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Snow stories: Stuck at the mall

I've felt it when I was lost in the woods. It seized me once at a chaotic bus station in Dhaka. But I never expected to experience that rising terror, the feeling you get when all your safety nets have been ripped away, while gazing out at the parking lot at White Flint Mall in Rockville.

I had been dispatched to the mall during the peak of Saturday's snow storm to "check out the scene" on what would normally be one of the busiest shopping days of the year. I emerged from the Metro into a whited-out world, hiked three suburban blocks through ankle-deep snow, and stumbled into the building. Most of the storefronts were dim and holiday tunes echoed eerily through the empty concourses. I chatted up a few hardy souls at a coffee shop, sat with some bored bookstore employees, took a glance at my BlackBerry -- and absorbed the news that in a few minutes, the Metro station at which I had arrived would be shut down because of the inclement weather.

At first, being stranded at the mall struck me as an amusing childhood fantasy come true. Then I realized this could be very bad news. Bus service was suspended, taxis weren't running either, my in-laws in Potomac were snowed-in and my editors downtown were trying in vain to get me a ride. All around me, more stores were pulling down their metal gates, and as I looked out on the rapidly accumulating snow, I vaguely wondered how long I might have to hunker down in that covered parking lot: Hours? Overnight?

Let's pause a moment here to consider all the ways in which we feel safe in this country, all the fallbacks and conveniences that allow us to leave the house without cash, without food or water, sometimes without the vaguest sense of how to get where we're going. Cell phones, GPS devices, ATM machines, 24-hour grocery stores and even Starbucks, whose ubiquity we hate until deadline strikes and we need that little push over the finish line...

Then, let's consider how sometimes those things are stripped away but we somehow manage to survive.

The woman browsing the clearance table at Border's seemed like a promising prospect. She had on sturdy snow boots and completely lacked any serial killer vibe.

"Excuse me," I asked her in my most non-threatening voice. "Do you happen to have four-wheel drive?"

As luck would have it, she did -- and she was from Minnesota. And just like that, I was sitting in the back of an SUV, the woman's daughter showing me her Pokemon card collection as we headed toward the nearest open Metro station, the family cracking up at every hilariously ill-equipped D.C. driver stranded on the side of the road, my heart filling with appreciation for these nice Minnesotans who happily rescued me from life as a snowman in the White Flint Mall parking lot.

By Sandhya Somashekhar  | December 22, 2009; 12:15 PM ET
Categories:  The inside story  
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