Sunday, December 17, 2006

A Little Too Much Adventure

It snowed here yesterday. As I left the house at 3:00 for my gym workout, the snow was just starting: a very fine snow that wasn't sticking yet. But when I left the gym at 5:00, there was an inch or two of accumulation, and the snow was very slick: the Special Slidey Snow, as Gary called it later.

I've only been driving for nine years, and I don't have much experience with snow. Our old Honda needed chains once, up in the mountains; the Ford I drive now has never needed them, although I dutifully keep the old chains in the trunk. On the road last night, I immediately started sliding -- there was no traction, and of course nothing had been plowed or salted yet -- and that made me apprehensive about the three miles home, all uphill, on a street that's notoriously bad in snow.

I drove very, very slowly (as all the other cars were doing, too) and managed to get onto the main road from which our street branches off. I was fishtailing the entire time.

Then I lost control of the car completely, and crunched into a curb. Luckily, I was only going ten or fifteen mph, and didn't crunch into another car or a person. I managed to pull away from the curb and continue up the street, but the traction wasn't getting any better, and I was really shaken from hitting the curb. And there was a lot of traffic: it was rush hour, and people were just coming home from Christmas shopping.

So I pulled over, put on my hazards, and called AAA on my cellphone. (I'm very ambivalent about cellphones, but boy, they're sure useful in emergencies!) It was 5:15. While I waited to be connected to AAA, I watched a truck rear-end an SUV in front of me. When the AAA guy finally came on the line, I told him, "I either need to be towed the two miles to my house, or have someone come help me put chains on. I've never done that by myself, and the one time I did it with help was seven years ago. Do you guys do that?" I felt like an idiot -- I could just imagine the AAA guy thinking scornfully, Stupid female driver! -- but I just didn't feel safe driving.

"That's not technically a roadside emergency," the AAA guy said. "We'd have to charge you. We're getting hundreds of calls right now, and if we sent a truck, it might not get there until 9:00. And if it's not safe for you to drive in this, it's not safe for us, either."

You have trucks with chains, I thought. I'm in a tiny Ford. But I didn't say that. I said, "Please put in the call, and if I can get help from someone else, I'll call you back to cancel it."

I was starting to get cold, and I didn't have enough warm clothing with me, because I'd thought I was only doing the tiny drive to the gym and back. (The moral of this story is: Always keep emergency supplies in the car!) I called Gary, who doesn't drive -- and has thus never had the terrifying experience of losing control of a car -- and thought my predicament was very funny. "You're stuck in two inches of snow two miles away? Why don't you just leave the car there and walk home?"

At that point, I got a little hysterical. "I'm not going to leave the car here, because this isn't a safe place. The car could be hit! I'm not going to walk home, uphill on a windy road, because I'm not wearing the right shoes for snow hiking, and because I could be hit. Other cars are losing control, too. Can you please call Katharine and see if she can come help me with the chains?"

Katharine's the friend we go to Maui with. She lives nearby. She has an SUV. She's from Vermont, and knows about snow. I felt horrible about calling her out in bad conditions, but trusted her to say no if she thought it was too dangerous or inconvenient.

I sat in the car, hazards flashing, and waited. Cars passed me. Nobody stopped to offer help, probably because they didn't want to lose their own momentum in the snow, and maybe also because these days, everybody trusts everybody else to have a cellphone and to have called for help. (And in fairness, I wasn't outside trying to flag anybody down.) I got colder. I was ashamed of myself for being a bad driver, for not having brought a hat or gloves, for bothering a friend. I started having lurid fantasies about AAA arriving at 9:00 and finding me dead of hypothermia in my tiny Ford on the side of a main road.

Then headlights pulled in behind me. Katharine had arrived with her son Tim. "He's a great driver," Katharine said, "and he knows all about snow. So he'll drive your car. Do you want to drive with him, or with me?"

"With you," I told her, and she and Tim laughed.

I apologized for bothering them, and they both pooh-poohed me. "This is what friends and neighbors are for," Tim said. "We're from Vermont. Helping people in bad weather is what you do." I gave him my keys and climbed into Katharine's toasty SUV.

Tim managed to drive the car onto a level side street; we followed him. Then he stopped, got out, and came over to talk to me. "Your right front wheel has a really bad wobble. I'll put the chains on, and then we'll see how it drives."

I got out. I'd looked at the car after I crunched into the curb and hadn't seen any damage, but when I looked this time, sure enough: the right front hubcap was badly dented. Tim tried unsuccessfully to put the chains on. I thought chains were one size fits all, but it turns out that the old chains from the Honda don't fit the Ford. Great.

Meanwhile, AAA had called me back to see what was happening. I told them to cancel the call, that we were going to have to leave my car on a side street, but that my friends would drive me home. "Listen," the AAA guy said, "just be glad you're okay, and that this didn't happen on the highway." Amen to that!

Tim pulled my car over to the curb, and we all got into Katharine's SUV, Tim driving. He started heading cautiously up my street, the hilly one with the curves. Half a mile from my house, we found the road blocked by a city bus that had spun out across both lanes. When I saw that, I started to feel better about losing control of my car. Maybe the problem really was the snow, and not my driving.

Tim took a detour around the bus. Past it, we found a snarl of other vehicles scattered in the middle of the road. "Oh boy," Tim said. "I'm not going to try to get through that. It's too dangerous. Susan, why don't you come to my house for dinner?"

So I did. On the way there, we watched a car do a 360-degree spinout, and I started feeling much better about my own mishap. At Tim's house, I chatted with his wife Maura and played with their adorable toddler Pippa. We ate spaghetti, salad, mashed potatoes. I drank hot tea. We talked about contingencies: "If we can't get you home later," Katharine said, "you can spend the night at my house." (She's within walking distance of Tim's.) "We'll sit in front of the fire and tell stories. It will be fun."

After dinner, we watched a bit of The Fellowship of the Ring (one of my favorite movies of all time, although the trek up Caradhras was a bit too reminiscent of what had just happened to me). At 8:45, we got into the SUV again. This time, there was hardly anyone on the road, and Tim got me home safely, although we passed another car that had spun out in the middle of a traffic circle. Its hazards were on, and the driver was standing next to it. Tim, bless him, rolled down his window. "Are you okay? Do you need help?" The driver said he was fine, and we drove the remaining block to my house without incident.

This morning, it's sunny. I called Tim about an hour ago; he said that Maura had slid trying to get out of their driveway, but that in a few hours, when the snow has melted, it should be safe to try to rescue my car and get it back to the house. My garage is closed today, so I can't take it straight there.

So I'm probably going to be stuck at home today: no church, no swimming, no hospital. Darn! (And today would have been the shift when I finally, after more than two years, racked up the 400 volunteer hours I'd have done in seven months if I'd stuck with CPE.) But I'm not going to drive a damaged car. We'll see what happens tomorrow: I'll call my garage and see if they or AAA can tow it. The garage is six miles away along two major streets, so I'd be nervous about driving the car, although I'll try that, with hazards on, if they think I should.

This morning's paper had a story about the storm: there were lots of accidents last night, although luckily no one was hurt. I certainly wasn't the only one having trouble, though.

So I have an enforced vacation day. Ugh! Well, I can do more internet Christmas shopping.


  1. I live in an area where we're supposed to like and expect snow. I don't. It's harder for me to walk safely, and snow masks sounds and sensations I need as landmarks.

    I'm glad you're safe Susan, I can relate to your fear. It's good you have people who will help when you need them. Enjoy the day inside. Maybe you just need a day of rest.

  2. Hi Susan,

    I agree with Nickie. A day of rest is good.

    Your story reminds me of one my Grandma Sue loved to tell, about unexpectedly getting stuck at her friend's apartment during a blizzard. She felt ridiculous because her own home was only down the block. But she just couldn't walk it, and she was stuck there overnight with no toothbrush or change of clothes. I must have been six or seven when this happened, and I must have heard her tell it a million times. Maybe that's one reason they came with us down to Florida when my parents decided to move.

    All the years I lived in Miami, I missed the seasons and particularly snow. Now a snowy Sunday is like a holiday, and we make a big deal of taking Nathan sledding down Cedar Hill in Central Park. But I have the greatest respect for how dangerous it can be. I've never had to drive in snow, and I hope I never do.

  3. I'm sorry you had such a harrowing ride home, Susan. I'm familiar with how very unnerving it is to drive in conditions when you do not have full control over your vehicle. My thoughts are with you.

  4. I hate snow. I hate walking in it because my dropped foot skates all over the place and I feel 100% insecure even if I've got my walking stick. I hate driving in it. I was up in the hills near us before we moved back, and there was just a dusting of snow. I steered right. The car went straight on. No damage, but the feeling is... well, you know.

    A day of rest. What a good idea. I think we should all have one every seven days (physician, heal thyself!)

  5. Laurel10:18 PM

    I'm glad you're okay. And if days of rest will always produce poetry, perhaps you ought to take them more often! I like the sonnets very much.


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