Dashing through the snow
When Erin and I decided that we would spend Christmas at her family's home in Texas, I was excited for the possibility of a road trip. We made the thirty-five hour drive once before the previous spring on an lengthy road trip covering a substantial part of the the country. On that trip we were caught in a freak snowstorm and had to sit in a hotel room for two days in Minnesota due to road closures. This wasn’t going to be our first rodeo. We knew the route was long and the risks of driving through some cold high deserts and mountain areas but we saw no way around it. It was Christmas.
The journey to Texas was nearly perfect. Sure, we ate so much fast food at questionable establishments and at even more questionable times of day that we probably cut a few years off the back end of our lives, but all in all we made it to Texas without much resistance. Clear skies and open road the whole way through.
We spent a week bustling around central Texas with Erin’s family. My mom and step father drove from Arizona to spend it with us. A picture perfect family memory. Until the day after Christmas when a sickness took over the family. It hit my mom first and then had its way with my step father, keeping them bedridden for days. Things continued down the path of despair when the next day I too fell victim to the festive sickness we would later learn to be some form of super bronchitis.
For two days I laid in a bed at Erin’s parents house fading in and out of consciousness, all the while being jolted awake every few hours by a demon of a cough trying to steal my lungs from my chest. Finally the day came that we had to begin our trip back home to Seattle. I mustered the strength to shower and pack my things into our rental van and we said our goodbyes, mine from a safe distance of ten or more feet at all times. We were barely on the road for twenty minutes before I was comatose again.
A few hours closer to the New Mexico border I slogged awake to find the dessert was patched with snow. Dread poured over me. Erin is not comfortable driving in snow and we had about thirty hours of it in front of us, it was time for drastic action. I began ingesting a plethora of over the counter cold medicines with the enthusiasm Popeye takes to a can of spinach. A cocktail of yellow, green and white pills and gel caps, chased with a shot of liquid cough syrup. The taste flashing glorious memories of being a sick child and hearing the sound of your mom on the phone with the school, notifying them that you would be absent for the day. In a short period my demeanor went from that of a newborn with a drinking problem to a somewhat present and focused adult. Perfect time to get behind the wheel.
We were outside of Santa Fe when the snow began to fall hard enough for Erin to give up the driver’s seat. Raised in mountain areas in northern California, I had driven in snow many times before. Granted I can’t remember any time I had driven in the snow or otherwise while so debilitated and propped up by the power of Dayquil.
On approaching the Utah border and after about fifteen hours of nonstop highways, we pulled into a hotel in Farmington, New Mexico. I waited in the car and people watched as patrons of the dance club in the hotel came and went while Erin checked us in at the front desk. A heated verbal fight broke out between some men in the hallway and I repositioned to have better view of the action and Erin climbed in the passenger seat with room keys. The room was the epitome of every hotel I have ever stayed at near a major highway, clean enough but not a destination one seeks out if avoidable. One o’clock in the morning and my body was static once I laid down to sleep. Erin set the alarm for six.
In the morning the road was clear and Erin volunteered to take first shift on the wheel. I fell back asleep after a Mcmuffin and all was right in the world for a couple of hours. Waking to smooth pavement surrounded by a light dusting of snow gave me hope that the worst was behind us. How could I be so foolish.
We had made it through Utah with only a few snow patches and were feeling confident as we crossed into Idaho on Interstate 84. I had been captain of the vessel since Salt Lake and we planned to switch positions again in Boise. Between us and Boise was our worst nightmare, an unavoidable mountain summit and the dark, dark night.
About a hundred miles east of Boise Idaho and the road was packed with six inches of snow. Every few miles the shoulder of the highway was scattered with spun out cars, some abandoned the previous day, inches of snow covering their windshields, others with their occupants still inside waiting for rescue. Slowly we trudged on, our minds worn down by the realization that this would not be over any time soon. Cars creeped in lines at half speed down the interstate, each one navigating by the tail lights of the car in front of them, unable to see anything else through the falling sheet of white. Our trust was put into a semi truck in front of us, hoping that they had some magical vantage point and could make out the road in ahead. We contemplated pulling off and staying the night in one of the small towns we passed through but that thought was battered by the delusion that as long as we were moving, we were ok.
At some point the caravan of cars just came to a complete stop on the snow painted highway. We were halted long enough that people began getting out of their cars and running into the icey foliage out of desperation to relieve themselves. Families even started playing in the snow in between the dozens of parked cars. Dads walked ahead through the lines of cars, searching for an answer as to the interruption, while passengers leaned out cracked windows looking to them for answer but receiving only arms thrown upwards and a shrug. I was just about asleep when the sound of the car in front of us starting its engine peaked my attention. They were moving. It had been almost two hours and they were actually moving! Slowly the vehicles fell back in a single line formation and the white knuckling started once again.
Twenty or so miles from Boise the roads began to mellow and the snow eventually turned into a roadside attraction. We were able to actually drive the speed limit and hope of better days filled the cab of our rental van. Feeling somewhat safe, Erin opted to nap until we found a spot in the city to switch seats once more. I put on some music and my lungs emptied with a sigh of relief. Another mile down the road and the snow patches began to cross our path and I grinded my molars together as we passed through the patches of silver uncertainty. Erin was asleep. After a stretch of open, dry road my mind drifted as my eyes worked to focus on the road through the approaching city lights reflecting off the water speckled windshield. And then we were sideways.
Instantaneously and without warning the road was covered in snow once more and I was driving faster than it wanted me to. The moment our tires hit the slushy road we were sent skidding to the side. The edge of the highway filled the entire front window, the tail lights of the car in front of us glittered through water marks on the passenger side, shading Erin in a hue of red as she jolted awake with a scream. She screamed, I scream, and if I’m not mistaken I may have heard the van let out a yelp as well. Just as quickly as we had veered to the left, the rental van hopped back in the other direction, my hands frantically attempting to grasp the wheel with loud thuds as they failed. Back and again the van swung side to side, driven only by reaction and chaotic instincts, the screaming continued. After a few of the longest seconds of my life the wheels found their footing and on we rolled on without a scratch. We briefly addressed the incident, both in a state of shock and then fell silent until Boise.
Pulling into a gas station, the snow still falling. I slumped in the driver’s seat, the past nine hours behind the wheel all hitting me at once with the knowledge that I was about to climb into the passenger seat and fade away for a while. I looked at Erin as she searched weather sites on her phone, her face filling with dread. Snow was to be a theme for the rest of the ten hour trip back to Seattle. After all we had just been through and knowing Erins anxieties toward the snow, I opted to push through and continue driving. It was 1 AM when I cracked open an energy drink and merged back onto the snowy highway. My eyes felt like they were bleeding and my hands ached from being cast into a vice like mold on the wheel.
About an hour closer to home the snow finally took a break and Erin let me rest. I fell asleep almost immediately as we headed into Oregon. Looking at the map and the current weather crisis, we opted to move through southern Oregon, all the way west and then make a straight shot up north to Seattle. We were gambling on this longer route to be less filled with terror, and turns out we have no luck. Southern Oregon offered no solace, only smaller roads and equal amounts of snow. We pulled off the road in Bend at about 3 AM and decided we’d had enough. We found a Walmart parking lot and parked the car, setting our alarms for 6AM, we decided to rest.
The next morning made the previous day feel like a hallucination and I wondered if we would ever make it home. The initial thirty five hour drive and now been grinded into two full days of mostly road time and we were headed out on our third with at least seven hours left before sanctuary. But our luck started to change the moment we rolled back onto the highway. The route began to clear up, snow plows making up for a big portion of the vehicles. Soon we were passing through Portland and I could almost smell the halls of my apartment. The shudder of dealing with end of trip tasks such as unpacking and returning the car was completely overshadowed by the joy of knowing I would soon be stationary once more in a familiar place.
On returning home Erin and I laid in bed and recalled ever horrible incident that had gotten us there, amazed at how it all seemed so terrifying at the time but now brought laughter. We both concluded that we would never make a road trip through the snow again, but I have a feeling that when the opportunity to stretch some miles on the road between us and normality calls, we will answer rain or shine.