Hell may not have frozen over, but Texas has, and that’s almost as rare. Last night we were driving home from Houston when the temperature dropped below freezing, and the car showed a black ice warning light. Soon it began to sleet.
Texans really don’t know how to deal with snow and ice. I drove slowly and carefully, but people who had bought into the SUV myth were overtaking. Unfortunately, no amount of all-wheel-drive or traction control will help if you hit a patch of wet ice. Before long we rounded a gentle curve, and passed a major accident scene. A big patch of smashed glass was by the central barrier, and an SUV was a little further on, pointing the wrong way with its front left corner crumpled. Seconds later we passed another car, similarly wrecked, then another SUV in a ditch.
Fortunately, we had set out from Houston as soon as it began raining, so we were only around 20 miles from home by the time the roads got really treacherous. I found a truck to follow. My reasoning was as follows:
- Chances are, the truck driver has years of experience driving in all kinds of weather conditions. So, let him set an appropriate speed.
- He’s got good visibility to see what’s going on up ahead and slow down in plenty of time.
- Behind the truck, the ice will be broken up somewhat.
- Anything an 18 wheeler can safely negotiate, I can probably safely negotiate.
- One of the biggest dangers when driving in icy conditions is inability to brake. In which case, it’s better to be behind the truck than in front of it.
I also did my best to stick to the middle lane where possible. Again, the reasoning was pretty simple: if the car started sliding, I’d have the maximum time possible to let it stop sliding before I ran out of road.
It’s always worth remembering that a 40mph collision with a solid concrete barrier is quite sufficient to kill you. Combine that with a road that may at any moment decide not to let you put on the brakes, and it’s not hard to deduce that doing 50 mph is a bad move. Some of the trucks put their hazard lights on and drove slowly in formation to block the way and stop various idiots from killing themselves, which I thought was very charitable of them.
By around 15 miles from home, everything had slowed to around 6-8 mph. Fortunately, after 15-20 minutes things eased up a little, and we made it the rest of the way at around 20-30 mph.
The final problem was getting from I-35 to our house, the biggest hazard being the big dip in Oltoft Street just west of the freeway. I eased the car to the top of the hill, and tried to start the descent as slowly as possible. I knew that there was no way I was going to be able to brake significantly before I got to the bottom; I took my foot off the accelerator completely, and let the electric motors provide a little drag on all 4 wheels.
As we hit the bottom of the hill and came up the other side, we realized that the power was out–along with all the traffic lights. Fortunately, there was plenty of time to slow before the first junction, and people were pretty much behaving sensibly in the absence of signals. We made it home safely, and I started trying to un-knot every muscle in my body.
Normally at this time of year, the average temperature hits a high of just over 60°F, 15°C. Today the high was 2°C. Apparently it hasn’t been this cold since 1927. But as Texas’s own Bill Hicks might have put it: Remember, increasing incidence of climactic extremes has nothing to do with so-called global warming, and you’d be a fool and a Communist to think otherwise. This is just a perfectly normal bit of freak weather you’d expect every hundred years or so…and so was Hurricane Katrina, and so is this year’s Amazon drought, and so is the sudden lack of ice in the arctic, and so is the freakishly warm Carribean ocean weather that has bleached the coral reefs, and the drought emergency in the western USA, and the heaviest rainfall since records began in Australia, the freak snowfalls in Kazakhstan, the record heat in Prague, the blizzards in the UK, the floods in Cumbria, and the 195km/h storms in Sweden.
We’d gone there because I have some time off, and it was a fairly cheap alternative to sitting on my ass watching TV all day, nice though the new television is. We both got a religious experience into the bargain; I got mine at the Johnson Space Center, and rothko got hers at The Rothko Chapel, of course.