Adventure Is What You Make of It: A Memoir

Have you ever heard of “and then” stories? They’re basically a variant on tall tales where the situation just keeps getting worse and worse. They can be a lot of fun and dissolve into hilarity as long as nothing nightmarish really happens.

With this in mind, I’m going to share with you my own, real life “and then” story. It has a happy ending, but sure seems to fall into the truth is stranger than fiction category.

My husband was going away on a business trip and needed a lift to the airport. His flight left sometime after ten pm, so I thought it would be a perfect chance to try out my night driving clip-ons (which did a wonderful job, btw).

He drove to the airport, and for some reason decided to leave the key in the car with the engine running. Perhaps it was because one of his favorite bands (Novaspace) was playing “Night Flight.”

Anyway, have you ever had that moment where nothing makes sense? That’s what happened to me when I got into the car with the engine running and the music playing. It took me a sec to figure out the gears and all (doesn’t help that I’m a stick shift driver and this is an automatic, but usually that’s a feet issue). It couldn’t have had anything to do with my husband disappearing for a week, could it?

Obviously, I soon got all my wits about me and was able to drive away at a “speedy” 15 miles per hour with pedestrians crossing the road every 20 feet, more concerned about getting home or to their flights than whether the cars trying to navigate this space had seen them. I only had one close encounter when I was finished waiting for a person coming from the right and another leapt out in front of my car from the left in a dark black suit. No biggie. I’d been starting to move when I saw him, but barely. Other cars were not so lucky…or maybe they didn’t have my fancy night driving glasses to help pick him out.

That’s only one of the obstacles in our airport, the second being illogical signs that use city names when you’re already in one of the cities listed. I don’t go to the airport often enough, and they’ve done some construction since the last time, so I ended up on the longest onramp (no exits) I’ve ever been on, including those in the maze in Berkeley, CA, going…as you probably guessed from my issues with the signs…the wrong way.

Here’s where the story fell down the “and then” rabbit hole.

What do you do when you end up on the highway going the wrong way? Well, you take the next exit and turn around. No problem, right?

Problem.

I get onto the highway, and it’s backed up bumper to bumper as far as the eye can see. This is a four-lane highway at almost 10 pm at night that only needs that much width at the height of rush hour, and only then if there’s an accident.

Patience is a virtue that I have when I’m driving (I love to drive), but bumper to bumper isn’t fun for anyone. It does demonstrate the congestion problems caused by people merging too soon and then blocking out the people doing it properly, though. Still, I can see the flashing lights of a police car, and the problem isn’t too far ahead, so I figure it won’t be too bad.

The lights turn out to be a male police officer helping three big men change a tire, or rather changing it for them. Kind of amusing if you think about the stereotypes. I do notice the orange cones marking off the breakdown lane, but think little of it beyond keeping an eye out for humans on the highway because they don’t have crumple zones to protect them from damage, or anything much besides hard hats.

However, the traffic does not improve.

Still holding on to the “no problem” mantra, but my grip is getting a little shaky by now. I can see the sign listing the upcoming exits, and I have only 1/4 of a mile to go. I can manage this much bumper-to-bumper traffic.

And then…those traffic cones turn out to be of significance after all. I am directed to merge not one, but two more lanes, once again demonstrating the need for people to learn the zipper technique. This four-lane highway is now squeezed into two (the first zipper being the onramp traffic). Even so, it is unusual for the traffic to be this heavy now that we are well past 10 pm (in a city where it takes about 20 minutes to get to anywhere from anywhere).

Inch by inch, I’m getting closer to my exit when I notice an orange diamond sign that says “RAMP” half hidden behind the cars in the other lane. Dread clenches my stomach as I make out “CL” in between cars, and sure enough, my ramp is closed. The cones don’t split to allow an exit, and the actual ramp has wooden horses across its whole opening.

Sigh. That exit I know pretty well and know how to get onto the highway again from, but I’ve used the next one enough times to be able to figure it out. It is only another quarter mile or so down the highway. I can last. It isn’t like people are honking, and weaving in and out of lanes (not as if we are going fast enough nor are there enough lanes left to support this in any case).

Off we go in a crawl that makes the airport 15 MPH feel like a hundred, but hope is right around the corner…or is it?

Finally, we get to the next exit (and significantly the last before Highway 80). I search each gap in the cones, search for any more heartbreaking orange diamonds, but I can find neither. In fact, what I do see is another blinking arrow light.

That’s right. The highway is normally six lanes across at this point, but no, we are being squeezed into a single lane on the far left. Oddly, or maybe from exhaustion, people handle this zipper pretty well, not that it speeds traffic up much at all.

Distracted by the merge, I guess I missed the “RAMP CLOSED” sign, but sure enough, the next exit is blocked off just as thoroughly. UGH.

So, I recalibrate my plans.

80 doesn’t give too many options, but I know those streets, so I’ll manage. I check traffic going the other way, and it’s moving fine, making getting back on 395 South the best option…right up until I get to 80.

Now, they wouldn’t block off 80 as well, but when I take the narrow passageway of cones, it only leads to 80 East. All my known routes come off 80 West. I rarely take the East direction, and when I do, I am heading down it some distance. But highways are logical, so I take the first exit off 80, expecting to get back on in the other direction, except…

As I get off in the far right lane and reach the traffic light at the bottom, I see a sign three lanes over on the left (it’s a big exit) saying to 80 West. There’s no way I’m cutting across that much road, even though the traffic is normal for this time of night here–meaning there is none.

Instead, I make the right and head through a part of the city I’ve never been in. I see biker bars and run down areas, a cute storage and moving truck rental called Wells Cargo (for all I know, it dates from the same time period as the bank) and keep going. I find 395, but good luck doing anything but floating under it. There are no entrances.

Onward I go until I start to recognize things again. I’m headed straight for downtown where the roads are a crazy mix of two-way and one-way, but I can probably find something familiar. Just as I figure out where I am and start to plot routes, though, the street I’m on comes to a dead end…and not a known, proper one. Nope. More construction with a detour. I make a right turn to follow the detour signs, but when I realize I’m on a three lane one-way street–you guessed it–the detour sign is on the far left, three lanes away.

At this point, I’m once again lost. It’s past 10:30. I’m tired and ready for this all to be over. Then, I see the holy grail of notification signs: This way to the university.

The roads around the school can get a little dicey, but I’d driven my sons often enough to one event or another before they could drive themselves. Off I go, my spirits revived and the roads turning into well-travelled–by me–paths. Finally, I am on my way home, and the only disturbing thing is the number of cars that blow past me on 395, often enough to make me check my speed, but I am going the speed limit. They are doing 85 or higher.

I finally reached my door at 10:59, over an hour after I’d left the airport for a less than 20-minute trip. But, no harm, no foul, right? The only loss I suffered was time.

So, that’s my “and then” story. There’s some people who would say there’s never a bad situation that can’t get worse, and they’re right to a degree, but for me, these kind of chaotic events, while frustrating at the time, make for wondrous stories. It’s not a big crisis, no lives were at stake, but I hope the tension and anticipation engaged you. That, and its familiarity.

I’ll bet most if not all of you have had one of those days when absolutely nothing went like it was supposed to. When that happens, you have a choice: you can laugh or you can cry. Me, I’ve always found laughter the better medicine.

How about you? What’s a crazy tale have you experienced that no one would believe except it happened to you so it has to be true?

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2 Responses to Adventure Is What You Make of It: A Memoir

  1. jjmcgaffey says:

    It’s largely in your attitude, too. A very small example – we went out thrift shopping. Stopped at the first place, which has multiple things we want to do; talked to the cobbler and got some small repairs, went to the thrift store, and finished up at the bookstore we always go to up in Tahoe…and it was closed, to reopen in half an hour. Ok…shall we go drive away, to other shops? But the bookstore doesn’t stay open long, we’d probably miss it. Well, there’s this ice cream shop at the front of the little mall that we’ve never managed to try, it was always closed when we checked it out. So we checked, and it was open! The ice cream is fantastic, by the way – Aloha Ice Cream. So instead of throwing a fit, or going into the grumps, because what we wanted didn’t work, we got a lovely treat, then went to the bookstore afterward (and then carried on thrift shopping, and the ice cream was a very good idea because it was a long afternoon/evening before we got home to dinner).

    So instead of going into road rage, either on the highway or on the various detoured streets, you just kept going – and things worked out. Slowly, but worked out. And you got a bit of driving, though not the most enjoyable type!

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