Sunday, February 19, 2012

In Eli We Trust

“Caution: mountain weather changes rapidly.” If you spend enough time perusing any National Park Service webpage you’re bound to come across this warning. I know what it usually means – that storm you see way off in the distance will be on you much sooner than you think and it will be more severe than you expect, so be prepared. In general, I do come prepared for such eventualities, entering parks with a full tank of gas, an emergency blanket (Thanks, Zach’s Bar Mitzvah), something to start a fire, and enough food to last the rest of my trip. But there’s one thing that I have never brought and today it finally came back to bite me: A backup plan.

After today, it’s clear that I have two forces working against me on this trip: Mother Nature and the people of Virginia. I did everything right. I checked the weather last week and there wasn’t supposed to be any precipitation for 2 days on either side of today. I turned on the TV this morning just to be sure, and suddenly a Winter Weather Advisory had popped up for the entire southern Appalachian region. So just to be safe, I called (yes, you read that right – called with a phone) Shenandoah National Park, my intended destination for the day, to check if Skyline Drive, the only road through the park, was open. According to the message the road was open from mile 0 to mile 105 – its entire route. It was 8:20am.
So I set out from the northern park entrance and began working my way south, stopping at several of the overlooks. The views were nice, but I suspect that, like most parks, the best scenery is in the middle of the park. Same thing happened at Grand Teton. For these first 30 miles, I had the road to myself, encountering less than a dozen other vehicles, most of which were National Park Service trucks.

When I reached the first intersection with a road that ran through the park going east-west, I came face to face with a barricade. “Road closed.” This didn’t seem right to me. After all, I had checked only an hour earlier and the road was open. Surely the forecast couldn’t have changed that much in so little time. So I called the number back. This time I heard a different message, telling me that Skyline Drive was now closed at all points south of me due to expected snow and ice that afternoon. The time on the message was 8:38am. I looked around, and while I know that mountain weather changes rapidly, there was no storm anywhere I could see. The message continued with the official forecast, which called for an inch of snow falling in the afternoon and evening. Now I know that people down here aren’t as used to snow as I am, but this seemed ridiculous. A mountainous national park with a road that stays open in the winter and they don’t have the capability of clearing an inch of snow, so they therefore close 80 miles of road 12 hours in advance of the weather? Virginia isn’t for lovers, Virginia is for pussies.

So I begrudgingly headed down the western slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, figuring I’d get an early start on my other important destination for the day: Best Buy. After an hour’s drive to the store I had found last night, I was greeted by a sheet metal door. The store wasn’t open yet. Well, I guess that’s understandable. It was only 11am. I’m telling you, these Virginians… So I went into Wal-Mart (as quickly as possible so I didn’t come into contact with Walmartitis) and found a power adapter there. Then I felt dumb because I had passed a Wal-Mart in Front Royal this morning. Oh well, it wasn’t like I had a tight schedule anymore.

From that point on, I had to call an audible (a la Eli Manning) for the rest of the day. I decided I’d do Luray Caverns today and take another shot at Skyline Drive on my way back north, just going the other way. This place was (and I can’t believe I’m about to say this) hella cool.

Under what looked like just one of innumerable hills in the Shenandoah Valley sits this maze of stalagmite-lined tunnels that look like a cross between something out of Indiana Jones and the Batcave. At any moment, I expected to have to stop what I was doing and run away from a giant boulder rolling down the path.
This is a shaggy dog. This is a very shaggy dog...

The tour guide talked about the names of each of the formations, which I paid little attention to, since I was far more interested in looking at this crazy structure created by nature than in listening to why a bunch of grizzled 19th century prospectors named a particular rock after George Washington (for the record, if George Washington looked like a 25-foot tall white rock-encrusted column, it’s no surprise we won the war). So I spent about 90% of the hour-long tour staring up at the ceiling and trying to avoid any signs of human intervention in the cavern. 

The one interesting human contribution was the addition of a stalactite pipe organ, played by mechanically tapping a series of stalactites that produced notes. After seeing it and hearing it in action, I became convinced that when he wasn’t in the basement of the Paris Opera, this was the vacation home of the Phantom of the Opera.
After the Luray tour, it was only 1:30 and I was out of ideas for the day. So I checked the place’s website for other area attractions and realized that Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson featured on the back of the nickel, was a little more than an hour away. I had considered visiting Monticello anyway but it hadn’t worked with my previous itinerary. Now that that was out the window, I was free to take the trip back east over the Blue Ridge Mountains, through the walled cage of the Shenandoah Valley, and into Charlottesville, with an ETA an hour before the last tour was set to depart.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the mansion. Remember that phantom Shenandoah snow? It finally showed up. First came flurries, then a steadier stream of flakes. I wasn’t worried, though, because the car said it was 39 degrees, so I knew none of it would stick. I was over the mountains, too, so I didn’t expect the temperature to fall more than 7 degrees in an hour over a flat area. Herein lay my two fatal mistakes: I underestimated the weather and I overestimated the Virginians.

Five miles outside of Charlottesville, the snow was coming down heavily and sticking to grass, but the roads were still completely clear. In fact, one guy even got out of his car and tried to explain this to the policewoman who had closed off all of I-64. She was having none of it, and routed hundreds of now-panicked Virginian motorists onto a local road. 
Now I was getting nervous that I would miss that last tour because of traffic. Then the snow soon began to stick while I watched in horror as the temperature dropped to 31, then 29 degrees. Between the deer-in-headlights drivers and the lack of visible wintry infrastructure (Charlottesville brags that it now has 24 plows. That’s 24 more than I saw. I guess the drivers have negotiated the same schedule as the Best Buy workers) led to a travel speed of about 10 miles an hour. By the time I turned on to Monticello Road, there were 2 inches on the grass and the road was white.
I had no problem with this and felt an obligation to instruct the poor souls around me on how to manage such conditions: Put the car into a lower gear, give yourself lots of braking time, keep a ridiculous amount of space between you and the car in front of you, and absolutely positively do not stop while going uphill, lest you be unable to start moving again. These were all strategies that those around me clearly struggled with. But I kept my distance and soldiered on. I parked and headed up to the visitor’s center to buy my ticket.
Alas, the ticket seller dudes had apparently seen the ground turn white, assumed it had contracted leprosy, and fled to his doomsday bunker. In fact, the entire estate had closed down an hour early on account of that inch of anticipated snow. So I wasn’t going into the mansion, but I thought maybe I could take the half-mile trail to at least see Jefferson’s grave. But at the trailhead were several signs warning potential freeloading hikers that tickets were required. I had already seen some version of a police officer standing around and while I didn’t know which branch of the military was responsible for guarding the graves of long-dead presidents I wasn’t in the mood to find out. So I left, but not before once again checking the Monticello website to see if I had missed the closing announcement. Nope, and according to it I could still go back and have another hour to look around. You stay classy, Monticello.
Little did I know that it would only be after I descended the twisty road out of Monticello-land that things would get really interesting. I had decided to bag any subsequent audibles and just head for my hotel in Waynesboro, even though it was still relatively early. I-64 was now open in that direction, but apparently the state of Virginia hadn’t seen fit to sand, salt, or plow the main thoroughfare for the center of the state, which was now basically a snowy sidewalk. For most of the trip, I was comfortable going about 50, following my rules from earlier, except when a right-lane imbecile decided to block the left lane going 35. The most frustrating thing was that I couldn’t give him the classic “get the hell out of my way” signals – tailgating or high beams – because both would require me to get too close, which might spook ‘em and cause a massive pileup. 

A few miles in, I realized I had bigger problems than drivers stuck in the 19th century: If I had crossed the Blue Ridge going east, I was going to have to cross it again going west – this time with several inches of unplowed snow on the road. That was where travel slowed to 15 miles an hour, and for good reason. I passed at least a dozen accidents in those 2-3 miles, none of which had injuries so can therefore be made fun of. One car was parked in the left lane, having clipped the guardrail at just the right angle, tearing off his bumper but leaving the rest of the car undamaged. An obviously-delusional Corvette driver who thought it wise taking the thing out on such a beautiful day had rear ended a much cheaper car. At least 3 cars had slid into the median and were now stuck, and a few drivers had simply given up and parked in the right lane. At one point I passed a fire truck responding to one of the accidents, only to be passed again by him a few minutes later as he moved on to another accident a little further up the road.

In the end, I made it to the Royal Inn without incident, despite my Electronic Stability Control light having a seizure for the last half-mile. 
The snow is supposed to subside in the next few hours, leaving up to 6 inches of snow in the area. It seems likely that I’ll be calling on Eli again tomorrow, as the Blue Ridge Parkway is currently closed through all of Virginia and all but about 10 miles in North Carolina. I’m still holding out hope that it will reopen south of milepost 300 before I get there. But even if it doesn’t, one of my BRP destinations is actually on a different road near the Parkway, so I might still be able to go to that. Of course, that too might be closed due to weather. The good news, at least, is that this will almost definitely be the last weather I encounter on this trip, as the temperature is expected to reach 50 throughout the region tomorrow and for the rest of the week. So if those guys in the Smokies can’t get the roads open in 36 hours with 50 degree weather, I’m driving in anyway and claiming the park as my own sovereign nation. After all, who among them would be able to drive in and stop me?

1 comment:

  1. Welcome (belatedly) to the South.

    When I moved down to NC, I was warned about how people handle snow. I took it as an exaggeration.

    My first winter it snowed. The state of North Carolina declared a statewide emergency and called in the National Guard. My mother called me panicking. "They said the National Guard is there! Are you okay?"

    "Yes mom. There's about half an inch of snow outside."

    It kept better better throughout the winter. Schools would close entire days before snow was supposed to fall and would remain closed for days afterward. People would flock to the store and buy out the entire stock of milk, bread and eggs.

    When it snows, you can tell who is from up north because they are the only ones on the road going over 5mph.