radiator! I had never seen that before. The ice was about a quarter inch thick at that point, and this explained why i was having so much trouble with the wipers. Now the snow was thicker, and using the wipers became necessary as the flakes hit the warm windshield and melted. Ice continually attempted to form on the sides of the windshield, and I would snap the wipers on it, cleaning them and breaking up the ice at the same time.

We made it to Massachusetts, and finally to 495. It was probably around 3 pm at the time, and soon would be getting dark. Tim shortly hit upon another tactic to keep the windshield clear, since it was becoming increasingly difficult to see, between the poor wiper quality, the ice, and melted snow. The wipers were not relinquishing their ice as easily, and the buildup meant that most of the wiper was not touching the windshield. For quite some time now, the best spot was usually toward the top of the windshield, and I would crane my neck and peer out until I had a chance to snap the wiper again. Tim's plan was to turn off the defrost, and allow the windshield to cool off, so that the snow wouldn't stick to it. It sounded great, with the only drawback being the fact that we would necessarily be getting cold soon. However, I gave it a try, and once the windshield cooled off sufficiently I pulled over and used the ice scraper that I bought somewhere (I don't even remember what state i got that in, now) to give the windshield a good cleaning. I turned the wipers off, and left them off. The snow flew beautifully right up my windshield and over the van, not even leaving a trace. I could see better than I had been able to in a long time! The wipers weren't even getting any ice buildup anymore! This was great, because I did have to use them from time to time when passing other vehicles.

--- Wow this is getting long... I'll try to finish soon ---

Soon it got dark, and the temperature began to drop. The snow was now covering all parts of the road, and in the passing lanes was 3 or 4 inches thick. Driving became more and more exciting. I pulled into a rest stop and scraped the ice off my headlights so i could see the road and cars could see me coming. An eternity later, we finally got to 95, the 56 mile trip taking us probably over 2 hours. Now we were on the home stretch, but it really was stretching as we drove slower and slower. 50 mph seemed like 80, and cars were really getting fixated on the road, not even moving over from dead center to let me pass, so I would foray into the deeper snow on the side and surge past them, hoping they didn't drift over and hit me.

It got colder and colder in the van. I tried turning up the heat, but it didn't seem to get warmer, so i kept inching the dial more and more toward the right, eventually causing ice trouble on the windshield again, necessitating some hasty actions to maintain visibility. I turned it back down, and our toes began to hurt. I turned it up as much as I dared, but it didn't seem to help, especially since the foot vent on my side doesn't seem to work anymore. We skittered and slid up the highway, hunched over, both of us now peering out the windshield, trying to see through the thick snow and keep some semblance of warmth at the same time. My hands were clamped to the steering wheel, and were getting quite cold.

Finally we got to Maine, and I stopped at the Visitors center. We went in and got some hot food, and warmed our toes and fingers. It was nice to be able to move the toes on my left foot again... the right ones fared somewhat better because their foot was more active. After about 15 minutes, we decided to get back on the road. We helped some blokes push their car out of a snowbank in the middle of the parking lot, and then got back in the van. I made an executive decision to forego the cold temps and instead try out the defrost again. I had long since lost the back window, the little wires just couldn't compete with the elements, and the rear wiper was encased in a block of ice.

Every so often I would notice the snow getting thinner on the road, and then we would come upon a set of plow trucks spread across the road. In MA, they would string themselves in a staggered line, making it impossible to get by, which was part of the reason it took so long to put 495 behind us. In ME however, they either were less organized, or more courteous, because they were somewhat more randomly placed, and it was possible to squeeze by.

The snow was so thick now that we wouldn't see a car in front of us till we were within about 150 feet from it. Every now and then a semi would suddenly materialize, and I would have to leave the middle of the road and drive around. When there was traffic, it generally held to one track right in the center of the road, but luckily it was a three lane road, so there was still room enough to get by the line of cars. I was much happier now that it was warmer, and the windshield wasn't doing quite as bad as it had been, probably due to the fact that it was quite a bit colder outside than it had been.

Now the world was quite unrecognizable, and road signs weren't visible till they were almost on top of us. I didn't want to miss my exit to get onto 295 in Portland, but thankfully the one just before the one I take is quite well advertised, so I was able to anticipate the exit. I had actually almost inadvertently taken a couple wrong exits before now, just because I couldn't see the split in the road. I never did see the big split in New Hampshire just before Maine, but I just stuck to the right half of the road and managed to get on the right track.

Finally, after driving close to 12 hours through snow, we made it to our exit, and navigated the few back roads that led us home. The van was caked in ice and snow, and I just pulled into a garage bay and left it to melt. We had been on the road for a total of 15 hours and over 700 miles, without a single accident or spinout. God had indeed blessed us and kept us safe throughout the long journey. It's good to be home.

4 comments:

Ali said...

Sounds like a much more adventuresome trip then we had, even with our prolonged stay at SEA-TAC. Glad you guys made it OK.

The View from Great Island said...

I actually read your entire account--with great enjoyment, I might add.

Christy said...

That was quite the epistle. I think Tim's idea about turning off the heat was ingenious... except for the obvious downfalls. lol. Enjoy break!

(I still can't figure out why Tim wanted David B's phone #. lol)

Kelsey said...

Great story! I hope your drive back is a bit less perilous : )

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