Having missed a flight from Syracuse to Punta Cana, we came up with an alternate plan. We would rent a car, drive to JFK Airport stay overnight and catch a flight at 11AM the next day. So at 2PM Friday March 2nd we rented a 4 wheel drive Jeep and headed south from Syracuse on Interstate 81 for what we expected to be a leisurely 5 hour drive. The storm, having already dropped over 14 inches of snow left it’s mark in our path. However, once we passed the Tully Exit the roads cleared and it appeared the worst was already behind us. However, reality would prove very different.
As we approached the PA Line the snow returned and the roads began to cover. Once we crossed into Pennsylvania it appeared the road maintenance stopped and so did the traffic. Apparently Pennsylvania had spent their entire winter maintenance budget and everyone was on their own. We came to a stop and sat for over an hour waiting for any sign of movement. Eventually traffic started to slowly crawl and we were directed off the highway onto Route 11. An accident closed Route 81. After a quick stop for food we continued our journey following the long stream of traffic heading south at 40 MPH. It was 5PM.
Eventually we needed to head East toward New York City and JFK Airport. To reach Interstate 84, if it was open meant traversing local town roads that were unplowed. Our sure-footed 4×4 would hopefully guide our way. Unfortunately it wasn’t long before we discovered the flaw in our plan. Our Jeep handled the snow well, but others did not have the same type of vehicle. We came to a small group of cars all stopped in some form of organized chaos. Some were stuck, some trying to help, some just waiting.
Soon we discovered to true kindness of people as we watched everyone help each other. First we saw the person we named shovel man. He got out of his car, opened the rear hatch, removed an emergency kit and extracted a small portable shovel. He then proceeded to help dig out car after car until in an effort to get everyone moving again and gain freedom for himself in the process. Then a local with a plow arrived to help. Plow Man proceeded to weave around the stopped traffic clearing enough snow to free the cars that couldn’t move. We then learned the real problem: A short distance down this narrow county road a tractor trailer had jack-knifed blocking the road completely. Everyone turned around and retreated back the way we came. We executed a 15-point turn and headed back to try another road to reach the next interstate.
We then planned a new route and back-tracked a few miles toward yet another snow covered road that lead to the highway. This road was quickly blocked by cars right before our eyes. Much to our surprise we again saw shovel man appear, extract his neatly packed shovel and again help those in need. It appeared we have become part of a community. Travelers, who were trying to make their way to the promised land. Then the darker side of humanity emerged. A pickup truck driver began yelling from behind, honking in anger at the drivers whose only mistake was getting stuck. He furiously drove off the road through waist deep snow around the half dozen cars who were stuck or waiting for the road to clear. At this point the pickup got stuck and his anger was boiling over. Rocking forward and back the engine got louder and louder as he tried to free himself from the snowbank. After a few minutes of engine revving he was able to free himself. This was fortunate because it was apparent no-one would come to his aid. Eventually everyone was free and able to turn around and retreat once again. We were braver than many and continued down the road.
A short distance down the road we encountered a single car stopped in the middle of the road for no apparent reason. After a short wait my wife, Karen and sister in law, Robin decided to get out and see why the car was not moving. They approached the car and knocked on the window. The window lowered and a cloud of smoke poured out. There we met a car full of people we named Cheech and Chong. When they asked the problem they motioned to the cars down the road a short distance and indicated there was no chance of getting through. We again executed a 15-point turn and searched for yet another route.
Along the new route we passed a tractor trailer which was stuck half way through a right hand turn and was left abandoned. Eventually we returned to this spot and managed to maneuver around this truck with our four wheel drive by driving along the shoulder in the 2 foot deep snow. We would later learn a car would get stuck attempting this maneuver blocking this road completely. This would be a one-way trip for us.
By 1AM we made it as close as two miles from the interstate but were once again blocked by a sea of cars littering the roadway. At this location we could see over a half dozen cars scattered about all blocking our way in a scene reminiscent of the walking dead. Once again we were surprised to again see shovel man make an appearance. He made a familiar trip to the back hatch of his SUV, extract his emergency shovel and disappear into the distance. I have no clue where he went since we never saw him return. After believing we had exhausted all possible escape routes we stopped the car and decided to sleep while waiting for the road to be cleared, presumably by morning. At this point we decided to start rationing gas since the gas gauge was at the 1/4 tank level. We turned the car off and started it periodically to warm us. Each time we fell asleep we hoped we would wake from the nightmare.
At 3AM we noticed a 4×4 drive past us taking a significant risk attempting to pass the numerous stopped cars and chancing driving off the edge of the road. After 15 minutes the SUV returned stopping to report on his travels. Water Park Man informed us they attempted to get through but there are numerous cars blocking both lanes and most of the cars are abandoned. Since we assumed all the stopped cars were occupied, this was a revelation to us. He was attempting to reach Great Wolf Lodge which was apparently only a couple of miles away. He drove off to continue his quest.
At this point it became clear the rescue would not happen any time soon. Since there were no occupants in many of the cars there was little chance we’d get through even if help arrived. We decided to execute another 15 point turn and try another avenue. As we fall back we stopped to ask each car behind us what their experiences and what route they have tried in hopes of discovering a secret escape route from the rat maze. As fortune would have it, one of these people happened to be a local who had a suggestion that would lead to our escape.
We returned to where we met Cheech and Chong. They were gone, presumably transported to another dimension and only four cars were stuck on either side of the road leaving enough space for us to drive through the middle in a thread the needle maneuver. By 6AM and 16 hours later we successfully made it to Mt Pocono, the first sign of civilization we saw in 10 hours. The glowing fuel light added to the excitement of the moment as we attempted to find gas in a town which was in turmoil from Stormageddon. Unfortunately most of the gas stations were without power and the one remaining had run out of gas.
Finding a gas station with cars lined up all around stretching into the road we obediently pulled into the queue and waited. After a 15 minute wait I heard a voice from the back seat. Robin asked: “Why isn’t anyone pumping gas?” An innocent yet telling question. As we surveyed the scene further we realized all the gas pumps had plasic bags over the nozzles to indicate no gas was available. Yet cars were waiting for gas that might never come.
As the fuel situation appeared more desperate my copilot Karen began calling gas stations to find the one we could reach with minimal fuel consumption.
Adding to the excitement: the need to find a bathroom. Deciding this was now more important than the limited gas supply we searched for a solution to this problem first. This town was only semi-paralyzed so there were possibilities to be found. Our first attempt was the local Burger King. Since it was now after 6am it should be open. No such luck. We continued our journey and found a local grocery store. As I pulled up Robin and Karen hopped out and waved to the manager who was locked inside. Without opening the door he motioned they are closed. The duo danced around in front of the door pleading for help doing what could only be described as the best potty-dance I’ve ever seen performed by grown women. I am not sure if he finished rotating the key in the lock when they flew past him toward the bathrooms. I pity anyone else standing between them and the bathroom. One problem solved.
Once again we ran into another traffic jam. In what seemed like our final act of desperation my copilot suggested a risky plan. We drove down a residential street, around a golf course and through a parking lot of a local hotel. It appeared the hotel parking lot borders two streets so we might be able to cut through the parking lot and circumnavigate the latest road block. This route, although passable, took us past another five cars that were in various stages of paralysis. It was at this point I perfected my “I’m sorry, I cannot help” wave as I maneuvered around the stranded motorists while maintaining enough speed to avoid getting stuck myself.
It seemed our plans were again dashed when we approached the hotel lobby entrance. Cars littered the parking lot with a Toyota Prius blocking any further advance. Now I needed to get personal. I exited the car and waded through knee deep snow and waist deep drifts in my “I’m traveling to a tropical destination” outfit in hopes of finding the owners of the car blocking our path. No-one at the front desk could help but they gave permission to continue my search. I checked the public areas and asked each person I found if they owned the offending vehicle. Not having any luck I contemplated pulling or pushing the Prius to gain our freedom. No need to resort to barbarism – yet.
Refusing to accept defeat my copilot surveyed the hotel parking lot. With the fresh snowfall it was difficult to discern walking paths from driveways. Nonetheless we were able to find coveted the back exit, take a back road around the latest backup.
Finally at 7:20AM after 18 hours we made it to the Turkey Hill Gas Station in Tannersville PA. Coasting in on fumes we filled our gas tank and enjoyed all the luxuries the convenience store had to offer including Bathrooms, Coffee and Devils Food Snack Cakes. Here most passersby had no idea the chaos that was a short distance away. We had returned to reality.
Having finally reached our oasis in the desert, we were unable to reach JFK for our 11AM Flight so after yet another call to our guardian angels and travel agents Ronda & Mary Ann we were now booked on a flight leaving Philadelphia at 5PM. We changed course and headed south.
In total it is likely we saw hundreds of cars that were either stuck or abandoned. The cars that remained were struggling to move and make any progress. For us in our 4 wheel drive vehicle the scene that played out over and over was the same: We could move but few others could.
They say that getting there is half the fun. Whoever said that never drove through Pennsylvania in a blizzard.