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Friday, July 5, 2013

Day 10: It could have been worse

I still can't believe this happened. This is the afternoon of Day 10 on my Michigan or Bust road trip. The day started out fine, I'd dodged the tornado-watch hail storm the night before and I'd left the Kennebec KOA bright and early.

Most of my morning and early afternoon looked like this. Oddly, there was nobody on I-90. It felt like I was the only person going west.

Everything was fine until I neared Exit 126 in Gillette, Wyoming. All of a sudden the sky filled with dark clouds. Nothing to worry about I thought. . .

Until I saw this. The strangest and most ominous cloud bank I think I've ever seen in real life. It worried me enough that I called my mom using the bluetooth system in my car to ask her to check the real-time weather satellite report. She did and said it was light and dark green on the weather map meaning rain and heavy rain.

I popped off Exit 126 to get gas and hopped right back on the freeway. I don't think more than  10-15 minutes had elapsed since she had checked the weather map.

As I drove into the storm the sky darkened almost to the point of night. But it was approximately 2:10 PM. That was when I knew something was very wrong. Before I could think through what was happening it started raining really hard.

Compare the darkness in the heart of the storm to the pictures after.

The next thing I knew I could see and hear pellets of hail pounding the car and bouncing off the road. Within seconds the sky opened and I was in an almost white-out rain and hail storm. As I lost visibility (the picture above was taken after I'd pulled onto the shoulder and stopped) I started driving slower and slower as the lane markers disappeared until I couldn't see at all. I'm talking in about ten seconds. That was when I knew I had to pull over. The only problem was I was no longer able to see the lane markers and had no idea what was on the other side of the shoulder of the road. Was it level? An embankment? A low ditch? A steep cliff? I had no clue. It was a really good lesson to learn: If your visibility is threatened by rain, hail, snow, or dust storm before you lose sight of the shoulder (it may only take seconds) be sure to look and see how far can you safely pull off the roadway and do so as quickly as possible. 

Looking down directly at the ground outside of my side window I realized I could barely make out the solid white line here and there where the hail hadn't become too thick yet. I edged my way to about a foot inside of the white line and hoped that the trailer was also behind it with me.

As it turned out it was on the shoulder but not straight behind me. It was slightly askew but its emergency flashers were facing the oncoming traffic and that was all that mattered to me at that moment.

The sound of the hail was unreal. It was so loud I started worrying if the hail got bigger it would wreck the skin on my trialer. Once it stopped I could see the roadway was covered in almost three inches of ice in the form of hail. At first it was a blanket of white but in less than a minute patches began clearing as the torrents of rain began washing the hail downhill and off the sides of the roadway in channels of water probably an inch or more deep.

Also, the moment the storm was over cars began flying up the hill at 60+ mph. It was scary because I was parked very close to the lane of traffic. Here you can see what it looked like as a semi approached in my side mirror. As they flew by the water and ice flew in sheets right over the top of my car.

This is JUNE! Like as in summertime! What the heck?

Within about 10 minutes the right lane was clear of ice as cars, semis, and the rain washed and smashed the hail away.

So the bad news was I didn't have snow or all season tires on my car and when I'd pulled over in the white out I'd unknowingly stopped just shy of the crest of a long incline. With the weight of the trailer behind me and three inches of ice in front of each tire on the shoulder it only took one attempt to accelerate to realize I was stuck as my wheels spun in the ice.

Seriously. So, I called the Gillette Police Department, who transferred me to the Highway Patrol, who called a AAA wrecker for me, who told me it would take about 20 minutes to get someone out to help me.

The night before when I had the tornado-watch, rain, and possible hail storm in Kennebec, Fred told me that hail the size of marbles could dent the aluminum skin on my trailer. It's hard to see the scale but the largest hail balls in the image above are about 1/2" in diameter. That's when I kicked myself for not asking Fred exactly what size marbles was he talking about? The little ones or the big boulders?

As I listened to the hail pound the car and trailer just minutes earlier all I could think was it's only been 2.5 days and now my trailer might be covered in dozens or hundred of tiny dents. I thought to myself if it was ruined I would turn around, drive back to MI, and move in with Fred for as long as it took him to re-skin the trailer. He'd told me the night before he would had it been damaged in Kennebec, but that he'd also put me to work and have me plant him a garden while he made the repairs. LOL Sounded good to me.

Then I thought, no, I could get caught in more hail storms. I decided my best course of action was to drive home, get my passport, take I-5 to Canada, traverse west to east through Canada then drop down into Michigan to make it to Fred. Just kidding. Kind of.

The most nerve wracking thing about the entire situation was the fear of being hit from behind. My flashers were on but even then, accidents happen. Especially because cars and semis were still flying past me at 60+ mph even though there was still ice in the passing lane and a LOT of water covering the roadway. The rain was pouring down and because there was ice to each side of the lanes of traffic it caused the water to build on the lanes.

In the picture above you can see two cars ahead of me that weren't there before. The one on the far right was speeding before I watched it hydroplane and spin off the highway getting stuck in the grassy meadow beyond the shoulder. *Gulp* just a few dozen yards earlier and it would have broadsided my car and/or trailer. In retrospect I think I should have moved to my passenger seat in case my car had been broadsided.

Kitai was a real trooper through the entire ordeal. He was calm and patiently waited for help to arrive.

If you look closely you'll see me stranded in the red spot on I-90.

Because there was nothing to do but wait for the wrecker to come pull me out I called my mom back and asked her to take a peek at the weather map again and tell me what was going on with the storm. As she did I heard her gasp that there was now a tornado watch for Gillette and the map was yellow and red right over I-90! I laughed and said "Yeah, I know. I'm stuck in three inches of ice on the side of I-90 waiting for wrecker to come pull me out." I learned two things that afternoon: Weather can change in an instant and the Weather.com real-time satellite weather map is pretty darn accurate. I asked her to take a screenshot for me so I could add it to my blog post later because how could I not blog the craziest part of my trip to date?

By the way, that same night another hail storm hit the Walmart in nearby Spearfish shattering 200 skylights with hail 2" in diameter. So really, I got off lucky with just a a smattering of 1/2" marble sized hail that afternoon.

The Highway Patrol called back to check on me and let me know the wrecker would be there soon. I let them know there was now a second car in distress about  50 yards ahead of me.

Five minutes later the wrecker (aka my hero) from Dexter's Automotive showed up. He didn't hook me up to the tow arm, instead he hooked a cable to the underside of the front end of my car and simply pulled me forward. All I had to do was steer the car behind him. He didn't tell me to but I also slipped the car into neutral and kept my foot off the brake.

Here's a shot of a semi passing us. This one actually moved over because of the tow truck. The others that passed before them were about a 18" closer to the solid white line to the right as they sped past me.

The tow driver brought me to the crest of the hill just before where the other car had spun out. Fortunately for me their sliding off the road had cleared some of the ice away. He said if I was able to gain traction once he unhooked me to just keep driving. If I couldn't, he'd pull me further until I could.

I asked him if it was safe for me to drive on such a wet road with the trailer. He said it was and to just keep my flashers on and go as slow as I needed to in the right lane until I was clear of the area where the road was flooded with water.

In case it did work I slipped him a tip because I wasn't coming back to tip him if I made it out.

It worked! In just seconds I was heading west again! I drove for miles before I turned off my flashers and resumed normal speeds. Driving out of the storm was bizarre. The clouds were heavy, thick, and dark. It was very Mordor'esque. All that was missing was the flaming eye and a few million orcs. Beyond the clouds I could see blue sky again.

A little over an hour after first spotting the storm approaching Gillette I was right back where I started from: The sky was blue and I was all alone on I-90. Seriously, the whole thing was surreal. It was as if the storm had never happened.

It was almost an hour before I found a safe area where I could park and check the trailer skin for damage. It was fine and so was I. I felt incredibly lucky that there was cell reception so I'd been able to call for help and the worst thing that happened was I'd lost an hour of driving time. The best things that happened were I discovered Fred had built me a weather tight trailer, I'd received the ultimate car wash for free, and I realized that I could deal with emergencies alone and that remaining calm was the best thing to do when things go wrong no matter how crazy or bizarre.

ETA: Here is a list of things I learned from this experience

1. Listen to local AM weather reports when you suspect something is wrong. I noticed there were signs along the highway with station call signs. If a city has a radio number posted it's probably one that experiences severe weather conditions more often than other areas.

2. Know your approximate location. To be able to call the police and say I'd just passed exit 126 and now I'm on an incline let them know where I was. If not an exit number try to notice the exit name, the name of the nearest city, a recognizable building, anything that will help rescuers find you as quickly as possible.

3. If you use AAA you'll need to have a Plus RV membership, not a Basic plan. Basic will only cover your car/TV. In this instance they would have pulled my car at no charge but I would have had to have paid out of pocket for the trailer to be moved, possibly even having to unhitch it from the TV and having the driver move them separately which would have been even more unsafe to remain on the highway longer than necessary (I'd already watched one car hydroplane and spin off the highway as I was waiting for the wrecker). The Plus RV plan also includes changing a flat tire on your RV.

4. Don't count on your cell phone signal to call out for help or locate your position once you're stranded. As you travel you can (and probably will) hit dead zones even along major interstates. I'm considering purchasing a satellite phone, CB or ham radio, or SPOT System GPS locator when I travel in the future to be able to call out for help in cell dead zones which occur more extensively in the western half of the US.

5. The moment you sense a loss of visibility due to rain, hail, snow, or dust immediately look to the shoulder to assess how far can you safely pull off the roadway. I didn't and was stuck pulling just over the solid white line because I could no longer see if the ground beyond the shoulder was flat, an embankment, or a ditch or cliff. Had I looked earlier I'd have realized I could have pulled over further from the lanes of traffic than I did.

6. If you're stranded on the side of the HWY and can safely exit your car to avoid being injured if your car is hit by a passing car, do so. This means there must be a barrier of some type you can stand behind. A guard rail or steep incline. If there isn't a safe barrier do not stand outside your car to wait for help. Stay in your car with your seatbelt on. In retrospect I should have moved over to the passenger side of the car as the driver's side or rear is what would have taken a direct hit from a passing car.

7. If you're driving through areas prone to hail storms in the summertime, consider using all season tires. I'd just replaced all four of my tires for the road trip. Had I realized I'd be traveling through tornado prone states I would have switched to all season tires especially since I'll continue traveling east now that I have my trailer.

8. Follow your gut. Had I listened to mine instead of the online satellite weather report I would have stayed in Gillette until the storm had passed. I still would have been iced in, but most likely I would have been in a restaurant parking lot instead of the side of an interstate which would have been much safer.

Day 10: Kennebec, SD to Bozeman, MT

Up to that point I'd been dreading driving through the notorious passes between Montana and Idaho. After the hail storm? I was ready for anything and drove another six hours until I arrived in Bozeman, MT that evening just before dark. Arriving in Bozeman I'd driven 3961 miles since leaving San Jose.

Thankfully nothing nearly that dramatic has happened since.

To be continued.

To follow my Michigan or Bust road reports here they are:

Days 1-3: Picking up my tiny travel trailer: 2364 miles to happiness :)
Day 4: Be still my glamping heart: The cutest vintage grill ever!
Days 4-8: Meeting Fred and The Glampette for the first time
Welcome to The Glampette: A peek inside
Day 8 Part 2: Around the lake and on to Wisconsin Wine Country
Day 9: A suspenseful night at the Kennebec KOA
Day 10: It could have been worse
Day 10 continued:  Overnight at a Walmart, a traveler's rite of passage
Day 11: Montana to Washington car don't fail me now!
And my favorite RV Park was: Hi-Way Haven in Sutherlin, OR
4974 miles later our adventure comes to an end

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