Virginia or Bust: Tennessee, Snow, and Home at Last

The day we rolled into Tennessee was day three of our road trip from Ciudad Juárez to northern Virginia. As we checked into our Knoxville hotel and unloaded the cars for a third night in a row, we’d crossed nearly 1,500 miles (or three-quarters) of the trip and expected to make it to northern Virginia the following day.

I’d been living in the mostly dry warmth of the desert sufficiently long to use my weather app infrequently, although our last week in Juárez had been marked by infrequent sprinkles. But because Knoxville’s temps were dropping below freezing, we glanced at the forecast and realized we might need to slow our roll.

Arkansas-Tennessee Stateline

And sure enough, when we awoke the next morning, the weather on the interstate we would need to travel between Tennessee and Virginia was so dire – with heavy snowfall accumulation, jackknifed big rigs causing motor vehicle accidents in their wake, and Virginia state troopers taking to social media to ask the public to stay off the roads unless they had an emergency need to travel, that V got on the phone. A few moments later, our hotel reservation in Virginia was postponed by a day, our hotel stay in Knoxville was extended another night, and we stretched our toes in the warm sheets and watched The Weather Channel talk about Winter Storm Izzy’s 50 mph winds like good southerners. V texted his daughter in North Carolina about having extra batteries on hand as she posted pictures on Instagram walking with her boyfriend in the snow. For travelers the weather was an inconvenience, but for those comfortably ensconced at home and with their electricity still on, a snow day was a treat!

Not what we hoped to wake up to the morning of January 16 when we were supposed to be traveling eastbound along I-81!

Later that morning we realized snow would be arriving in Knoxville by noon, and our cat Dzish’s previously healed right eye infection no longer looked so healed; his right eye was getting gummier and weepier with each passing day. When I looked more closely, it looked like his left eye was starting to get a little gunky too. He blinked at us and looked miserable. We’ll take him to a vet when we get to Virginia. He needs his feline leukemia booster anyway, said V. I frowned. For once I thought something medical was more urgent than V did. Two rare events in one day! Who knows how long it would take to get Dzish established with a vet in busy northern Virginia, and he looked like he was suffering now. We had to help.

We quickly looked up animal hospitals without much hope but were surprised to see several results in Google Maps, all close by. One listed its hours as 24/7; V called to confirm and before I knew it, we were bundling ourselves up, getting Dzish into his carrier, and heading over there. We’re not driving a long way, we told him, even though we knew he had no idea what was happening. For a change, we both went in the VW, a new car for Dzish.

I realized the joy of not having to go anywhere for a day wasn’t getting to stay in bed, but having a moment to breathe and take care of something other than the grind of loading and unloading, and pressing on for 500 more freeway miles. (While on official PCS travel to and from a border post, the Department only requires we drive 360 miles per day to have our hotel costs covered, but we have always tried to go farther because of the amount of valuable things in the cars I wasn’t comfortable putting in the air freight. The need to unload nightly to avoid a vehicle break-in, and reload everything the next morning before setting off is tiring and time-consuming, and I don’t want to do it six or seven days in a row.)

A very distressed Dzish in Knoxville, TN ~ January 2022

We arrived at the Animal Emergency & Specialty Center of Knoxville and it took almost an hour to get our furry friend into triage. He was a little scared of the other pets, but it was a large waiting area and we were able to socially distance very well. Like always when he is scared, he is silent. The vet tech was unable to get all of his vital signs because he was freaked out and – evidently, although I’d never seen him do this – baring his claws. So when the veterinarian did come to examine him and learned Dzish had been a feral cat that had taken V almost 17 months to first bring inside, V was allowed to be at the table during the exam and treatment.

I was able to stay in the room, too. I stood about six feet away, but V’s presence is probably the only way the doctor was able to examine Dzish’s eyes and apply steroid drops and ointment without anesthetizing him, which we didn’t really want because Dzish had already been taking daily gabapentin while traveling to stay calm in his carrier. The vet visit was only the second time he was around any other people besides us and two trusted consulate friends who left food outside for him times we were away (the first time was in December when he was fixed and microchipped at a vet in El Paso, TX and that doctor noted on his report that he was “a stray – very skittish!”) Well, it was a lot of firsts for poor Dzish all at once: first humans handling him, first trip to the United States, first time in a car, first time in a carrier, first medical procedure, really his first time “indoors” anywhere but our living room briefly!

Snow was falling in earnest when we made it back to the hotel three hours (and a few hundred bucks) later for some rest, and we passed an uneventful evening. The next morning I awoke very early before the snow was supposed to start again to scrape what I found were inches of hard ice off both cars and bring them around the front for loading. I don’t mind the cold so this is a job that was no big deal for me, but between the slippery ice rink the hotel parking lot had become and the really stubborn wet ice encrusted all over the cars, it was slightly more of a pain in the butt than I’d expected. With the trusty Mechanix gloves I keep year-round in the trunk of my car, I tried diligently to keep the ice scraper to the glass and off the rubber and painted surfaces of each vehicle.

It took a good 45 minutes to scrape and defrost both cars well enough to be driveable, plus another two hours for us both to take quick showers, load everything, and take a grab-and-go breakfast (just fruit for me, since I’m still eating AIP). By the time we hit the trail the snow had started to fall again – a wet, sleet-like snow.

Eastbound on I-81 through Tennessee at 24 degrees F (-4.4 degrees C), which is probably why this snow stayed on my hood even after several hours of freeway driving and engine warmth before finally dissipating

The weather made driving slow going. Luckily we had our earliest start ever, just after 8 am, and both the VW and the 4Runner are four-wheel drive vehicles. The weight of everything inside loading the cars down felt comforting as we made our way towards the state line, and the transportation authorities in both states had done a tremendous job clearing the roads of snow and ice. The half-dozen or more 18-wheel trucks we saw tipped over on the medians and even a couple that had alarmingly fallen down hillsides were proof positive of how much road conditions had changed in the preceding 24 hours. I was glad we had heeded the scary Facebook photos of the roads and the weather reports and just waited an extra day in Knoxville.

Literally getting wind-whipped in the eye by ice chips at the Tennessee-Virginia state line. Welcome home!

V had no interest in selfies at the state line because winter is not his jam. I however had a huge emotional reaction at finally arriving in Virginia and stayed out there long enough that he motioned gently it was time to remove ourselves from the shoulder. Arriving in Virginia was the signal to me that my tour was over, even more somehow than departing Mexico had been. Departing Texas had felt pretty final, but coming back home to Virginia was the definitive start of something new. We have these moments, although it takes months or sometimes years to put shape and definition to them. What it will be we haven’t yet created, and maybe it was that hopeful feeling I was having again, mixed with sadness for the hope I felt when we last left Virginia, mixed with relief that one difficult chapter of my life has ended.

What is this place? Wait and see. It will be great. ~ January 2022

The farther we got into Virginia, the drier conditions became in terms of the roads and precipitation. Once we hit 66, there wasn’t any rain or ice and traffic moved along very normally. We had dreaded making the trip on the Monday afternoon of a holiday weekend and anticipated traffic and crowds returning to the Washington area. I assume because of COVID ruining everyone’s plans like usual, the roads were instead relatively clear.

We made it to our extended stay hotel in the late afternoon and had plenty of time to check in, settle Dzish down, and unload a semi-final time before dark fell and we started thinking about dinner.

Final mileage: about 1,940 miles (3,122 km)

All in all it was neither a pleasant nor a difficult drive. I really love driving, but traveling with a live animal and carloads of stuff makes it more stressful, particularly if one of the cars would have broken down (which with 6- and 12-year old cars I tried not to think too hard about).

This is also the first time I’ve done a similarly long road trip with no accommodation plans beforehand – just winging it day by day. We were going to just drive until we were tired and find a place to rest as we went. But ultimately with a cat and so much stuff, we decided to make reservations lest we not be able to find anywhere on the fly that would both take a cat and where we would feel safe and comfortable. When you’re tired and done for the day isn’t the time to be confronted with nowhere to sleep, so V’s Marriott app came in very handy each night! It was good we reserved as we went, to keep pace with the weather and how far we felt up to driving each day.

And that is how we PCS’d out of our third tour in one month flat, from curtailment approval to our return to Washington. Onward.


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Sarah W Gaer

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