Friday, February 16, 2007

No Place Like Home

My poor sweet 17-year-old niece was one of the unfortunate souls to get stuck in a massive standstill on I-80 yesterday and through the night last night.

A two-day winter storm of snow, sleet, and freezing rain created treacherously icy roads here and caused a number of MVAs, especially jack-knifed tractor trailors trying to ascend our icy hills. Three of PA's interstate highways are still closed as I write this, all in northeastern PA.

I-78 had been closed from Wednesday to Thursday because of accidents blocking the highway leaving some motorists stuck in a 50-mile backup for as long as 24 hours. Normally that would be frustrating and inconvenient, but not dangerous here in PA. Extremely cold temperatures, however, (wind chills WELL below zero F.) made the situation potentially life threatening. Local fire departments and the Red Cross and even the National Guard came in to help stranded motorists (providing water and baby supplies and food and blankets where needed until motorists could get off the highways). That was I-78.

Kristin was on I-80.

No problem, right? Wrong.

Before Kristin left for her 3.5 hour drive to Penn State, reports said roads were fine. It was, after all, a full 24 hours since the end of the storm, and the sun was shining. It's an easy drive to PSU from this part of PA: mostly interstate highways, and roads had been cleared enough for all schools to be back in session. Surely the roads to State College would be okay.

So Kristin, remember-she's 17 years old, set off alone in the family van to visit friends at college, the college where she's been accepted and plans to attend in the fall.

Just a few short miles after getting on to Interstate 80 she finds herself stuck in standstill traffic. Two tractor trailers had jack-knifed up ahead block all lanes of traffic. Apparently motorists (or other trucks) trying to get around the accidents got stuck, too, making it difficult for emergency vehicles to get in to clear up the mess. AND because of the situation on I-78, there would be a delay getting help for people stuck on I-80.

So she sat.

And sat.

And sat.

And watched her gas gauge go down. With it only about 25 degrees outside, she kept the car's heater on for heat. But it was going to be longer than she expected. Frustrated and scared, she called home.

She might have been completely unprepared, except that (at her dad's insistence) she carried two sleeping bags, water, and food in the car.

So she turned off the engine to save fuel, and hunkered down beneath two sleeping bags to wait it out. Her mom talked her through how to turn a water bottle into a Lady J (female version of a male urinal) -- it was too cold and too dark to leave the car to pee outside.

Then in got dark.

There she was, a 17-year-old, barely 100-pound girl, stuck alone at night in the dark in bitter cold temperatures surrounded by strangers in strange vehicles.

Oh, and she didn't have her cell phone charger with her. She was down to two bars of battery life, so she couldn't just stay on the phone with Mom and Dad. She might need the phone later. So she turned off her cell phone.

Feeling completely vulnerable now, Krisitin was terrified.

7:00 p.m. turned into 9:00 p.m., which eventually became midnight. Finally, close to 1:00 a.m. the cars started moving. Following the State Police and a PennDOT salt truck, Kristin eventually made it off the Interstate (after being stuck there something like 10 or 11 hours in the bitter cold).

She found a hotel - "Sorry, no room, you gotta leave. And NO you can't use the phone." Imagine what that response did to an already fragile 17-year-old who's just trying to get home.

She found a second hotel. There, though all rooms were taken, management invited stranded travelers sleep anywhere (on the floor, in the lobby chairs, etc...), and the desk clerks distributed Snickers and other candy bars.

Kristin huddled into the only corner she could find and started to cry. Some kindly 50-year-old-ish woman with her family took one look at Kristin, and said "Come sit with us." And Kristin did.

Thank God for the kindness of strangers.

Kristin's dad was finally able to find her and bring her home in his truck (the van is still up near Hazelton somewhere). She's tucked safely in her own bed right now.

And home never felt so good to this ready-to-leave-the-nest high-school senior.

There truly is no place like home (if home is a healthy, safe place, which I hope it is for you as it has been for me). Even my canine kids know it.

They're ready to be adventurous and playful and rambunctuous as Labs tend to be, but when it's cold, or they're hungry, or in pain, or when they've had enough adventure (as they have in the photo above where they're all waiting at the door to come in), they just want to be where they know they're safe and loved.

So they come home.

I hope this finds you all warm, safe, and secure in whatever your home may be.

Oh, and Dear-Children-of-Mine (the human variety): I hope you know the door is always open and the hearth is always warm. You'll always have this home here to welcome you no matter where you've been.

'Til next time,


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