By Rachel Lauren
By now, I’m sure you heard that the gridlock earlier this week on I95 in Virginia was absolutely terrible. And I can attest to the fact it felt worse than it looked on the news. Over 40 miles of cars trapped on the interstate in sub-freezing temperatures for over 20 hours is absolutely miserable. After all, I was trapped there for 16 hours.
Here is my story of how I survived I95.
My boyfriend and I had gone to New England to visit his family for New Year’s and were traveling back home to North Carolina this past Monday. The night before, we checked weather reports for our route and all was clear.
Prior to the backup, the trip had been going great. We had our coffee, had picked up some breakfast, and were on the road by 8am on Monday.
We drove through Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland with absolutely no problem. It was a breeze. There’s a game we play in the car. The two of us take turns picking a color with whoever finds the most of that color having to pay for dinner. We were playing “our game” and having an absolute blast.
Up until the parking lot known as I95, it was probably the most fun we had ever had on one of these trips, and we’ve made this particular journey together eight times now. We always take I95 because it both has the prettiest views, and is a significantly shorter route. Things were “normal”. We got zero notices about people needing to stay off the roads, and we were tuned into local news stations the whole way.
And then we hit DC.
It was right outside of the city limits that our GPS told us there was heavy traffic ahead, but that a shorter route was available.
Normally, it probably would’ve added an extra half-hour, but with the delays on the freeway, it was going to save us about two hours. So we obviously decided to take the detour.
That’s when things went south.
It was getting dark, but we had always pushed through the 13-hour drive in one day so we thought nothing about it. You could tell that it had somewhat snowed recently, but we didn’t think we were going to run into any of the true stormy weather.
And we were right.
We didn’t run into the actual storm, just the aftermath.
The detour took us down some back roads around Springfield, Virginia. It was stressful at first – the roads were something of a mess – and we thought of stopping, but then the roads cleared up, so we agreed that it was fine to keep driving.
Then we got to the real back roads.
Or, at least they looked like back roads. It was pitch-black out, and the snow had knocked out the power, so there were no street lights. We barely had any cell service, so our GPS with our maps weren’t working anymore. The radio was playing almost pure static, as well. Even now, after trying to track the journey on an actual map, we still have no clue where we were.
The roads were big enough for one car to get through in most parts, and then there were a couple of areas where two cars could pass by each other as long as they were willing to drive through some small branches. It looked like it was normally a two-lane road, with the double yellow line through the middle, but with the amount of snow on the ground, it appeared someone just kind of drove through the middle with a plow so people could at least sort of drive through.
The road was manageable because it had to be.
There was no side of the road to pull over without getting stuck or wrecking the car. We saw many abandoned vehicles along that route, and it felt like one of those scenes in an adventure movie where the main character sees the skeletonized carcasses of former adventurers laying by the side of the road, still wearing their armor. It felt like if we stopped there we’d end up sharing the same fate as those prior drivers.
It was something similar to the first five seconds of the below video…
We had no option but to keep going. Thankfully, somebody else had come through prior, cutting and removing the downed trees just enough for cars to get past, and made enough of a path with their own vehicles. I don’t envy the work they did.
After two hours of back roads in almost complete silence we thought we were in the clear. We had returned to civilization, had seen signs to get back on I95, and had never been so excited for a highway sign before!
And then we got onto I95…
Around 8pm we found the entrance ramp, and we really thought it would be smooth sailing from that point out. There were no warning signs, and the news on our phones mentioned no back-ups. Our GPS did not indicate a traffic jam either. My boyfriend had already driven for 12 hours by that point. But there were finally street lights, a few radio stations working with minimal fuzz, and we were finally on the highway.
Then we stopped.
And we stayed stopped. At 9pm-ish, we realized we probably weren’t going to be moving, so my boyfriend put the car in park. At 10pm or so we had enough of a cell signal to finally call our parents and let them know what was going on, but no one understood what we meant when we said we weren’t able to move. This was before the news reports started popping up.
Somewhere around 11pm, we decided to turn the car off to save gas
We were at half a tank, but had been parked for so long we were scared we’d run out. Before shutting off the engine, I trudged through the slush and ice, grabbed our blankets, food, and winter coats from the trunk and put everything in the back seat, with the heat on high blast. By 11:15pm we were settled enough to turn the car off. It was around 20 degrees Fahrenheit at that point.
We didn’t have enough of a cell signal to Google what was going on, or even precisely where we were. I think that even if we did have a map we wouldn’t have really been able to figure out where we were at that moment in time. All we knew was that we were stuck, cold, tired, and had no option but to wait it out.
At midnight, the media started posting news articles about how there were “delays” on the roads, particularly I95, and that everyone should stay at home.
Since my boyfriend had been driving since 8am that morning, I told him to just try to get some sleep, and that I’d wake him up if I saw any movement. He gets colder easier than I do, so he had his hoodies on, and was wearing a winter coat backwards kind of like a Snuggie. I made him take the blanket as well. I had on two sweatshirts, my sweat pants on, and a winter jacket I curled up under and used as a blanket, and I was kind of just snacking to keep myself awake.
Baby, it’s cold outside.
By 2am the temperature had dropped almost 10 degrees and was hovering right around 11 degrees Fahrenheit. I had to wake my honey up to get the car on so we could have some heat. His face was getting so cold – as if we’d been playing out in the snow for a while. We kept the heat going for about 15 minutes with the temperature set to 80 with the hopes that the heat would remain after we turned the engine off once more. Then we added all of our layers back on us and shut the car off again.
My boyfriend fell back asleep in no time. I read and used my curse word coloring book my mom had gotten me for Christmas (thanks, mom) with my purse headlamp stuck to my head so I wasn’t wasting my phone battery.
I also took a mental inventory of what we had left.
We didn’t have it as bad as a lot of people. My boyfriend’s parents sent us home with tons of food, and at the last gas station we had bought a few water bottles and a Gatorade. I really thought we were good.
But, then I realized that we were at that gas station somewhere close to 10 hours ago. I had to do my best to silently dig around the car for the water bottles, but they were nowhere to be found. So, what we really had left was the food, and one bottle of water.
One. Bottle. Of water.
One bottle of water to split between two people, neither of which had any idea when they would be getting off of that dang highway.
By 4am, I had to wake him up again for more heat. I told him about the people who had left their cars and turned everything off, and started walking back down the interstate. I had no idea where they were going, but I was hoping for the best. At that point, there were a few helicopters in the sky, and we were able to find a radio station that was actually fully working and reporting.
At 6am, I realized I couldn’t hold my pee any longer. Since we were in the middle of an interstate, and there were cars all around, I didn’t exactly want to go squat on the side of the road for all to see. I was also concerned that if I went with that route, the pee would freeze as it was coming out. I tried peeing into both an old coffee cup and an old chip bag.
The chip bag was my new best friend because, at that point, it had been almost 12 hours since my last pee. I filled that bag almost halfway up, and it was probably the second most embarrassing thing I’d ever done in my entire life. (The first most embarrassing thing I’d ever done in my life was after urinating in a chip bag, I had to then dump that bag full of urine outside the car door for all to see.)
I wrapped the chip bag into a different plastic bag, because obviously, I’m not going to throw my pee bag on the side of the highway. So instead, I buried my McGuyvered urinal in our little car trash can and hoped that it wouldn’t stink up the car.
Thank God for the cold, right?
One can only imagine the distress a UPS driver with a truck full of ColoGuard samples would have experienced in a I95 situation in July. So, I was thankful for the chill. At least for that specific problem.
The morning brought hope.
Around 7am I had dozed off a bit, but woke up every five minutes or so. The sun was starting to come out, and it was a weird combination of burning from the sun beaming into the car, and freezing because it had been so cold out. I woke my boyfriend up so we could turn the car on again, and to see if there were any updates on the one radio station we found.
And there was an update. The radio said that firefighters were coming to check on people, to hand out blankets, food, and water. The cavalry was supposedly coming.
In the 15 hours of sitting in a car that was turned off almost the entire time, with only the hums of the nearby engines, I did not once hear a siren. I didn’t hear any cars actually moving.
What I did hear was this…
I heard people crying and helicopters.
And, I heard parents in the car next to us get out of the vehicle to discuss possible arrangements for who would get the kids if they died during this.
The firefighters never came.
We were on our own.
The walkers finally came back shortly afterwards.
By 9am, the people who had left earlier in the evening had come back with bags from Wawa, which was I suppose was the closest gas station/convenience store. They got back in their car and acted as though nothing happened.
My boyfriend slept through a majority of the evening, not very peacefully, of course, but enough to maintain sanity. While I was between coloring and reading, I was playing through all of the potential problems and solutions.
One bottle of water?
My boyfriend’s mom had given me some candles. I could use the candles to melt some snow, put that into an empty water bottle, and use my LifeStraw to purify it. I also figured we could put the water bottle my mom got my boyfriend (that’s supposed to purify water with UV lights) to the test.
But then I thought of another problem. It was slush when we put the car into park, with some black ice on the road, and other chunks of ice here and there as well. But it got super cold overnight, way below freezing. Almost 20 degrees below freezing. Would all of the slush freeze and turn the interstate turn into a giant sheet of ice leaving our tires trapped by ice for eternity?
I didn’t want to wake my boyfriend with that terrifying possibility, because even if we wanted to try to move the car, we would slam into the people in front of us. It was bumper to bumper, parked, turned off vehicles. We were stuck.
The interstate did eventually turn into a large frozen mass, but for whatever reason, it didn’t freeze the tires where they sat. At least for us.
The large transport truck next to us did get stuck in the ice. I watched him try to carefully carve the tires out of the ice, then starting his truck in an attempt to move forward. Some of the tires would spin, others wouldn’t even budge. He just had to wait it out.
By 11am we were finally able to move the car again. We were going probably 5mph, but we were moving. That was all we cared about. But at the rate we were going, it shot the gas mileage to crap. Instead of having half a tank of gas and 200 miles to go, the car said we had half a tank and 65 miles to go.
It took us over an hour to drive the five miles between the on-ramp we had taken to join the misery of I95, to the first possible (Exit 140). During that tedious drive, we saw roughly 30 abandoned cars, some that were abandoned in the middle of the road with what looked like three feet of snow on top, and others which probably just ran out of gas from idling all night long.
But by noon we were finally off the I95.
We were on I95 for a solid 16 hours.
By the time we got off the highway and went to go find gas, almost all the gas stations that were on our side of the road weren’t working. The other side of the road was bumper-to-bumper traffic, and there was no way we could’ve just turned left. We drove past 4-5 different gas stations, pulling into all of them. Some didn’t take cards, some couldn’t pump gas, and others were plain out of gas.
It took us over an hour to find a gas station which had power, gas, a bathroom, and would accept cards instead of cash. I went in while my honey pumped the gas, purchased six bottles of water, bought a can of Redbull, and peed for three minutes straight.
But we were off the highway, we had gas, we got to use an actual bathroom, and we had water.
We were happy.
We took highway 1 to Richmond from that gas station and hopped back onto a freshly cleared I95 just after the city. It took another 3 hours to get back to our warm and sunny North Carolina, but we arrived with the knowledge we didn’t need to make any more long-distance journeys anytime soon.
What did I learn?
I definitely will take the lessons I learned from being stuck on I95 to heart. Here is a list of things I used from my car kit:
- Caffeine pills (I got mine from Walgreens after needing to pull an all-nighter for work during the Christmas season, but they helped me to stay both alert and awake for a majority of being stuck on the freeway, and I’m glad that they did.)
- A large, fuzzy throw blanket
- Winter boots and thick socks
- Heavy-duty winter jackets
- Toques and mittens
- An ice scraper that has a glove type thing around it
- De-icer for the windshield and mirrors.
- Granola bars
- Ibuprofen and acetaminophen
- Lighters and candles (and a LifeStraw was almost used but not quite.)
- UV purifying water bottle
- Extra cold weather clothing from suitcases like sweatshirts in different sizes (we both had one fitted sweatshirt, and one more baggy one), warm sweatpants, and warm underlayers, such as leggings and long sleeve shirts.
And here are the things I will soon be adding to my car kit:
- An insulated stadium blanket (because the soft fuzzy one we had only did so much. It was simply too cold.)
- Electrolyte packets to put into water
- A spray bottle for the de-icer
- Duct tape (I don’t know why, I just feel like I could’ve found a use for it)
- A small bag of kitty litter for traction on my tires
- Paper maps
- Fully charged portable phone chargers, and matching cords.
It’s finally over though.
It’s been a good while since getting off that road, and I am still somewhat in shock. My entire body feels tense and tight. Even my urethra hurts from the force at which the urine escaped my body in that gas station bathroom. My bladder area still feels cramped from needing to accommodate that much pee.
But, news reports of firefighters handing out blankets, water, and snacks are things that did not happen near me. No one offered to bring us to “Warming Centres” or even offered us a time frame on when we might get out. We didn’t see anyone on I95 other than those who were in the same boat we were.
And I was awake almost the entire time, so I think if “help” were present anywhere on that stupid interstate, I would’ve seen it.
What I did see on I95 were kids having snowball fights and building snowmen. I saw someone walking around with a bag of oranges, and after getting out I met some random guy at a gas station who was filling up canisters of gas to go help the people on the road who were still stranded.
The reports did not express the severity of the situation. The news said the roads were closed, and had been closed, but we got on I95 no problem, and other people got on a while after us. The news said there would be “delays”, but I sat there with my partner, surrounded by other people in their cars, and I know we were all thinking the same thing. “Are we going to die out here?”
I95 made it so death truly didn’t feel very far away at all.
We had zero resources, everyone around us had little to no cell signal, and it wasn’t enough to search up what was going on, because trust me, I asked. Even my mom (who I had called probably a million times), couldn’t find anything about the gridlock.
The radio stations barely worked until somewhere around 5am, aside from a few music channels. There were no serious injuries or deaths reported, but I can almost guarantee that everyone was scared, cold, tired, and felt like law enforcement was fully intending to just let us die out there or just waiting for us to figure it out on our own.
I am glad it is over.
I95 kicked our butts. But we made it out. And for that, I am thankful.
For more information on how to survive freezing temps, check out our free QUICKSTART GUIDE.
What do you think?
Has the I95 gridlock changed how you will prep your vehicle? Share your thoughts in the comments.