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The Indefinite Article.

Friday, September 23, 2005

2005.09.22 - Love in the Time of Hurricanes

Today is carol's birthday and the same day that we decided that it's probably best to leave town. Rita is churning in the gulf and inches closer to it's seemingly inevitable target: us. Carol filled up the car on Tuesday afternoon at the Shell station on the corner of Westheimer and 610, so on nearly a full tank of gas we left at 6:24 in the morning.

On taggart's suggestion i printed out the ms150 ride map with the intention of taking the winding back roads of 529 lall the way to austin. We packed up what we could fit in the trunk and pulled out of the driveway with a soundly sleeping toddler in the back.

43rd street was nearly empty: few people behind us and no one coming from the west. As we approached 290 i could see the yellow lights that lined the top of an eighteen wheeler hanging still as stars in the dark morning. We sailed under the freeway without a problem and continued over the crooked tracks the run along Hempstead. Traffic began to tighten around the beltway, but broke up again as we approached Fry Road.

We were turning onto Fry just as the morning was getting started. the sky was just beginning to brighten. About halfway to 529, we were suddenly at the back of a long line of cars that were obviously all planning on turning onto 529. The line only took up the left, so being the aggressive driver that i am, i immediately jerked into the right lane and continued forward towards the intersection.

As an aside, people were painfully proper at the beginning of this trip. Everyone was waiting dutifully in line: no cutting in line, allowing fellow drivers in ahead of you - an attitude that went right out the window later on that day as gas tanks began to empty and the sun melted the street beneath us.

As i moved closer to the intersection i was at last confronted with the scale of what was happening: 529 from left to right was solid car to car. At the end of an exhaust pipe a front bumper would begin. It was almost overwhelming. Gawking at this, i missed an opportunity to sneak into the turning lane. Instead, i continued across the intersection and made an immediate u-turn. It was these types of maneuvers that only fooled you into believing that you were making progress. Yeah, i avoided a nearly 1/4 mile long line of cars in a turning lane, but i was confronted with a 160 mile line of cars that was moving at a speed slower than my cars idle speed.

we endured it. every now and then a break would happen and we would get up to 15 mph for maybe a 100 yard stretch, then stop again. in the relatively cool morning, the windows were down and we could smell the dry texas grass. there was a slight breeze opon which love bugs floated into the car. adolfo saw dragon flies and bumblebees, silos and clouds.

i turned off the engine and pushed the car the inches when the line ahead of us would crawl forward. as the day wore on, this became unbearable. the asphalt began to soften with the intensity of the sun. as the cars crept slowly forwad you could hear the wet tar being pulled away from the street.

the opposite lane was empty, but no one dared cross over. from time to time a lonely car would pass us by in the opposite direction.

adolfo's head began to sweat. his hair stuck to his scalp and his face began to redden. driving without the a/c was no longer an option. the windows went up and the a/c blasted into the car. we cooled down and continued.

by noon, (nearly six hours on the road) and we were still nearly 15 miles outside of bellvillle. the previous hour we had driven only seven miles. with the a/c becoming less and less effective and our gas tank nearing the halfway point, i began to get nervous. a caravan of trucks was driving on the empty opposite lane - i told carol i was going to follow them and get us out of there. carol and i switched places and i fell in behind them. as a car approached us head on we would all pull far into the shoulder and then continue once it passed. as we slowly passed drivers i could see some people shaking their heads and i began to justify what i was doing in my own head: i have a toddler, i'm not going to make it unless i do what i have to do; i'm going to stall in the middle of nowhere with no one the help me and my family; i have to make something happen; i have to move. a certain self-preservation had kicked in. i was going to do what i had to do to get to my destination.

for a while this worked great. i felt as if i was making progress. and was under the very misguided impression that i was going to eventually make it past the 'bottleneck' and get to austin lickety split.

hills and bridges. it became dangerous. more people began to follow us. problems began when instead of moving into the shoulder at an approaching car, people would try to force their way back into line. the system was breaking down. fair-minded people in the line were pulling out into the street to keep those of us driving on the wrong side from continuing. (would todd have done this?) we simply pulled into the shoulder and contined past them at first, but then seeing that things were getting out of hand, i pulled back into line in an open gap and was again stopping, and inching, and stopping and inching.

(Adolph: do you remember that house along the ride - it's on your right hand side - that has their fence painted like a texas flag? Well, that house had a sign out front: "USE OUR RESTROOM" Carol had to go, so we pulled in and she ran into their garage to relieve herself. I am going to go back to their house after this is all over and thank them personally.)

Carol got back into the car and we contined.

About 200 yards past the free restroom, 7 hours into our trip, and 2/5 of our gas tank i turned to carol, "We aren't going to make it."

I was woozy, carol had a headache, adolfo was fidgety, and whining. Even with the a/c on we were sweating in the car. "We have to turn back."
"Okay", replied carol simply.

I turned the car around and made my way slowly back home. Cars were coming towards us and i patiently allowed them time to move out of the way. Emergency vehicles came speeding behind us, others were already tending to people at cars along the side of the road. At one vehicle it looked like an older lady had collapsed; another was attending to a crying toddler. Carol was broken hearted. I was frustrated and a dull thud was developing behind my eyes.

Cops were now at intersections where there were none before. There were cars everywhere, on every road as far as the eye could see. It was the craziest shit i had ever seen.

Carol had to drive us home. We traded places. My eyes felt swollen and dry. The dull thud had turned into a full on migraine-like aura. adolfo had fallen asleep. we were worried cause the smell of gas fumes on the road was overpowering.

It took us one hour to get home in a nearly uninterrupted drive.

We got home, carol fed me two excedrin migraines and i pulled the mattress from the hallway (we had plaed it there on top of two boxes) and closed my eyes. I would like to say that i fell asleep, but all i could see were the lines of cars behind my eyes. I was still in complete awe of what i had seen.

my sleep was fitfull, the pain in my head was not something i had experienced before. carbon monoxide. carol was woozy. adolfo slept for a bit, but once he realized he was back home clamored for attention. carol, my wonderful wife, stayed up with him until later that night when he finally went down for a full night of sleep.

a couple of hours later i tried to eat something. it was difficult. i had a nausea that would not go away. i took a few spoonfulls of soup and began to plan how we would hunker down for hurricane Rita. I would pull the loose fenceboards and cover the windows with them. I would start first thing in the morning after a good night's sleep and breakfast. Carol had alrady begun to bottle water in everything she could. Claire, who had evacuated to austin earlier than we had, offered us the supplies left in her house: batteries, a radio, and large jugs of water.

Carol came into the room while i was chatting with you guys. "Adolfo just freaked me out," she said with her eyes wattering.
"What did he say?"
"Well i asked him is he was tired, and he said, 'No mama, i'm not tired. I'm sick'"
"You're sick, baby? Where does it hurt?"
"My stomach hurts mama."
"Why does your stomach hurt?"
"Because i dropped my daddy. He's flying. I want to fly and mama wants to fly too."

By this time carol's eyes are red and scared. I hug her and reassure her that things are going to be okay. "We're going to be okay ...(insert regurgitated weatherman speak here)..." I detail our plan, and she calms down.

We lay down to bed. The phone rings.
"The nine o'clock news says that the storm is headed back this direction. We are in Victoria, 59 is totally clear. We're on our way to the valley, " said Maru. Carol hung up and looked at me and told me what they said. "We have half a tank of gas, carol. We can make it to Corpus Christi at least. They're bound to have gas there."

Carol repacks the car; although, not as full as we had it last time. We pulled out the car seat and set up a bed in the back seat for adolfo. Before i knew it we were back on the road. The night was moderately cool. The windows were down and the a/c was off to conserve gas. The freeways were eerily empty at 11 p.m. I cruised at 55 mph out of houston.

As we left sugarland i had counted just over 30 (31) stalled and abandoned cars on the side of 59. By the time i got to the valley, i will have counted well over 50. True to her word, 59 was clear as a bell. No one was on the road. Not all her words were true, though. She said a gas station was open in El Campo. It was open, but it had no gas. As a matter of fact as you came up on towns along 59 there were large playwood signs with "NO GAS" spraypainted on them. We nervously continued.

"There is a gas station in Refugio (65 miles south of Victoria) that has just gotten a truck of gas," maru reports on her next phone call.

I look nervously at my gas level. Outside of Victoria i am at 1/4 tank. I'm going t o make it, i think to myself. There aren't very many cars on the road, and according to Adolfo IV's "Tonka Tanker Truck" book, a tanker truck holds nearly 11,000 gallons (of milk). Assuming that on average each vehicle will fill up with 15 to 20 gallons of gas, they can fill up maybe 550 vehicles. I set the cruise control to 57 after doing this crude and tired math in my head. I am nervously counting the cars that pass me. Some vehicles have large plastic gas tanks mounted to the top of the car.

We roll into Refugio on fumes and make it to the gas station on the far end of town. TXDOT is on the scene getting everyone in queue. We get in line about 25 cars back. I ask the officer (who, incidentally, was MUCH younger than i was) what their capacity is. "Last i head, about 4,000 gallons. There's plenty for everyone here, but they're about to stop accepting cash. How are you paying?"

The cash-only people are herded to teh front of the line. The line i repeat to various panhandlers echoes in my head, "...i'm sorry, i don't carry cash"

Standing in line for gas, is a surreal experience, everyone with expectant and desperate faces. Straight out of MadMax.

The belly of my car went 'WHOOSH!' when i opened the gas cover. The sound of gas spilling into your vehicle is a beautiful thing.

I was starving. I hadn't really eaten properly since Wednesday night after i had gotten home from work. I had a bowl of cereal after working late to prepare for our Practicing Radiologist Conferece in SanAntonio. As of then, it hadn't been cancelled. Kellly, my boss, had gotten onto I-10 with a carload of AV equipment for our conference at the same time i had gotten on the road to Austin with a MDACC laptop with the entire conference on it. If he couldn't make it, maybe i could was the theory behind that.

Once we had turned around, I called him. "You got to do what is good for you at this point." The conference was officially cancelled later that afternoon. He called from I-10 after having received a call from the organizers. Turns out they had to wait for a certain declaration of emergency from the governor's office or else they would have had to have ponied up the $20,000 dollars to the resort where the conference was being held. With the declaration, they were released from liability.

Every Whataburger on 77 (even in Corpus Christi!) was closed. I was very cross. We stopped at a Circle K convenience store where i spoke with a gentleman who had been on the road for nearly 24 hours. He made the mistake of leaving earlier thursday. when i told him i had left just a few hours earlier he was flabbergasted. I bought Carol a birthday scratch lottery ticket that we're going to scratch later tonight.

We passed through King's Ranch and took the backroads behind Raymondville through crops of sugar cane, which will be burnt for harvesting in October/November. Since college i have promised myself i would return for photograph the harvesting of the sugar cane, but have never followed through. (Taggart, would you like to join me if you're not busy?). As i have done since my first year of college, i turned off my headlights and drove for a distance down the black blue road. It was 5:14 a.m.

We rolled into Edinburg at 6:15 and got to my sister's house at 6:30 where we threw ourselves down for a short sleep till 11. We got up starving and headed out to Las Crucitas (sp?) on Closner for a breakfast of pancakes, huevos rancheros, beans, coffee, homemade flour tortillas.

Just ten minutes ago, i called my sister (4:15, Thursday) who told me that the hurricane seems to have taken a sharp turn for Louisianna. The winds had picked up a little, but she doesn't seem worried. She is confident it isn't going to be bad at all, which is fine with me. With that news, i gues we'll head home tomorrow evening (saturday evening) and try to beat all the returning traffic. I plan on buying my own red plastic gas tanks to strap to the roof my car.

Anyone want something from the valley while i'm down here?


  • Empanadas.....Lots and lots of empanadas.
    Glad you are safe.
    Be safe on the return.

    By Blogger taggart, at 10:17 AM  

  • thank you my love for indulging you cry-baby wife and worrying for the safety of your little dragon boy - i love you

    By Blogger CarolinaDivina, at 3:36 PM  

  • wow, I can't imagine how you guys made it through all that. I personally can't imagine undertaking a similar odyssey with my wife and 3-year old son. I respect the bravery of you all.

    By Blogger shane, at 4:18 PM  

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