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Posted at 7:49 PM ET, 01/28/2011

Nine-hour commute, five stages of grief

By Jesse Schoolnik, Fairfax

As I drove through the storm Wednesday, I learned a few things. I learned how strong a bladder I have, that the five stages of grief are real and that nine hours is a long, long time.

I left Washington about 3:30 p.m., planning to get home in an hour or so, grab the mail and enjoy the early dismissal from work. As I drove toward Interstate 66, I ran into some traffic. But anybody who drives on 66 knows traffic comes with the territory. My GPS told me to switch to Route 50, but I-66 was moving better than I expected, so I ignored the warning. A GPS is only helpful if you listen to what it has to say. A quarter of a mile later, traffic was at a standstill. Eventually, I wiggled my way off of the Rosslyn exit and onto the George Washington Parkway.  

From the parkway, I took Lee Highway, and for four or five miles traffic moved slowly but steadily. That I could deal with; at least I was making some progress. Then we stopped at a red light that didn’t change for what seemed like 10 minutes. Finally, we began to move a few feet at a time, and eventually, I turned on to Leesburg Pike. It couldn’t be any worse, right?  


Immediately it was obvious that Route 7 was in no better shape. This is where I first saw the abandoned cars. People had left them in the middle of the road with their hazard lights on. I drive a Honda Accord, not exactly an all-terrain-vehicle, but I was able to handle the snow with little problem. I’d get stuck from time to time, but I would just downshift and eventually get back on track.

After an hour or so of driving maybe half a mile, I decided to change course again. I couldn’t go back, so I told the GPS to figure out another route. It had me taking a left in half a mile to connect back to Route 50.

That was unacceptable. Half a mile might be another 45 minutes. So I pulled out my trusty Droid, went to Google maps and saw that a side street also went where I needed to go. I turned left and navigated unplowed back roads toward Route 50. I made great time for a while, but then hit stopped traffic again. Out came the Droid and there were more back roads to take. All I had to do was turn right. If only the car in front of me could move 10 feet. Twenty minutes later I squeezed through, and I drove up a steep, unplowed hill. I followed these back roads parallel to Route 50 for as long as I could, then turned onto the busy road.

I was proud of myself. I had used my wits and resources to evade the traffic, and I was only 11 miles from home. But Route 50, too, was a parking lot. We moved 20 or 30 feet every five minutes. There was a flashing sign ahead. I hoped against hope that it was good news. But when have you ever known a flashing road sign to be good news?

“Massive delays ahead! Proceed with caution!”

And this is where it became something out of a horror movie. Dozens of cars left on the side of the road. More in the middle. People stuck left and right. Their problems would cause me to get stuck, but I freed myself and threaded ahead. Two hours and a mile and a half later, I turned onto Gallows Road. From there, I drove unplowed roads littered with fallen trees and more stuck commuters. I felt bad, but I just couldn’t help anyone. I had to get home. Eventually, I reached Little River Turnpike and went strong for four miles. And then boom: No movement.

But ahead! People are turning! Is it salvation? Fifteen minutes later, the cars moved just enough for me to sneak through to the left turn lane. I was feeling good. But no! Again we stopped dead. Someone a few cars ahead couldn’t get up the hill.

That’s when I lost it. My mother happened to call at this moment, and I must have sounded like a madman. “Why can’t these people just drive straight and not get stuck?” I screamed. “If I could do it, why couldn’t they?” There was more, but it’s all a blur. I was in a blind rage.

Eventually, we moved. Traffic on Braddock Road was extremely slow, but by now I was catatonic. I had come to accept my fate, whatever it was. Finally, I turned onto Shirley Gate Road, two miles from my house, and I was so close, I could taste it. But as I got to the light at Route 50, I saw it again.


But I would not be denied.

I made a U-turn, drove past the Fairfax Government Center, turned onto West Ox Road and pulled into Penderbrook Square at approximately 12:30 a.m., nine hours — and all five stages of grief — after I left work.

Denial: The roads can’t possibly be as bad as they are saying, can they?

Anger: What is wrong with people! Just drive straight and don’t get stuck!

Bargaining: Please, give me a way forward, and I’ll never put myself in this situation again. Please, just don’t let me sit in this traffic anymore.

Depression: I’m never getting home.

Acceptance: I’ll get home when I get home. There’s nothing I can do. People are idiots.

But this isn’t the end of my story. The condo association had been nice enough to plow the parking lots, but my parking space had been blocked in. So I ran upstairs, grabbed the shovel and cleared some snow. I tried to force the car in — and I got stuck.

You’ve gotta love D.C. in the winter.

By Jesse Schoolnik, Fairfax  | January 28, 2011; 7:49 PM ET
Categories:  D.C., HotTopic, traffic, transportation, weather  
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Cheer up, it could have been worse.

Some newbie cabbie (doubtless from Haiti, Africa or the Indian subcontinent; all yellow cab drivers are) out in the height of the storm here in New York spun his wheels so hard that they caught fire.

And then, when morning came and no one had towed it, the traffic cops ticketed the burned out hulk of his cab.

Posted by: Itzajob | January 28, 2011 10:01 PM | Report abuse

If people lived closer to where they worked, they wouldn't have problems like this.

Posted by: PeterDM | January 29, 2011 9:19 AM | Report abuse

It's true he could live closer to the city, but living in Fairfax isn't exactly a huge commute. At first I thought that's what I was going to read about here, but no.

Posted by: jhnnywalkr | January 29, 2011 4:44 PM | Report abuse

I was out on 123 South Bound at Tyson's Corner helping the folks that had been sitting in their cars for hours. When I got there around 11:00pm there were absoloutly no cars moving South and dozens of cars stuck and unable to move. (For those that were in that quagmire I was the guy on the little blue tractor.) I first plowed a lane so when we started moving the cars they would be able to continue on. We then dug, pushed, and pulled over 40 cars out. When we left around 12:30 traffic was moving again.

The attitudes of the people on the road was rather interesting. The folks that we helped dig out were extremely greatful. The folks that were stuck in the traffic jamb were the most hateful people cussing that little slow tractor that was "slowing down their commute." Little did they know, that little slow tractor is why they were moving again.

I had an opportunity to see both the best in people and the worst.

Posted by: shotgunner | January 29, 2011 5:01 PM | Report abuse

I am sorry that you - and so many others - had such a miserable evening, Mr. Schoolnik. But anyone who thinks he can make it from DC to Western Fairfax in a car, during the afternoon rush, in a storm of any magnitude, without a hugely major delay, has either not lived here very long or hasn't been paying attention. We have too few roads - especially in NoVA - and too many people driving cars, most of whom are selfish, inexperienced, and/or foolhardy. If you intend to keep on living and working where you do, it would be very prudent of you to look for a position where you can be trusted to telework on days with impending storms, or to set aside some Annual Leave for such days.

Posted by: nan_lynn | January 30, 2011 12:04 AM | Report abuse

Jahi Chickwendiu's brillian photograph is like a painting. Should win a Pulitzer for this masterpiece.


Posted by: rdorff | January 30, 2011 11:56 AM | Report abuse

Virginia Residents learned that they would NEVER move to areas supplied by pepco for their energy source! Those who do have pepco as their energy source, will most likely be changing their political affiliations in MD & MOCO the next time they vote!

Posted by: CountytaxpayingCHNII | January 30, 2011 1:08 PM | Report abuse

not completely sure what you meant by the snarky closing remark that "you've gotta love dc in the winter." based on your article, you weren't in dc. you were in virginia.

Posted by: dcguy11 | January 30, 2011 2:52 PM | Report abuse

Sounds like a typical commute in Virginia. That's why I avoid that state at all costs.

Posted by: trollboy69 | January 30, 2011 4:07 PM | Report abuse

Wow. It must have sucked to be stuck in a heated and (albeit slowly) moving car all that time. I wouldn't know. My car broke down after getting stuck on a Beltway ramp and I watched countless vehicles with their warm, dry occupants drive right past me as my car lost heat. You made it home at 12:30? I made it home the next day. After having to get a ride from a complete stranger and push his car out of the snow and ice, I finally made it to within a half a mile of a friend's house before walking the rest of the way in 10 inches of snow. All the while unable to help and worrying about how my wife and children were going to stay warm without electricity.

Bottom line: If traffic was all you had to worry about Wednesday night, I envy you.

Posted by: Aterio | January 31, 2011 12:39 AM | Report abuse

Earth to PeterDM: lots of couples actually live together and it's not always possible for both of them to work in the same place. My spouse is 7 miles from his job near the Capitol and had no trouble getting home on Wed since he didn't need to 'cross the central grid' of the city. I, on the other hand, work in Columbia Maryland and have 22 miles to commute. If we were all singletons, what you say would be common sense. Unfortunately, we're not.

Posted by: commonsense101 | January 31, 2011 10:43 AM | Report abuse

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