When Roads Become Rivers

The rain roars against my windshield as I head north from Weston, VT, the wind whipping against the windows. I knew the storm would be bad, but I wasn’t worried. A complete lack of information will do that to you. I had been staying at the guesthouse at a monastery in southern Vermont for a few days. No internet, no phone. Under the assumption that Hurricane Irene wouldn’t cause me any trouble getting home. How wrong I was.

Taken by Brody Stevens in South Royalton, VT

After about two miles I see water running across the road ahead. I pass through it. An hour from now that will be a point of no return, I realize. I see two trucks up ahead, one driving forward fast on the wrong side of the road and the other turning around. I follow the speeding truck, and as I do I see the other driver shaking his head at me. That’s when I see it. Just a few feet to my right, the road is gone, and I can see clear down to the ground and the rushing river below. I’m incredibly lucky the road doesn’t buckle underneath me. I am over the bridge in an instant, but my heart pounds for several minutes afterward. I slowly relax my death-grip on the wheel.

And then, up ahead… I see that the road is gone. Hundreds of feet of rushing water move fast across the road. The truck in front of me blasts into the water without hesitation, making good progress as the water rises higher and higher up its tires. The water is above his wheels now, some 2.5 feet off the ground. He’s still moving, but I stop. I’m driving a Ford Focus and all I can picture is the water lifting my car like an unmanned kayak, shooting it off the road into the raging river. I turn back, for a long night at a quiet house with no power and no food.

When roads become rivers, everything stops. Many of the locals who attended the Sunday mass at the monastery found themselves unable to return the way they had come just hours ago. Trapped just a few miles from home, with nothing to do but wait. For days.

A few of us who are stuck at the monastery drive to a nearby hotel to get some food. The main road is surrounded on both sides by speeding torrents of water. We are in the middle of the kind of news footage you see of the Midwestern flood plains. I never thought I’d see these images here. One man’s house is completely surrounded by water, just a few feet below his foundation. He sits, paralyzed, watching as it begins to lap at his walls. Now we are the ones surrounded by water.

7 Miles From The Monastery: Ludlow, VT 

And yet when I wake the next morning, there isn’t a cloud in the sky. Nothing but blue as far as you can see. It’s a beautiful day. As long as you keep your eyes on the sky, it’s as though it didn’t happen. But the second you look down, you see the devastation.

Taken by Katie Spencer, Near Strafford, VT

Huge sections of road are torn away. Bridges washed out. Towns cut off from each other. I set out, knowing I’ll have to cross once more over the massive hole in the road. It makes me so nervous I’m almost nauseous, but I make it. I see a tree covering the road, and I manage to drive around it. And then under a downed power line, hanging 10 feet off the road. Every person you see becomes a possible source of information. I stop for advice.

The Hole In The Road, north of Weston, VT

Then I’m back on the road, the words of a local echoing in my head. “Nope, can’t go that way – the 103 is washed away in two places. And the 4 is gone too. You’re probably screwed.” I travel along winding country roads, following the route he mapped out for me. Never knowing if around the bend there will even be a road. I see houses washed away, junk floating along, and teams of men in trucks trying desperately to repair damage. It is a tense trip. Driving in silence, with roads out all around me, I feel a little bit like the world is falling apart.

Racing The River, near Cuttingsville, VT

From inside my car, it seems as though the few of us on the roads are traversing a lawless wasteland. When the road ahead is blocked, I watch as several cars dodge the traffic cones and drive on. I follow them. Everyone is just trying to get home. It feels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. There is no trace of the storm that caused this. There is just the aftermath.

I escape the madness, eventually reaching Rutland and then taking Route 7 (with a few detours) all the way up to Burlington. My two hour, 94 mile trip has taken over 4 hours. I have made it home. But I am left with a powerful sense of vulnerability.

Most of the time we take for granted the strength of the concrete beneath us, and the compliance of the natural world around us, forgetting that both of these can be swept away without warning. All it takes is a storm. When roads become rivers, you realize just how connected to nature we really are, even if we’ve somehow managed to forget it.


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