We had fair warning even though my two weather apps had drastically different predictions of how the second snow of the year would play out. Until the snow had already exceeded predictions, both said it would amount to little, somewhere between a dusting and three inches. Not that big a deal. And anyone who has lived a while or read books about weather will know that predictions are highly uncertain. Fine, as far as that goes.
My wife is flying back to Washington DC from California, scheduled to land at National Airport (DCA to we cognoscenti) at 4:53 pm, a few hours after the snow was expected to start but given the predictions, we should have no issues. I drive a Ford Escape Hybrid that, in addition to extraordinary gas mileage, has front-wheel drive. It’s really a computer on wheels, with multiple sensors around the perimeter (aside: on road trips it will often suggest, by flashed dashboard message, that I am tired and should take a “rest”).
I set out from our apartment in the West End of DC at 4:30, plenty of time given that my wife checked her bag on the return flight. I am monitoring the flight’s progress on a cell phone app that, it will later appear, provides way more information than anyone could need, making the key information very hard to read while also trying to stay on the road whose lane markers have long ago disappeared.
Indeed, traffic is very light, although it’s apparent immediately that the car in front of me has no business being out in this weather. I carefully navigate Washington Circle, one of the cruel gifts of the original French designer of the city’s layout, and proceed down the hill to the Memorial Circle (site of the iconic Lincoln Memorial) and cross the Memorial Bridge to the George Washington (yes, that one) Parkway leading to the airport. Road conditions are not great but I’m moving right along and arrive at the Roaches Run Waterfowl Sanctuary parking lot, a short hop from DCA. I join a handful of other cars hopefully waiting to proceed to the airport where the cellphone “waiting” area is very small and the other places to stop and wait are patrolled regularly by police with guns.
[Aside No 2: According to the Washington Post, Roaches Run is named that because “The stream that feeds the lagoon is named for the family of James Roach, who ran a nearby brickworks and owned a mansion, since torn down, called Prospect Hill.” https://wapo.st/3KhGU3R Do not read that article because you will then be tempted to read the Comments where you will find yet another unnecessary war of words between two readers set off by an allegedly “off topic” comment and followed by “you’re one – no you are – no you…”]
After a while, I glance at my phone and see that the flight arrival is being pushed back. Not surprising considering the weather, runway clearing, etc. My weather app now changes as well – we’re now looking at 3 to 6 inches. No problem. Even had I known that before departure, my plan would not have changed. After all, I drive a Ford Escape ….
I wait. I look at the phone again and BOOM, I now see that the flight has been DIVERTED to Dulles International Airport (IAD to we cognoscenti) which is about 27 miles away and road conditions are deteriorating fast.
I depart Roaches Run, drive into DCA, and go around by the arrivals terminal so I’m now driving north on the GW. There are a few options for routes to IAD, but I choose to stay on the GW Parkway. I know the road well and traffic is sparse though road conditions are deteriorating fast. Several of the cars that also chose this route for whatever reasons are regretting the error as they slide around and, in some cases, get stuck in the mounting snow/ice/slush.
Undeterred, and in any case irrevocably committed to my chosen route, I forge ahead. I believe I am racing against a jet airplane that could be in final approach. Road conditions are deteriorating fast, but it could be worse. Only one driver does something really stupid, forcing me to brake suddenly to avoid him. I do. It’s all good.
I reach the Capital Beltway (the ring road around DC known to cognoscenti as 495), which is the link to the Dulles No-Toll superhighway that takes you straight to IAD. Traffic is much heavier on 495. Why? Is it really necessary for all these people to be driving on a Sunday night in a snowstorm when road conditions ….? Dumb question.
Still, I’m making good progress until the exit for the Dulles No-Toll Road. Here the snow has apparently melted near the pavement, the plows have missed the area and several cars are having that uh-oh moment of realization that they are now spinning in one place. Even my chariot is having a lot of trouble maintaining forward momentum.
But I ease around the floundering cars, leaving them in my dust (very figuratively speaking) and make it onto the No-Toll road. I could take the Toll Road that parallels (literally right next to) the No-Toll Road but why pay when you can drive for free (the Devil whispers in my ear)? I think I will make it to IAD in plenty of time because the government usually keeps the No-Toll Road pretty clear, and traffic remains light. I am maintaining a nice steady 20 mph on a road designed for 55 and often driven at 65 to 70 by many (other people).
Once clear of other cars and with open (figuratively speaking) road ahead, I glance at my phone for a time check. WHAT???? The flight has been RE-DIVERTED back to DCA!!!!
Now, for those who don’t know, the thing about the No-Toll Road is that, because it’s free and might be abused by commuters who want to escape the frequent congestion on the parallel Toll Road, once you’re on the No-Toll Road you may not exit until you reach the airport. Aaarghhh!!!
There are, of course, a few “Official Vehicles Only” exits with dire warnings about high penalties, gates, red lights, and other reasons not to use those exits. Once entering one of those lanes, you might not be able to get out and the police are around trying to help motorists when the can.
Soooo, I chicken out and keep driving – allllll the way out to IAD where I circle through the airport. My computer-on-wheels is now flashing all manner of dashboard warnings to the effect that the sensors that tell you when you’re about to crash and burn are blocked. I am a bit concerned that the computers may simply shut the engine off, so I stop in a no-stopping zone at the end of the terminal, exit the car and try, unsuccessfully, to remove the ice caked all around the lower perimeter of the car (where, naturalement, the sensors are located).
To hell with it. I get back in the car and head back onto the No-Toll Road back toward DCA, still 27 miles from where I just came. I can’t be sure, but it appears that my wife’s fight is still circling DCA so I’m still good on arrival time.
Indeed, the snow is turning to rain/sleet (a miracle?) and while it’s cold as hell (world class mixed metaphor), the rain is clearing the road of snow much better than the snowplows could. I am traveling 40 mph at times. I stay on the No-Toll Road until it merges with I-66 (known to cognoscenti as The Road Where Cars Go to Run Out of Gas While Idling in Traffic) and miraculously arrive in Crystal City (don’t ask if you don’t know). The phone rings — my wife is in the terminal with a large group of people awaiting delivery of their luggage, running back and forth from one carousel to another (Guess Which Carousel If You Can – a favorite game of the baggage handlers at DCA). I slow down, arrive in the “road” that serves as the airport pick-up zone for arriving passengers, acquire my wife plus luggage and head back to DC.
She is starving because she believed that having been served a meal traveling west, she would also get one coming east. She had, after all, paid for an upgrade to Premium Economy. In reality, enroute from LAX (Los Angeles for cognoscenti on a flight that exceed five hours, she was served a … cookie. Meanwhile, my total driving time was almost as long as her flight, so there’s that.
All’s well that ends well, of course, and the ride from DCA was uneventful, I didn’t get a ticket for the U-turn I didn’t make on Pennsylvania Avenue to acquire carry-out at the local Thai place, and we settle in to watch a blood-soaked movie starring an aging Pierce Brosnan who, miraculously, fought like a twenty-something. There is hope.