Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"Running hrough a field where all my tracks will be concealed and there's no where to go"

Hello World!!

I haven't been doing a lot of blogs lately.  And by not a lot I mean none.  I guess I've been feeling nothing exceptional (for me) has been happening.  Part of this is complacence, part of this is my own blah (winter is killing me slowly...), part of this is I feel a certain portion of my audience is not as fascinated with the "Hey i'm in (insert random coountry) and having a blast seeing really old stuff"... which reminds me I need to write about the Italy weekend in November. 

That being said, yesterday I had what by all accounts was an exceptional day.  I shall recount those events to you now:

It all started with the British.  I tend to blame the British for most the geopolitical problems in the world today (random drawing of lines to create countries by grouping together people who literally want each other to die was a post imperial British hobby).  But it was the invention of "high tea" set into motion the events that occurred yesterday.

Maggie and I took in a high tea in London, and when she saw that the St Regis Buckhead offered a special tea service this month she asked if I would be interested in going with her, once again to enjoy a selection of very tiny sandwiches and bite size cakes.  And honestly, it may sound a bit snooty, but who doesn't love tiny sandwiches and bite size cakes?  I was in, and we decided that Tuesday, the 28th of January worked well with both our schedules.  Reservations were made, anticipation was built. 

Then came the weather forecast...  the word that strikes fear into the hearts of Atlanta adult residents and joy into the hearts of local schoolkids... SNOW!  I had heard on Sunday that Atlanta was expecting accumulating snow, but not much.  Monday, while working I checked with the company meteorologist about the expected weather.  He said maybe 1.5"-2".   The Delta met department had put out a similar forecast, which had prompted the airline to cancel 80% of the flights.. which i honestly thought was a bit overkill.  Mainly it caused me to need to wake up way earlier than I wanted to.

Here's the thing, apparently no one told the fine residents of Atlanta this info. or the timing.  I had read the words "trace" and "dusting" repeatedly on websites as late as Monday afternoon.   Kids went school, adults went to work. 

So, after stressing on how to make this trip and not disappointing Maggie Brown, i finally came up with plans A, B, and C (plan C was the SDF-DTW-ATL routing... DTW is always the last option... for everyone) and settled in for 2 hours of sleep.  Yes  2 hours, before having to head and catch the last flight to ATL... at 735 AM.  the Next 8 being canceled.  But luckily, the "full" flight had a seat for me and away I went.  I spoke to the crew (normal jumpseater procedure) to say thanx we talked business.  They were briefed that the de-ice operation could de-ice 12 planes an hour.  ATL normally runs at about 60-80 departures an hour.... and that's why they cancel so many flights. 

From the airplane, I booked a rental car (I love inflight Wifi), and on arrival I found that Avis had decided to reward my loyal patronage and upgrade me to a Camaro SS.  I would have none of that!  I don't care how much snow and ice was suppose to fall, a heavy rear wheel drive car was a bad idea.  I went back to the counter and the puzzled clerk advised me if I really didn't want the upgrade I could pick from any car in a certain aisle.  Amongst the mustangs and VW beetles, I made what can only be termed the Best. Decision.  Ever!  There sat a Mitsubishi Lancer.  I was a little disappointed at the lack of convenience features (ie ipod dock), but I figured that it's at least a front wheel drive and would not be as emasculating as driving a beetle.  I was mistaken, it was all wheel drive (I just discovered before writing this).  That decision probably saved my life...  (and I'm not being melodramatic).

The original plan was for Maggie to meet me in the city for tea and tiny cakes, but when I asked if her Jeep had 4 wheel drive she responded "I don't know".  I asked if she would prefer me to come fetch her and do all the driving and she enthusiastically responded int he positive (as enthusiastic as one can be via text messaging).   So we ditched... er dropped off, her son Jack with a babysitter and off we went...  the snow starting to fall but not yet really sticking to anything. 

The plan, lunch in the city, tea at 3, back in F-ville by dark.  The drive into town was uneventful and only the usual midday traffic.  We made it to Phipps plaza to lunch on tapas at Twist! (or was it Shout!, i always confuse them) while the snow was coming down.  Maggie did make the comment that "everyone seem to be leaving the mall."  I remarked they were just premature panic in the way only Atlantans do when faced with snow. 

I remember growing up in the Atlanta area and the bread and milk hoarding paranoia that always accompanied winter weather predictions.  My mother was a US Mail carrier, you know the "Neither rain nor hail nor sleet nor snow nor heat of day nor dark of night..." people, and went to work dillegently in the worst weather.  I remember dad putting chains on the tires of her jeep in 81 or 82.  Dad, being an airline employee, was still was expected to be at work no matter the weather.  So in a southern family we probably had twice as much snow driving as average family(which is to say we had driven more than twice in snow and ice).  Then I moved to Louisville, where we don't get much snow... but enough that you should get familiar with it (not everyone does here...  but again I don't get snow days and have to deal).  Although, Louisville is not far enough north to not participate in the milk and bread hoarding.  And after 7 years here I'd forgotten how Georgia reacts and what it's like to have almost no snow removal and treating equipment available. 

SO after lunch, we headed out to the St Regis.  The idea to get there early and have a drink then the tea service.  About the time we tried to leave the mall parking is when we realized things had gone from "Tuesday" to "apocalypse" in less than an hour.  Peachtree was jammed.... Lenox Road was jammed with people trying to get on GA400... which borne a striking resemblance to a parking lot at 1 pm.  Made it to Piedmont, then East Paces Ferry, then a couple side streets and arrived at the St. Regis.  The normal 1.7 mile turned in 3 miles by going creative routes... and took 1 hour and 45 minutes. 

We contemplated skipping the tea and running for the burbs.  But, the traffic reports were already filled with grim news of interstate non movement and suggested people just stay put and wait it out.  So we went for and enjoyed out tiny sammiches and bite size cakes.  It was really kind of amusing and fun.  We finished up and decided to head south.  Maggie had been getting reports from friends on the road conditions, and they were not encouraging.  Looking at Google maps and the traffic overlay, it looks as if the roads were covered with blood.  I had never known before yesterday that there's a color level worse than red... its a dark dark red.  Which I assume after yesterday can only signify eminent death and destruction.

I asked Maggie if she trusted me and her forlorn response of "do I have much of a choice?  You know how I am with maps".  So we decided that interstates were to be avoided.  For the first time since I was a kid, the radio was tuned to AM radio.  WSB Radio's traffic updates from Capt Herb (who's been doing ATL traffic literally my whole life) and weather updates from Kirk Mellish (who's been doing ATL weather literally my whole life) were the soundtrack for out adventure.  So from Buckhead to Midtown started on back roads (which seemd likea  good idea to start except they weresnow coverd and hilly)and then on Peachtree (surprising open as long as you weren't going toward an interstate entrance) took about an hour.  From there turned east on Ponce before shifting over to North Ave trying to get to Moreland, which look fairly good on the google traffic (no blood red but some actual greens and yellows!).  It's about this time I realized I've kind of forgotten how hilly the city is.  North Ave shot upward by the Old Fourth Ward (ie in front of the Masquerade) and that just wasn't gonna happen.  So, south bound on Glen Iris, which was an uphill drive but not bad, and no one was stopping front of me... yet.  Turned back west on Edgewood Ave (east bound was closed for construction).  The Moreland Ave plan had to be abandoned...  let's use Boulevard, besides I haven't been by Grant Park in 20 years and I hear they've really gentrified the area... and it's true. 

By this time we've moved less than 10 miles as the crow flies and in about 45 minutes.  Which, compared radio reports of the same trip on the interstates, we were moving at warp speed.

The new plan was to head south down Boulevard to McDonough St.  Well, there's a hill before McDonough that several cars were stopped on, with no hope moving.  A right turn to go west on Englewood Ave (fyi, its been decades since I'd been through this part of town, and wasn't even driving then.  So I'm looking at Apple maps reconstructing this... ).  Englewood is an up hill climb, but the Lancer made it, passed a few struggling cars, and some one was spreading gravel on the opposite direction lanes, I could have used that if I needed.  From there it was south bound on Hill street to Mcdonough Ave and we headed west again.  Then a turn south onto Jonesboro Rd (GA HWY 54) which runs all the way to Fayetteville but that didn't seem feasible in my mind so we turned west onto Cleveland Ave.  At best we could check out how I-75 was moving. 

I have to say this whole time Maggie was being good company.  She and I would converse a little while she was attempting to not pull her hair out in the anxiety of not really being able to do anything and being "stuck".  This is the part where the Lancer saved my life, she threatened to kill me if we died in a car wreck :-) and the car came through for me.  By now, I'm starting to get anxious and annoyed at other drivers on the road.  It was about Cleveland Ave where I really (unbeknownst to the passenger) decided traffic laws will cease to apply if it comes to decision to being stuck on a hill or making it home.  It was on Cleveland behing a newish Cadillac on a hill that was spinning and fishtailing trying to get up it I whipped by at 30 MPH in what I assume was the turn lane, but could have been for oncoming traffic.  I thought Maggie was going to jump into my lap when the Caddy started swerving and i went left and around....  I mean what the hell, I'm driving a rental and have good insurance and don't care if you scratch and dent the hell out of it.

We got up the hill.  And this brings us to snow driving tip #1 for Atlanta drivers.  If you have a rear wheel drive it doesn't matter how much horsepower the engine puts out on a snow slick hill. 

Once we could see I-75 South was virtually devoid of any vehicles, we hit the interstate.  I couldn't feel the car doing any slipping or sliding, and was rolling past the few cars at a whopping 40 mph... at least 3 times faster than everyone else.  The next decision...  stay on interstates or go back to back roads.  The radio reports still called 285 a parking lot. so GA Highway 85 and a straight shot to Fayetteville seemed the best option.  By now it's getting dark, still snowing, Maggie and I are approaching "well done" from keeping the defrost on max hot to keep the windows ice free. 

We managed to do pretty well on highway 85.  Neither one of use could remember how much if any of this route was uphill.  The things you don't notice on the route you've traveled innumerable times until it suddenly becomes a severely limiting factor.  There were obstacles along the way, mainly other drivers who on the inclines would sit and spin, reverse, and spin some more.  Snow driving tip #2: you may have a Jeep, explorer, or any other SUV but unless it's 4-wheel drive you're still pretty screwed for getting any traction... especially if you're rolling on 'dubs with low profile tires.(We were in Riverdale after all). 

We finally started seeing some signs of read treatments.  A couple intersections had been treated... but that's about it.  We did see some salt trucks in the city but they seemed to just be trying to get somewhere and not laying anything down on the streets.

Just when we could see the goal, the police were blocking highway south of Point South Pkwy.  The ill there had been blocked by stopped cars and I'm assuming an accident, so we back tracked a little and took a turn west on some road that Google maps showed intersecting with a road I knew.  It worked fine, until the end where we needed to turn, and a car ahead had not been able to make it up and left.. and in the process of trying was blocking the entire street.  He finally got out and we went for it...  Maggie watched for oncoming traffic and I disregarded the stop sign.  The Lancer didn't even care.  Turning south on highway 314, we cross into fayette county and dodged less able cars on the road.  Zipping right by at a whopping 30 MPH.  Occasionally dropping into L  to slow without braking on downhills or to keep the wheels turning on some of the uphills.  Snow driving tip #3:  you have a low gear for a reason, learn how to use it.

Back on highway 85 in Fayetteville, then to highway 74 to Waffle House (a beacon of light, heat, and food in the South when the world has gone to hell)  where Maggie's little one was waiting with her boyfriend.   The trip time was just over 3 hours.  In retrospect, we may have set a speed record for the day.   I relaxed a minute, bathroom break, and I had decided from weather reports I had to make the airport.  Once the snow got packed and hard froze into solid ice there's no chance to get out and tomorrow was looking good for a thaw, so  I made the decision to go for it.  And at least I knew I was going against the majority of the traffic and a lot of the way was just backtracking the way I'd come.

 Off I went, back north on 314 to 138, then west to I-85.  314 was no real problem, no traffic, and I was able to pass the strugglers on hills.  ONce on 138, things were a bit more complicated.  Again, I've driven road hundreds, if not a thousand times.  I've never noticed to to be anything but flat.  Wrong.  Most the issues were with opposite direction traffic, though at one point a car was sideways blocking my way.  There were people trying to get it moved and facing the preferred direction.  I was not enjoying watching this show... and there looked like enough room on the shoulder to get by.  It was a downhill section, so at least I had gravity on my side.  I went for it, and around i went.  I thought the line of cars were going to follow me... but they stopped.  On the other side of the perpendicularly oriented vehicle I saw the flashing blues, and realized it was a cop that was working with the driver and had probably stopped traffic....  Oops.

Snow driving tip #4: Pick a lane!  I realize you can't see the lines, but you should know that the middle of the road isn't where your lane is.

From there, going was pretty smooth, except for one small instance where I got a little slide in but no one was around to see.  I got on an virtually empty I-85 Northbound... well it was virtually empty until the next exit.... then the problems began.  Because of wrecks, lane closures, and impassable freeway ramps, I-285 was a parking lot.  For those not familiar with Atlanta, I-285 is a circular interstate that used to serve as a sort of perimeter for the city (hence it's referred to as the Perimeter... it's nto just a clever name, the city has seince grown out.  However, the Perimeter still serves a distinct border between the burbs, or OTP, and the cool places to live.. or ITP).  All tractor-trailers are required to use 285 to go around the city unless they are picking up or dropping off in town.  So a 2 mile line of semi's were parked in the two right lanes trying to get... well anywhere.  I'm doing well zipping past these trucks until all lanes stop.  Not slow down, but dead stop.  This is where I thought my luck had run out.  For 10 minutes or so here was no movement.  There was a truck trying to get itself unstuck on the lane next to me, and as I watched his wheels spin I just knew any second it the tires were gonna bite and the truck was going to be launched into another vehicle. 

As sudden as the the traffic stopped, the left lane (by lane I mean those of us halfway on the shoulder of the interstate) started moving.  But the car in front of me wasn't... even though the the tires were.  Oh great!!  I see reverse lights... the car starts inching back, and the forward and we're off!!  Hallelujah!  Fyi, those rumble strips that are suppose to let you know when you've gone off the road aren't bad for traction when the roads are snow covered.  Once I passed the I-285 exit ramp, I-85N opened up.  I could see I-285 was solid with vehicles.  Up ahead, I could see the ATL control tower lights.  I made it up and over the bridge to the rental car area, which was the only time the car lost traction on the uphill enough to worry me.  I was gonna highly pissed if I got within sight of the goal and got stuck.  I parked and the Avis people were a little shocked to see me, or anyone really.  They were also understanding that I didn't return the car with a full tank of gas and removed the charges (saying that they had people who were stuck 3 or 4 miles away since 3 pm and were waving late fees and gas fees).  It was about an hour and half from Fayetteville to the airport, which honestly wasn't that horrible. 

At this time I checked in with work to make sure they hadn't canceled my flight.  It was still running, so I made my way to the plane.  On a hotel shuttle to get to that side of the field, a couple remarked they were getting their car to drive to the closest hotel with a room...  35 miles away in Griffin.  They were an older couple and I suggest they not try that.  The man said he grew up in the nroth and lived in Germany for years, that he had some experience.  Hope they made it safely.

Got to the plane, and found out the fuel truck had been stuck but was now on the way.  Small delay.  That's one thing about flying cargo, we almost always go, we may go (days) late but we go.  The fueler showed up, we de-iced, and off we went.  And carried not a single box.  Very little was able to make it to the airport, so we flew and airplane empty (with a good reason... besides of course that I was on it) with the operating crew, 2 pilots from other airlines who were trying going home after their flights were canceled, and myself.  So basically, it was a chartered jet for us :-).

All in all, the decision to go to high tea wasn't the best one I've ever made.  All the fault of the British.

Years ago, I read a scifi book (or short story) where it had been discovered that "luck" was a sort of genetic trait that people had.  Some people had it, some people didn't.  If such an thing were fact, I definitely got that gene.  I heard the traffic reports, the news that children were stuck at schools or worse, on stuck buses.  That people are STILL, 24 hours later, not moving in traffic and unable to get home.  Not to mention people holed up in hotels, or on airport floors trying to get home.  And I manage to make it from downtown to the burbs, back to the airport, and on a plane back to Louisville unscathed... and only 30 minutes later than the original plan.  I didn't realize how bad things were until I got home and cranked up the interwebs.  I mean I heard the radio, mostly background noise while focusing on exhibiting my "stone cold driving skillz", but i didn't realize that many commuters were still stuck on roads for the night until I got home. 

At least it'll be in the 60's there by the weekend.