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One commuter’s icy — and emotional — trek home Tuesday

Sights, sounds from an 11-hour odyssey

POSTED: January 31, 2014 12:02 a.m.
Jennifer Sami/

School buses with children aboard pass Tuesday night.

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When I entered the ramp to Ga. 400 about 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, I thought I knew what to expect.

My normal 45-minute commute of 30.7 miles home to Cobb County would probably take two to three hours. But as I breezed past Exit 13, then 12, then 11 at about 55 mph, I was starting to wonder what all the fuss was about. Then came Exit 10.

Once there, it quickly become clear that I had severely underestimated my travel time. It took about two hours to reach Exit 7, where I take Holcomb Bridge Road, which turns into Hwy. 92.

Unfortunately, it was another 90 minutes just to get off the exit. By that point, I was on the verge of tears.

I could’ve turned left and hit a hotel. But the road to it was littered with cars that had ventured up the hill, failed and come crashing down into the cars which had previously attempted the same feat.

So I pushed on, regretting the poor decision I made not to go to the bathroom before I left the office.

About 42 minutes later, I reached the next traffic light. I could still see my starting point in my side view mirror. I wasn’t going to make it home by dinner. At this point, I was hedging bets that I would be home by the president’s State of the Union address at 9 p.m.

Surely, people would be turning off the main road to head to their destinations at some point. Wrong again.

When I hit the five-hour mark, I pulled out a box of cheesy snacks and dug in, stopping first to pat myself on the back for grabbing it and a bag of pretzels that maintain permanent residence on my newsroom desk.

Then, I immediately regretted devouring the salty treats, as the full water bottle I had left the office with was dangerously low and my bladder dangerously full.

I carried on, making it to a gas station, the first open business visible from the road. Like a mirage in a desert, the sign meant I finally had a chance to safely stock up on more junk food, water and relieve myself.

The sun had been down for a few hours, and the snow was icy. The truck I’d been behind for the better part of a mile was starting to have trouble ascending a hill. You could smell the burned rubber as the tires spun on the slick surface. He was stuck.

I thought that was the end of his journey, but Santa Claus appeared out of nowhere. Instead of a sack of toys, the man with the Santa hat was carrying a giant jug of kitty litter.

A few sprinkles under the truck’s tires, and he was off again. The mystery Santa and his three helpers went through this motion another three times, once even helping push the truck up the hill. I thanked them profusely for their generosity.

A few miles — and hours — later, another group of do-gooders tried the same thing, using laundry detergent instead of kitty litter. However, this experience did not yield the same results.

I had watched enough Mr. Wizard as a child to know that turning snow and ice into soapy snow and ice would not be an improvement. But these helpers hadn’t reached the same scientific conclusion.

While well-intentioned, their misguided efforts sent the car struggling up the hill to come careening down into the intersection — sandwiched between two vehicles that also couldn’t make that climb.

It was decision time. I could wait with all the other hesitant motorists, risk sliding through the gaps between the three stranded vehicles or venture into uncharted icy patches to the right. I chose the latter.

Having gone through all five stages of grief, I was in a risk-taking mood. I was going home!

I summoned the strength I had found during the ice storm of January 2011, when I drove home from Orlando, Fla. Everyone had told me to stay in Macon, but I didn’t want to get stuck hours from home, particularly after learning days earlier that I was pregnant.

We made it, and spent several days snug in the safety of our home, not in some Macon motel. I wanted that same fate this time around.

This time, though, I was alone. And I wanted nothing more than to go home and see my husband and son.

Then I had to weave around seven cars that had been abandoned in the road. There were dozens more parked on medians, sidewalks and parking lots.

I lost count of the number of people walking home. They were doing so at a cautious pace, yet still fading out of sight in the time it took me to move inches.

Ambulances and public safety vehicles were traveling west in the eastbound lanes. I was grateful for those being assisted, but a bit jealous. So were others.

I know this, because one by one, they lined up behind the ambulances and fire trucks. Most didn’t wait for a safe leader before traveling the wrong way down a still occupied street. I witnessed more than one accident caused by this poor decision making.

Fortunately, none of the vehicles hit any of the school buses still taking children home well past their bedtime.

Probably the biggest cause of accidents that I witnessed was a lack of patience. People staying inches behind the car in front of them, instead of waiting until it had successfully climbed a hill. When the first car slid back down, it invariably struck the ones creeping behind it.

The trick is to build momentum going down the hill, so you don’t have to rely too heavily on the gas pedal on the way up the next one. But when you’re inching uphill at a complete standstill, the tires can’t grip the road.

Strategy aside, I had finally turned onto Sandy Plains Road — six miles to go. And it was glorious. I was traveling at nearly 20 mph, not a another vehicle in sight. This was it, my journey soon would be over.

Or not. About 2 miles later, everything came to a standstill. Another hour passed and no movement.

At this point, I began to think I’d be stranded overnnight. But 30 minutes after that, we started moving. Just not for long. A police car, perpendicular to the road, diverted us onto some strange, unfamiliar residential street.

It was hilly, but had been salted. Traffic was flowing at about 10 mph. When we reached Sandy Plains again, with three miles to go, I was the only car on the road.

Having spent so much time packed in with other vehicles, it was eerie to be alone, especially passing long-ago abandoned vehicles, wondering if I’d meet the same fate.

Or if I’d end up getting stopped like a friend of mine, who then walked six miles from Johnson Ferry Road, the only one in Cobb with worse conditions than Hwy. 92.

Working my way up our snowy driveway, I laughed deliriously. I had made it! I had seen and heard so many awful stories during my hours of phone calls, text messages and Facebook. (And before District 27 state Sen. Jack Murphy gets on my case about texting while driving, my cell phone came out only when my car was in park — which was about 90 percent of the time.)

But with all the horror stories of stranded friends, cars stuck in ditches and those facing long, cold walks home, I also witnessed hope.

I saw all-terrain vehicles giving rides to many of those on foot. I saw businesses opening their doors and food supplies to the stranded. I heard how some parents walked or drove to their child’s school to keep them company.

In the days ahead, there will be much finger-pointing and second-guessing. But we need also to remember the humanity, faith and hope that was on display during Snowjam 2014.

It was the longest and most emotional 11 hours I’ve experienced. But in the hug I got from my husband after I reached our garage, I knew it was worth it.

I wouldn’t be sleeping on a cement floor at a big box retailer. No, I was right where I should be at 2:30 a.m. — in bed with my husband and fluffy dog, listening to our son sleep soundly. I was home.

 

Jennifer Sami is a staff writer at the Forsyth County News.

 

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