This Commute Blows

Last night, my team left a couple minutes earlier than normal, hoping to beat the “extreme weather” we were getting notifications on our phones about.

So I walked out to my car, and was privy to the beautiful, incredible lightning storm, getting a little wet from the heavy drizzle that was coming down.

No big deal.

I got in my car, and noticed my radio was on the fritz again (it’s been doing this for a while, I need to get it checked out). No bother, at least now I can focus on the intense booming of the thunder above me.

Getting closer to nature and whatnot, that’s cool.

tornado map

So I left my office, and went down to Walzem Rd. Waiting at the light to turn left to get to Point 1 (Walzem and 35 access road), the drizzle continued, the wind slightly picking up. Hmm. I guess having a cigarette on the way home is out of the question. Oh well.

I turn left, get to Point 1, waiting to let the traffic from the left finish their turn at the light, it’s only about 3 cars, they’re all turning left to go under the bridge.

And then, just as I’m about to turn right and head up to Point 2 (the turnaround under 35 to get on 410), the rain kicks it up a notch.

Like, a few notches.

Like, I could not see the road 15 feet in front of me. I tried using my brights, but obviously that doesn’t work (it’s better to use fog lights since they cut ‘under’ the rain and light the road better).

I get off the access road on to the highway to turn around, a turn I have taken maybe a thousand times, during the day, at night, in my car, or on my motorcycle…

…and suddenly, for the first time, I can not see the turnaround’s concrete barrier wall. I could not see the small reflectors built into it, and I didn’t see the wall light up from my headlights like I always do.

Hmm.

Okay, no worries. I’ll just go extra slow and try to gauge my distance… I figure, if I tag it at less than 10 miles per hour, maybe my air bags won’t go off and disable my car, right? Right.

Let’s do this.

Luckily, I feel the slant of the road lean into the turn before I see the wall, and so I naturally follow it, slowly… and I keep driving… slowly… okay, I can see the shadow of highway 35 above me – I must be going in the right direction now…

Sudden silence.

Oh…

…I’m under the highway. The rain is being blocked from pounding my car. That’s weird, I didn’t even see it before it happened.

I drive super slow under the bridge, figuring I could wait here and let the storm pass by. But then I remember, this particular section of the road tends to flood so quickly that almost every time it rains, cars get flooded at this exact spot.

And so I decide to move along.

And then my phone goes crazy in my pocket. I know it’s not necessarily the best time to be looking at my phone, but it’s screeching at me.

I take the phone out of my pocket, and read the Amber Alert style message:

“EXTREME TORNADO WARNING IN THIS AREA, FIND COVER NOW – until 11:15p”

Well, shit.

And I think back on my “close calls” with tornadoes… in Oklahoma, where one was brewing right above me as I rode around looking for a hotel to crash at, and asking the locals “why is the sky doing that circular cone movement?” and being told “ah, that’s just another tornado” matter of factly.

The New Orleans tornado, just a couple weeks ago, happening just a few miles from us and my friends. Getting to hear the incredible details of the story from a bartender, Rachel Lockett, who happened to be in the middle of the tornado just a few hours before Jasmine and I visited her establishment.

Now, I’m looking at my surroundings, I’m on 410 in the middle of February, and I’m trying to get home in time to catch the re-run of The Walking Dead.

There’s no tornado, that’s stupid. This is Texas.

Tornadoes only hit when I’m out of state.

So I put my phone back in my pocket, and I drive along, going about 20-30 miles per hour, since it is raining so hard that I cannot see the road. I can see the divider off to my left between the highway roads, so I hang out in the middle lane, giving myself room to hydroplane without sliding into the barrier if it so happens.

I turn my hazard lights on. My wipers are at full speed.

They’re doing little good, as it feels like I’m driving through an automated car wash stuck on the soak cycle.

Suddenly, it gets darker.

Darker, that’s an understatement.

Allow me to rephrase.

Suddenly, everything beyond 5 feet in front of my car and all around me ceased to exist, it immediately faded into utter black.

I was concerned the power had gone out, because the light poles on the highway seemed to have gone off.

Looking up, I could see in between the sheets of rain that were falling that, no, those lights were still on.

Except there was so much rain coming down so hard and so fast, that I could not see the light emitting from the poles’ bulbs. The road was actually dark.

I looked ahead, and could not see anything in front of me. I could not see the lane markers in the road directly in front of my car, I could not see the reflectors from the road, I couldn’t see the light of the buildings that I knew existed along the access road to my right…

…my headlights existed only to light the water that was flying horizontally past my car.

At this point, I knew I had to have just passed Perrin Beitel, but I saw no signs of civilization or anything that might have been considered a landmark.

My phone screeched at me again through my pocket, but I could barely hear it – I reached to turn down my radio volume, before instantly realizing that it had never been turned on – I was having trouble hearing my phone because of the torrential rain pounding on my car, and the wind quite literally howling as it blew past my car.

Still, no worries, it’s just a heavy rain. It’ll pass. I’ll be home a bit later, but still in time for the 11:40 rerun of The Walking Dead.

And then the lighting struck brighter than it had all night – the entire sky lit up, the bolt slashing through the air for what felt like miles and miles…

Off to my right, I saw the upper ledge of the highway wall. In the distance I saw a building.

Ahead of me, I saw a bridge about a half mile up, an overpass.

But when I glanced to my left…

…I saw absolutely nothing.

The entire sky was black. The ground was black. I could not see anything contrasting against the pale concrete of the divider to my left.

And it was night, I get it, but this was… ugh, to be cliche, it was “darker than night”. (Cue the *oooOOOoooh* ghost sound.)

Anyway, it was unnerving. Not because I couldn’t see anything, but rather because it felt like there WAS something there – something that the lightning couldn’t be bothered to illuminate.

And that was a weird feeling.

And then another weird feeling came.

My car started shaking, shaking harder than it had from the strong windy gusts earlier had caused it to.

Okay. So that’s happening…

But then, I saw cars ahead of me put their hazards on – one about 30 feet off to my right and a bit ahead of me, and another in my line, about a quarter mile up.

I hadn’t seen these cars earlier – I assumed they were driving with their lights off, because it wouldn’t make sense that they had their lights on and I couldn’t see them. That idea just didn’t compute in my mind at the time.

But this wind, it was intense.

It was loud, it was extremely close, it was having a competition with the noises that the rain was causing on my car.

Leaving the office, I had rolled the visor back on my sunroof so that I could see the lighting above me (I’ve always liked the way the interior of the car lights up when a strike occurs above me).

The rain was tapping against the glass incredibly fast and with no musical rhythm. I remember thinking that it was a little weird, that somehow there would be something akin to the “thousand monkeys and a thousand typewriters” theory with rain – that somehow, it would eventually make the rhythm of a song, something like the intro to Iron Man by Black Sabbath.

The thoughts that go through my head are weird like that.

So the wind, it’s picking up, and for the first moment, I believe that, hey – maybe there really IS a tornado going on.

I look at the rain flying straight across the path of my car, and it’s practically a solid sheet of water. But then I notice something that creeped me out.

It was the pattern of the wind, being shown on the rain, as if it were a wave across the surface of an ocean.

And it was spinning around me.

That was when things got weird.

I looked forward, searching for those hazard lights of the car in front of me. After a moment, I find them, and I focus on them. Not so that I wouldn’t lose sight of them, but rather…

… I was ready to bet all the money I had that this car was going to be lifted into the air.

And if that happened, I had to decide one of two things.

1.) Do I stop and put my car in reverse and try to back away from that tornado as quick as possible?

or

2.) Do I tighten my seatbelt, grip the wheel tighter, and floor it straight ahead?

Now, in reading the above, you would think that these points are comic relief.

No, I was legitimately considering point 2.

Those that are close to me, know how utterly aware I am of my own mortality. My whole life, I’ve been very… curious, I guess, about how things would end. At 12, I didn’t think I’d become a teenager. At 15, I didn’t think I’d get to 16 (driver’s license). At 18, I didn’t think I’d make it to 21. At 21, I was positive I wouldn’t make it to 25 (discount on car insurance, heyyy…). And then 30 hit, and I’m still wondering what in the world has allowed me to get this far.

Now I’m 31, and I really only hope I don’t die on the toilet. Anything else is fine, and I don’t think I’m really worried about dying or anything, it’s not something that scares me per se.

And I’m not depressed or anything, so please don’t worry about that – I feel like I’m totally fine. It’s just something that’s always on my mind (the end), but it’s not like I’m hoping to careen towards whatever that might be, you know?

So, here we are, potentially in front of a random ass tornado on 410 as I’m on my commute home.

And so you have to understand, that point 2 above is legitimately an option to me. I figure, if I tighten my belt and hold on tight, just brace my legs and keep my breathing steady, maybe this will be the ultimate ride, and I hope that if the tornado sucks my car into the air, that I at least get to do a full rotation through it, or that lightning will hit as I’m in the air, and I’ll get a full on badass aerial view of the Mother Nature Cone Of Death that’s about to end me straight into a wall at 120 mph.

Suddenly, my car begins to get pounded by something harder and heavier than the rain – hail is coming down.

I see what appears to be bigger rain drops falling in front of my car, lit up by the headlights, but then they start tagging my hood and my windshield and my roof and the trunk.

Okay, great. So now I have to hope I don’t get pummeled to death by hail when it shatters my windshield. That would just make things needlessly messy and annoying.

But then, I see headlights lighting up a wall off to my right.

There’s a car in the right side shoulder of the road, parked under the Starcrest overpass. This is point 3 on the map.

I pull off to the far left lane, get into the shoulder, and I keep my hazards and lights on, I keep the car running.

The rain has stopped pounding my roof, but it is still pounding my windshield – the water is flowing through the air straight through the tunnel that we are in – it’s not falling or misting, it’s straight up shooting through the air like a trillion tiny water balloons.

I crack the window open a tiny bit to see if it’s safe to have a cigarette, and immediately my face gets soaked. I roll it back up, grumbling about how much of a pisser that is.

Then, the howling gets louder. The wind is still shaking my car, despite being under this big bridge.

Hmm. I wonder if a tornado could suck my car out from under here.

I bet it can, and it probably will.

Time to take care of my affairs.

I take my phone out, and notice for the first time that I’m shaking.

It was a heavy cocktail mixture of being soaked, cold (I realized just then that my A/C was on, blowing at 60 degrees because when I went to work that afternoon, it was 80 degrees outside), completely jacked full of adrenaline, and from grasping the wheel so tight that the coating of it was starting to peel off and dot my palms.

I called Jasmine, worried she would be asleep and I would wake her up. I hate to call her when I’m potentially, um, not doing well (I had a heart attack scare a while back, and decided against calling her because I figured if I called her while she was at work and she couldn’t answer, and then I died, then she’d forever feel guilty for not taking that call – so I tend to just wait until the situation is in the clear to tell her about these things. She hates it.)

She picks up, and I tell her that there’s a bit of a rain storm going on, and now I’m parked under a bridge with about 15 other cars. She’s worried, but I tell her I love her and I’ll see her real soon.

Then I let her go, because I figure if things get bad, then I’m definitely not gonna be the one to give her nightmares because of my shitty call audio, you know?

Anyway, I get off the line with her, and note that my car is still shaking side to side, and there are more and more cars piling up beneath this bridge, on both sides of the highway.

I look at my phone again, and I call my mum.

I told her I love her, and that I’m sure this is nothing but a crazy rain storm with some badass special effects… but I also admit to her that despite all the close calls I’ve had with tornadoes in my past, this was the one time I’ve ever actually felt I could reach out and touch it.

I end the call telling her I love her again, and then put my phone back in my pocket.

The cars under the bridge all waited for about 10 minutes, and then slowly, one or two would venture out. I believe the rest of us decided to hold back and see if that car would get sucked into the air, but the rain was so heavy we couldn’t see it after 30 yards or so.

Eventually, cars begin honking, and as I’m blocking my lane, I decide to roll out as well. At this point, the wind was not howling any more, though the rain was still coming down heavily – but at least now, the highway was lit up again. The light from the lamp poles was again hitting the ground, and it felt much better to know that if there was indeed a tornado out here, we’d at least see it this time around.

I pulled over to park in the North Star Mall parking garage, and hung out in the first level for about a half hour. I smoked many cigarettes, and went to the fifth floor rooftop to see what I could see from that vantage point.

There wasn’t much to look at, it just looked like any old storm, but in the span of 10 minutes (my cigarette), I counted no less than 15 emergency vehicles rushing around all over the area (most were headed East, towards the direction I had come from).

The sirens of the vehicles continued on the entire time I was there.

A couple other cars showed up, and parked beside mine. The drivers got out, and we all shared our experiences of what had just happened.

One of the drivers had thrown their elderly mother into the passenger seat, and driven all the way to this mall, because they live in East SA, and had no protection or natural barriers against a storm like this – the driver mentioned her previous car had been totaled by the hail storms, and she didn’t want her new car to meet the same fate.

We hung out for a while until the rain let up, and then I got home around 11:55.

I had to wait until 2:15 to catch the re-re-run of The Walking Dead, can you believe that?