Trapped Under Ice

“Now is the winter of our discontent….”

Being a road comic means dealing with weather.  I live and die by the weather.  Before any road trip, I take a look at the weather reports from where I am, where I’m going, and every step along the way.  I pad out my travel times to account for traffic jams, accidents, detours, and any other act of God that would stop me from getting to the gig (and truthfully, to stop me from getting to the hotel before the gig to get a shower, change clothes, and have something to eat).

It’s a cruel irony that in the summer months, comedy is in less demand than in the winter; the easier it is to move around the country, the less they need you.  For me this is particularly cruel as I make most of my money performing a comedy game show on college campuses, and with very few exceptions, my schedule is relatively dead from the beginning of May until the last week of August when freshman orientation week and “welcome back” shows start.

As my schedule fluctuates around the college calendar, I also get the major holidays off; this past year I didn’t travel much away from home base from Thanksgiving until the middle of January.  And the eastern United States experienced some of the mildest weather in recent memory; in Rochester, NY, it was 60 degrees on Christmas Day.  People were out golfing and walking around in shorts!  For me, it was horrible, because I can’t get into the Christmas spirit unless there’s snow on the ground, and I don’t golf.

So there I was, lamenting the fantastic weather, easy driving conditions and dry roads all December long, and unable to take advantage of them.  But then January arrived and it was time to go back to work.  Would the weather hold up until then?

My Spring Semester opener was a couple of standup gigs at Central Ohio Technical College in Newark, Ohio (just outside of Columbus) and then on to Kendall College in Chicago.  My route took me west on the New York State Thruway, down through Erie, Pennsylvania, Cleveland, Ohio, and into Mansfield, Ohio, switching to route 13 south into Newark.  It should have been a six-hour drive, counting fuel stops and bathroom breaks.  It wound up being between nine and ten hours due to the weather, and an unexpected detour.

I was ready for the weather; reports had indicated that the Thruway was going to be crap going through Fredonia; the winds off of Lake Erie routinely throw lake effect snow on the region, and being a Western New Yorker means driving in same is your bread-and-butter.  I drove west on the Thruway, past Buffalo and sunny skies, but paying close attention to the darkening skies in the distance.

By the time I approached Fredonia, the signs started to appear; Thruway closed west of Exit 59.  Two short exits of 61, the Pennsylvania border, and God knows what lay beyond that.  Traffic started piling up as two lanes attempted to merge into one, to pass through the exit 59 toll booths and take an alternate route west.  Once I made it up to the merge, I saw the cause of our detour; two tractor trailers had made an unexpected merger with a Trailways tour bus.

An hour of sitting in traffic plus a jaunty detour through the Southern Tier of New York to escape the lake effect snow, and I was back in business.  I arrived in Newark, Ohio just in time for the show, and the rest of the trip was uneventful.  Chicago was clear and almost warm, and the trip home overnight on the I-90 was clean.  I clenched up a little as I arrived at the I-90 stretch through Fredonia, which was clear and dry all the way home to Rochester.  A quick drive up the Thruway to Utica for a weekend of shows with Derek Allen for Comedy Central NY (and a tip of the hat to Phil Farda) proved to be uneventful, weather-wise.

After such an experience, you would think I paid my dues for the season, but nothin’ doin’, smart guy.

The following week I had two shows for the two campuses of South Piedmont Community College in Polkton and Monroe, North Carolina (in one day!) and then a show the following day in Newberry, South Carolina.  The trip down offered me two routes; take the 1-90 to Buffalo and head south through Pennsylvania and West Virginia, or go east to Syracuse and ride the I-81 down through Virginia.  Fool me once, shame on you, New York State Thruway!  I headed east to Syracuse.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, until the skies darkened and the signs appeared announcing that the Thruway was closed east of Weedsport.  Not this again!  I got off and took the route 20 in all it’s snowbound glory to the I-81 and headed south.  I arrived at my hotel in Charlotte, North Carolina around 2:30 AM and got about 2 1/2 hours of sleep before my 7 AM report time.

The shows went fine and I watched the weather reports all night Wednesday and all day Thursday, warning of Winter Storm Jonas which was going to march across the central eastern United States.  I finished my show in Newberry, South Carolina and got in the car to head north.  I got as far as Wytheville, Virginia on dry roads and decided I had probably gone far enough north that I would be out of the worst of it.  I set an alarm and went to sleep, figuring the drive home the next day would be uneventful.  I awoke to this bullshit:

I brushed off the car and headed north.  And by “brushed off the car,” I mean taking out my full-size broom that I carry around in the winter and started in on the snow, breaking the broom handle in about two swipes.  Wytheville, Virginia sits at the intersection of I-81 and I-77, so I had a choice to make.  Taking the I-81 towards Washington seemed like madness, so I decided to take my chances on the I-77  North through West Virginia.  They’re mountain people, after all….they must know how to handle snow, right?  They have plow trucks and salt and shovels and hot cocoa, right?

If they had any of those things, I didn’t see them.

I spent the next eight hours plummeting down mountain roads that had been minimally cleared, and passing through town after town of closed stores, gas stations and restaurants.  Wal*Mart was closed in Beckley, that’s how bad it was!  I found one gas station full of hearty souls who braved the weather and opened, and I lunched on a bag of hot cheese & pepperoni rolls (a local delicacy), sugar-free Red Bull, Diet Coke and water.  At a top speed of 44 miles an hour, I spent eight hours in caravans of scared sedan drivers, scared tractor trailer drivers, and 4-wheel drive pickup truck drivers who aren’t scared of anything, especially when they should be.  I made it to Pittsburgh and had enough.  I got a hotel room and hunkered down for the night.

The next day, conditions had improved considerably; the first 30 miles or so were rough, and then I was out of the worst of it and made it the rest of the way home without incident.  It was a harrowing 36 hours.  I got home around 6 PM Saturday night, and on Sunday, I didn’t move.  I didn’t leave the house, I just slept and when I awoke, I watched football or just sat there and shook.

The next week, I was off.  I needed it.  The next trip was the one I’m on now, into Iowa, South Dakota and Minnesota.

I hit the road on Sunday, getting ready for a Monday morning report for a nooner in Ottumwa, Iowa, well-known home of actor/comedian Tom Arnold.  I got to the gig just fine, benefited from the hour time-difference and got a decent amount of sleep.  Conditions were not out of the ordinary for winter, some snow and ice on the roads, but nothing terrible.  I experienced a little braking issue with the car, and got it rectified at a Firestone location in Ottumwa and as I sat in the waiting room, the television trumpeted news of the Iowa caucuses and the impending storm that was arriving after Midnight.

I got a room in a hotel room in Des Moines, Iowa (lucky to find one the eve of the Iowa Caucuses, every median person in America seemed to have come here to document the proceedings), and I’m on a day off today.  My next shows are in Yankton, South Dakota outside of Sioux City, Iowa and Forest City, Iowa, up near Clear Lake, Iowa just down the road from the Buddy Holly crash site.  Both towns have been hit/are getting hit now with blizzards and storms and I’m giving them the day for the storm to pass and get those roads clear.  We’re getting snow here in Des Moines, but nothing like what they’re getting up north and west of here.  This was the view from my hotel room this morning:

So I’ll be out here in the midwest until about Thursday of next week, and I’m guessing things will be better more than they will be worse, but I’ll deal with all of it as it comes.  The secret, which is no secret when you come down to it, is to be safe, plan ahead, and take no unnecessary chances.  In almost 28 years of doing this work, I’ve missed only two shows, and that’s a pretty good record, but not as good as the record of getting killed in an accident zero times.

My closing comment when I get off stage at colleges used to be “Thanks for having me, have a great semester.”  Now it’s “Stay safe, stay warm, and be good to each other.”  I never felt it more than this last four weeks.

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