People in Florida seem to think that there’s something about their lack of snow that makes them better people than us. They see Northerners on TV struggling to cope with winter storms and think, What a bunch of dummies we are.
But I’ve read quite a few stories about Floridians in my day, like one in which a woman killed a man because he spilled some beer, or one where a man shot another man dead after an argument about pork chops. They may manage to dodge misfortune and death on their snowless roads, but fate seems to find them in other ways.
I can remember clearly the four worst driving conditions I’ve ever been in — the fourth worst coming Jan. 21 — and that’s good, because it means I have not often suffered in bad circumstances on the road.
On Jan. 21, I was in the office a little late on deadline when I chanced to look outside at my snow-covered car. The snow was accumulating quickly and falling swiftly, so I decided to head for home.
There was less than an inch on the road, but it was sticking. Once I was on the interstate, I could see that the lines were all gone, and despite a decent amount of traffic, our tires weren’t making much of a path. Three lanes had become two, oddly spaced. Some drivers had their hazard lights on. Most of the way I averaged less than 20 mph.
There were a few cars spun out on the sides of the road, but most people kept their heads. The falling snow was dense, but light, and nobody, not even those in trucks, tried to barrel past us all. Getting going from a stop was difficult, but for the most part traction was not an issue. It took only about 20 minutes more than usual to get home.
As it turned out, waiting the storm out would have been the better choice. Within an hour the snow had stopped and the roads looked to be pretty easy to take care of. If I’d stayed at work, my drive home probably would have been no different from normal. But it’s hard to know what to do in those situations. A bad decision can quickly become a terrible decision.
The second and third worst road conditions I have been in were far worse than Jan. 21. In both cases I had to make my way through unplowed highways to get home. In 2000 I worked in Red Bank, a good 35 miles from where I lived, and the drive home took a couple of hours. I followed the furrows left by cars ahead of me and hoped I didn’t have to stop and risk getting stuck where I could find no traction.
And in 2004 or ’05, I remember driving home late at night and not being sure I was going to make it all the way home. It was late enough, and the roads empty enough, that there were no tracks to follow. It was like driving through an open field. As with the Red Bank trip, though, while conditions were terrible, the lack of cars on the road took the intensity level down a few crucial notches.
The worst driving conditions I have ever been in were so awful that I have hardly ever told the story of that day. Loads of snow and loads of traffic. And ice: miles and miles of black ice.
What I’ve come to realize from the few times I’ve tried to tell the tale — and I take it, if you’re still reading, you’re about to agree with this — is that stories about driving through snow are generally pretty boring. I’ve just told you that I’ve driven through six inches of fresh snow where no one had gone before me, and you were like, “Eh. Sounds better than trying to argue with some dude in Florida about pork chops.”
So my paragraphs about the worst conditions I’ve ever been in — driving to Washington in the Blizzard of 2009, the white-knuckleist, blitzkriegiest 180 miles I hope I will ever traverse — will be barely longer than the parts about much more benign experiences I’ve had. See I’ve gone through this before: told about the vans doing 540s one lane over, cars left and right disappearing into medians and ditches like fallen soldiers, sleet gradually icing over the windshield until I could see only out of a patch like I was peering through a tank periscope. But the harrowing tale finds no purchase in the minds of others. There’s evidently no way to give the story the depth and ferocity it needs. You had to be there.
My wife and I are lucky to have shared the experience (though it would have been luckier still to have left a day before) because if one of us had gone through it alone, no one would ever know what it was like except that person. And that’s not enough.
Hardship stories aren’t just stories because there are hardships. Stories like “The Nurse Had To Stick Me Four Times Before She Managed To Draw Blood” or “I Thought We Wouldn’t Find a Spot at the Beach For Our Blanket But Then We Found One” also tend to underwhelm, and it’s easy to see why. For a story to be good, something has to happen. We lived through those, and the experiences made us feel something. But those stories are about nothing happening.
Once you’ve made it to your destination you’ve usually kind of ruined any hope of a story. “I was trying to get somewhere … and in the end, I got there!” is not a narrative that moves people.
A story about a guy getting shot over pork chops, on the other hand …
(Search online for “florida shot pork chops” if you think the story was apocryphal.)