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For man and his dog, snowstorm creates nightmare rush hour - make that 8 hours

By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 27, 2011; 3:01 PM

At 5:15 p.m. Wednesday, I left my house in Germantown to pick up our dog at doggy day care. Five hours and 10 minutes later, we're sitting, Andy and me, in the parking lot of a sold-out hotel, unable to get back home. We're five miles away.

Andy stares out the window, a hopeless little white Schnoodle keeping his hopeless father company in a Toyota minivan. We watch the lights in the hotel rooms flicker off. I shut off my car lights, tilt the seat back, preparing for a slumber that never comes.

The snowstorm that trapped thousands on the region's roads during Wednesday's evening commute trapped me for more than eight hours, and I'm embarrassed to admit my predicament was my fault. Driving south on Great Seneca Highway, I missed my turn - the window was fogged up, my head was cloudy from a horrific cold, the street lights were out. I was just trying to stay on the pavement.

By the time I realized that I had messed up, royally, there was a many-mile backup of stuck cars heading north, uphill. I couldn't move forward, and there was no place to turn around.

"I did something really stupid," I said to my wife on the phone. She said, "Yes, you did." The conversation was not pleasant.

We had a quarter-tank of gas. We sat. For more than an hour, we didn't move. During the second hour, as Andy nodded off, curled in a little ball on the heated seats, I noticed that the fuel gauge had dropped below the quarter mark. I imagined myself as that guy, stuck on a snowy road going uphill, freezing to death in the car, his dog never leaving his side.

I cried a little.

We had a choice to make - Andy was not contributing much to the decision-making process, but I considered us a team - and our options were: attempt to turn around and head for gas or stick out this wait, potentially hitting empty. I made the executive decision: Turn around. Get gas. Get food. Let the dog do his business.

I swung the van around, doing a U-turn across the median, coasted fine for a while, and then got stuck on an uphill slope. The tires spun. I switched into a lower gear. The engine sounded like an airplane racing down the runway. Andy whimpered, then barked at someone walking home. The guy behind me actually honked, and I used my middle finger and vocal cords appropriately.

We spun for five minutes, 10 minutes. I got out and kicked snow away from the tires. Revved the engine harder. And then I broke free, a small victory against nature.

We got gas and some Hostess cupcakes - plus orange juice for me, water for Andy, slurped out of a Big Gulp cup. We sat in a parking lot, staring at other stranded drivers through our foggy windshields. I plotted a plan on the GPS system to go north on I-270, getting on at Sam Eig Highway, but had trouble getting there. We sat for a while in a parking garage of a strip mall, dejected. Snow was still falling.

I plotted another plan to get on I-270 from Shady Grove Road, got there surprisingly easily, but when we circled down the ramp, we saw a gridlocked landscape before us. I did something that in hindsight was probably very stupid: I threw the Toyota into reverse, drove backwards up the ramp, and prayed that a salt truck wouldn't kill us.

One did not.

I shot over to Route 355 - total parking lot.

And then we gave up. I called my wife. "We're so close to being home and we cannot friggin get there," I said. "This has to be the worst night of my life." I hung up on her. My wife, somehow still wishing to be married to me, called several hotels - all booked.

So I made it to this parking lot of a Homewood Inn on Shady Grove Road. I trekked inside through the snow, hoping that a room might magically become available. "We're sold out," the clerk says. I beg. I offer triple the room rate (and mean it). I leave the front desk without a room key, only some Saltine crackers, granola bars and Advil from the gift shop.

Back in the car, I call the Montgomery County police to ask when Great Seneca might be cleared. Helpful sergeant says, "If you are in someplace warm, stay put a couple hours." We are warm. I check Twitter on my iPhone to see what people are saying about the chaos. One woman's post: "So the bus didn't come till 6:15. We turned the corner onto Great Seneca highway and got stuck in traffic for 4 [expletive] hours."

I am no longer thinking in expletives. In a few hours, about 2 a.m., Andy and I would finally make it home, driving past dozens of abandoned cars splayed across Great Seneca. But right now, after trading some funny e-mails with buddies, we're rather enjoying the moment. I have two young children. There is rarely peace in the house. Now here I am, in perfect quiet.

It has stopped snowing. The trees in front of me are holding their own against the weight of the wet, pristine white snow. I'm daydreaming. When was the last time I just stared into nothingness? I put the phone down. I'm thinking. Just thinking. Sledding as a kid, snowball fights, learning to ice skate. Andy is curled up into a little ball again, snoring. We're waiting it out.

rosenwaldm@washpost.com

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