The long way home: a reporter’s night on I-75

Eleven hours into my drive home, my gas light flickers on and I have to start preparing for the likelihood I will spend the night on I-75.

I hadn’t planned to sleep on the highway, but then who does? When I left my office in downtown Atlanta on Tuesday at 4:12 p.m. I intended to be home in time to put my 5-month-old daughter to bed. I get a good laugh out of that plan in the 11th hour.

Now, I’m stuck in a single-file line on I-75 in freezing temperatures with an annoying little light telling me I’m almost out of gas and I have no way to go back, forward, left or right. How will I get my car to the shoulder? Should I walk the mile to the next gas station or try to bundle up right here and get some sleep? When will this traffic budge?

Despite offers earlier in the day from friends and co-workers to stay in the city, I decided to head home to East Cobb. Bedtime is special time around our house and something I make it a point to be home for every night.

I’ve lived in Atlanta most of my life, so I am no stranger to the super-sized rush hour. I figured the trip would take me three hours and, if I’m being honest, that seemed like a generous estimate.

But this rush hour has the potential to break even a veteran like me.

At first, I found the pace laughable. Like, “Ha! It’s been an hour and I’ve only gone 2.5 miles. Can you guys believe this?” But at around hour five, after a missed bedtime and with no end in sight, I started fantasizing about that scene from R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” video. You know, the one at the end where all the drivers in that depressing traffic jam just get out and walk?

By hour nine, I’d only traveled 5.2 of my 18-mile trip. I-75 was at a standstill. Motorists were rolling down their windows to pour yellow liquid onto the frozen asphalt. Transit buses struggled to get traction on the slick highway. Conditions were getting worse.

By hour 10, I was on the verge of tears and of running out of gas.

Around 4 a.m., 12 hours into my journey, I’m finally able to exit on West Paces Ferry Road. The ramps are icy, but I manage to steer around an abandoned car in order to exit.

A gas station is just off the interstate and I cruise in. No gas. I try another one, waiting thirty minutes to get to a pump. No gas.

Exhausted and thirsty, I stop into a CVS that’s become a shelter for the night. Inside are about fifty rush-hour refugees, sleeping in the aisles, standing in line for the bathrooms and hanging out by the registers, swapping traffic horror stories.

“My hotel is in Duluth,” a guy from North Carolina tells me. “I got on the wrong interstate heading north, but figured I would just ride 75 to I-285 and then 85. Big mistake.”

A lady hanging out next to the bathroom tells me there’s another gas station nearby where I can buy fuel. This is how critical information is exchanged at 4:30 a.m. in the middle of a traffic crisis, in a hallway of bathrooms. After 45 minutes of stretching my legs, eating white cheddar popcorn and pounding Gatorade, I venture out.

The third gas station does have gas, but there’s no getting near it. Cars jam the driveways and side roads from every direction, inches away from hitting each other. I watch from afar as desperate motorists carry empty water jugs and two-liter Coke bottles to the pumps and fill them with fuel. I never knew gas had a yellow tint.

I turn into Publix, which is serving as another makeshift shelter, and buy water jugs. There, even more people are asleep in the aisles. One man opts to sleep on a shelf. He just moves those Duralogs right out of the way and stretches out like he’s in a bunk bed on a tour bus. Some people huddle around a small TV at a check-out line and watch a movie with Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum.

Now, it’s close to daybreak. I get gas and return to the restroom at Publix one last time. I don’t want to get back in traffic. But what else is there to do?

In line for the restroom, a woman with a nice coat and day-old makeup tries to sum of the experience of the last night but can’t.

“I’ve never been through anything like this in my life,” she said, as her voice cracked. “There aren’t really words to describe it.”

I don’t have the words for it either, which is always frustrating for a writer, but I understand what she means. It’s the understanding that you’re part of this new shared experience, one that will be woven into the historic fabric of a city. Or maybe it’s exhaustion.

Three hours later, I walk through my front door Wednesday morning and hold my baby girl. Total time of my commute: 18 hours. I’m looking forward to bedtime tonight.

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