|A stretch of Highway 31 - |
Parallel to the Pennsylvania Turnpike
I was immersed in my favorite romance novel, lulled by the familiar story and the drumming of rain on the roof, when the car slowed and D cursed, quiet and deadly. I looked up and saw the sea of taillights stretching for what seemed like miles, and I knew we were in trouble.
It was the Monday of Labor Day weekend, and we were headed back to New York after four days with my family in Pittsburgh. We should have left first thing in the morning, but it had been my little sister's wedding weekend, so we were wildly tired and not in much of a hurry to start a nearly 400 mile drive. We saved our packing until the alarm went off, and then decided to stay for lunch. It was nearly 2:30 in the afternoon by the time we pulled away. We knew we wouldn't get home until after nine, but at that moment, we didn't really care.
And then, just an hour into our drive, we saw the taillights. This wasn't slow-moving traffic. This was no-moving traffic.
Resigned to some extra time in the car, I kicked off my shoes, put my feet up, and continued to read; I was just getting to the good part.
But D was having none of that. He flipped through the radio stations, trying to get some news. But there was nothing.
A burly, ruddy-faced trucker ambled down the highway on foot, rain streaming off of his grimy cap. As he passed our car, D rolled down the window and asked if he knew what was going on.
"Accident. Bodies on the highway, dahn 'ere 'bout two miles," he said in his Western Pennsylvania drawl. "Yinz ain't goin' nowhere."
That was all D needed to hear to catapult him to action. With his iPad in one hand and his phone in the other, he tried to find a way out. He called my brother-in-law, still at my parent's house, so that he could add a desktop computer to the mix, as if sheer volume of technology alone could somehow teleport us out of the traffic.
He thought he saw an exit on the map, about half a mile ahead, but he couldn't be sure, and we couldn't see it from the car.
"Get in the driver's seat," he ordered. "I'm going to check it out."
Not thrilled with the idea of him walking up the shoulder of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in the pouring rain, I tried to protest. But he would not be deterred. With only a wrinkled old jacket he liberated from the deep recesses of the trunk to shield him from the rain, he headed up the highway.
Ten minutes passed, then twenty. Then my phone rang.
"It's not an exit. It's a service ramp to a road that runs parallel to the turnpike, but it's blocked by an electric gate. The Turnpike Authority won't open the gate because then we can avoid the toll."
As he continued to speak, I saw him coming towards the car, jacket heavy with rain. I switched to the passenger seat as he flung open the door and grabbed his iPad, scrolling madly.
He found the road on the map. It ran parallel to the turnpike for almost one hundred miles. We could avoid the traffic, and then some.
"I have to find a way to open that gate."
Content to sit and read my book until the traffic finally cleared, I disagreed vehemently with this plan, but to no avail. Back into the rain he ran.
Another ten minutes. Then twenty. Then my phone rang again.
"We pushed it open!" he screamed, over the drumming of the rain.
And as the words were coming out of his mouth, the cars ahead of me started to move.
I threw the car in drive, and cut someone off to get into the right lane. As I inched the car forward, D re-appeared. He was running down the highway, ducking into windows of cars as he passed them and saying something to the drivers that I was too far away to hear.
I vaulted over the center console as he approached our car and jumped behind the wheel.
"I did it," he said. "I can get everybody out."
The drivers around us were confused, so D opened his window, stuck his hand and head out and waved for them to get moving.
"Follow me to freedom!" he said.
And they did.
At least one hundred cars had already made it through the opened gate and onto the service road by the time we approached. As we made our way up the ramp, a Turnpike Authority sheriff appeared and motioned for us to turn around.
"No way in hell," said D. "Put your hand on your stomach," he ordered. Too shocked at the events of the past hour to do anything but obey, my hand automatically went to my stomach.
"My wife is pregnant," he yelled to the stern looking sheriff.
I was nothing of the sort.
But the sheriff waved us through, while simultaneously closing the gate on the car directly behind us. D gunned the engine, and we flew through the gate and onto Highway 31 - 100 miles of traffic-free driving, exactly parallel to the Turnpike.
We were home by ten, just half an hour behind schedule.
We found out later that it was 7:00 that night before the traffic started to clear.