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Originally published November 23, 2010 at 1:08 PM | Page modified November 23, 2010 at 2:20 PM

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Tales of a nightmare commute

It snows in Boston. It snows in New York. It snows in Minneapolis. But only in Seattle — and this phrase I said over and over during Monday night's commute — does it take eight hours to drive seven miles.

Seattle Times staff reporter

It snows in Boston. It snows in New York. It snows in Minneapolis. But only in Seattle — and this phrase I said over and over during Monday night's commute — does it take eight hours to drive seven miles.

In my trusty blue Subaru with all-wheel drive I pulled onto the Interstate 5 southbound onramp near Denny Street about 6 p.m. Cars heading north jammed Fairview but the route southbound was suspiciously open so with confidence borne of ignorance, I headed for home.

Somewhere before the West Seattle Bridge exit the cars ahead slowed but traffic was still moving. Only after I had passed all possible avenues of side-street escape did everything stop.

The great mass of cars on I-5 simply sat idling.

Minutes passed. An hour, two and then three. Every once in awhile, we'd creep ahead.

I was sandwiched in by a cheese truck and an empty oil tanker that bounced and clattered when on those rare moments it reached speeds over 2 mph.

As I called trying to get information on the road, my cellphone died.

I listened to the radio and got conflicting reports. The lanes ahead were closed. Two were open. One was open. All were closed. There were multiple accidents. There were jackknifed semi-trucks.

My bladder wanted to make yellow snow.

Men climbed over the guard rail to relieve themselves. The hours passed. I started counting how often the cheese truck driver went over the rail. A woman in a nearby car sat reading a book. Every hour, a man in a black van got out to stand on the freeway and smoke a cigarette and talk to other commuters.

The northbound lanes of I-5 were clear. I saw a truck pull from the southbound lane onto a utility ramp linking both directions, then back his truck down the empty northbound lanes.

As we crept ahead, I lost track of where we were. Boeing Field? Renton?

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Four or five cars appeared to have run out of gas in the middle of the road and we edged around them. The drivers sat in the dark and cold.

On the side of the road were dozens of abandoned cars. As I sat, ignition off, I watched pedestrians walk along the side of the freeway, both leaving cars and coming back with bags of food.

I regretted only having a cup of soup for lunch.

A radio report talked about problems with the northbound commute but nothing was mentioned of the huge southbound gridlock for hours. It was as if thousands of stranded commuters were invisible not only to the Department of Transportation snowplow crew but to traffic reporters as well.

At 2 a.m., the school closure reports came on the radio and I still was sitting on the freeway. I unintentionally memorized bumper stickers and license-plate frames: "I'm the princess, who the hell are you?" "Inspiring Students, Seabury School," "Dog is my co-pilot."

Send Dog to clear up this mess, I thought.

About eight hours after I left work, I approached the Boeing Access Ramp and exited.

It was like emerging from a bad dream. Suddenly, there was no traffic. In one hour I was home — making it a nine hour commute from South Lake Union to Federal Way.

As a Seattle native, I was reasonably prepared. I'm a skier, snowshoer and mountain lover and know the hazards of cold and ice and had dressed for the weather. I even carried chains.

Like all other commuters, my burning question remains: How can a dab of snow cause such a grand meltdown?

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com

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