"Jesus is Coming" sign during a snowstorm

Our Biggest Travel Mistake (So Far)

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Lance and I have visited dozens of countries together and have been lucky to suffer through very few crummy travel days. Sure, we’ve had things go wrong, there have been delays, and some trips have taken 10 hours more than they should have thanks to cancelled flights. But until now, the worst situation we’ve had was a flight to Rome that was rescheduled via Munich, leaving us without luggage for five days while it poured rain.

All in all, we’ve been very fortunate across five continents. But our worst travel experience and biggest travel mistake happened practically in our own backyard…and it was all our fault.

Living in Philadelphia, we’re used to some seriously heinous winter weather. We can have pouring rain followed by 18 inches of snow and temperatures so low you’re sure your nose will freeze off. But this winter has been bizarrely mild, with temperatures more often in the 50s than the 20s. So when we headed to Nashville for a week (a business trip for Lance and time for me to explore around Tennessee), a blizzard was the last thing on our minds.

Traffic jam in the snow
The backup heading out of Tennessee

Over the course of our week in Tennessee, I watched the weather forecast starting to change for the day we would leave. First it showed flurries would move in, then squalls. Snow would be coming to the normally balmy Nashville, and SNOW(!!) would be coming to much of the East Coast. And there was nothing we could do about it. On the bright side, the SNOW(!!) wasn’t meant to move into Philadelphia until late on the day we were to return home. If everything went as planned, we would be safely on the ground at home by 2:00pm with little to worry about. But, of course, it didn’t go as planned.

By the time we woke up on our travel day, it was clear there was a major wrench in our plans. Our flight home had been cancelled, and there was at least six inches of snow on the ground. And, in Nashville, six inches might was well be two feet.

Cars spun out and abandoned in the snow
Cars spun out and were abandoned

So we had a decision to make—book ourselves on the next flight out three days later or take a leap and drive the 800 miles home as a blizzard moved in. Now, it must be noted that we had been in Nashville for a week and needed to return our rental car, which we were paying a small fortune to park at the hotel. So we would be essentially stuck at the hotel for at least 72 hours, if we stayed.

It also must also be noted that our hotel wasn’t exactly a hotel. It would be more accurately described as a megaplex resort city under a dome. Seventeen restaurants, waterfalls, a river, swimming pools, and over 2500 rooms are just a few of the features at the Gaylord Opryland where we were staying. So did we decide to stay worry-free in this mini-Disneyland for the weekend? Nope, we packed up and hit the road. In a blizzard.

Every state from Tennessee to New York was telling drivers to stay off the road. There were emergency crews and plows everywhere. As we traversed the highways at 30 miles per hour, we could hardly count the number of 18-wheelers that had spun out in snow drifts. And these were guys who drive for a living. But once we left Nashville, we were committed. So we continued along. Sometimes at 45 miles an hour, sometimes at 10, but all the while trying to make progress toward home.

18-wheeler that slid off the road in a snowstorm
An unfortunate 18-wheeler

Of course, the best route from Nashville to Philadelphia would normally be a direct one. But, in this case, a direct route would have sent us right through the heart of a blinding storm. So we went as far west as possible trying to keep ourselves safe and drive around this massive snow dump that was hammering a quarter of the country.

Despite our stupidity in leaving in the first place, we tried to be safe. We drove carefully (Lance’s skills from living in Colorado for 22 years came in handy), never let the gas tank get less than half-full, carried snacks and an emergency kit, and generally tried to stay in good spirits with the crummy situation we’d gotten ourselves into.

Snow plow driving on a snow-covered highway
A plow at work somewhere in West Virginia

We drove for two solid days, finally arriving at 3:00am to our unplowed driveway covered in three feet of snow. We were lucky. We didn’t hurt ourselves or anyone else. We never put any of the emergency crews, plows, or tow trucks who didn’t want to be out on the road in jeopardy. But just because we were lucky doesn’t mean we were smart.

Our main reasons to drive home instead of waiting three days for a flight were not wanting to go stir crazy in the hotel and just being ready to get home after a week away. Those are nowhere near good enough reasons to endure the hardship of 40+ hours on the snowy road and the potential of what could have happened without expert driving skills and careful strategy (once we were on the road, of course).

In retrospect, we should have kept ourselves safe and warm eating overpriced fried chicken and enjoying the indoor pool. We learned our lesson (thankfully, safely) and hope to pass it along to you so that you don’t do the same foolish thing.

Jackknifed 18-wheeler and the building backup
Jackknifed 18-wheeler and the building backup

We were lucky. But lots of people were not. Cars were abandoned all along the sides of the road. They got stuck on steep overpasses, spun out in ditches, had to be pulled by tow trucks after hours of waiting. Nearly a quarter of the Pennsylvania Turnpike was closed for a whole day while the National Guard evacuated 500 cars that had been stuck for a day. The entire state of Delaware was not allowing in non-essential vehicles.

What we did was completely naïve. We hadn’t expected there to be as much snow as there was. We hadn’t expected it to take as long as it did. All our travel knowledge was absolutely no match for Mother Nature.

Digging out a car after a blizzard
We had to return the rental car and dig out our own car in the wee hours

4 thoughts on “Our Biggest Travel Mistake (So Far)”

  1. Nashville was a hot mess (cold mess?) that weekend. We never get that kind of snow and we just don’t have the infrastructure to deal with it. Which brings me to my advice: Some local communities have a Twitter weather account – in Nashville it is https://twitter.com/NashSevereWx The information, at least in our community, is very up to date (and included Periscope driving trips!) which let you see good science backed information as well as conditions “on the street.” We also have Traffic Jam Sam https://twitter.com/TrafficJamSam Maybe you or other people can find similar resources when they travel?

    1. That’s great advice. We were on Twitter a lot with other drivers and with official accounts, including PennDOT (@PennDOTNews) and Pennsylvania Turnpike (@PA_Turnpike).

  2. wow that was some drive… 2 days!! it must be so tiring. The pictures look straight out of a movie. Glad that you made it safe home, but nonetheless it must have been an exciting trip 🙂

  3. the island logic

    Wonderful post!

    I have done few of them, but doing them taught me how to do it right next time and that’s where I hopefully corrected it and not hoping to repeat any of them.

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