Driving Into Hell

There was a point last night when I realized I was driving into hell and couldn’t do a thing about it.

Thirty minutes earlier I was having beers with friends at an outdoor bar. Temperatures in the Washington DC area had broken records … 103 in DC, at or near 100 in the suburbs. At 10pm it was still 95 at that bar in Gaithersburg, Maryland. The region was under a thunderstorm watch but nothing had happened yet. The air felt odd as I returned to my car and I instinctively knew the storms were coming so my plan was to quickly stop at a McDonalds drive-thru in Germantown on the way home before the rain hit.

As I arrived at the golden arches I noticed two things: the line was seven cars deep and the air was suddenly completely still. I had about ten seconds to decide whether to become car eight or to skip it and get back on the Interstate. A sudden burst of wind made the decision for me.

In the thirty seconds it took to get back onto Middlebrook Road the wind went from calm to 60 or 70 miles per hour and torrents of sideways rain, hail and tree debris began to pelt my car. The sky filled with lightning strikes so numerous it looked like a fireworks show. Midway through the two-minute ride to I-270 an explosive lightning strike lit the sky like an earth-sized camera flash then the entire neighborhood went black; no street lights, no traffic signals, only headlights and taillights.

Moments later I turned onto I-270 and drove into the heaviest rain I have ever seen. Ever. More sideways rain, more wind gusts, cars with scared drivers moving along at 30 miles per hour instead of the usual 60 – 75. No street lights were on at the interchanges, adjacent neighborhoods were dark and part of this stretch of highway is flanked by large trees, adding to the surreal view illuminated by nearly constant lightning. Puddles were forming on the road and small tree branches blew into view. I was driving into hell (minus the fire).

What were my options? Not many. The next town of any size was five exits ahead. The first four of those exits dump you onto two-lane roads surrounded by tall trees. A mile or so off each is a town with no typical business that would be open at 11 at night. The fifth exit is at Frederick, Maryland, surrounded by gas stations and shopping strip centers but those aren’t very well protected either and only the gas stations would still be open. I could return to Germantown but I already knew the power was out and the McDonalds didn’t seem like a good place to ride out the storm … glass walls, etc. So I continued driving.

I normally love watching bad weather. I grew up with hurricanes and tropical rains in Louisiana, learned about tornado warnings and blizzards while living in Wisconsin and encountered a dust storm in Texas once. I was so close to a lightning strike in a parking lot once that the hair on my arm stood up. While living in Maryland I have encountered most of those weather conditions plus a few ice storms. I’ve seen fog in Chattanooga, smog in Los Angeles and vog (volcano fog) in Hawaii and have taken thousands of photographs of cloud formations. I even applied for a part time TV weather man job in Baltimore once and almost got it. Bad weather fascinates me.

But last night, for the first time in my life, I was scared. Really scared! I’ve been nervous or concerned in bad weather numerous times but was never scared. Not like that. The what-ifs in my head made my blood pressure rise as I drove. What if the Interstate floods, what if lightning hits my car, what if a tree falls across the road in front of me or on my car? What if some flying object crashes through my window?

By the time I reached the Frederick exit the wicked storm was “merely” heavy rain. That’s how fast it moved through the area … the severe part lasted just over an hour start to finish and the hell part for me lasted thirty minutes. Fifteen minutes after reaching that exit I was home and the power was still on.

For the next hour I watched the extended tv news coverage. Reporters were out trying to show pictures but because of the storm they couldn’t use the antenna masts on their trucks to send back the feed. Skype has a long way to go as a tool for reporters.

As I write this on Saturday morning the sky is blue and cloudless. The temperature is 78, heading for 100 again. Storms are in the forecast for late this afternoon. My current home is on an acre-and-a-half with at least a hundred trees. It looks like none of them came down. My power is still on and the AC is working just fine. I am very lucky. I am planning to move this summer and my future address is two blocks from the bar where I was last night. I am quite certain the power is out in that neighborhood as it is in much of that county right now. I drove through hell last night but I wonder if that is any better than if I had walked through it to my future home. Even though I like to watch bad weather, I sure hope I never see a storm like that again.

I was too busy driving to take any pictures, but click HERE to see some submitted to a local tv station.