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Trippin' on LSD: A Four Hour Journey

By Benjy Lipsman in News on Feb 2, 2011 5:00PM

A tow truck stuck on Northbound Lake Shore Drive this morning. Photo credit: ArnK

Given what we've heard about the nightmare that unfolded on Lake Shore Drive during this blizzard, my commute doesn't seem quite so bad now. It didn't involve rescue by any of the brave emergency workers or National Guard troops. I did get home at an hour that is within the realm of normal dinner time. I was greeted with hugs from the wife, who had hot tea and soup waiting. But it was no joy, either. After hearing how long people spent on the Drive waiting for rescue, I am so very grateful I wasn't among them.

My company chose to take the "business as usual until you hear otherwise" approach to the storm, which meant no early dismissal, at least as of 3:45pm when I chose to leave after seeing CTA recounts on Twitter. I walked from my West Loop office to my normal bus stop at LaSalle and Madison. A 156 bus appeared, but was so full that only one person was able to squeeze on. After waiting another 15 minutes without a single bus coming by, a 134 bus approached. A route that could get me home! I got on the northbound bus about 4:10pm and really thought it was my lucky day; there were actually still seats available.

I was a little concerned because I'd already seen tweets stating that LSD was closed, but figured, if that was the case, the driver knew the detour. The ride began normally enough. The bus proceeded slowly up LaSalle and turned east onto Wacker Dr. I was surprised to see the driver continue toward Lake Shore Drive and get on it. From the moment we merged onto the Drive near Navy Pier, I knew we were in for a long commute. The bus came to complete stops for 10-15 minutes at a time, then inch forward a tiny bit, before coming to another rest. I couldn't see anything because I was seated in the accordion part of the bus and the windows were fogged and iced up. While CTA buses are usually saunas during commutes, the driver seemed to have the heat off. It was especially cold in the accordion, with wind seeping through the vinyl pleats and the cold radiating though the floor.

About an hour into the ride, we were supposedly at North Ave. An hour after that we'd made it to about Armitage. After a five minute debate, a group of 3 or 4 guys pulled the emergency release for the rear door and jumped off into LSD to escape on foot. After 2-1/2 hours of texting my wife, following blizzard info on Twitter and playing Angry Birds, my iPhone's battery died. Another couple groups of people hopped out from both the front and rear doors to try and find their way home, which created enough floor space for some who'd been standing for three hours to sit — never mind that the floor was flooded with melted snow. I'd contemplated joining the second group of escapees, but decided that walking along Lake Shore Drive in such weather was a foolish idea between the cold, snow and wind, the waves and the possibility of out-of-control vehicles. I figured staying put was my best option.

We who stayed on the bus debated whether those who had left were more likely to beat us home or die along the side of the road. After the second group disembarked, one passenger went up to talk to the bus driver. Throughout the ordeal, the bus driver never once gave any updates, information about what was going on, what the issues were, etc. The bus driver claimed they aren't allowed to use the radio or cell phones while driving so he couldn't find out what was going on.

The trip became even slower, with the bus sitting for 20-30 minutes at a time with no movement. This seems to have coincided with the reports of a bus spinning out a bit further north, near Belmont.

On a couple of occasions, it felt as though we had to go around cars stuck or abandoned in the right lane as we ever so slowly inched along Lake Shore. For another hour, we crawled northbound. We commiserated about the miserly storm policies of our employers and how that contributed to our late departures and the predicament we found ourselves in. The bus finally made its way onto the Fullerton exit ramp and got to the stop light at the Fullerton exit shortly before 8:00 p.m. Once we left Lake Shore Drive, the bus stopped in the middle of the intersection and sat for another 15-20 min. I could see some flashing blue and yellow lights through the fogged windows once we eventually started heading west on Fullerton, but I don't know if it was an actual emergency or just their roadblocks to close the Drive.

On Fullerton, the bus proceeded steadily toward Stockton. I finally got off the bus about 8:15 p.m. at Wrightwood and Stockton, running through the snow and wind to get inside my building. Only when I got home and saw the TV reports did I realize how lucky I was. I never once thought we could actually get stranded on LSD. I believed that kind of thing only happens to people on desolate country roads. And yet, even when I climbed into bed hours later, people were still awaiting rescue from the storm. My commute was tough, but for too many it was much, much worse.