Between 4 and 8 a.m. on this stagnant highway -- the main northerly evacuation route away from Hurricane Rita in Texas -- traffic inched along Thursday at less than two-thirds of a mile per hour.
At that rate, the thousands of cars choking every lane and often the freeway’s bumpy shoulder would find it hard to make it to safety in, say, Dallas before the furious storm hit Saturday. With 234 miles to cover and less than 48 hours in which to do it -- well, you do the math.
The first thrust of drivers fleeing Rita had left Galveston about 6 p.m. Wednesday, when officials ordered that city emptied in advance of a hurricane they expected to destroy much of the barrier island they call home. Two hours later, I joined the somber parade.
Prodded by images of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated Louisiana nearly a month ago, so many people left the low-lying cities along the Gulf Coast of Texas on Wednesday that my 70-mile journey north took more than 14 hours.
That’s a certified Category 5 commute, brutal enough to turn what is expected to be one of the worst storms to hit the United States into a traffic story for at least a day or so.
It’s the kind of commute that leaves a lot of time with not much to do but memorize the license plate one car ahead, gawk at the stalled livestock trailer -- Were those really pigs stranded in the middle of the freeway? -- count boats and squirming children and stalled cars and fender benders and marvel at how a single state could be home to so many extended-cab pickup trucks.
Being trapped inside a car for more than half a day is uncomfortable enough -- it’s cramped, dull and reeks of exhaust fumes. But many travelers spent hours on the loud and gritty roadside, where caravans stopped to let the weary sleep atop trunk lids and worried drivers pulled over, waiting in vain for the traffic to abate in an effort to conserve gasoline.
In the early hours of this journey away from hell and high water, bored drivers wore down cellphone batteries calling in to AM talk radio shows. About 9 p.m., one concerned animal lover making her way out of the worst of the flood zone rued the countless dogs she saw tied in open truck beds in the withering heat.
An hour went by and another caller suggested that all evacuees really should designate a driver so that everyone else in the cars can “drink themselves silly.” Not a bad idea on this dark night and one that the woman said she wished she’d thought of earlier -- in time to buy a bottle of wine and pack a corkscrew.
We crawled past fast-food joints and motels whose beds we longed for, past massive cowboy boot emporiums and big-box stores, closed tight. All along the interstate, the lights were on but nobody was home.
By 1 a.m., I’d reached downtown Houston, 50 miles in five hours. The final 20 miles would take another nine hours. A dog owner in the fast lane ahead of me shifted his white truck into park, climbed out of the cab and proceeded to take his pet on a much-needed walk along the freeway’s concrete median. He had more than enough time.
Families split up in separate vehicles used the slow drive to perform quick highway ballets. One woman climbed out of her car in the middle lane and delivered bottled water and a bag of chips to the driver behind her. Another was a mirror image, this time with a thermos and a pack of cigarettes.
After seven or eight hours of mostly stop and little go -- fueled by energy bars, with talk radio humming in the background -- I realized that it really didn’t matter what lane any of us was in as we crawled along the interstate.
At one point, it looked like I had found the fastest-moving lane on I-45 and maneuvered my way into it in my rented Chrysler minivan -- the only car the company had available in this city filled with evacuees from Hurricane Katrina. So I patted myself on the back for a nice bit of strategic driving.
Then I realized that over there -- ahead of me -- was that same black truck with the woman’s foot stuck out of the passenger window, toenails painted sky blue. And there were those two motorcycles in the trailer that I thought I’d passed 40 minutes ago. And weren’t those hay bales over there once upon a time in my rearview mirror?
Beyond looking for some way -- any way -- to make the creeping time pass faster, driving for 14 hours at a stretch forces the weary wretches at the wheel to make some very critical choices.
First, there’s air conditioning. Do you turn it on full blast to stay alert and keep from getting heat stroke while driving on pavement blasted by thousands of idling engines -- and risk running out of gas? Or do you roll down the windows, battle the bugs and drive just a little bit longer, as the windshield fogs up in the thick humidity? My welts have yet to stop itching.
Then there’s water. It seemed that during every news broadcast in advance of Rita someone was admonishing: Stay hydrated. But the official routes out of the area largely confined evacuees to crowded freeways, funneling them past off-ramps with gas stations, mini-marts and bathrooms.
Flashing signs warned “HURRICANE EVAC. NO FWY RE-ENTRY NEXT 100 MILES.” Then 90 miles, then 50 miles, and so it went. Even though I was getting thirsty, that last bottle of water I had downed made itself known. For seven hours. And then I saw a woman with a bright idea. It was 3:33 a.m.
Traffic had stalled beside a 24-hour Texaco station just beyond a grassy verge and a busy frontage road. She parked her car on the freeway shoulder, switched on the hazard lights and sprinted to the brightly lighted building where every gas pump was in use, the check-out line was 20 strong, matched by the queue for the women’s restroom. The men’s was empty; the decision was easy.
An evacuee, face etched with fatigue and disbelief, wandered by the Texaco entrance and asked, “Where’s Conroe?” On a night when moving at 10 mph is an unimaginable luxury and five minutes at 30 mph were pure bliss, rumor had it that I-45 would ease up at Conroe, a city north of Houston.
Not that there was any reason that it should have. It didn’t ease when we passed a stalled vehicle or got beyond a messy freeway merger. Why should Conroe be any different? But it didn’t really matter to me. Conroe was 25 miles away. At this point, it was a lifetime away -- and far beyond the small motel where I would eventually end up hours later.
On the FM dial as the early morning wore on, the calls took on a different tenor. Most of the drivers by this time had spent hours heading through Houston to parts unknown. They were weary, stressed out and looking to elicit or offer some kind of guidance. The only live talk radio was a Christian station, 89.3 FM. The motto: “God listens.”
It was late, and it was dark, and the future was uncertain and brake lights glowed red in the distance like a multi-strand ruby necklace. We were still going nowhere fast.
“We’ve been on the road a while now, heading over to Dallas, and I’m kind of nodding off over here, and everybody in the car is all asleep,” said the disembodied voice. It was Blanca, and she sounded just a little shaky. “I’m the only one driving.”
“Well, Blanca,” said the radio host, “everybody who is listening is going to pray for you.”
At that hour, we needed all the comfort we could get.