Sunday, July 1, 2012

A not so funny thing happened . . .

On Saturday, June 30, 2012, 6am, after having spent 2-1/2 weeks at my folks' house on LI, NY, taking care of my Alzheimer's-ridden (middle stage) father, while my mother took a badly needed vacation to France (she travels at least once a year), I set out for my home in Kentucky via West Virginia.

Big mistake!

It turned out that, during the previous night, a major wind storm crippled the State, knocking out at least half its power. No restaurants, rest rooms, gas stations, etc, were running. Unfortunately, there were no warnings for tourists and travelers, so, there were many, like me, who could have filled-up sooner at working stations, had we known. I had heard news stories on the radio indicating that people were buying generators or that none were available, but the tenor of the stories seemed to be like that of a big tailgate party, not an emergency situation; not a word about the storm or power outages. You know those emergency AM radio stations the highway signs tell you to use? Off the air.

I stopped at a few small WV towns hoping for a rest room and/or gas, but the scant few places that had generators to run their gas pumps had huge lines, and they were rationing the gas (which, IMHO, was a good idea; quite frankly, locals should have been turned away so that travelers could get home). And nobody else was open for business (including to "do" your "business"!).

At about 4pm, with about 10 miles left to go on my car (approx 1 gallon (20 miles) was wasted going to those side exits, one of which I couldn't turn around, despite being scant yards from the highway entrance, because the police brilliantly (he said, sarcastically) blocked off that lane, forcing me to go 10 miles out of my way (by wild coincidence, during my stay in NY, my brother had given me his ancient GPS (its directions are only 90% accurate; there are no map updates, and the company, MIO, went out of business - - surprise, surprise!), which got me out of the town, which had no road signs, whatsoever)), I came upon an attended, but otherwise closed, rest stop - - its sign indicating it was the last one on Rt 79, southbound - - I decided it was better to stay there than get caught on the highway with no gas. Expecting to see lots of drivers in my situation, there were, surprisingly, very few people there; again, no water (the hand pump was locked!), vending machines, or rest rooms, but I expected a lot of (soon-to-be) stranded drivers.

Fortunately, the weather was pleasant (hot and humid, but not uncomfortably so), and my cell phone (Sprint) had (free) digital roaming available (i.e., no tower signal), so I called my credit card company (Chase Business, which comes with a free emergency road service plan), hoping to get a few gallons of gas, although I figured that wouldn't happen. Chase was very attentive and, seemingly, genuinely concerned, but after about ten minutes (not that I minded the time) their service company said that all towing and similar services were swamped with such requests, and, understandably, only valid, urgent, 9-1-1 calls would be given any kind of assistance. At my request, the Chase operator connected me to my auto insurance company, State Farm, who, after I keyed '0' for the operator per their menu, was told by a recording that the number was invalid and I was promptly disconnected (when I reported this incident to my local insurance agent, she said that all I had to do was call my local number (which is on the insurance card, which I always carry with me and is in my phone's contact list), and I would have been connected to her or her staff or, if off-hours, the regional 24-hour operator (I have a feeling it would have had the same result, but, I hope never to need such, again!)). I then called my mother, explained the situation (n.b., my cellphone has a 6-hour battery and I have a car charger, so I wasn't concerned about that), and warned her that I could be stuck there, potentially for days. But, I had food (mostly melted!), and the rest stop was supplied with bottled water from the Salvation Army and local fire companies, so I was, more or less, safe and sound.

I went to the far side of the rest stop to do my "business" way back in the woods (no poison ivy or wild animals, and completely out of sight of drivers). When I returned to wait out my fate, a woman drove up, saying that she, too, was running on fumes. By coincidence, she was heading to Kentucky, the border of which was just a few hours southwest, as well! Her phone (T-Mobile) had no signal, so I let her use mine. She couldn't get through to anybody, but left messages. Eventually, a gentleman with a motor boat drove up, and he, too, was in the same boat! (yeah, I just *had* to say it!) His phone (ATT) had no service, so I let him use mine. His father lives just a few hours away in Kentucky, where, apparently, there was no damage, so the guy asked his dad to bring extra gas for the woman and me (again, at the time, we were the only ones at the stop!). The rest stop's one pay phone worked, but wouldn't receive outside calls, except from the northbound rest stop across the way (again: brilliant! again: sarcastic!).

So, the three of us spent the next six hours telling new drivers that there were no restrooms (I told all the ones I spoke to about the grove area, but nobody took me up on my suggestion! Really, it was quite safe and far better (and less smelly!) than "going" in the back of the rest stop facility, which some people did!). Only a few people hung around, staying only a few minutes. One woman said she had bought 8 gallons for $80 from "kids" a few miles north, but she was unfamiliar with her vehicle (her father's), and concerned about being able to get to the Kentucky border, where her father lives. Fortunately, she had the car's owner's manual in the glove compartment, which, as I calculated from the stated gas tank size and fuel guage, indicated that she would have more than enough to get to her father (I didn't mention that she may have been taken by the kids, who may have given her nothing but water, but she was not the brightest bulb in the lighthouse, and I didn't want to cause any added distress). Another driver came by with a similar story, except that the seller had a tow truck with a AAA logo on the side of his truck; the man not only didn't buy the gas, but told the guy he intended to report him to AAA for price gouging, as is against AAA policy. Bravo! Other drivers told us that another storm was headed our way, despite the windless, clear skies; the reluctant volunteer attendant (another dim bulb, but, pleasant and reassuring, all the same!), said that the previous evening's storm had started after a similar lull (he also stated that mass power outages occur on a regular basis in WV, which implies that towns need their own power stations, which may also imply that they simply don't have the resources - - natural and/or financial - - to do so). Other drivers (passenger and truckers) gave us conflicting reports about power and gas availability in Charleston, about 55 miles south, not that I could possibly have reached it. Some drivers told us that DC, Ohio and Pennsylvania, suffered similarly, so, had I driven in those directions, I might have ended up in a similar situation.

At about 10pm, the gentleman's father arrived, with enough gas for a motorcyclist (a late addition to our little circle), and about 5 gallons for me (the first woman managed to reach her brother, who knew somebody in Charleston, who promised to bring her gas, so she was set), and a couple of gallons for a panic-stricken woman (with three very well-behaved kids in tow) whose closest relative was in Tennessee, where she was headed. I had a funnel, which helped with the gas pouring. About 15 minutes later, we said our farewells. I even gave my two new "chums" - - the woman and first man (the motorcyclist had taken off) - -  my business cards, if they were interested in re-connecting. The first woman (married) plays tennis, as I do, and the man's father refused my very generous offer for the gas - - on top of which, the father told the panic-stricken woman he would follow her to the next safe, public, rest stop or exit - - so I wanted to offer them a free computer repair, at the very least; he said he wouldn't have known about his son's dilemma had it not been for my phone, so he considered us "even". He also said I should "carry it forward" to someone else in need . . . a good samaritan AND classy!

So, with an 80-100 mile range at my disposal, I resumed my southbound travel, vowing not to stop anywhere in West Virginia, lest I waste time and gas; I even shut off the radio and air conditioner, which shouldn't matter with a modern car, but, I wasn't taking any chances. At about midnight, when I was, once again, down to about 20 miles worth of gas, there was an exit with a Sheetz gas/food stop with plenty of gas (and, oddly, no lines!), so I filled-up, knowing that I would need less than half a tank to get home (n.b., if it didn't have gas, there happened to be another open gas station just 8 miles south, but, I don't know if I would have taken that chance). Reveling in my newfound, gas-guzzling, ways, I bought a sandwich and drink (not having eaten anything substantial since six that morning, and all my snack food had become sugary, melted, goo, in the excessive heat!), turned on the refreshing a/c, and relaxed in the car for about 10 minutes. I, then, phoned my mother telling her all was well. Then, I hit the restroom, washed up, and took off.

Oddly, there were only a handful of stranded cars on the highway, but I couldn't risk stopping to help, out of, both, admitted selfishness and, more importantly, fear that I could have been mugged for gas or money or even the car! I got home at about 3am, so exhausted that I didn't bother taking anything out of the car, and just threw myself on my bed. I woke up at about 6am, forced myself to stay in bed, if not asleep, and then realized I had nothing in the refrigerator, so, at 8:30 am, I got food at the local supermarket, picked-up my 3 weeks' worth of mail (85% magazines; 10% junk) from my post office box, and even filled-up with gas ($3.11/gal, and I even got a 10 cent discount for Speedway's 4th of July member discount; it's a free loyalty card that gives back incredible dividends with discounts and freebies! FWIW, gas in NY was about $3.50/gal, as it was throughout NJ, PA, and WV; only KY had such low prices!).

In conclusion, the six-hour ordeal went really fast, at least, to me (my two comrades-in-ordeal thought it had dragged!). We got to see some incredible displays of heat lightning (no rain, thank goodness!) to the east, which, unfortunately, I couldn't capture on my digital camera. All-in-all, it was something of an adventure, though, definitely, not one I'd ever like to repeat! A happy, albeit exhausting, ending! Thank you, Sprint, for being there when nobody else's service worked!