On Monday, there were enough snowstorm-related accidents to fully block traffic on I-95 in Virginia just south of Washington, stranding hundreds of drivers in below-freezing temperatures overnight. Some drivers—including U.S. senator and former vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine—have been sitting on the highway for nearly a day, with no access to food, water, or fuel.
When I spoke to her on Tuesday morning, trucker Michele Rusher, 50, had been stuck on the road in Virginia with her co-driver for just about 14 hours. She was able to get off I-95, but is currently stopped in unmoving traffic on nearby U.S. 1. We spoke about the experience, including how truck drivers deal with sudden road closures, what other drivers should do in these kinds of situations, and how Virginia dropped the ball. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Christina Cauterucci: Tell me about your work.
Michele Rusher: I’ve been a truck driver for three years, with Prime Inc. It was not so easy in the beginning. This job is not for everybody. But once I got past the fear and understood the equipment—I love it. I get to travel the 48 states. I have seen some of the most breathtaking sunrises and sunsets. I can go anywhere in the 48 and take time off and sightsee and I get paid to do it. I also feel the importance of delivering food and medicine. It makes me feel good.
Have you ever been in a situation like this before?
In my three years of driving, prior to this, I’ve been stuck four times: twice in Flagstaff, twice in Wyoming. Those were not accidents—it was just the weather. But we had plenty of warning and they closed the interstate down, so if a police officer saw you out there, you’d be in a lot of trouble. They had state troopers out there. So everybody stopped where they were, to sleep, or they had enough notice on the digital signs that they found a way off. They had signs out stating where the interstate was closed at, what mile marker. Sometimes they’ll have another sign saying “if this is flashing, you’re to take this exit,” usually by a truck stop. And then they drop those arms, like a railroad crossing, to stop you from continuing on.
In Flagstaff, everybody slept on the road. I gave all my bottles of water away, because there were cars too. We were there from 6 or so in the evening until 10 or 11 in the morning. In Wyoming, I was stuck for three days. We were dealing with 45 miles per hour winds and 70 miles per hour gusts. Don’t travel through Wyoming—Laramie, Cheyenne—during winter. I do not recommend it.
This situation in Virginia was completely different. Coming into this, you know how they have the big electronic boards over the interstate, letting you know what’s going on, if there’s a car disabled or roads closed? I passed three of them, and all of them said “2022: Our mission, no deaths.” Nothing about this interstate being shut down. Not a word.
But this situation seems slightly less bad, at least so far, because you haven’t been stuck for as long.
Here’s the difference: In those other cases, I knew we were shutting down. I knew that there was no other route because we were in the mountains. There was nowhere else for me to really go. It was one of the national forests. Here, I could have had an opportunity, if I was notified, to find another way around this.
What is your current setup, with your truck and your co-driver?
When you’re a team truck, our wheels don’t stop. So legally I’m allowed to drive 11 hours. We do 9½ to 10. This is basically like a little studio. It’s got bunk beds in the back. I’ve got a refrigerator, coffee maker, I have one of those really cool microwaves that have come out that’s a microwave, an air fryer, and an oven. I also have an Instant Pot. So we cook and all that stuff. The only thing we’re missing, obviously, is a bathroom. If I have to wash dishes, I usually do it when it’s shower time. It’s like camping. When I’m driving, my driving partner Emily is back there sleeping. She legally has to sleep, she has a 10-hour rest break. Then I give her a wake-up call 30 minutes out, we swap drivers, and I go to bed. A solo driver has to stop and park somewhere for 10 hours, and then they can drive.
Tell me about what’s happened over the past day.
We’re very avid about checking our weather and our route. Apparently Google had kicked me off of traffic—I don’t know how that happened—so I didn’t see anything about the I-95. Everything was cool until we got into Virginia. The roads were terrible, and then the roads were nice and clear, a bunch of salt trucks. And then all of a sudden, completely white. Couldn’t see lines. We were making our own lanes because you couldn’t see anything. It actually didn’t snow while I was driving. This was the aftermath of whatever snow had hit them.
A lady spun out. I was in express lane on 95, and she had spun out about a block in front of me. Two drivers had stopped, and I thought, OK, I need to bring my speed down a little bit. I brought it down to 50. That’s when it got really rough, and then it got really clear, and then nothing but red lights. I cranked up the CB radio to see what was going on, and I heard the chatter about the big accident and how people had been sitting, and I’m looking on Waze, and then Emily gets up and says, “Hey, I checked Twitter, and this is what’s going on.”
We were five hours in that spot, around Lorton, Virginia. I think we went a little less than half a mile in five hours. Absolutely terrible. In the chatter on the CB, I heard drivers talking about the U.S. 1. They call it clean, so they were saying you can get through. There was a car next to me, they had young kids in the car. I saw another driver talking to them. I rolled the window down and heard him telling them, “If you ride this shoulder, get off this exit up here. They’re trying to get people off the interstate.” So I decided to follow suit. I had to get out of the truck, ask another truck driver, who was asleep, to pull forward so we could get out, hoping this would be a better option.
When you got off I-95, how long was the period before you had to stop again, when you thought, Oh, yay, I’m moving!
Oh, gosh, I know—I was thinking, Score! We had to go slow. We were rolling for about 150 miles.
Were you panicked?
You can’t be in this. You cannot panic. In the beginning, sure, when I first started. But now, no. Because that’s when you get into trouble. That’s when you make bad decisions. The only thing I was having Emily look up is clearance on U.S. 1, because I’m now driving blind—I did not preplan this out. I’m not using any of my truck GPS to help me with height or weight clearance. I had her looking for me to make sure that these bridges I’m coming up on are going to be able to fit 13 feet, 6 inches. I know nothing about this road, and sometimes the U.S. roads—well, I guess I lied about the panicking, because I will panic a little bit when I see a sign that says “no trucks.” A little bit of fear sets in.
Where are you now?
We’re on the U.S. 1, really close to 95. Emily found out that there are three tractor-trailers on here that have jackknifed. So who knows how much longer we’ll be out here. We’re dead stopped. There’s nothing we can do. We’ve been sitting here three hours. It is absolutely bananas.
I believe the issue with the U.S. 1 is there were a lot of people like me thinking that they can get around I-95. But I don’t know if this road is closed or if it’s the three trucks that have jackknifed up here. I’m not surprised about those accidents, because people on this road were all driving like they forgot about the accidents on I-95. The roads were still bad. It’s getting better now because it’s warming up, but even once we got off the I-95, it was a little hairy there for a minute. The two-lane was one lane, there were areas that had not been plowed or salted, there was people trying to pass me, thinking it would be easy to do, then realizing, oh, wait, it’s one lane. We have no idea when we’re going to move again. There’s no chatter, no information. None.
Did you learn in trucker training what to do in a situation like this, or how to prepare?
Yes, we did. Prime has a very good training program, and that’s not just because I work for them. I did a lot of research before I went into this business. My trainer—he could tell me stories about this all day long. You don’t understand it until you’ve actually experienced it, but I was always taught to make sure that during the winter months, you have plenty of food, water, and blankets. I even have a little ceramic heater in case my heater goes out on the truck.
What are you carrying in your truck?
Misfits produce. They’re the odd little vegetables that they don’t sell—misshapen produce. We’re headed to Ellenwood, Georgia, to a FedEx.
I saw your co-driver tweeting, encouraging stuck drivers to ask truckers for their spare food and water. Did anyone tweet at you or approach you two?
No, nobody reached out and said, “Hey, where are ya?” We were talking about making some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the kids next to us, but I just didn’t know how I felt about a plate of food from a stranger.
I’m sure with COVID, you never know how people are going to feel about that.
But when you’re hungry or thirsty—even if you wanted to make it yourself, or we have stuff on the truck in packages.
And, of course, a truck full of Misfits produce in case of a real emergency.
Well, we would have to talk to FedEx about that!
Is this something you’d recommend people do in a situation like this? Approach a truck driver to ask for food?
Absolutely, 100 percent. Nine times out of 10 that driver will have something and will give you something. They stereotype these drivers. I mean, maybe, sure, in our society there may be some strange people. But a lot of these guys out here are really nice people, and they’ll bend over backwards to help you. Being a truck driver is a brotherhood, a sisterhood. We look out for each other. I may not know the truck next to me, but if he’s trying to get over, or if his truck is on fire, I’m gonna pull over and I’m gonna hand him my fire extinguisher. It’s like a group of bikers, you know? They look out for each other.
Have you been communicating with other drivers while you’ve been stuck?
Yes. I always send out a warning of whatever’s going on, even if it’s on the opposite side of the interstate. I get my mile marker: “I-95 southbound, brake check, mile marker 163.” I’ll say that a couple of times.
What was the scene like on I-95? Were there people walking around?
I saw a couple of people get out and stretch, a couple of people take a potty break. But it was 19 degrees. I don’t think they were wanting to get out and mess around too much.
Speaking of which—how do you go to the bathroom when you’re stuck?
OK, well, we have a small engine funnel that you can get at Walmart for like 89 cents. It looks just like a little urinal, and we use our empty bottles and baby wipes. It’s very simple, very effective. With COVID, there are still places we go to that won’t let us use the restroom, and I’m not the kind of girl that’s going to go outside or squat underneath my trailer. I’m just not. I will find another way. Especially at the height of COVID—oh, man. Some of these mom and pop places wouldn’t allow us to use the bathroom. Pennsylvania closed all their rest areas. No bathrooms. It was not fun.
Are you mad that Virginia dropped the ball here?
I’m disappointed. I wouldn’t say mad, because lots of people have dropped the ball. I’m more frustrated for the people who’ve been here since yesterday, sitting out there. I believe there was one guy who actually had a medical issue. They were able to get to him but—you’ve got all these people out here. They’re not letting anybody know what’s going on, they’re not giving them any kind of time frame. You can’t send somebody out here in an emergency vehicle with a bunch of water for these people who’ve been sitting here for 12, 15 hours? That’s the part that I’m most frustrated with. When Virginia knew this was happening, they should have shut this down much further down the line and redirected people. This was not handled appropriately at all. Not at all.
And not knowing the time frame probably makes it harder for people to conserve gas while trying to stay warm.
Yeah. We have our truck off right now, because we’re dipping into the red. I’m worried about that, and I don’t want to have to have a tow truck come and give us fuel. They’re not gonna give me much, and it’ll cost us $500.
You talked about having to get past fear at the beginning of your career. Was part of that fear the knowledge that you might end up in this situation, getting stuck?
None of that was part of the fear. I’m a small car driver—this thing is huge. I don’t want to be a ball of fire going down a 6 percent grade in West Virginia on the 81. It’s the size of the vehicle and the responsibility that you have when you’re behind this wheel. Night driving was difficult. My first winter was a nightmare for me. I cried almost every day. People don’t understand the mental and emotional toll this takes on the driver. That’s why I prefer to team. It’s nice to have somebody with me. A lot of these guys have been out here for 20 years, alone. You watch these YouTube people, and they don’t prepare you for the mental part of this job until you get out here. It is terrifying at the beginning. I’m not a quitter, and I called my dad I don’t know how many times and said, “I quit. I can’t do this. It’s not me.” When you’re 8½ feet wide and you’ve got Jersey barriers on both sides of you—whew! Your heart goes to your stomach. That was my fear.
Do you have anything you want to say to people reading about this in the news?
I hope some of this will be a lesson that any time you’re driving in an area that has snow, you always should be prepared, even if you’re not a truck driver. You can’t avoid crashes or weather. I’ve got to tell you, there’s been plenty of times that it’s caught us off guard. The biggest part of preparation is make sure you have an extra jacket, blanket, food, water. Even if it’s snacks! You don’t have to necessarily have a full-blown Salisbury steak that you can cook underneath your hood. Keep that stuff in your trunk, just like you’d have a spare tire. If you’re not in Southern California, if you’re in an area that gets snow, you should have that stuff.