Saturday, January 13, 2007

Back In Town

Intro: My wife and I are back in town after a 3-night trip to Seattle. That was the clue in the one post about kissing the sky - a blatant Jimi Hendrix message. When I was up there I decided I will never go anywhere again without topnotch computer equipment that doesn't rely on hotel phones, etc.. After my laptop choked, I went to the hotel's web TV and it was really clunky, as well. It would only send the titles and abandon the text. So I went from my server's problems on the one-year anniversary date, right into a computer wasteland. Oh well, here's how the drive up went:

One Amazing Close Call in Seattle
You know you are asking for big trouble when you arrive in a city where the locals are already eating it. I mean if they're really struggling, and they live there, what hope do some less informed outsiders have? Thus it was Wednesday night when we drove into Seattle during a rush hour snowstorm.

I finish writing comedy around 12:30 each day and since I had appointments in Seattle, Thursday and Friday this past week, I suggested to my wife that we head up there on Wednesday afternoon.
We have two cars, but I like renting for these longer trips, so by the time we got everything going it was 2 in the afternoon. There was some frozen rain shenanigans here in Portland just before we left, but the first 40 or 50 miles seemed to be fine. It was even sunny.

Then we began encountering some dark clouds and snow showers, but the key was the snow had just started. I immediately concluded that we were in a race against the clock - in another half hour or so some of these places were going to get really bad, so I responded to the snow by going 70 to 80. There is sometimes safety in speed. Eventually, we hit an area where there was build-up between the lanes and I was forced to slow to 60. This really was a winter wonderland - the trees on either side of the freeway had fresh snow and looked stunningly beautiful.

Another half hour in some of those parts, and I'm sure traffic was crawling, and yet I felt safe. I am overly cautious in these matters, but there are times when you can't afford to slow down. I felt we had a window of only several hours to pull this off, and there was something else besides the snowy weather that was causing me to scramble: Even if we made terrific time, we'd be hitting Seattle right at rush hour. That's a bear on the best of days.

The stretch between Tacoma northward is where the traffic really starts getting crazy, but fortunately this part was dry, especially since it was getting dark fast. This was also the traditional stretch where the will of the People determines the speed limit. In more rural areas, I had been worried about a ticket, but here the far left lanes decided to go 80 plus and I was right there with them.

Somehow through all the snow showers, etc... we were still in striking distance, and that's when things got weird. Do you know that place on I-5 where you first see the skyline of Seattle? Well, when we got there, you couldn't see the city and there was a pretty good snowfall coming down. The freeway was still moving, but I was convinced we were looking at a system that was about to grind to a halt. It was really snowing and every minute things were getting worse. The window to get to the city and get off the freeway was closing quickly. Traffic was moving around 20 mph, and it was dark and awful out, likie a vision from commute hell.

I noticed the car pool lane was going significantly faster, although I had a fear of getting stuck on that where it turns into the "express lane" that goes north of the city with no way off. I just felt it was worth the risk, and moved over. Time was running out. We were fortunate in that we were probably the only car around that was trying to go back downtown. Thus, when the Seneca Street EXIT ONLY came along on the left-hand side, we were able to get off the Express Lane - which had now ground to a virtual halt, right where it disappears down into a tunnel, and cruise past hundreds of cars that were stuck in the right hand lanes. They were barely moving at all so to suddenly have a lane just to ourselves that went over a mile, seemed like a dream sequence.

As we got to the ramp, I glanced over at the thousands of cars trapped on the freeway in the snow, and it was like seeing the Night of the Living Dead. These people looked doomed. The snow was substantial here, and in the outlying areas - where these cars were trying to go - the problems were really beginning to mount by the second. There are hundreds of hilly roads in and around Seattle and one by one they were becoming impassible - a situation that they were still addressing when we left days later.

It took around 45 minutes to fight through the gridlock on the surface roads, and get to the hotel. My decision to "vibe the way" based on past appearances at the Seattle Hempfest, did not impress my wife in the least, and ultimately led nowhere. So my wife called the hotel and had them talk us in. By now, any thought of following traffic rules, was over. If you got in the wrong lane you could be stuck there for God knows how long, and I felt that soon the steep hills by the waterfront Marriott where we were going, would be really scary. The kind of scary where you thank God it's a rental.

So traffic rules were now just suggestions. The weirdest thing I did personally was go straight through a Left Turn Only lane, shifting over a lane in the middle of the intersection, to avoid the oncoming lane of traffic. This while dodging several cars that had gone too far in the gridlock. We had been trapped in that lane for many minutes and there was no end in sight, so I had to get aggressive and disregard traffic laws.

We finally made it to the hotel, and it was only after watching the news for a while in our nice, warm room, that we realized how much we had lucked out and how close it had been. All the hauling ass up from Portland had bought us just enough time to get off the freeway before the snow really shut things down. Our balcony overlooked the water, but if you looked to the left downtown, you could still see huge streets of cars. It was hard to notice if they were moving at all. I would guess that if we had been 10 or 15 minutes behind where we were, it would have taken several more hours. Wednesday night was one truly horrible commute in Seattle.

There were hundreds of people in the area who just ended up abandoning their cars and trying to make it on foot. You know when it gets to that point, the system is pretty well shutdown. I heard no end of horror stories the next few days: People who left Seattle for a 15 mile commute that took 4 hours. Cars sliding all over the place. Lots of people hurt. A city in chaos. Meanwhile, by going as fast as I could, we made it through with minutes to spare. And that's the Close Call in Seattle.


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