Dispatches From the Blizzard of 2013

So it was probably not such a great idea to drive to Long Island this weekend.

It seemed like such a good idea at the time. A quiet weekend in February. A trip with my husband, Doug, to the beaches of the Hamptons, at a time when they’d be deserted. It would be a well-deserved getaway for us both. Sure, a big snowstorm was due to hit New England, but I’d been watching the Weather Channel avidly for days before we left, and it wasn’t supposed to be bad where we were headed. The last thing I did, after we’d already loaded up the car, was recheck what was expected in the town we were driving to: No snow until after 8 p.m. on Friday. We were leaving at noon for the four-hour drive. We’d be fine, right? And if we got snowed in once we were there, well, who cared? It was a luxury resort!

There was nothing but rain as we headed north to Route 78, though we did see a few flurries fall around the highlands of Allentown. But then it was just rain again, all the way into New York City. I was driving the first leg; Doug took over just before we crossed the George Washington Bridge. We were still on schedule: 3:00 p.m. It was hard for us to tell whether the heavy bridge traffic was because of the impending storm or just normal Friday-afternoon commuters. Snow was coming down, but not at an alarming rate. We skirted the Bronx and found the charmingly named Throg’s Neck Bridge with no problem. And that’s where the fun began.

The heavy traffic turned turgid going over the bridge and onto the Long Island Expressway, a road we’d never traveled before. The snow was coming down harder, and we were starting to think about a gas station, with the fuel gauge at a quarter-tank. We were struck by how orderly and polite New York drivers were once you got them out of the city. Though conditions were deteriorating rapidly, no one cut anybody off; traffic kept moving slowly but steadily. We had a total of 70 miles to go on this unfamiliar highway to reach our destination. Sure, there was the occasional spinoff onto the shoulder to gawk at, but I’d seen much worse on my Montgomery County commute a week before, when Route 422 sported eight accidents between Pottstown and Oaks due to a sudden snow squall. We still figured we’d be okay.

I was glad Doug was driving, though, because every now and then our car skidded in the packed-down slush. The snow was really coming down, heavy and wet. Our windshield wipers seized up under the weight, and when Doug hit the blinkers and hopped out to scrape them clean, no one so much as honked at us.

Six lanes of cars, three eastbound and three westbound, were still moving at five miles per hour, bumper to bumper. Doug repeatedly checked the iPhone maps app as he drove, a process that makes me quake with terror even when we’re not in the midst of a blizzard. By now, it was past 6:30. We’d gone just 20 of those 70 miles in three hours. The gas needle was inching toward empty. “Fifty more miles—it could take 10 hours,” Doug calculated. He hadn’t once reproached me for the fact that we’d set out on this expedition. We’d both agreed before we left that we’d make the Hamptons easily before the storm hit. That its track wasn’t what anyone had expected wasn’t my fault, but I felt guilty all the same, since the getaway had been my idea. When, a quarter-hour later, he suggested we get off the highway to at least get gas, I readily agreed.

The secondary roads were in much worse shape than the expressway, with snow swirling and blowing. We had no idea what town we were in, or where a gas station might be. Doug checked his iPhone and found one; it turned out we were on the wrong side of a divided highway to get there. He found another, but it was being cleared by a plow. We ducked into a Dunkin Donuts for the restrooms—we hadn’t stopped in six hours at this point. I got a latte, too, though I needed a drink more than I needed caffeine. Back in the car, we pulled into the now-somewhat-cleared gas station. The owner screamed at us: “No gas! No gas!” We pulled out again. Fuck you, gas-station guy.

Doug’s iPhone showed a Marriott a mile away. By now, the blizzard was really pounding, with winds buffeting our Honda, and the stoplights strung across the highway swinging violently. The only vehicles still on the road were pickups and plows. We drove down abandoned roads, searching for the hotel in the darkness as the wipers re-iced and our tires spun frantically. We were in one of those weird pockets of ultra-zoning-coded suburbia where the office parks look like hotels and the hotels like office parks. By sheer chance, we spotted the sign for the Marriott beneath a snowdrift and skidded into the driveway.

They had room for us. They also had room for a whole bunch of families with autistic kids who were attending a conference. They had a bar, and a restaurant. We checked in, gratefully. My knees were shaky. We called the resort we’d been trying to get to. They told us the Long Island Expressway had been shut down.

So we settled in. Besides the autistic kids and their families, the only other guests seemed to be dozens of sturdy-looking men, ages 30 through 50, wearing jeans and flannel shirts. They were everywhere, in little packs of three or five or eight–in the restaurant, in the fitness center, in the four-story glass-ceilinged atrium. They were perfectly pleasant, nodding hello as they passed, but the sameness of them was eerily disturbing; it was like a hotel full of Stepford husbands. I finally asked a bellhop: “Are all these guys snow-plow drivers?” “Nah,” he said. “Utility crews.” He pointed to where one end of the parking lot was filled with their snow-covered trucks. “After Hurricane Sandy, the power was out for weeks here. So as soon as the Governor heard this storm was coming, he sent for them–way ahead of time. They’re from all over the country–Ohio, Tennessee, Georgia.” Maybe even a Witchita lineman or two.

We had a lackluster dinner. We rented Lincoln in our room. (Loved it!  Sally Field–who knew?) We slept, in a bed much nicer than the one we have at home. In the morning, we emerged into the atrium. The kids were still running around, and the Stepford men were hanging out, but the four-story glass ceiling was covered in three feet of snow, which lent the bar and pool and tropical plants a leaden gray chill, like a Scottish cathedral. Drifts reached chest-high on the street-level windows. We took advantage of the free high-speed Internet access in the atrium (in the room, they charged us, if you can believe it) to dial up the New York Times on a laptop.

That’s when we saw the headline about the road we’d been been traveling—“On the Long Island Expressway, Cold, Hungry and Stranded”—and learned how close we’d come to spending the night in our car. The videos and photos were stunning—a snowbound six-lane highway dotted with spun-out , drift-covered vehicles for miles and miles. Hundreds of cars had gotten stuck on the expressway, unable to exit, unable to move forward, unable to do anything but sit and wait. The cops and fire trucks that tried to save them also got stuck; Suffolk County resorted to snowmobiles to ferry frozen motorists to diners and motels and anyplace else that was warm. A woman went into labor in her car–of course–and had to be airlifted out. The evacuations had gone on all night. They were still going on.

We began to feel a little better about our decision to bail the night before. But we agreed we didn’t feel stupid for setting out on our journey. We hadn’t been foolhardy; we’d packed food and water, blankets, coats, even a snow shovel in the trunk. We would have survived, albeit uncomfortably, if we’d been marooned. Instead, we spent two days at the Marriott. (The Long Island Expressway remained closed for most of Saturday, then was promptly shut down again on Sunday morning, from two exits further along than we had made it all the way to the far eastern  end, so a 17-snowplow convoy–awesome video, CBS News!–could do its job.) We watched really expensive movies and ate really overpriced food. We talked Premier League soccer with a charming Peruvian waiter; we got into the glass-walled elevator at one point and found it occupied by two young autism-convention attendees who were sitting side by side on the floor and staring intently out through the glass. We eyed the snow piled up on the atrium’s glass roof with trepidation. We dug out our car. And we learned that after three decades of marriage, despite everyday lives in which our paths cross much less than they once did, we can manage, in an emergency, to come together rather than blame each other, and spend two days in the same hotel room without killing each other, or even getting cross. That’s a getaway worth taking, and maybe one we needed even more than the weekend at the fancy resort we never reached.


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