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Slow down and look at the flakes

Posted by William Fennie at Feb 06, 2010 10:05 PM |

End-times weather in Washington DC (and elsewhere, right ?)

Slow down and look at the flakes

The little ants to the lower left are neighbors trying to dig out their car. Unclear on the concept.

The DC metro area and big parts of the northeastern USA are being covered in white stuff. The first flakes started coming down in Maryland late afternoon yesterday, around 4:00 p.m. Now, 19 hours later, it's coming down harder than ever.

Today's heading comes from Richard Burns, H.W., M., resident of Vancouver BC Canada, who enjoys commenting on the apocalyptic pronouncements coming through the media about everything happening in Washington DC.

It's symptomatic that the Washington Post ran the story about the storm with the headline "Snowmageddon." Accuweather was almost gleeful in their delineation of all the things that were going to grind to a halt because of the weather and pronounced the storm "historic" before it had a chance to occur. Of course, they were right, but still . . .

So, here's how snowmageddon looks 19 hours on (click on the image above - you can see the flakes if you squint). It's going quite strong and doesn't show any sign of letting up. Jim Renza reports he has shoveled a path from the back door to the front of the house he shares with Billye Talmadge and has made the first attempt at uncovering his car. Another two inches fell during the time he was shoveling.

Adventure trip

winter-adventure1At the time the storm was developing I was visiting with the good folks at the Population Research Institute at Penn State University. I had made arrangements with the hotel that I might stay Friday night as well if the weather got too bad to travel. During the day I kept checking on the weather and  finally decided that I could probably make it home if I left by 3:00 p.m. - estimating it would take four hours to get there.

The first flakes were beginning to fall in State College when I got on the road. Temperature was hovering around freezing but the road was wet but clear all the way to Harrisburg (left) - about an hour's ride.

winter-adventure2It wasn't until I was on Rte. 15 heading toward Gettysburg that things began to look like real winter travel. One of the things I hadn't thought through very clearly was that as the weather got worse travel would slow down, and I might not make it to the DC area until a lot later. My average speed on the road between Harrisburg and Gettysburg was around 40 mph. For awhile I was one of a long train of cars following a snow truck (right) - average speed 35 mph. A bit frustrating, but better than trying the untreated road.

Shortly after Gettysburg, however, the political realities set in and our friendly snow truck turned around. Pennsylvania trucks don't service Maryland roads, unfortunately. And the Maryland services hadn't gotten to this portion of road, either. That made a long, nerve racking trip to Frederick, Maryland : squinting through the windshield to see tracks I might follow; dealing with the swirling snowflakes attacking the windshield; slowing down without using brakes, etc., etc., etc. Anyone who's done winter driving knows what I mean. More than once I thought that if I made it to Frederick I'd call it quits and find a motel.

Nittany Lion 1Navigating through the exchange at Frederick I decided to go for the whole trip. I was pretty sure that if I stopped at Frederick I wouldn't be getting home until Sunday at the earliest. The Nittany Lion Inn (left, and below right) would have been a much better choice for weathering the storm than the Motel 6 near the freeway in Frederick. Besides, it seemed obvious that the services on the capitol beltway and surrounding superhighways would be better than those on Rte. 15. Wrong again.

Nittany Lion 2It was a long, demanding drive down I-270, which climbs a long hill on its way out of Frederick and then proceeds through countryside, eventually traversing the numerous northwest suburbs of DC that are home to big organizations like IBM, Boeing, Hughes, etc. It's a six-lane road, but the traffic confined itself to a single lane, except when someone moving too slowly forced a second lane to open up.

I-270 dumps into I-495, the capitol beltway. Same story there, one or two lanes on a four-lane highway. By this time the snow had accumulated quite a bit. It was wet and had gotten really, really slick. Several unfortunate motorists had slid off to the left side. This included a large tractor trailer, which made for a dangerous, slow traverse. (Sorry, no photos - I was a bit occupied.) This almost became my fate. Trick is, they slope the freeway a lot at that particular segment so the slightest screw up can put you into a skid. I think I was moving just a bit too fast when I hit clump of snow - I was sliding to the left, toward the wall, and the car was not responding to the steering wheel. No brakes, no gas, just sliiiiide and wait for the front wheels to take. At the last possible moment, the front wheels did take and I began to move off the right - at least I wouldn't end up scruffing up the left side of my car.

At that point I conceded that a bit more patience and single file for awhile might be the order of the moment. From that point on, though, I made sure I was well up on any slopes as I came into them. This was the first real trouble I'd had with the actual pavement, and I had made it to about three miles from home.

Finally, my exit appeared and I prepared myself for what might be the diciest part of the trip. After a clean exit I approached the turn for my subdivision - a fairly steep incline that runs for about 40 feet. Two cars had had a small collision at the bottom and were blocking the road. No way to get around them. I had to go a block further and attempt an approach up another street - this one a back street that surely had not been plowed. My gambit paid off and I arrived chez moi around 8:15 p.m. - about 5 hours after I had started.

The Mini's performance

We've had the Mini for a little over a year and have been very pleased with the way it drives. This adventure confirms that the Mini is a treasure in dicey weather. (For the curious, it's a 2007 Mini Cooper, auto-manual transmission.) It has a very smart transmission algorithm even in automatic mode and a set of paddles on the steering wheel to allow up- and down-shifting with both hands on the wheel. When the snow got serious I moved the lever into manual mode, which engages a much more rigorous shifting regime that stays longer in each gear and yields a lot of control.

Most impressive was traction up long hills. Buggah just kept going. One great feature is a small light that comes on right in the middle of the instrument panel whenever the wheels start to spin. Getting the visual feedback in real time was crucial for getting up the final hill - I was able to lay off enough to let the traction bite. Brilliant.


I didn't have to make this trip. The folks at PSU would undoubtedly have understood and rescheduled for another time. On the other hand, it seemed to me that it was now or never for this particular meeting. Why ? dunno. Has to do with a lot of imponderables connected to the timing of things presently unknown, probably.

There's something about following an intuition in the face of daunting circumstances that acknowledges the best in us. I don't know what the results of this visit will be - time will tell. But I knew it was the right trip at the right time. And making it home based on my best judgment of what would be necessary was a confirmation of my capacity to make evaluations in real time. We know these things in principle, I think, but having them verified in practice adds them to the experience base, which we draw upon later - next time we have to make a judgment call.

Intuition doesn't rely on experience, although it's a factor. Following an intuition, however, often requires drawing on the deepest levels of the experience base in order to bring forth a successful result. When it does there's a sense of satisfaction like nothing else.