Monday, January 31, 2005

Mother Nature's Revenge

We have finally escaped the cold and snow of Chicago to move our primary home base to Celebration, but not without one last blast from Mother Nature. Wouldn't you know that a freak ice storm had to hit Atlanta, Georgia, just as we were driving through with the Kitty Karavan?

But I'm getting ahead of myself; the story of this journey really begins on Friday morning. It was my last day on the job that I've held for 16 years. I have always worked in the same department, although my responsibilities have shifted over time. I started out as a desktop publisher/corporate communications person, and my position eventually morphed into a corporate training position. I taught a number of classrooms courses and gave global webcasts, and I also designed and developed web-based training. It's ironic to realize that when I was hired, the job I ended up with didn't even exist. Back then, no one could ever have imagined the impact that something called the "internet" would have. Heck, I would have been happy to have scalable fonts for printing my documents with my old Gem Desktop Publishing suite!

For the most part, I've always enjoyed my work, so that made it much harder to leave. The good thing is that I will still be able to do some part-time work from Florida. But it was still sad to gather up my belongings over the course of the week and then to walk out the door on that last Friday. My desk went from a personalized sanctuary to an empty, generic space. The days ticked by, then the hours, and then the minutes. I am the kind of person who hates to get emotional in public, so when Zero Hour came, those final good-byes were hard. I managed to resist getting teary eyed, but it was a struggle. I kept reminding myself that I was still an employee, but there was still a sense of finality and displacement.

But I couldn't dwell on that for too long, as I needed to get busy with last minute packing. My husband and I were hoping to get on the road as early as possible, with 5 p.m. as our target time. In reality, that gave way to 6 p.m., and then finally to 6:30, as we kept remembering last minute things that we needed to take and then attempted to fit everything into Canyonero (my trusty Aztek).

No matter what, the cats, fish, and bird had to come with us, so it was a matter of fitting everything else around the menagerie. Fortunately, Canyonero's back seats fold and can also be removed, allowing for all sorts of custom configurations. We ending up folding one seat and pulling the other out altogether. That gave us just enough room for all the necessities, which we stacked precariously around the furred, finned, and feathered critters.

For the cats, we had purchased a large dog cage with a divider, intending to separate our two social felines from our crazy half-feral one. Unfortunately, there was no way to get them into the cage and separated without risking an escape. It was a major challenge just to load them up, but somehow we managed to do it, albeit with plenty of claw marks on our chests and arms. We had lined the cage with old t-shirts, and we provided food, water, and even a litter box. It wasn't ideal, but it was the best possible set-up that we could manage under the circumstances. We figured it was much better than the cargo hold of an airplane.

We jammed in the bird cage, covered with a comforter to ward off drafts, and then balanced the fish in the very back of the vehicle. We put them into plastic bags, which we then set in their respective bowls. I was afraid they would suffocate, but my husband insisted that they would be fine. All I could picture was Darla in "Finding Nemo": "Fishy, fishy!" I was hoping that the road bumps wouldn't prove as fatal as her fish-shaking.

As we pulled out of the condo parking lot, I was engulfed by a strange mixture of stress and melancholy. Both my husband and I had been snappish due to the pressure of remembering everything and stuffing the car to bursting, with the fun of nearly 24 hours on the road still facing us. Mix that with the realization that we were heading for a new home base, over 1200 miles from the place we'd called home all our lives and you have some emotional turmoil.

My husband volunteered for the first leg of what we planned as a straight-through drive, and I wedged myself into the passenger seat. The way it was arranged made the worst coach class seat on an airliner seem like first class by comparison. The seat was pushed as far forward as possible, and also tipped forward in order to accommodate the precarious stack of boxes behind it. I could barely squeeze in my legs because of my husband's backpack crammed into the limited legroom area.

We planned to take I-57 to 20 and then head to I-75. That would take us to the turnpike, which would lead to 27, and eventually we'd hit 192; then we'd head home to Celebration amidst the glare of the gaudy tourist strip. Ironically, our route went by the exit of the truck yard where my brother had rescued our cat, Farquaad, a little over a year ago. At the time, he was a tiny, frightened, starving kitten who was destined to be squashed in a dumpster by the sadistic workers. Now, he is a big, fat, spoiled feline who has totally forgotten his humble roots. As we passed the Tuscola exit, I'm sure he had no idea that he was meant to go to Kitty Heaven there before he won the cosmic lottery.

As we headed down the road, the cats meowed for the first hour or so, then settled into a resigned stupor. I was glad because I'd had terrible visions of what would happen if they went insane and started savaging each other or had kitty panic attacks, panting and frothing in the cage. The hours ticked by monotonously, and eventually I took over driving duties after we picked up a quick (and late) dinner at Wendy's. I bought an iced tea, figuring that an infusion of caffeine would help keep me perked up as I drove through the wee hours.

It was dark and unpopulated for most of our drive through Illinois and on into Tennessee. The never-ending blackness made me feel melancholy, and I pondered whether we were doing the right thing. It was raining, and the road had no lights at all, except the occasional headlights of an approaching vehicle. Other cars were few and far between; most of the time I was the sole traveler on the lonely highway. The whole scenario had an eerie, Twilight Zone feel.

Between the rain, the pitch blackness, and some sort of strange, misty fog, it was hard to make out the road in front of me. Every now and then, an overpass would suddenly pop up, seemingly out of nowhere. Between my exhausted mind and the lack of any sort of light other than my headlights, it felt as though someone had plopped me in the middle of the Black Forest. I'm sure the landscape would have looked quite normal, and probably rather dull, in the daylight, but the dark of night and the insidiousness of the wee hours can turn an innocent area into a threatening netherworld. I felt like a little child whose bedroom closet is suddenly crawling with monsters the moment the lights are turned off.

As I drove along, swamped in shadowy thoughts, my husband tried to catch a nap so he would be halfway refreshed for his next bout at the wheel. But it was nearly impossible to find even a modicum of comfort in the cramped passenger quarters. Eventually he decided that he'd rather drive than sit all folded up in accordian position, so we swapped again.

This meant that he was at the wheel when we headed down the mountain in Tennessee. I knew that we were going to encouter one, so at least it wasn't a surprise. It was just as steep as I'd been warned, but thankfully the stretch is only a few miles long, and the traffic was almost non-existent. Canyonero zoomed down the incline, while the brakes weakly resisted gravity's grip. I could only imagine the lovely (and scary) vista that would have surrounded us if it had been daylight.

As the hour switched from growing later to growing earlier, I decided to try to find a talk radio station to help keep us awake. I located one from Atlanta that had some rather frightening overnight programming. The first show was a very opinionated political program, and the opinions were not necessarily those of a sane mind. I'm not sure who was farther out in left field, the host or the callers who lit up the phone lines. The second show involved hunters who spent an entire hour making fun of a woman who had sent them a letter. Apparently she had suggested feeding anti-fertility drugs to the deer rather than shooting them in order to control their population. As the hour wore on, the hosts kept embellishing the letter, with callers egging them on.

Them, ominously, as we neared Georgia, the radio shows were interspersed with a winter storm warning. Not a watch, but a warning. Apparently, an ice storm was enveloping the Peach State. Even though it wasn't officially morning yet, the car crashes had already started, and the weather forecasters were warning people to stay inside and off the roads.

When we embarked on our journey, my husband and I had figured that once we hit Tennessee, we would be in good shape weather-wise. The possibility of things like ice storms down south had never entered our minds. But as the warnings became more ominous, we realized that Mother Nature was going to deal us one last blow. And what a blow it was! As we headed into Winter Hell, there were reports of roads like ice skating rinks and almost continuous accidents and expressway shutdowns. If we didn't have "Noah's Ark," we would have stopped somewhere for the night. Unfortunately, with all the critters, the only course of action was to plow ahead and hope for the best.

All too soon, we hit the ice storm nightmare. It was still dark out, and I had taken over driving duties while my husband tried once again to snooze. Since we were in my car, I figured I would have a slight advantage since I am the most familiar with how it handles. Then we hit our first road closure on I-75 and sat for nearly two hours, watching daylight gradually take over the night sky. By the time we finally started moving again, it was completely light out, and we could see that the road was basically just one big sheet of ice.

We inched along literally at 10 m.p.h., and we were stopped a couple more times, probably due to accidents although it was impossible to tell. The news station listed closures and crashes, but the list seemed endless and we had no idea of their proximity to us. We passed something like eight jack-knived and flipped trucks, and I lost count of the car crashes.

The emergency vehicles could barely get through, and eventually the police stopped shutting down the road and just had the ambulances and fire trucks run along the shoulders. Other drivers maneuvered as best as they could around the latest wrecks. There were many stretches where I knew that there would be no way to stop if I had to. I spent several tense hours praying as we crawled along, terrified of what would happen if we were in a crash with all the animals.

As we approached Atlanta, things got a bit better because there were trucks out spreading a gravel/salt mixture. I dubbed the substance "goot," since there were big, flashing signs announcing that "GOOT" was on the roads. My husband pointed out that it was really "GDOT," or "Georgia Department of Transportation," but those highway signs make it nearly impossible to distinguish an O from a D. Besides, I liked the sound of that: Goot. It had a reassuring but slightly comical ring to it, and believe me, at that point I needed all the comedy I could find.

Unfortunately, the freezing rain kept coming down, quickly washing away the "goot" and destroying all the progress. The news announcers kept stressing, "DO NOT go out unless it's an absolute emergency." God, how I wish I could have followed their advice! If we had know about the storm, we would have delayed the Big Move by a couple of days. But now we had no choice; we had to press forward, keep praying, and depend on Canyonero's traction control and my winter driving skills, honed on the streets of Chicago. Sadly, although I've driven in snow, sleet, and slush, roads coated in pure ice were a whole new life experience.

I could tell that Bradley, my bird, was alive because he'd started his usual squawking as soon as the sun came up. I couldn't check the fish for fear of giving Bradley a chill by opening the tailgate. The cats were doing remarkably well, even eating and using the litterbox. They spent most of their time sleeping, with an occasional bout of pathetic mewing designed to illicit maximum guilt.

The combination of heavier traffic and major goot-spreading efforts made the downtown Atlanta area a little better than the horror of the unsalted outskirts. Instead of 10 mph, we made it all the way up to a blinding 30. At this point, I was more fearful of the drivers around me than of my own ability to handle my car. Some of them seemed to have no clue that they were driving on sheets of ice. I was cringing every time a speed demon came roaring up behind me, only to veer out of my lane at the last minute. I stayed to the right with my flashers on, thankful that Canyonero has both front and side airbags.

At this point, I had been at the wheel for hours. Between the initial two-hour road closure, the 10 mph crawls and the other sporadic shutdowns, we'd been inching our way through the ice storm for something like four hours. I had never been to Georgia before, and at that point I was sorely wishing that I'd never laid eyes on that state. I was praying to make it to Macon, where the storm hadn't hit with such severity, and my fondest wish was to see the Florida state line.

As we approached Macon, the ice rink gave way to more traditional slush, which is a breeze for any Midwesterner to deal with. We eventually pulled into a truck stop to fuel our car with gasoline and ourselves with Taco Bell. I noticed a massage parlor, which seemed out of place at a truck stop if it were, indeed, a legitimate business; surely it had to be a front (as massage parlors often tend to be). Nearby was a "truckers chapel," perhaps placed there to offer convenient forgiveness to the massage parlor patrons.

At this point, I was just about stir crazy. All I wanted to do was to reach Celebration and get out of that $!%@)& car! I obsessively counted the miles to the Florida border, and as we got closer, I also counted the number of billboards offering "Last chance for free Disney tickets!" I wonder how many poor slobs get suckered into the timeshare scams. There were also lots of signs for some kind of Wild Adventure Park. My husband noticed they even had their own radio station, so we tuned in to listen to their non-stop verbal infomercial. It sure beat listening to reports of the ice storm that was still raging behind us. The power outages must have been widespread, as we saw two conga lines of Florida Power trucks head towards Georgia to assist.

I was driving when we hit Florida (my husband was in a semi-coma, having learned that you can sleep just about anywhere if you are exhausted enough), and I was very disappointed: all I saw was a little blue sign. There is no huge, fancy declaration that you have now entered the Sunshine State. With Tennessee and Georgia, you know you have crossed the border because their fancy billboards tell you so. But Florida was barely a blip on my road radar. If I had blinked, I would have missed the crossing.

Entering Florida was like crossing some sort of mental barrier. Now I felt like home should be just around the corner; unfortunately, it was still hours away. I wanted to start chanting, "Are we there yet? Are we there yet?", but instead I resigned myself to a silent counting of the miles. And, like a watched pot that never boils, watched miles pass 75 percent more slowly. My husband woke up and started infusing himself with coffee to regain some semblance of consciousness. Unfortunately, this also meant that he needed to stop at every single rest area, whipping my impatience dangerously close to a homicidal frenzy.

I can't express just how happy I was when we finally got off the gosh-darned turnpike and onto 27. We still had plenty of miles to go, but 27 makes me think of home because we shop at the Wal-Mart where it intersects with 192. We were no longer on the expressway, so I had to contend with stoplights. But it was also nice to be among civilization again, and I enjoyed the rolling terrain. Twilight was just beginning to blanket the area, and the lights twinkling among the hills looked like a sprinking of earthbound stars.

Once again it was evening; 24 hours beforehand, we had stuffed our pets and belongings into the car and sarted on our journey. Now, a full day later, we had been through the worst winter storm that I've ever driven through in my life and we'd put well over a thousand miles behind us. It had been a journey that I wouldn't care to repeat, but it was worth it: we were almost home. Mother Nature couldn't let us leave Chicago without one last challenge; it might have slowed us down, but it didn't stop us.

When we turned off 27 and onto 192, I knew that we had arrived. The eye-searing neon was a sight for sore eyes. It was ugly and gaudy, but oh so familiar. I knew that when we reached the biggest and most gaudy sight of all (the reverse bungee at Old Town, which is three hundred feet tall and completely encased in colored lights), it would be the beacon welcoming us home to Celebration.

It felt a bit strange to be driving our own car rather than a rental, but that feeling was fleeting. As we drove down Celebration Avenue, the only thing missing was Skippy, the old, decaying Dodge Dart that used to sit at the entrance to town. How I wish Skippy could have met Canyonero! I love ugly vehicles, which is the main reason I bought an Aztek. I've never been an SUV fan, but I realized that I needed to get something large just to hold my own on the road among the rolling tanks that everyone else seemed to be driving. At the time, the Aztek was the most hideous vehicle I could find, although now it's not even in the running; Detroit seems to have thrown aesthetics out the window over the past few years. So that's what I bought, and I've never regretted it. It has tons of cargo space, foldable and removable seats, and it gets great gas mileage.

I pulled into the driveway of Duloc good it felt to do that in my own vehicle! At long last I could check on the fish, and I was pleased to discover that my husband had been right. No one had suffocated and gone belly up. It was warm enough to ease my worries that Bradley might get a chill, so I gingerly moved the comforter covering him and he gave me a big, healthy squawk. He definitely looked none the worse for the wear, although I wondered if his feet were tired from clinging to his perch in a moving car.

The cats were the biggest challenge, as we had decided to carry the entire cage, with three fat feline bodies inside, into the house before releasing them. Poor Farquaad was shaking like a leaf, and Tooncinator was plastered against the far end of the cage in abject terror. Stitch, who could care less about anything, was checking out his new surroundings with typical feline curiosity. I had sprayed some Feliway pheremone spray around the house to help them feel comfortable; I don't know if that helped or if they are just amazingly resiliant, but they settled in remarkably fast.

My husband and I were totally, utterly exhausted. We had gone 24 hours without showering, changing our clothes, brushing our teeth, or applying a new layer of deodorant. Our focus had been The Road, with no time for civilized comforts to interfere with our single-minded objective: Reach Duloc Manor before insanity took its grip. Now that we were home, we planned to get a decent meal to offset the fast food that had been our staple and then to crash into bed. But alas, that plan was not to be. Little did we know that we'd soon be abducted by a trainload of foil-hatted beings until the wee hours of the night. But that is another blog entry for another day (trust me, it will be a good one!).

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