Last Saturday night while on the way back from a birthday celebration in Yonkers, we encountered suddenly treacherous road conditions. A wet snow had fallen continuously throughout the day, but besides a slight coating, hadn't amounted to much else. At that time a mist covered our windows, varying from very light to slightly heavier, the cumbersome kind where Mother Nature can't make up her mind and wants drivers to keep their fingers by the wiper stalk.
I've always seen the signs warning about bridges freezing before the roads and heard about drops in temperatures could cause problems on road surfaces, but seeing is so different from actually experiencing it. As my family and I tried to make the simple hour drive home, we first realized something was wrong when the ABS kicked in while my husband was driving his truck. We were approaching the bridge over the Croton Reservoir when we noticed the brake lights and further down saw the sea of red taillights before the bridge. Traffic was at a standstill. As three lanes shifted down to merely one, we saw the trooper standing beside his vehicle, a row of burning flares behind him, stretching across the left and middle lanes. Cars slowly made it across the bridge and spread back out across three lanes. What surprised me more were the amount of cars already pulled over to the side of the highway. People stood by their cars, some on phones, others chatting with other drivers, all eyes seemed to be directed at the bridge.
Many cars began exiting as soon as they could, even our driving app advised us to get off this roadway and take an alternative route. We did not. Driving, we noted the sparse lanes, The names on signs changed as we passed one Westchester town after another. The county soon switched to Putnam and we still marveled at the emptiness of the lanes. Until we approached Pudding Street just before Fahnstock Park...and then we saw the two lanes ahead filled with cars, two lines of vehicles not moving, just sitting.
Clear, open roads turned into parking lots and there wasn't an exit for awhile. Thankfully, we amused each other as we waited. Salt trucks passed on the other side of the road which we soon realized was also seeing less and less cars go by. The elevation here, as a sign proudly boasts, is over 1,000 feet. Mist changed to a wet, annoying snow. We waited. We moved a few inches. And waited. An area we could have traversed in minutes agonizingly turned into a half hour and longer. By the time we were halfway through the park section, the ground beside us was covered in white and the temperature continued to drop below thirty.
Finally, as our time up through the park hit the one hour mark, traffic began to move a bit more. And then cars around us began to have problems. Front ends twisted to the right, back ends glided to the left. The car directly behind us began to dance a frenzied style of side-to-side as the driver fought for control. The other cars kept their distance, but it was hard to do being stuck so closely together. Then the car behind them also began to twist and the car to our right slid out of the left lane and onto the snow covered shoulder.
Black ice is a nasty, dangerous, heart-thumping bitch o encounter. You can't see it. You don't realize it's there, until it is too late. Some cars, probably with thinning tire treads, were sorely tested, while others inexperienced to driving in these conditions, were given hands-on lessons. The lanes opposite us were closed off by the time we were able to pass by the Cold Spring exit. The only things we saw pass by were more salt trucks and police cars. Everyone took their time as the traffic opened up. Some exited, others, like us, remained. As we entered Dutchess County, we spotted another trooper with his car angled across the southbound Taconic, alerting drivers to take the I-84 ramp.
We finally made it home two-and-a-half hours later, safe and intact. I doubt any of us will ever forget that night having seen firsthand the dangers of black ice. So how does this bear anything with writing? I asked myself the same question this morning when the idea for this post struck. And then the answer was simple.
Charting treacherous passageways is like writing. We begin a novel with what we believe to be a simple plan, especially if we've already outlined our story or written down ideas. But it's our characters who, like black ice, can surprise us as we continue to write and see the layers of our make-believe people peel away. Our main character's best friend, a sweet girl, might become a killer. That bad boy--the boyfriend of the MC whom everyone thinks is selfish--could save a bus full of people. Writers don't necessarily know our characters all that well until we begin to travel through their worlds, repeating what they say and do, examining their motives, and in essence, for some time, becoming them.
Writing is like driving. We might think we are in charge when it is really our muse behind the reins and our characters, much like the weather, show us their true selves as we travel their landscapes. It's a ride worth taking.