“My boss told me if I didn’t come in, I’d get fired.” So spoke a rather grumpy but nonetheless sight-for-sore-eyes Exxon attendant near Manassas, Va., last Monday night around 10 o’clock, as he mercifully allowed my wife, Noelle, and me to fill our gas tank and use the restrooms. The circumstances of our visit – we had recently taken leave from the excruciating slog of a snowbound Interstate 95 a couple miles east – made both services essential.
We had departed the snail-like train of vehicles with the expectation of escaping for the night to some hastily arranged hotel reservations closer to the highway only to find the hotel in question and all surrounding businesses dark and without power amid a rutted patchwork of icy, unplowed parking lots. After a few moments of “what in the heck do we do now?” conversation, it became apparent that the best alternative was to try to gas up and return to the interstate crawl in hopes that the road would somehow clear.
As it turned out, the road didn’t clear – it closed – and we ended up spending the night parked on an entry ramp to the highway, dozing occasionally to the oddly comforting diesel hum of idling 18-wheelers and sporadically running our own engine to stay warm in the 17-degree chill. Around 8:30 the next morning, we followed the lead of some other lucky souls and backed off the ramp and onto the now passably plowed side roads, which eventually led west to even clearer highways and a roundabout route home. By nightfall Tuesday, 30 hours after leaving New York City, we were back in North Carolina – grateful, tired and not too much worse for wear.
One supposes that just about all of the thousands of stranded travelers from last week’s I-95 “snow-pocalypse”  have had their own insights and revelations from the experience – lord knows, there was plenty of time to ponder such matters – but here are a few from one survivor:
Organized, civil society is a good thing. Americans can be an amazingly resilient, creative and generous people in times of chaos and crisis. And there were multiple moments during our night on the ramp in which we saw total strangers cooperate, make offers to share food, water, and personal products, and ultimately, work together to clear scores of vehicles.
That said, the night also included repeated reminders of the importance of the rule of law, civil authority and public structures – moments in which selfish daredevils put others at unnecessary risk with terrifying driving maneuvers; moments in which it seemed prudent to keep one’s doors locked as shrouded figures grew slowly larger in the rearview mirror; and most notably, hours upon hours in which a complete lack of useful information – even for those frantically searching official websites and social media – left thousands of people as clueless as they would have been in such circumstances 50 years ago.
The need for sustained infrastructure upgrades remains acute. The Biden administration is clearly moving us in the right direction on this front, but it’s also clear that severe storms like last week’s – some of them extremely localized – will become more and more common on our warming planet in the years ahead. As our population continues to grow, it will be essential that we invest much more in road improvements, heavy equipment to plow after snowstorms and remove stranded vehicles, and big communication upgrades to better inform travelers. A proposed Virginia bill  to slow truckers during bad weather and reduce the number of highway-blocking jackknifes seems like another fine idea.
Living in one’s car is hell. But if there is a central takeaway for the thousands who endured last week’s mayhem – most of whom ultimately returned to safe, warm homes – one hopes that it was a new appreciation for the bitter reality that confronts the roughly 600,000 Americans who face homelessness every night  (a sizeable percentage of whom try to survive in their cars ).
Simply put, life on the street, even for a single night in one’s own gassed-up vehicle with internet access, adequate clothes and provisions, no kids, and the virtual certainty that one will return to normalcy shortly, is a scary and thoroughly miserable experience. Those of us living comfortable lives can only imagine and shudder at the uncertainty, alienation, and fear (and simple hygiene challenges) that grip and debilitate those for whom such an experience is an every-night affair.
Shortly after our Tuesday morning escape, Noelle and I found ourselves, blessedly, in a warm Target store with public restrooms. As I soaped my hands in delightfully warm water, I gazed in the mirror at my weary and scruffy appearance and contemplated how much longer it would have taken for us to come to resemble a bona fide homeless couple and thereby inspire the averted eyes and acts of rejection that frequently accompany such a status. My guess: not very long.
One wonders what our state and national safety net policies might look like if all of our elected officials were forced to endure a similar experience.