Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

January 20, 2013

Traversing an obstacle course: Snow brings challenges to Route 52 commute

By SAMANTHA PERRY
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— Making the sharp right turn onto J.H. Easley Bridge and Route 52, I spy bright red dots in the distance. They are stationary. Unmoving. A precursor of treacherous travel.

My windshield wiper blades are going at full speed, but visibility remains limited. Ten minutes earlier I had been in the Daily Telegraph parking lot, running the heater/defroster at full speed and feeling blasphemous for using a back-dated issue of Prerogative magazine to brush five inches of heavy, wet snow off the windshield of my SUV.

It’s winter in southern West Virginia, and I’m about to endure a potentially dangerous drive home in the midst of a snowstorm.

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Crossing the bridge the reporter in me takes over as I start making notes of the vehicles in front of me. One Jeep Wrangler and two trucks. Appropriate acceleration speeds coupled with necessary brake lights before the onset of “52 Hill” show familiarity with winter driving. I’m traveling behind a few Good Ol’ Boys who know how to travel on snow-covered West Virginia roads. Not a bad place to be in the midst of a winter storm.

Encountering several cars stuck in the road, Good Ol’ Boy No. 1 deftly moves into the barren southbound lane to avoid them. The trucks and I follow suit. I realize it’s going to be a long drive home.

Nearing the top of the hill I see a Coca-Cola truck in the ditch. We manage to avoid it, make the summit and began our descent. Almost immediately my eyes are drawn to the hazard flashers of another vehicle pulled to the side of the southbound lane. It’s a Pepsi truck. For a quick minute I mull how the stalled soft-drink vehicles of competing brands are perfect fodder for a tweetable quip. Then my tires attempt to slide on the packed snow and ice.

I tighten my grip on the steering wheel and refocus my attention on the road. Glancing at my cell phone resting in the console, I acknowledge that, for the moment, I am quipless and tweetless. Social media is not a priority during this commute home.

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The furiously falling snowflakes illuminated in the headlights spark a memory from childhood. My mother, grandmother and I had made a weekend trip to visit relatives in Logan County. On the late-night drive back home, an unexpected winter storm made travel on Route 52 slow and dangerous. I was pre-kindergarten age, but I recall staring at my mother’s white knuckles from the backseat as she clutched the steering wheel and hearing my grandmother’s anxiety-laced comments. Ever so often the car would slide and fishtail as we made our way up a steep and curvy incline.

Back in the day, we didn’t have a four-wheel drive vehicle, but there were tire chains in the trunk. Problem was, according to banter between Mom and Granny, neither knew how to install them. I wonder, in this day and age, if kids and teens who do not watch “Ice Road Truckers” even know what tire chains are.

We also did not have cell phones, much less smart phones. The only way to communicate while on the road was to find a working pay phone and hope one had enough dimes to make a call — 10 cents got you three minutes.

We didn’t find a pay phone but, at the top of a hill somewhere in the heart of Logan County, we saw the lights of a gas station. Mom quickly pulled off the road and we all breathed a sigh of relief. In those days, such stations were full-service, meaning ladies never pumped gas, cleaned windshields or installed their own tire chains.

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I manage to resist the lure of the cell phone until I near the site of the former Flowers Bakery. For a moment, the flow of traffic is slow but almost normal. I call the newsroom and give reporter Greg Jordan a report. All too soon I see more troubled travelers and quickly end the call.

From Brushfork to Bluewell I encounter an obstacle course of cars and trucks sliding in the main lane, stalled in the passing lane and stuck in ditches. Flashing hazard lights pepper the late-afternoon landscape and cast an eerie glow on the fallen snow.

The Good Ol’ Boys I’m following are snow-savvy and meticulous. They maneuver around crippled vehicles slowly and steadily. Soon I find myself in Bluewell, exiting off onto the secondary road that will carry me home.

Realizing I’m the lone vehicle on the road, I glance at my storm survival kit in the backseat. A couple of quarter-full bottles of water, several fast-food bags harboring week-old French fries and newspapers — lots and lots of newspapers.

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Fifteen minutes later, the anxiety over my tragically inept emergency kit is forgotten. I carefully make my way up our long and steep driveway and fishtail into a parking spot half-on pavement and half-on grass.

On this night it will do.

Safely inside the warm house, I hug the dogs and grab the iPad. Soon, I’m tweeting road conditions and receiving alerts of traffic hazards across the two Virginias. In an instant, I learn what highways are closed, who’s stuck in traffic and what the forecast is for the coming days.

An hour later, having moved to the desktop computer, I post an update on our Facebook page. Within minutes, readers are sharing the information and providing first-hand knowledge of dangerous roads.

It’s a different era from that long-ago stormy night in Logan County. For that I count my blessings.

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.