Sometimes it’s better not to mention something that looks like an omen right when you see it, just steps into a road trip.
A young, sleek-sided, short-haired brown dog with a blue collar, dead on the side of an off-ramp on I-79 South, and I saw it early on from high up in a 14-foot U-Haul full of furniture, heading south and east from Pittsburgh towards Raleigh, N.C.
Stopping for coffee and a bathroom break, and the dog was there, lying curled up in a “U,” almost like is was sleeping. Except it wasn’t.
Someone would eventually tell the owner — it wouldn’t be us, passing through on a tight schedule in a big truck that sometimes drove like a dream, and other times felt like you were fighting with a stubborn cow at the end of a long leash.
It was last Thursday, close to a week after a band of violent storms cruised through parts of the Eastern U.S. I didn’t know much about the storms, or about the damage, or that the route we were taking would head right through the worst-hit part of the States — West Virginia.
I knew the trip would run more than eight hours — it took close to 10 — and I knew it was perishingly hot, ranging anywhere from 97 F (36 C), up to 104 F (42 C).
The first part wasn’t bad: it’s beautiful, rolling country, the truck labouring up long Appalachian grades, occasional battered farmhouses peeking out of sharp valleys. Fat round hills fully dressed in tall deciduous trees, signs offering “Hillbilly Haven Log Cabin Rentals.”
I-79 South churns through old rock cuts carved into soft-looking rock, and looping sideroads plunge away at odd intervals. The smells are of strange trees, thick, wet air and constantly hot brakes.
I think it was near Weston when all the stores started having signs that said “No Ice.” There were broken trees on both sides of the interstate, big trees broken off well up the trunks and tipped in towards the road.
After Weston, the rains started again, the road almost invisible, and signs started popping up at regular intervals: “highway emergency, traffic signals not working.”
This was six days after the storms introduced the word “derecho” to the West Virginia AM radio lexicon. (“Derecho” is Spanish for “straight,” just as “tornado” is “twisted.” It’s straight-line, long-lasting winds over 60 miles an hour, often above hurricane strength and built by extremely hot weather, and it was just that kind of storm that had battered the U.S. The storms had passed — the heat had not.)
On the radio, the Beckley station (Beckley’s a southern West Virginia city of around 170,000, and we were going right by it) was in full crisis mode, all of its time devoted to where the power was still out and where it was finally back on again. Then we were crossing a bridge side-on to the wind, which was trying to tip the U-Haul right over on its side.
Branches were whipping across the road, and the calls to the Beckley station were like a resigned march: still roasting hot out, even in the rain, and more and more calls were coming in that “our power’s out again,” “the power’s failed again at the relief station,” “we just lost our power.”
Batten down the hatches, the radio hosts were saying. Here it comes again.
Powerful, fast-moving storms: they’re part of the future that climate scientists say we can expect. What’s not so clear is whether we’re well-equipped to meet the damage they wreak.
The rain and wind-battered road (by then, the I-77) had ditches on both sides overflowing with clay-shot silted rainwater — the road itself was deep in water, and flooded with scores of utility trucks hurrying in loose convoys to fix an electrical system that analysts are now saying will need crucial improvements to meet future conditions.
Was it any kind of scientific examination?
But even a drive-by viewing from the high seats of a truck shows the scale of damage that can come calling in minutes.
Like any other road trip, you should pay attention. There are interesting times ahead.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.