“I hope you got yourself a four by four,” the Hertz shuttle driver warned as we departed Dulles International Airport for the rental lot. “Friday is gonna be blizzard and this town will be shutting down,” he bellowed. Snow had already come to Washington DC earlier that day, but the 51 degree temperature had prevented any real accumulation. “How much snow is coming?” I asked trying not to sound like too much of a Californian. “Weather says were gonna get about 24 inches Friday and Saturday. I got no idea how I am going to get into work,” he complained. As we inched over the speed bumps at the departure terminal, a few big flakes ominously bounced off the bus’s windshield. It was a perfectly pleasant winter evening in DC however, and kind of hard for a California transplant from Florida to imagine what was coming. Sure, DC got its share of snow, but a blizzard? I found the whole notion to be absurd. Blizzards are something my friends in Maine experience. They blow through the treeless tundra of Alaska and make the caribou shiver, but they do not hit Northern Virginia. So I smiled and nodded to my driver, writing off his comments as boredom induced hyperbole.
Over the next three days however, the weather reports began to back up his assertions. The local weather outlets warned that this could be the “big one” and that all DC snow records could well be broken. According to wild-eyed news reporters across city, it was going to be a “snowpocalypse,” the blizzard to end all blizzards. Schools, businesses, highways, government offices, medical centers, and grocery stores would all be shut down. Even the Metro, DC’s one constant, would stop running its above ground routes. One television station even predicted that there would be a November “baby boom” due to folks having, “nothing better to do.” By noon on Friday, it was a city on the brink of disaster. The National Mall was empty and the lights were off in all the government office buildings. Except the EPA building that is. Ironically, they had left theirs on.
I however, had it pretty good. I was a guest in a 4 star hotel with a nice cozy room, and, I was friends with the bartender. There were even rumors of a blizzard party scheduled to take place in an undisclosed room. “Yep, this was not only going to be easy,” I thought to myself, “it may even be fun.” Growing up in Florida, I had no experience with snow. I remember once, while in high school, we had a few flakes hit the ground. The news that evening was filled with photos of mini-snowmen that folks had been able to scrape together off of the hoods of their cars. Sure, they closed the schools, but it was so that the kids could enjoy the snow before it melted. As a young Navy man, I left Florida for the warm sunny hills of Southern California. Certainly it snows there, but it is usually restricted to the higher elevations. In fact, snow is seen by most Southern Californians as recreational. It is something you drive to in the morning, ski on, and then drive away from when you grow weary of it. Snow has learned to keep its place in the Golden State and seldom tries to invade our homes and yards. It has been domesticated to fit into California’s picture perfect, sunny, Spanish tile roofed setting. The only people that have to deal with it are recluses that live in the mountains, and ski lodge workers. So, as I sat at my favorite hotel bar last Friday and watched the snow piling up against the lobby windows, I ordered another drink and wondered what all the fuss was about.
People in the Northeast see snow a bit differently however. It is an invader, pretty at first, but certain to overstay its welcome. It is something that must be shoveled, blown, scraped, driven on, and landed in. Certainly you can ski on it; if you can get out of town that is. So, while I was enjoying my adult beverage and happily watching the snow scape form outside, thousands of DC residents were lined up in grocery stores buying toilet paper, toothpaste, food, and bottled water. Home Depots across the city were selling out of snow shovels, generators, and blowers faster than they could ship them in. Gas stations were mobbed as people filled their cars and spare gas cans. Snowpocalypse was coming, and they were getting ready for the siege. I too had gone out that morning to get prepared. I walked next door to Target where I picked up a Pictionary game and a bottle of Maker’s Mark, just in case things got rough. “Now that is thinking ahead!” I laughed to myself.
Things went swimmingly during the first few hours of the storm. As snow blanketed the streets around us, the blizzard party picked up steam. I was even able to talk a group of French tourists into a game of Pictionary. It did not go well, but was fun nonetheless. It was not until about midnight that the trouble began. As I wandered back to my room from the festivities, my stomach began to growl. In the excitement of the blizzard party, I had forgotten to eat and was now famished. So when I got to my room, I dutifully studied the room service menu and called the kitchen for a big juicy sirloin burger and fries. “We are sorry sir,” the voice on the other end of the phone explained, “we closed our kitchen two hours early so our staff could get home.” I hung up the phone. “No big deal,” I thought to myself, “I will just hike a few blocks down the road to a nearby McDonald’s.” After all, I had not really been out in the snow yet, and taking a walk in it would be fun…refreshing even! So I put on my coat and headed out into the blizzard to get my number 8 value meal with fries and a Sprite. As I walked out door however, one of the porters called out, “watch out for the black ice sir.” I barely took notice of his warning. It was extremely cold and windy, but about 6 blocks down the road, I saw the hopeful glow of the golden arches. The snowflakes around the sign reflected its radiance, almost forming a halo. In my mind, angels were singing. I could almost taste that Quarter Pounder which was, most certainly, sizzling on the grill right that moment. My face was freezing, my fingers numb, and my leather shoes starting to chill, but food was soon to be in my grasp. There was nothing to all this blizzard business that 1,500 calories of fast food could not cure.
In every fall there is a bit of flying involved, however subtle. A block away from my dinner I stepped onto an icy crosswalk. Too late, I realized that I had stepped onto a giant piece of “killer” black ice. In what could have rivaled a scene from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, I found myself flying horizontally through the air in a way that would make Jackie Chan jealous. With both my feet stretched out in front of me and the tails of my wool coat flying over my head, I windmilled my arms in a desperate attempt to regain control of my momentum. The laws of physics had clearly conspired against me though, and there was nothing left to do but hit the ground. I landed flat on my back in a pile of muddy snow that had been pushed up on the curve. As I lay there watching the little snow cloud I had made ascend gracefully around me, I noticed something strange flying overhead. Apparently in my fall, my right shoe had detached itself from my foot and was in the process of going free agent. It was now about three feet over my face and in the middle of executing what I can only describe as an Olympic-quality half gainer. Before my sluggish burger-starved nerve endings could fire, it came down on my face in a perfect landing, bloodying my lip and shattering my dignity into a thousand shards of black ice.
I lay there for a second, halfway expecting some good Samaritan to come rushing to my aid, but no such help arrived. I looked from side to side and realized that it was because I was the only person on the street. It seems that all the good Samaritans were in their cozy condos by the fire, sipping hot cocoa, and watching one of the twenty DVDs they had dutifully rented earlier in the day. And there I was alone, on my back, in the street, in the middle of a bona fide North Virginia blizzard. Clearly, I was not the quickest Wildebeest in the herd. I rolled over and tried to push myself up on my one good shoe clad foot. Droplets of blood dripped from my throbbing lip into the snow bowl that the back of my head had formed. Unfortunately, again, friction failed me and I performed what could only be described as an involuntary snow push-up. My little bloody snow bowl now had a face print in it, and it was not smiling.
After a few moments of struggle I was able to get back to my feet and, thanks to a slightly damp but sturdy news paper box, was able to stabilize myself enough get my freezing wet right shoe back on. I am not sure, but I think that I actually felt my toes retract. Struggling to keep my balance I hobbled across the now snow covered highway blotting my lip with the palm of my hand. As I trudged forward against the wind, snow sliced into my face like little razors. I was wet from top to bottom, freezing, hungry, and bleeding but the warm glow of the arches was looming before me and I was confident my quest would soon be victorious. With my journey nearly at its end, I stepped into the McDonald’s parking lot, and immediately felt gravity take charge of my body. Wham! Once again I was on my back. This time however, without the benefit of snow to cushion the blow. I landed in a puddle of ice, asphalt, oil, and tire residue. It coated my hair freezing almost instantly. As my vision cleared I looked up into the yellow glow of the sign. “Millions and Millions Served,” it proclaimed teasing me forward still. There was a throbbing pain in my hips and back, and a familiar ringing in my ears. It sounded faintly like Ronald McDonald laughing his ass off.
I shuttled myself an inch at a time across the icy parking lot toward the door. When it was within my reach I grabbed the handle and gave it a victorious yank. “I have earned this burger,” I thought to myself, “and I am going to enjoy every blood soaked bite of it.” It was then that I realized the door was not responding to my command. “It must be ice in the hinges,” I thought to myself as I gave it another try. Still nothing. I pulled again, this time so hard that I lost my balance and collapsed on the ground yet a third time. I got up, punched at the air in anger, and walked around to the next door. Like the first, it too was sealed tightly. This one however, had a sign on it which simply read, “Closed for Weather.” I felt what little blood I had left in my face drain away. Wet, cold, humiliated, and hungry I felt my rage get the best of me. The wailing sound that came from my diaphragm was like nothing I had ever heard. It was a beastly sound that clearly had its roots in our most primal instincts. It scared even me as I heard it echoing between the high rise hotels on either side of the parking lot. I am sure that somewhere in a nearby wood, I had awakened a Yetty.
The snow was now falling at an incredible rate. “How am I going to get back to my hotel?” I desperately wondered. “Perhaps they will just find me here in the McDonald’s parking lot tomorrow, frozen to death next to a giant McCafe coffee poster.” I could see the headlines spinning into view:
“Idiot Freezes for French Fries”
“No Happy Meal for This Moron”
Then, in the pit of my despair, I saw it. I could not believe my eyes. There was one car on the road headed toward me and it appeared to be a Taxi. Unafraid of being run over at this point, I stepped into the street waving my arms over my head in an effort to stop my would-be rescuer. The cab came to a halt, and the small Ethiopian gentleman inside looked at me as if he had just found the Donner Party eating lunch. He cracked his window and said, “sorry I am out of service for the weather.” I felt woozy. “So am I!” I exclaimed. “I will pay you whatever you like, just to take me a few blocks to my hotel. Please don’t leave me stranded here!” I pleaded. The driver gave me an irritated look but, to my surprise, capitulated. I jumped into the back seat and instantly felt the warmth of the car’s heater enshroud my body. I had just sat down in heaven and St. Peter himself was driving. A few minutes later we pulled up in front of my hotel. St. Peter turned around looked me squarely in the eye and said, “fifty dollars please.” I could not believe what I was hearing. “Fifty dollars!” I protested, “you only drove me six blocks!” Unmoved by my complaint, he have me a big grin and said, “special snow rate.” The next few seconds were right out of a 1966 spaghetti western. First you saw St Peter’s eyes, and then the camera shifted to mine. A church bell rang off in the distance. Slowly, without breaking eye contact, I reached down and flipped my coat open. A lady began to sing… “OK whatever,” I conceded. I reached into my wallet and pulled out my credit card. “I hope you take Visa,” I said, “I don’t have the cash.” His smile came back. “Sure no problem, but there is a two dollar processing fee.”
The next morning an emergency kitchen crew whipped up a fairly respectable breakfast which I was able to push past my fat lip with little difficulty. As I ate, I watched the snow continue to pile up outside the lobby window, but somehow it looked different than the day before. It was no longer the friendly white powder that we Californians drive up to the mountains to play in. Somehow it had changed. It was now something that you had to walk in, and slip on. It was a bloody lip, a fifty dollar cab ride, and a closed McDonald’s. This was not my friendly Southern California snow, no, it was an intruder.
Over the next couple of days the city slowly came back to life. Streets were plowed, airports reopened, and the drive through at my favorite McDonald’s was busy once again. Good Samaritans were back on the streets helping the elderly, and people were out taking pictures of the white shell that still encased the city. Then just yesterday morning, as I was sipping my Starbucks in the hotel lobby, I saw the news flash:
“Storm Number Two Headed for DC”
I walked to the television with a crowd of stunned weather hostages to listen. According to the report, storm number two was only a day away, and it was sure to dump another 12-15 inches of “white pain” on top of the 24 inches already on the ground. At that moment my telephone buzzed. It was United Airlines informing me that my flight scheduled for the next day had been cancelled “due to weather.” I raced to the elevator with fifty other folks to pack my bags and get out of town – any way I could. The elevator looked like a Japanese subway at rush hour, but I was able to elbow myself past an older woman and get on board. I ran to my room, grabbed my bag, and negotiated the icy streets back to Dulles International. My plan was simple. I would put myself on every waiting list, for every plane leaving town, for anywhere. If that did not work, I would rent a car and drive south until I was either clear of the storm or stuck in a McDonald’s parking lot.
I am happy to say that my plan worked and I am writing this post from a hotel room in balmy Daytona Beach, Florida. All the McDonald’s are opened here, and most of the locals have absolutely no idea what “black ice” is. I am one thousand miles away from my “snow fall” and quite content. I have a new found respect for snow however, as well as for my brothers and sisters across the Northeast who endure its wrath on a yearly basis. You are brave people, and I salute you….from the beach. In a final ironic twist to my story, the local weather has noted that a cold front is moving into Central Florida later this week, and there is an ever-so-slight chance of snow flurries. Ah yes, the fun snow! If, per chance, a little does happen to fall, perhaps I will go outside and make snowman on the hood of my rental car.