Sunday, March 8, 2009

Big traffic jam on I-5, Feb. 14, 2009

When I drove south to California recently, I got caught in a snow storm on Interstate 5 in the Siskiyou Mountains near Mount Shasta in northern California. I knew there was a storm warning for the evening and I was trying to make distance before nightfall. My intended stopover was in Redding, CA. I didn't make my distance as I would've liked and it was dusk between Yreka and Weed, CA. North of Weed, I noticed a CalTrans worker putting up some signs, but since I was going by before the signs went up, I supposed that whatever they said applied to all who came after. Between Weed and four miles north of Weed, it's not uncommon for CalTrans to call for tire chains in winter weather. So, I drove this stretch and it looked pretty good but it was starting to snow. It was about 5:30PM at this point. The snow got heavier the farther south I drove; big, wet globs of flakes. It wasn't too long before I-5 was down to one lane and vehicles were down to about 25-30 mph. Every once in a while, I would get stuck behind a big rig, and I would venture out into the #2 lane and go around. It kept snowing, but I forged ahead, staying behind a Ford pickup for many miles before two CalTrans dump trucks with snow plows pulled onto the road. They drove along as a pair, one in the #2 land, the other slightly behind in the #1 lane. I followed these two guys for quite a few miles and thought I had it made. After a while, we came upon a CalTrans truck that was parked on the shoulder that had an electric sign up that said, "ALL VEHICLES PREPARE TO STOP." By this time, I wasn't all that far from Redding and I thought, "How bad can it be?"

It was bad. All traffic did come to a stop, and after sitting for ten minutes or so, I got out of my car and went up to a pickup just ahead of me. When I came up, they rolled down their window for a chat. They had been talking to someone they knew on a cellphone who was up at the head of this stalled mess. They said that the blocked traffic was due to two large trucks that had collided and blocked the road completely. Oh, and their friend was nearly 15 miles up the road. So, what we had was 15 miles of two lane interstate covered with vehicles and the snow was still coming down hard. Most vehicles did not have chains on. Mind you, this is a stretch of road that normally has cars going along on it at 60 to 70 mph, but now it's solid cars and trucks, hundreds of them. We all sat there and idled for quite some time; traffic in the #2 lane moved up a bit from time to time, and I got in this lane. While I had been waiting, I killed some time by putting on my own tire cable chains.

The terrain in the area near Shasta Lake is one of ravines with creeks running down to the lake. The interstate crosses these ravines, so there are many up and down grades along the roadway. So, as I advanced just a little bit in this big jam-up, I reached the bottom of a downgrade, hit the trough but ahead of me on the next upgrade was a big tangle of cars and trucks that couldn't get traction to get up the hill. As anyone knows who has regularly driven in snow and ice, once you get going up a grade, you don't stop; you have to keep up your momentum or you will stall and lose traction. Well, in this big traffic jam out in the middle of nowhere, that's exactly what happened. All these vehicles had been forced to come to a stop on a slippery hill and couldn't get going again. Even big rigs that had their chains fitted where just spinning their wheels. Some light vehicles with chains, four wheel drive, and even some front wheel drives were able to get past, but it was a big free-for-all because anybody who was able to advance had to go around a gauntlet of stalled cars and trucks. As I attempted to go around a stalled big rig on the right, I got in some deeper snow and threw off one of my cable chains. When I got out, I could see that one of the cable cross-members had gotten broken somehow. As I looked back down the road toward the dip, I could see vehicles scattered all over the road, aimed in different directions. Back a bit further, big rigs had jammed the road in such a way that no other vehicles could get around them.

Well, I had to figure something out. On cars that have non-locking rear axles on them, the right rear wheel is the driving wheel on slick surfaces; lose traction with the right side and the left side will just sit. So, I decided to move my good chain on the left side over to the right so I could get traction with the main driving wheel. About the time I got this changed around, two CalTrans workers were doing their best to sort the mess out. One had a big road grader that had two offset snow plow blades attached to it. The other had a heavy pickup with a push bumper on the front. The grader man was clearing as much snow as he could between stalled vehicles, kind of making a path for those who could proceed to do so. The pickup man was getting behind the stalled big rigs and giving them just a little push, which is all it takes, to get them going again. With just a little push, once they are off of a dead stop they can regain enough traction to get going. About the time I was wondering where all the tow trucks were going to come from to clear up this mess, CalTrans rode in to the rescue and got it moving again.

I got going again no problem with my one cable chain on the right side. The big jam on the hill had allowed traffic to open up for a couple of miles, then it came to a complete stop again because the Calif. Highway Patrol had finally put up a chain control stop for all vehicles. They were inspecting each vehicle for chains, and only those so fitted were allowed to proceed. This line-up was miles long, and for all I know, when they encountered a vehicle without chains on, but in possession, they made them put them on then and there with the line-up behind them.

Since I had planned to lay over in Redding, which was not too distant in miles, I'd also planned to refuel there. Instead, I got stuck in the snow and traffic in the mountains and by the time I got to the chain control, I was just below a quarter of a tank of fuel. I could picture sitting there in line, idling for hours, and eventually running out of fuel. About this time, I saw that we had come up to one of the roadside rests that are spaced out along the interstate. Playing it safe, I pulled into the rest to wait it out. This was about 9:00PM. There were a number of big trucks stopped there, but very few cars. I changed my clothes, which had all gotten soaked while dealing with the cable chains. Normally, I don't even like to have wet socks on. To wait it out, I climbed into the back seat of the car to try to take a nap, but it was cold, uncomfortable and unrestful. About 3:00AM, I decided to see what was going on down on the road. I got my stuff organized, then tooled down to the road and there wasn't a vehicle in sight. The road had been closed down completely to new traffic back north of Weed, and all the stalled cars were gone. I drove on to within ten miles of Redding without seeing another single car. Pity was, I was only about 20 miles from Redding when I pulled into the roadside rest. In the meantime, the temperature had risen and the snow had turned to rain. When I rejoined the interstate, the snow on the roadway had been smooshed by all the traffic that had been lined up, then melted. Of course, from here on down the elevation decreases as you leave the mountains. If it hadn't been for the truck collision, I probably would have made it out of the mountains and the snow and been in a warm motel room in Redding before 8:00PM. If it hadn't been snowing at all, I would've been there by 6:30, maybe 7:00PM. As it was, it took me about 9 hours to cover what should've taken a single hour.

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