It was a little less than a year ago that I found myself in the midst of a Western New York rite-of-passage I’d only heard about or seen in bone-chilling images on television from the warmth of my own living room. “That sucks”, I would somewhat-sympathize, sipping hot cocoa, a blanket wrapped tightly around me.
What I wouldn’t have given for either of those things-a blanket or a cup of something hot (or a living room, for that matter)-on this fateful night almost a year ago.
Last year, on the last night of November, I found myself stuck on the I-90 for 18 hours.
It had been snowing on and off throughout the day, from what I remember. I work about 40 minutes from where I live, making winter commutes treacherous at times; annoying at best.
Ever the dutiful employee, I had stayed at work about 45 minutes past my shift, trying to get some extra work in. I was off the next day, and didn’t want to come in Friday to mountains of unfinished business.
So, around 5:45 pm, I set out on the trek home from Getzville to Hamburg, NY.
The roads were a bit slick, from what I remember, but it hadn’t actually started snowing yet. A little bit past the Walden Galleria mall, about a mile past the William Street exit, traffic started slowing to a crawl…. And then it just stopped. It was about 6:30 pm.
Like I said, it hadn’t started snowing yet. It was more of a cold drizzle at the time. So I didn’t equate whatever was slowing traffic down to a weather-related incident. “Probably just some idiot causing an accident, thinking them getting home is more important than everyone else getting home”, I thought to myself. About 15 minutes had passed since I was completely stopped. I opened my car door and looked behind me- stopped traffic as far as I could see. On my left was that grassy nole right by the overpass, where the bronze buffalo sculptures graze delightedly. I remember thinking, Stupid buffalo. I hate you.
I checked my gas gauge. Less than ¼ tank. Great. So, I’m going to run out of gas for this a*shole. Maybe I’ll make them pay for my tow, I idly mused, knowing full well the logistics of that were impossible. So I turned my car off and played with my phone.
After about 25 minutes of being completely stopped, however, I began to get a little worried- and a little cold. I’d never been completely stationary on a major highway for that long, so I started thinking something bigger was up than just some bad driver ruining everyone’s evening.
I called my husband. “I have a weird feeling I’m going to be here all night”, I remember saying to him. His reply, of course, was “Oh, God, Jess, stop being so dramatic.” Those who know me know that I’m usually pretty logical and try to avoid dramatics at all costs, so his reply, of course, annoyed me. He asked why I hadn’t taken Route 5 home- our agreed-upon alternate route to take in the winter months when the 90 is backed up. I told him I didn’t think the 90 would be bad; it wasn’t even snowing. He told me to stop worrying and that he would see me in a little bit.
I called my parents. My mother, of course, was in hysterics. She turned on the television, incredulous that “There’s nothing on about it; nobody’s reporting anything”! I asked my dad if he thought I should keep my car running or keep shutting it on and off to preserve gas. He said he didn’t know, and said just try and stay warm. “You know, you shouldn’t let your car get down to less than ½ a tank in the winter, Jess”. Thanks, Dad. Thanks.
Half an hour more went by, then an hour, then 2 hours. By now I knew I was in it for the long haul (thinking that “the long haul” meant about another hour).I realized I didn’t have my cell phone car charger, and shook my head. Of course I didn’t. Why would I?! I then realized I had the Blackberry my work supplied me with, and it was fully charged. For the first time since I owned that stupid Blackberry, I was glad I had it.
I should mention here that I was completely inappropriately attired for this evening’s events. I was wearing fabric flats with no stockings underneath, dress pants, a sweater, and a light fall jacket. No scarf. No gloves. No hat. No warmth. It was about 25 degrees, and I had the heat off.
It had started snowing. A lot. And it didn’t stop. It was light, wet rain, but it just didn’t stop falling. I had my car off for long periods of time, trying to preserve my gas so that, whenever I was able to get out of this seventh ring of hell, I could jet right home. I felt claustrophobic as the snow piled up on my windshield and side windows; felt like I was being buried alive. Every now and then I would peek my head out of my slightly -ajar car door to see what was going on around me. It was dark, and all around me were car lights illuminating the soft snowfall. Others must have been in the same situation as me, because every now and then the car lights would go off as the person inside shut their car off in a desperate attempt to preserve gas. At one point I got out of my car to ask the twenty-something guy behind me if he knew what the deal was. He said it was a jackknifed tractor- trailer some ways up. So, sort of an idiot driver, I thought to myself. I went back inside my car, painfully aware that I just made the mistake of getting my feet 100 % wet and, thus, 100% numb.
I remember thinking how silent it was outside. All of these people with full lives waiting for them at home, stuck on a highway, and all I could hear was the sound of car engines. Nobody was talking outside, musing at the situation we all found ourselves in. We were all just too damn cold.
I spoke with my parents and husband, intermittently. My mother said they were starting to report on this debacle on the news; they were saying there were policemen driving around on snowmobiles bringing hot drinks to people. I thought, well, that’s nice. Too bad it’s not true.
I was absolutely freezing. My cold feet had made my entire body mind-numbingly cold. And I had to pee. Of course, this happened to be one of those crazy days at work where all I had time to consume was cup upon cup of coffee. All Day Long. And the more cold I became, the more I had to pee. Finally, I just couldn’t hold it anymore. I began devising my action plan for Operation Urination.
I looked out my car door. Ok, so, I was snowed in. Literally. The snow came to the top of my wheel wells by this time. I knew I would have to actually get out of my car to pee, so I would have to find something to put on my freezing cold feet to block the snow.
I realized I had bags full of clothes I planned to give to Goodwill in the back of my car. None of the articles I really needed, of course- no hats or gloves or boots. But I was resourceful.
I pulled the bags out of my trunk through the backseat and emptied out the trash bags in the backseat. I took 2 trash bags, tied them around my feet, tucked my pants in at the ankles, and was extremely proud of myself.
So, I had my footwear in place. How was I going to mask my Operation Urination from the hundreds of people parked around me?
I knew that a lot of people were riding this thing out in their car-coffins like me- letting the snow pile up on their cars so they couldn’t see out. But there was a huge semi-truck parked right next to me that had a gazillion gallons of gas, kept their truck running the whole time, and were high up enough to see anything. I would need to mask myself from Semi-Truck Man’s peering eyes.
I had an umbrella in my backseat. By this time, I almost could not hold it any longer. I disrobed from the waist down, hiked my trash bag shoes up to my knees, opened my car door, opened my umbrella, positioned myself between the door and car, and peed the best pee of my life. As for toilet paper- remember the clothes? That’s one of my husband’s dress shirts that never made it to Goodwill.
By around 10:30, I knew the long haul meant all night. Eventually, I actually did see policemen driving around on snowmobiles, but they were sans hot drink. They came only with 3 questions: 1.”Are you ok?” 2. Do you have gas?” 3. “Do you have a cell phone?”. I wondered what they would have said if I said no to any of the above. What was Plan B?!
I told them I only had ¼ gas and I did have a cell phone. They said to keep the car running for as long as I can, because it took more gas to keep turning the car on and off rather than keep it running. I said ok, but knew if I saw that gauge fall rapidly, I would rather freeze it out rather than get stuck here with no gas when this was all over.
I shut my car door and rolled myself into a ball in my front seat. I spent a portion of the night fashioning scarves and turbans using a Swiss Army Knife and the clothes from my backseat. I piled all the clothes on me that I possibly could. I felt like Chevy Chase in the attic scene of “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”.
At some point during the night I heard a man walking by outside. I peeked my head out and this sweetheart of a man; a true Buffalonian in the City of Good Neighbors, came by with a gas can and gave me as much gas as he could. It barely moved my gauge, but it warmed my heart for sure.
I tried to sleep, but was too scared, too cold, and too worried I would be asleep and all the cars around me would begin clearing out. I kept contact with my parents and husband all night…midnight, 2 am, 3 am. My feelings of impatience, helplessness, and utter COLD combined to turn me into a whimpering ball on the front seat of my car. Yes, I whimpered. I may have cried, too. I just kept thinking of walking in my front door, my husband and cats greeting me, and a rush of 69-degree temperatures hitting me from the living room.
Operation Urination occurred twice more that night; I still can’t drive by where I was stuck without thinking “I peed here, in front of hundreds of people.” Funny what thoughts you extract from a night like that.
After drifting in and out of half-sleeps, at around 8 am the next morning I turned on my car, got out and scraped off my windshield, and looked around, bleary-eyed. It had briefly stopped snowing and was still so quiet. We were a city asleep on a highway. Such a weird sight.
I got back in, talked to my parents and husband some more, and waited. Both were insistent that they come meet me at an exit and pick me up, but I assured them there was no way they could get to me- I had noticed by this point that oncoming traffic on the other side of the guardrail was stopped too.
Looking back, I realize not once did I turn on the radio to hear what was being reported. For some reason it didn’t strike me as important. I was living it. And until I was out of the situation itself, hearing about it would do nothing more than make me feel more helpless.
At around 11 am, I began hearing cars engines starting around me. It had started snowing again, and I had to open my door to see what was going on.
Then I saw it. In the light of day, 4 cars in front of me, was the jackknifed tractor-trailer. 4 CARS IN FRONT OF ME. I realized then that yes, I had endured the most uncomfortable night of my life, but I was still alive. I could have been in a huge accident. I was 4 cars away from that possibility.
There were countless attempts to move that tractor-trailer out of the way. Finally, it was moved enough to the side to allow cars to get through. Snow plows plowed as much of the road as they could. Men with shovels were digging each car out by hand, rocking it back and forth, and pushing it until the car was let loose and sent on it’s treacherous way. It was snowing pretty heavily by this time, and by the time the car was dug out, the road was barely plowed enough to provide a safe passage.
I was very close to the accident, which meant I was one of the first cars to get dug out, which I am very grateful for to this day. I remember one of the men with the shovels taking one look at my car- a 2010 Subaru Legacy- and saying with a smile to a fellow digger “What do you think, buddy? Just 1 push, right?!” They were right. It took 1 rock and I was off; my 4-wheel drive clinging to the icy road.
By this time, it was snowing so hard I could barely see. I thought to myself, I swear to God, if I get stuck again I’m going to die. I proceeded at 5 miles an hour, gripping the steering wheel so hard my knuckles were white. Then I saw an exit sign. I wanted to give off that blasted Thruway so badly I wasn’t thinking clearly. I put on my turning signal and started barely turning my wheel. And then, I was stuck. Again. I had miscalculated where I was on the road, and ended up with my front end stuck in a snow bank at the fork between the exit and the Thruway.
Here’s when I started crying. I mean seriously crying. After 16 hours of being cold and frightened, here I was all over again. My nails were turning purple from the cold, and for a split second I really did think I would die on the I-90. One tends to grow dramatic in a situation like this.
I called my parents on my Blackberry (my cell phone had long since died by this time.) They told me about this number that was being given out on the News or something where people can call and have a tow come and get them. They said they already called for me but that I should call too. I called and waited. They said it would be at least an hour.
I sat and watched cars drive off the road into snow banks along the 90, just like myself. A car with a husband and wife attempted the same exit as me and ended up parked right behind me in a snow bank. I remember being jealous that there were 2 of them and 1 of me.
Finally, after about an hour, my saviors came. They had me out in no time, and suddenly I was on my way. The snowfall had ceased a bit, at least enough to where I could see. And within 2 minutes of me being back on the road headed home, the sun came out and it was clear as a bell. I laughed at the irony of it all.
I wanted to head right home, but figured enough bad decisions can get you stuck on the I-90 with no gas and no heat, so I stopped and got gas, still wearing trash bags around my feet.
When I got home, my parents were at my house with my husband. The cats ran and greeted me, and the heat had been cranked up to 73 degrees in my honor. My husband had made me a huge bowl of pasta and was drawing me a bath; surely a bit sheepish that he had called me dramatic. My mom and dad doted on me. It was a nice homecoming. Exactly like I pictured. I sat on our couch, bundled in a warm blanket with a bowl of pasta in my hands, watching live coverage of what had become national news. And this time, I really did sympathize with those people, because an hour ago that was me.
My experience was nothing like what I’m sure many have endured in their lives. Mother Nature- and the Thruway Authority- can be a bitch. But I do feel like I learned a lot about myself that night. I learned that when pushed, I can be resourceful and can make it through tough situations by myself. I learned that no matter how old you are, hearing your parents tell you it will be okay can provide the most comfort one will ever know.
And I also learned that if you don’t want to pee in front of hundreds of Buffalonians in the winter, carry Tupperware containers in your car.