Snowmaggedon 2019: Adventures in driving

by Sunita

We spent the holidays in mostly sunny Northern California, but we knew our drive back to the Midwest could be … unpredictable? Fraught? All of the above? Our drive out was blissfully weather-free, but that’s just a gift. We’ve done the December/January drive a few times over the last few years, and our experiences have ranged from one kind of memorable (discovering the best Hatch chile-infused enchiladas in New Mexico) to other kinds of memorable (needing six hours to drive 80 miles down the western slope of the Sierra and scoring a Motel 6 room in Auburn only because we were at the beginning of the convoy). The blizzard in Wyoming that closed I-80 behind us as we drove may not even make the Top 2.

But anyway, let me tell you about this year! Grab a cup of coffee and get comfortable, because this is going to be LONG.

TheHusband always pays attention to the weather forecasts so that we can leave earlier or later based on what we’re likely to face. On Monday we started hearing about an impending Weather Event at the end of the week, in which St. Louis was prominently featured. It was supposed to peak Friday night, which was awkward because we planned to arrive early afternoon Saturday, and we know how St. Louis snow clearance (doesn’t) work. But, as the weather people are quick to remind us, early models have a lot of uncertainty, which may be worse right now because of the shutdown and the lack of support at NOAA.

We decided our best response was to assume there would be Weather, but not change too much since we didn’t know what would happen. It would be be difficult to leave Tuesday, but we would leave early Wednesday morning for sure, so that we could compress the travel frame a bit and get in on Friday night if we had to. We had already decided to take the southern route (I-40 to I-44) because the conditions in the Sierra and the Rockies were too unpredictable.

We set off right after rush hour on Wednesday and made excellent time. That evening we heard that the snow would start falling heavily Friday evening, around rush hour. So we drove 750 miles on Thursday and arrived in Amarillo, TX that night. It still sounded like the storm would arrive late afternoon Friday in St. Louis, and the snow line was pretty far up our route, so with luck we would have rain until the last couple of hours.

We started early Friday morning from Amarillo and hit very thick ground fog as soon as we left the city. It lessened near the Oklahoma border and we had a good stretch where we could drive without stress. Then, outside Oklahoma City, the rain started and never let up. Even when it wasn’t raining hard the water on the interstate and the trucks spraying it everywhere meant poor visibility. But we kept going and covered 600 miles in a little over 9 hours. We got to Rolla, MO, which was right around the snow/rain line, at 6:30 pm. TheHusband took the wheel again, being the experienced snow driver.

And we needed his experience. The snow was coming down and clearly had been for a while. The road was covered in snow, inadequately plowed, and full of 18-wheelers.

The worst part of Missouri highway driving is the combination of heavy truck traffic, unpredictable winter weather, and drivers who are inexperienced in snow (and don’t have the cars for it). You have people in little cars racing up on trucks, apparently unaware of how much room the latter need to slow down or stop, or how easy it is for 18-wheelers to fishtail when they are empty of cargo. At the other extreme you have frightened drivers going too slowly, which makes them more likely to get stuck if they hit a patch of road with a lot of snow or an uphill where you need some speed to avoid spinning your wheels. But overall the drivers were doing well, and although we saw quite a few cars which had spun off the road and a handful of 18-wheelers which had gotten stuck or jack-knifed, the traffic was mostly able to keep moving forward. We slowed to a stop around Cuba, MO (Mile Marker 208), but otherwise we kept going, however slowly. It took us an hour to get 25 miles beyond Rolla, but even at that rate we’d be home before midnight.

While TheHusband drove I kept an eye on Google Maps. All the roads leading into St. Louis were orange, red, or black. Black seemed ominous. But both Maps and the traffic signs were regularly wrong, telling us there were closures when the road turned out to be passable at that point. The traffic signs advised us that there were 10-12 minute delays several times when there weren’t any obvious stoppages that we experienced. The one closure that worried us was on the far outskirts of the metro area, but we figured that at that point we could get off and take side roads home.

We slowly made our way toward our destination, with the snow falling but traffic moving. Somewhere around a high 240s mile marker we saw a long line of stopped cars on the other side of the highway, where at least one truck had jack-knifed and closed both lanes. The tailback was about a mile and a half, and the trucks had got stuck on an uphill grade. But our side kept moving. Then we saw the traffic alert that the highway was closed before the Antire Road exit (MM 269). This was the same closure that Maps had reported and that we thought was accurate. We had about 15 miles to figure out where to get off, we thought.

Except we didn’t. About a mile after the exit at MM 256, in Pacific, MO, the traffic narrowed to one lane and ground to a halt. We were at the foot of an incline we knew well, and while we couldn’t see the front of the line, we were pretty sure that the hill had conquered a truck or two. It was 8:30pm. We were stationary, with no way to get off even though we could see the frontage road to our right, where cars were moving well. Then, after a few minutes, a pickup about a dozen vehicles up the hill from us did a K-turn and drove back down the road the wrong way, presumably going back to the last exit. TheHusband and I looked at each other. It seemed dangerous to copy the pickup, because there was still the occasional car driving up to get further along the line. TheHusband fed the dogs. I looked at Maps, trying to figure out how far we’d have to drive back to reach the previous exit.

The exits on I-44 this far out are still 3 to 5 miles apart. We would have to go nearly a mile to reach the off ramp, driving the wrong way. Eek! But then we saw more cars up the hill reversing and starting the trek down. So readers, we went for it. Leading a convoy coming from further ahead of us, we rode the shoulder, not to the off ramp, but to the much closer on ramp, which obviously no one was using to enter because they could see all the cars and trucks at a standstill. Just after 9pm we were off the highway and in Pacific, MO, about 50 miles from home. We had no idea how we’d get there, but at least we weren’t sitting on I-44.

And readers, we were so, so lucky we were close to an exit and had 4-wheel drive to get us out. A lot of people scorn city folk who drive SUVs, and not without reason. But we drive cross-country round trips at least once and usually twice a year, with dogs, and we go to mountain cabins that are only reachable via unpaved roads. We need our off-road and winter-conditions capabilities. And man, did they come in handy Friday night. The people who were stuck on I-44 were in a series of standstills that stretched over at least fifteen miles. There were people stuck for NINE HOURS. The combination of wet, fast-falling snow and lots of uphill grades meant disaster for cars and trucks. And it wasn’t just I-44, it was every road. It doesn’t take much of a grade or a super-sharp curve to take out a car on an unplowed road or a highway where the plows can’t keep up with the rate of snowfall.

But back to our adventure. Now that we were off the interstate, where could we go? We had the Meramec River to our south and a set of hills with winding roads to our north, which meant there were only a few ways to cut across to get to arterial roads running east-west. First we tried along the river, but those roads dead ended in the next town. Then we doubled back and drove under I-44 to one of the roads across the hills, but it was closed and the police informed us that at best it would be cleared of accidents and plowed in a couple of hours. No guarantees, obviously, since these areas have very limited winter equipment. When I asked him about a couple of other options, he said they were at least as bad if not worse. Hmmm.

We pulled over into a lot where people were waiting and went back to perusing Maps. Sitting and waiting seemed pointless, since we could see how stretched the plows and emergency vehicles were by everything going on. But we couldn’t get farther east and the more west we went, the more we hit country and no through roads. Then I saw one road on the map, west of where I’d been looking, that Maps had colored orange and red, but there was no black. We’d learned that black meant dead stop, as in closed. (Who knew that black was a Maps color? I do now.) We decided to try it.

Back west we went, driving on the frontage road parallel to I-44. Trucks and cars were parked on it as far as we could see in the eastward direction. We reach the first interchange on our frontage road and kept going straight; the cars ahead and behind us all turned right or left, but we were pretty sure they wouldn’t get far. Our frontage road turned northwest into the hills and we kept on. And then, amazingly, the road kept going, with hardly any cars besides ours, and it was beautifully groomed. It was packed with snow, but clearly it had seen a plow fairly recently, and the trees overhanging it may have kept the steadily falling snow from accumulating as quickly. Certainly the lack of traffic helped. We didn’t go fast, but we drove steadily, and after about 15 or 20 minutes we emerged out of the hills, at the other end. And there it was, our holy grail: Route 100.

Route 100 is what we wanted because it would take us all the way into St. Louis City proper and close to our neighborhood. It is one of the oldest arterial streets in the city and it comprises part of old Route 66 (of road trip and Nat King Cole fame). In the city and suburbs it’s called Manchester Road, but we were far enough out that it was still just 100.

We couldn’t believe we’d made it. And it was in just as good shape as the hill road we’d just left. Four lanes, all packed down, easily driveable for a 4WD. We felt as if we’d just won the lottery. Yes, we still had 40 miles to go on a surface street, but we were pretty sure we would get home. And it was barely past 10pm. I think we started laughing spontaneously half a dozen times.

We went through all the towns of the western corridor of the metro area, from west of Wildwood through Ellisville and Ballwin and onward into suburbs we knew much better. Sometimes it wasn’t well plowed, but it was always traversable. Finally, just after 11pm, nearly 15 hours after we’d left Amarillo, we rolled into our little neighborhood and drove into our garage. We were high on adrenalin for the next hour at least. We unpacked the essentials from the car while the dogs ran around in the snow and then in the house.

The Corgis were AMAZING. JimiArthur hates riding in the car, and usually he’s begging to get out after about 10 hours no matter how many breaks he’s had. Winnie is a much better traveler but even she’s ready to stop by nightfall. But on this night they both behaved perfectly; they must have known from our stress and behavior that something was up and their job was to be Good Dogs. Needless to say, they’ve been sleeping ever since, sated with well-deserved treats!

We checked the news and the traffic conditions and people were still stuck where we’d been. The snow was still falling. Had we tried to wait it out, I don’t see how we would have made it back before today (Sunday), and school starts tomorrow. So although it was difficult, we were still better off than so many people.

It’s a winter wonderland here right now. We’ve had about a foot of snow where we are, and some places have had more. We had some snowy mix and rain yesterday, too, just to ice things over in case the snow isn’t enough to deal with. But today is better. And we’re here, not in a motel room somewhere or trying to get into town.

If you want to read more, the Washington Post has a good summary of the general effects across the Midwest. Here’s the local paper’s coverage. And here’s a Reddit thread on people’s long journeys home.