Friday, March 19, 2010

Now In The Time Of When {to be further edited}

My 28-Hour Road Trip From Lake Charles To Austin
or How Hurricane Rita Brought Me Up To Speed

Larry Piltz

The world as I knew it didn’t suddenly come to an end, but it did come to a stop.

That’s because underway was the second evacuation ever of any modern major American city, in this case Houston, with the first ever having been New Orleans only weeks before, if by underway you mean going nowhere slowly, if at all, and then excruciatingly so, and the size of Houston's evacuation outpaced even New Orleans'.

How slow was it? So slow that it was unfathomable by any normal or practiced means of comprehension. So slow that time not only stood still but seemed to run in reverse, with Hurricane Rita bearing down and pulling us seemingly backwards into its sprawling punchdrunk watery grave path, as if the entire region had been tilted upward at one corner and everything on wheels was sliding inexorably backward toward the gaping maw of some fascinating new, though vaguely familiar, kind of oblivion.

So slow, and terrifying, that to truly understand the evacuation, you had to be in it, and to be in it was to truly be nowhere at all,  It was a void in a time warp where you seemed to lose two seconds for every one second gained.  It was brazen unreality, a giant flypaper dream from which there was no waking, the ultimate Oil Age end-game purgatory. Nine hours to drive 20 miles. Seven hours to travel 30, if you were one of the luckier ones. Running out of gas but first obsessing for hours over the needle flirting with empty.  Broiling under a too-near flaring sun. Stuck in inescapable wheeled gypsy encampments, parallel, parked and parched, praying for the tanker truck, water or gas, the daytime temperature 100-degrees of separation from your disbelieving senses.

To merely see the multitudinous gridlock you were first entering withered your hope and made you question your sanity and that of our whole carbon-based life form’s social order and priorities. Actually, questioning the sanity of the authority that would send millions out onto the byways, not only without a backup plan but without even a workable initial plan, is not a bad idea, considering that nothing is preventing the same stop-motion inanimation from occurring all over and over again, anywhere. To think, you could be in it next time, coming to a city near you, with those dear to you.

When might that happen? Say, how about right now?

The Unbelievable Stuckness Of Being

You are now marooned in my maroon Subaru wagon with me and with my dear, sweet dog companion, Mir, 13 years and wagging. We’re heading west at 3:30 a.m. from Sulphur, Louisiana, a gritty refinery mechanic’s town on the west side of Lake Charles, and we’re aiming for Austin, maybe five hours away. It’s the very same morning that upper Texas Gulf Coasters are trying to dodge Hurricane Katrina’s karmic sister, Rita, by emptying out onto all available roads at nearly the same exact time, about two million vehicles.  My personal master plan is to drive west on I-10 just past Beaumont and then take the first paved route north as far as necessary to bypass all that nightmarish Houston gridlock I’d seen by satellite an hour earlier. I really thought I could outsmart my motoring fate.

You see, I’d spent the better part of my 50-something years desperately trying to avoid urban traffic congestion, even going so far as to neglect to have a more serious career because, among lesser reasons, it would have likely stuck me on a freeway somewhere, when everyone knows, or at least I thought they did, that humans weren’t cut out for such things. We’re supposed to be more clever than that, or at least I thought I was. I had even taken to driving from Austin, my home for 26 years, through Houston in the middle of the night only, on my many drives to Biloxi, my hometown, just to miss the daylight Houston traffic snarl, which reminds me of nothing so much as lemming Nascar.

However, after passing Beaumont heading west, one I-10 exit after another was closed. Barricaded. Blocked. Sometimes with sheriff’s deputies and constables and sometimes concrete barriers. No! Gasp! My air supply of strategic superiority was quickly diminishing, the pinprick certainty of my personal exceptionalism hissing from my thought balloon of optimism. I am doomed, and you and Mir with me. I could feel it. But we couldn’t turn around and go back. The I-10 eastbound lanes were already bumper-to-bumper and stalled, fifty miles from Houston. Radio was warning travelers to avoid the Astro City at all costs.

Abandon all hope. Ye are now at the mercy of the unknown. There is good reason we are one of the extremely few cars heading toward Houston. A carmageddon (more likely karmageddon) was underway that even the unhonored new urban planning prophets had only vaguely forecast. Mainly, though, for me, I now believe, I was caught in the gravity of the situation because it was my personal fate, something in which I had never before believed.

Now it all made sense. The thing you try most to avoid is always working to lure you toward it. To draw you in. You give it so much energy with your unconscious attention, with your dread, that it becomes more real and powerful than you ever dared fear. Such that there’s no getting around it, as there was certainly no getting around Houston that mid September day of 2005.

The best way to irrevocably seal your fate – and you with it - is to ignore that you might have one, and the surest guarantee you’ll be blindsided when it pops up in your path, as it did to me, when I first saw the endless lines of stalled metal autosaurs held fast in the tar pit traffic "going" north on Highway 146 toward Liberty east of Houston, the whole area still basting in summer-hot bayous, rivers and canals. Just what the hurricane ordered, flat coastal plain at sea level cut through with water courses and lined by tall breakable trees. Forget about water seeking its own level. It’s seeking your level.

That is exactly what we in the Subaru face after finally finding an open exit near San Jacinto (it was quite a battle) and winding our way toward what would hopefully be the nearest major open road north. Until we saw that first rigomortified vanishing-point traffic jam, we had still retained hope that we had found the way out. The truth is that we had found our way in, to a mass and chaotic and tragic exodus that by all appearances had been subject to no plan whatsoever, except maybe Plan 9 from Outer Space. Houston……problem!

A bigger truth, though, is that the evacuation of Houston and the upper Texas Gulf Coast was not unplanned. There actually was a plan in place. It’s just that the plan was hopeless. Because Houston had tried to deal with its traffic problems only by building roads, its evacuation fate naturally was massive early road blockage, a coronary-inducing clot that trapped people in a negative feedback loop with no escape, next exit Godot. Houston had stubbornly long avoided its traffic problem only to run smack into it.

So here we are, poised to fully realize our marriage to the fleeing mob, and resistance is futile, so when someone is eventually kind enough (or maybe misery loves company) to let us enter their lane, the sinking feeling of my own particular fate hits with full force, launching me downward into new depths of despondence, and taking you and Mir along with me.

Obviously, my plan for my whole life had failed. I was now an acutely, even keenly superfluous part of the worst traffic jam in the history of the city of hyper-congested Houston if not the history of the world. Where had I gone wrong? And what are you doing riding with the likes of me? You poor wretch!

To ask my wife, Grace, where I had gone wrong might have obviously been during our call the night before, when she’d said to stay away from Houston at all costs (you fool – my words, not hers), because the gridlock had already started, and I didn’t seriously enough weigh the very specific gravity of her warning. In retrospect, I could hear in her voice that she already sensed what would happen and that she was already in equal parts upset with me for what I was about to commit and concerned about its consequences.

Ignoring History Made Easy
However, I place the origins of my misguidedness decades earlier, at the not random date of August 17, 1969, my 18th birthday, celebrated in hometown Biloxi by the gross onslaught of Hurricane Camille, which grievously wrecked the area I’d lived in since soon after birth, and since then I have been strangely drawn to such tempestuous emergencies and similarly adrenal urges for the unknown, predictable or not, rational or not.

For instance, I drove once to the Texas coast at Port Aransas to experience a lesser hurricane that, to me, unfortunately weakened to the south somewhere. Other times have found me variously living not that far from Mount St. Helens during its eruption, squatting a house alone for a summer in Austin, hitching cross-country with abandon and severe lack of caution, and casually debating an aggressive and proselytizing young neo-Nazi on a dark Greyhound bus gliding across a moonless southern Colorado, as well as certain other escapades that I feel could be unkind to share with you, seeing as you’re stuck sharing an escape pod with me at the moment.

And given the choice between those and what lies ahead, I'd choose the hurricanes and volcano - because I survived those.  What awaits on Highway 146 between Mont Belvieu and Liberty and beyond is an unfinished story, with the moral being that my risk-taking has caught up with me. I can’t outrun it or drive, drive away. I am caught like a rat in a trap of my own making.  I am past my limit, and I am the designated driver.  It is the unknown, out of my control, and way larger than life, and I am finally forced to really contemplate it, face to face.

Will the hurricane overtake us all out here as we idle our engines and at times literally push our cars to save gas, haggardly straggling inland bound? Will the waters of far southeast Texas, that mammoth sponge of sopping sediment, rise up, grab us, and baptize the whole gear-happy flock in the name of the U.S. Weather Service? Will my car cellphone charger wear out and we’ll never be heard from again? Will we never again see an open gas station? Would my tight grasp of Mir, holding her up over the flood, be undone, and could I even continue to live if I have to watch her torn away to disappear under the unfeeling torrent?

What I realized during that eternity-a-minute waiting was that I am both patient and terrified, both hardy and absolutely non-steadfast. That life has been good to me but not as good as I wish I had allowed it to be. That I, yes, am not an island nor would I ever again wish that I could be one, even if it were okay after all to be such a thing. That I am mortal and not a particularly brave one. And that I love my Mir and wife and son and family and friends, and even strangers, including you, in ways that are too profound and too personal to discuss further here or maybe anywhere.

What I didn’t realize until well after the evacuation was that I have a specific kinship with the unknown, that the unknown and I share traceable lineage. That the unknown is really my twin. That all I have to do at any given time to directly face the unknown is to honestly look at my reflection. In a mirror, in a window, in water. Because I am the unknown.

What I know about myself is in flux. It never stays the same. The subtleties never end. I hadn’t realized before that morphosis is so extremely meta. I am not only a collection of infinitesimal particles with more space within me than solidity. I am also a collection of things that I believe, about myself and the world, that are true for me at that moment but are shifting before I can really assimilate what the beliefs really mean. I know that I am the unknown, but I really truly honestly don’t know what I’m going to do next. What I’ll think next. Especially what I’ll feel next. That much I know, for now.

When, while in transit, I get a callback from my sister, who, out of state and using the internet and a coffee cup, found a pending tanker truck full of gas, a gleaming silver sight too welcome for words, about to arrive at a station about a mile or two ahead of me, just when I was at about the end of my gauge, I don’t realize that it is just my kindred unknown revealing itself to me in a different way than it had the past seven hours, three-quarters of a tank ago, and 30 miles back, when we initially joined the herd in earnest. I had abandoned all hope. It wasn’t hard. After all, even local law enforcement folks had no idea if their roads would clear in time to outrun the storm.

It was all skin of the teeth and hair of the bear. Speaking of which, a convoy of state troopers was just arriving in the area, the first police presence, after driving all night (!) from the Valley. They had no idea what was going on. They had no orders. They just made it all up and did a commendable, even graceful job, conjuring it out of the steamy humid air. And Houston radio simply wished us luck, saying we were in an unauthorized evacuation route and that we were on our own, and sounded annoyed, frustrated, and overwhelmed that they had to bother with us out here in an erroneous zone.

Never mind that punctuating the roads were official State of Texas hurricane evacuation route signs. We were written off. Still, it had to be better than being on one of those Houston freeways, the aerial shots of which none of us will ever get out of our heads, the same live satellite feed I could see even before leaving Louisiana. Those poor bastards, stuck out there! There but for fortune. Or is it better them than me?

Nothing Is Better For Me Than Thee
Later, after sunset had mercifully arrived, some 18 hours after we had left Sulphur (you napped a lot; Mir licked your face for the salty sweat), and fleets of hyperstressed slightly less miserable campers - people now camping in their vehicles - had moved 40 and 50 miles inland, still bogging down for two to three hours here and there when it came time to try to move again, and we had had a midnight rest and fitfully deep nap along with a hundred others at some middle of the night anywhere rural intersection (146 at 105), with a closed empty gas station on one corner and a big church on about ten open acres caddy corner, and we had made our way westward by 105 through sleeping timber lands, never alone on the road for long, and we came upon Highway 59 at Cleveland and Interstate 45 at Conroe, with Houstonians still paralyzed on elevated roadways, broken down, at the untimely end of their line, sitting on the overpasses, staring vacantly into the unknown, I realized how lucky we had actually been.

A compact car. Good mileage when actually moving at highway speeds faster then 10 m.p.h. The unlikely tanker of gas had actually arrived. Each vehicle was allotted 10 gallons of gas, though all the power in the station blew out just before it was our turn to get some. A power crew seemingly teleported in and fixed the thing in a mere 50 minutes (a mere instant In The Eye of the Evacuation).

We rejoined the throng with nearly a full tank, moving slightly more quickly this time, and we pulled off the road at turquoise dusk and rested alone at an empty teacher’s credit union parking lot, with cars rolling by on the two-lane beside us. Here I got revelationary route information and encouragement from my dear wife, who’d googled and canvassed various hotlines in a mustered, motivated attempt to help pull my croutons out of the fondue before it was too late. I’d also talked with my loving and supportive family, scattered from Quebec to the U.S. Gulf and East coasts, who shared love and encouragement while being gentle with me in my good plight.

Then back on the road in the still early evening, ours the only car in sight, a completely clear road ahead of us, tall trees lining the stretching two-lane pavement. Driving unencumbered, with enough gas for Austin, the now deepening blue dusk glowing under heaven – no, it is heaven. Flying we were, really, going and going and going, not an impediment in sight, the evening cooling sweetly.

Never before had such exhilaration existed. So this is what nirvana feels like. The beckoning 'deep in the heart' stars flashing above, miles gathering a couple at a time behind us. Mir less stressed, starting to relax, having been heroically poised enough to have lapped water repeatedly at my urging throughout the day, keeping herself in loyal good spirits despite an old dog’s debilitating exhaustion, sore hips (and standing almost the entire journey), and the perpetual confusion of the situation. She had wanted simply to go for a ride. “Do you want to go for a ride, huh! Wanta go for a ride?”

Then, no! What’s that? It can’t be! Tiny points of unmistakable red light way in the distance directly ahead. It is. The unknown strikes again. Another several-hour backup, though slowly rolling forward more often than we had early on, and night had chilled just enough, and exhausted people were acting more leisurely, knowing we’d all gotten through the riskiest part.

By then, oh, the sights we’d all seen. Hundreds of darkened and empty gas stations, deserted fast food joints, strip malls, and public buildings, all with parking lots filled at all angles with thousands of cars and trucks, in town after town, rural intersection after rural intersection, people waiting for gas, food, and water that may not come for days if at all, because they have none anyway and can’t go anywhere without, and choosing the safety of others. The civilizing instinct, the genius of the tribal, where we do have each other, whoever we are, unknown or not.

By day you could see this instinct honing and holding on, in the fatigued and persevering faces of people in cars next to you, always with the windows down, in those pausing on the side of the road in pre-storm swelter. These working people, farmers, ranchers, mechanics, clerks, in an array of well-kept newish to older and dilapidated vehicles of various vintage. Professionals and business owners scattered throughout in some of the newest and fancier vehicles. Electricians, plumbers, and carpenters, and roofers by the half-dozen, in their work vans with ladders. Homesteading families with livestock haulers and flatbed trailers, carrying a horse or two, chickens, goats, the kids in the truck, supplies protruding here and there.

Dogs in their hard plastic carriers in steel pickup beds that burned like radiators, no room left in the cab, wondering in their utterly logical dog minds how much of this punishment they can take. Sometimes, tenderly, a two-legged pack member, concerned, rides in the back with them out of friendship and love and holds a tarp over the carriers to ward off some of the sun.

One car interior is subdivided by chicken wire with subsections for birds in their cages, cats in back windows, and dogs everywhere else, with a hardware store Noah behind the wheel. People waiting and often creeping forward with their car doors open to lose a few degrees. Local people meeting in school parking lots as they begin to join the fray. People with their pets, forming their own caravan, meeting in the parking lot of their vet, who distributes what supplies he can, knowing he can restock when it’s all over and he’s hopefully back safe and sound, and wondering when and if he’d see his patients and clinic again.

Still Not Crazy After All These Hours
Our evacuation was full of human beings, people keeping it together while facing their fears and apprehensions, their frustrations and dreads. Waiting. Worrying. Resting. Hoping. Strangers sometimes barely tolerating, doggedly, an awful situation and each other, and more often than not finding a reserve of compassion to reach out in little ways, to crack a joke, to offer words of encouragement, to ask if there is anything anyone needs, if someone needs some water or food, or someone to watch their stuff while they go offroad on foot for a little relief. (the animals led by way of example, having much more experience in this regard; yea, and a little dog shall lead them.).

Here was the major unknown, being played out in real time, now, unrehearsed, without a script, unless you count a genetic one: How would we react to these nearly intolerable conditions? What was our fate as neighbors, as a species? Sure, there were a few confrontational moments here and there, widely publicized and repeated on the news. After all, we were reacting to practically supernatural circumstances far beyond our control, the hurricane, as well as to circumstances that were at the moment likewise beyond our control, the social and technological infrastructure. Yet almost unanimously, anonymously, people were tolerant, understanding, patient, and generous. There was universal suffering, and yet people almost universally extended their patience to encompass others, and chose to be decent.

People shared their precious water and food, often let the more needful cut in line for gas, such as one exhausted and fraying woman who’d just dropped off her soldier son at George Bush International Airport to catch a return flight to Iraq (Remember? She was right behind us at the pump and had run out of gas, clutching her steering wheel, looking dazed and beset from all directions; people including a state trooper pushed her car to the pump.). Others freely, even excitedly, gave directions or tips where gas might be gotten, bestowed maps, gave out phone numbers for shelters and emergency services, gleaned from the radio or a car next door, lent a hand to the pregnant, comforted the oldest and the youngest. Smiled though it definitely was harder than frowning.

We planned routes together, kept an eye out for each other, our children, and our animal companions the best we could, adopted passengers when someone’s car would roll empty to a stop, and lived and let live when we needed to most. All the while needing to doze like the dead. And all the while not knowing what might become of us that night or the next day.

While the unknown was revealing itself to us in the threatening form of a hurricane, we calmed the storm within ourselves to weather the evacuation as the intelligent, resourceful, gutsy, and compassionate people we are. If the future holds more such disorganized encounters with nature, and each other, or other calamity (asteroid, anybody?), we’ll be ready. We’ll respond with the same store of good will and integrity that has seen us through the eons, though hopefully a more reasonable, sustainable plan, if not society, will have been implemented by then.

Meanwhile, our fear has receded. Fate has been faced. We have come home. We may unfasten our seatbelts. You, fellow passenger, are no longer a stranger. I bring you to your front door. Invite you to mine. We touch the ground before our homes. We are at the mercy of no one and no thing. We are at least equal partners in our own destinies, if not actually conjoined family.

We had a greatly interesting unforgettable evacuation. Let’s remember dearly and enduringly the suffering, especially the fallen, and the depth of filial relationship that was forever unbound. And please, let’s never have to do any of it again. Home never, ever - ever - looked so beautiful, seemed so right, or felt so sweet. And, finally, Mir can relax and lie down for a long exhausted peaceful sleep, knowing that she'd done her duty well in getting me home safely. Yes, humans had learned better than she might have thought from the better angels of the pack.

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