Adventures In White Knuckle Driving

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This past weekend reminded me there’s a good reason why I stopped scheduling travel meetings during the winter.

It didn’t always used to be this way.

In the time before Covid, unusual was the week when I did not put on several hundred miles of business meetings. I find riding for an hour (or more) relaxing. I’ve got a huge library of college-level lectures on a variety of subjects. (As the price for an intensive virtually triple major in the hard sciences, my college major left little room for electives.)

The destination also (usually) excited me, too. Either a conference to learn more and meet new friends, or a client meeting (often a chance to teach what I learned).

Back in the day, it didn’t matter the season. I traveled gleefully at all times of the year. The snow never scared me. I thank my father for that.

The family moved to Chili from Blasdell just after the new year in 1971. (We spent Christmas living in a motel a mile or so from the house we just sold.) We didn’t just leave the Buffalo suburb for a Rochester suburb. We left our family.

As a result, nearly every weekend we traveled back to Buffalo – rain or shine or snow.

It was watching my father drive through all sorts of weather that I learned not to fear whiteout conditions.

When driving at night, he’d often say, “Don’t put your high beams on in the snow.” Then, when there was no oncoming traffic, he’d quickly show me why. The view from the windshield shifted from barely being able to see the road pavement in front of you to a brilliant scene of countless white flakes streaming towards you.

It was kind of like the stars in Star Trek, only with way more stars.

That wasn’t the only lesson. An important one that sticks out to me was this: “When you can’t see the road at night, follow the truck’s tail lights. Truckers know the road the best,” he said.

It made perfect sense to me. Nonetheless, I still had to ask this question: “What happens if the truck goes off the road?”

“Well, then you’d go off the road, too,” he responded calmly. “But at least you won’t be alone.”

That last addendum was not just a joke. It was a clue. A clue to survival. If you’re going to find yourself in a bad situation – anywhere, not just in a snowstorm – it’s best if you’re not by yourself.

My father might have been worried by the snow, especially with his entire family in the car, but he never showed it.

His stoic resolve was credible, too. You see, one of his duties as a professional safety engineer was to show people how to prevent accidents. (In the insurance industry which he worked; it’s called “loss control.”) He even brought home driver’s testing gear that he allowed me and my brother to try.

It was in the kitchen of our Blasdell home, on this very equipment used by professional truck drivers, that my brother and I, as six- and seven-year-olds, first discovered the profound joys of the gas pedal and the tempering nature of the brake pedal. To be honest, I think my father just needed someone to test the machine before he used it for real the next day.

It was therefore easy to trust my father behind the wheel. And that trust was believable.

So, when my father taught us how to maneuver through a typical Western New York winter, we listened.

When it came to my turn to drive the family through a blinding snow, I remembered my father’s words of wisdom.

It was Christmas Eve. We were celebrating the traditional “Seven Fishes” meal with my family in Buffalo before going to Jamestown to spend Christmas with Betsy’s family. We knew there’d be snow. We knew where the 10-mile-wide lake effect snow band would be. We just didn’t know how bad it would be.

It was bad.

Real bad.

Further complicating matters was the car we were driving. It was a 1986 red Dodge Charger hatchback. If you know anything about hatchbacks, you know they have no weight in the back. That’s not a good thing when it comes to getting a grip on the road when the snow’s bad, even with the front-wheel drive that we had.

Oh, and one more thing. A three-month-old Cesidia lay in her car seat in the back.

The midnight snow went to white-out immediately upon entering the Thruway in Hamburg. For the next ten miles it didn’t let up.

It was Christmas Eve. No one was on the road, including plows. The road was terrible.

I tried following a truck, but it was going faster than I was comfortable with. “If you can’t follow a truck, follow the milepost markers,” said my father’s Obi-Wan-like voice inside my head.

On so I did. Never showing any signs of anxiety. Good thing I was wearing gloves lest Betsy see my white knuckles. I carefully eyed each reflective marker every tenth of a mile creeping along at 10 miles an hour. My speed didn’t matter. There was no one else on the road. It took us an hour, but by Angola it was clear all the way to Jamestown.

The blizzard of 1999 proved too much, however, and that was the point I finally threw in the towel. It was the first (and, so far, only) time I bailed out. “If it gets too bad, pull off the road at the next exit and wait it out,” were the words my father once said.

Coming home from a Sabres’ game on Wednesday, March 3, 1999, the flakes fluttered lightly as I left. I figured I’d make it back ahead of the storm based on the prediction.

I didn’t.

The prediction was wrong. Rather than coming from the west, the intense Nor’easter overwhelmed the prevailing weather patterns. The storm came from the North. By the time I reached Lancaster, it was hard to see the road.

Technology back then not being where it is today, at the time I couldn’t tell if I was heading into the meat of the blizzard or if it was overtaking me. In the latter case, there was still a small chance I can outrun it. In the latter case, I was heading into risky territory.

A mile away from the Batavia exit, things were getting worse. I had to make a decision. The next exit (Leroy) was twelve miles away. I remembered what it was like driving from Hamburg to Angola. This was worse. There was no urgency for me to get home. I had my laptop, so I could work at my virtual office anywhere.

I took the exit and stayed in the nearest motel. I called Betsy to let her know I’d be staying overnight in Batavia and would be home the next day.

I wasn’t. The Nor’easter dumped nearly three feet of snow on us. Monroe County (and some neighboring counties) declared an emergency. All roads were closed. I decided to stay at my Uncle Larry’s house, so I headed back to Blasdell. I would stay there another two nights and not arrive at home until Saturday.

Betsy was snowed in for three days with three kids five and under. The house lost power. She and the three kids had to stay under the covers in the bed to stay warm.

That’s when I decided never to schedule out of town meetings during snow season.

Of course, the kids are older now and can fend for themselves. So I’m OK again with the risk of getting stranded somewhere. And no place is so important to get to that I need to take unnecessary chances.

But that doesn’t mean the knuckles aren’t white underneath those gloves.

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