And The Meek Shall Inherit Hypothermia

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I was stuck in the I-5 mess in Southern California for three or four hours a couple of weeks ago.  My day had started in Hartford 20 hours earlier and included a scintillating three hours of 95-mph driving behind a BMW jackrabbit across the Sonoran desert between Phoenix and Palm Springs.

Then I hit the storm in the LA basin, just as daylight was leaving.  It was a treat to see a Pacific Northwest landscape in Southern California, the mountains obscured by energetic clouds rather than ambient smog.

Two more hours of driving in snow and rain and I was on the access road from 138 to I-5.  Hundreds of tractor-trailers lined the highway and ramps, their reflectors like the lights of a distant small town.   Not a vehicle was moving.  No cops or emergency rigs or road crews were visible (nor would be for four hours).

There were three types of drivers: Truckers who were just stuck; car drivers who sat behind trucks; and car drivers who were going to get through no matter what.

I am not always the most aggressive person, but the road surface was becoming a skating rink, the convertible was stuffed with vases and paintings and the gas tank was empty.  I could sit there and freeze all night sitting up in my driver’s seat or I could get home some other way.

The couple from New Jersey who pulled in behind me felt the same way, so after we bonded in our East Coast superiority over how absurd this situation was with a few measly inches of snow, we picked our way through the white maze in our simple passenger cars, no 4WD and no snow tires.

(One of the things that struck me the next day was that there wasn’t much snow, really.  You would think that the most important highway in the nation’s most industrious state would be worth keeping open no matter what.  Third-world country, here we come.)

It took four hours to cover four miles.  There were five lanes of highway, two breakdown lanes and the median ditch available to us.  When we hit a blockage we got out and surveyed.  We knocked on the cabs of truckers and asked them to inch forward and back.   A band of cars began to follow us, sensing…..leadership?

Humanity was on display.  One trucker was so shy about taking a leak that he moved his rig off at an angle to shield him from view.  One of his colleagues, by contrast, relieved himself in the middle of the highway for our entertainment.

I interrupted one couple well on their way to having sex.  A small clan huddled like hobos around a burning oil drum.  One group was getting stoned, another eating burritos.  It was Mad Max on Ice meets The Odyssey.

After a final perilous balance-beam trip along the right edge of the road we made it to the Gorman exit and perhaps the most welcome petrol station I’ve ever seen, where we were able to turn around and find another way to San Francisco.

We all waved to each other in parting.  (The New Jersey couple called me the next morning to see if I made it – I love when people do that kind of thing).

I-5 southbound to Santa Clarita was beautiful, as empty of cars as you will ever see, with a near-full moon shining on the snowy San Gabriels, resting between storms.   I only made it as far as Ventura on the 101 before I had to sleep for the night, but at least I was positioned for home on Thursday.

Some other drivers also took charge and made it out.  Most huddled in their cars, surrounded by 18-wheelers, assuring me that the highway was going to be closed until dawn at least and there was nothing to do but wait. These were the folks who needed help from the CHP and the Red Cross the next morning.

After turning around, I passed the long thick line of clogged vehicles. I could see the path that so many of the drivers could have taken to get out of the jam.  The lesson?

Take chances and keep your legs moving.  Don’t wait for a leader. Find a way from here to your desired result.  It will make you happier and keep you alive longer.  Duh, but the obvious lessons are the best ones, because they remind us that we have lost track of something important.

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