There are hazards to spring Sunday driving. Where we live, going for a drive has always meant heading for the hills. Driving mountain roads is relaxing and enjoyable. There is a new adventure waiting around every corner. There are also hazards at certain times of the year. The following is a hypothetical situation I have created to showcase the possible dangers of driving in the mountains in the early spring. Pay attention to the mistakes our hero “Max” makes on a family outing, and the way his wife “Jann” responds on this Sunday drive fail.
It’s March in the Rockies and Max decides it’s time to get the family off the couch and into the outdoors. He loads up the FAV(family assault vehicle) with wife, four children, one teenage daughter’s friend, and one toy Australian shepherd. I believe that specificity lends credence to a tall tale. Similarity of this made up family to any real family should be discounted immediately. Max also threw in the fishing poles and tackle. The plan was to grab sandwiches and worms and head to William’s Lake, a fictitious fishing destination.
The day was sunny and warm, and the road was dry all the way to the lake. The ice was completely gone from the lake, and winter seemed a distant memory. It was obvious, after an hour or so, that fishing was not going to be spectacularly fruitful. Max and his family enjoyed their sandwiches on the shore, threw a few rocks into the lake, and took some nature selfies to post on social media. Max then suggested that they re-board the FAV and drive up the road a ways to see what they could see.
The road to Williams Lake is well-traveled and maintained, beyond the lake it gets what we call primitive. Right out of the chute, Max said “I can’t believe the road is passable this early in the year.” From this we would deduce that Max had some experience and knowledge about driving in the mountains. They would, however, be words that returned to haunt him, and Max’s family was content to follow him off the proverbial bridge without so much as a single word of caution.
They bumped and wound up the narrow track rapidly gaining elevation, everyone enjoying the scenery and solitude. The dirt road was narrow with steep grades on both sides. There were very few places where two vehicles could pass by each other, or turn around for that matter. Max began to notice snow and ice in shady spots along the roadway, and the corners were often muddy ruts he had to plow through with the FAV. A responsible, aware person would evaluate these changes as they gained in elevation and conclude that it was going to get worse. Max was too caught up in the adventure.
Soon the patches of ice and snow became a continuous blanket broken only by two ruts made by someone (with chains) who had passed before. Sweating Max gripped the steering wheel as the FAV slipped and churned up the grade, desperately searching for a place to turn around. “This snow is rotten.” Max said.
“What does that even mean?” his wife asked.
“When snow freezes and thaws repeatedly, it loses its structural integrity.” Max replied.
“Just get us the hell out of here.”
At this moment the rear end slipped out of the wheel tracks into the deeper snow at the edge of the road. Max accelerated, trying to maintain enough momentum to regain the road. Children and wife screamed as the FAV slid sideways toward the 1000 foot drop to the valley below. Max stopped with mere inches to spare. Silence ensued except for the repeated “thunk, thunk, thunk” that was Max’s forehead banging on the steering wheel. “I am such an idiot!” Max said, his voice rising with hysteria. “We have no business being here, and now we’re stuck and no one knows where we are. We’ll probably end up eating the children just to survive, like that soccer team in the Andes Mountains!”
At that moment, the driver’s door flew open and Max was jerked from behind the steering wheel. His wife held his face in the snow until he calmed down. “Get us out of this…now.” she said. She then got the kids out, and they all pushed while Max drove. Once the FAV was moving he kept going until there was a better place to stop. They all piled back in and continued on in search of a place to turn around. It was only minutes before they were stuck again. This time much worse. The tires of the family vehicle were entrenched in four icy holes, and the frame was resting on the rotten snow. Forward and reverse only seemed make the situation worse.
After working at it for quite some time, everyone was soaked to the waist. Max realized they probably weren’t getting unstuck without assistance, and the afternoon was rapidly becoming evening. Miraculously, one of the 17 cell phones on board had enough service to place a distress call. A friend agreed to head their direction with chains, shovels, and all the other stuff Max should have been carrying to attempt spring mountain travel. In the meantime, Max and his family worked together to try and free the mired Suburban. They dug out the snow and placed sticks in front of the tires for traction.
After what seemed like hours of monumental effort, they regained the tire ruts in the center of the road uphill from where they were stuck. At this point Max new that continuing would be a mistake. He suggested they stomp ruts back through the mess where they had been stuck and attempt to back down the road until they could turn around. His wife was understandably skeptical and wondered if they shouldn’t wait for chains. He argued that it would still be quite awhile before help arrived.
With Jann walking along behind, Max began to creep in reverse back down the narrow mountain road. With his head hanging out the window they made slow but steady progress. After making it safely past both areas where they had previously been stuck, Max relaxed. He even joked with the kids. “Hey look, I’m just like Tow Mater!”
The immediate reply was, “Mater uses his mirrors.”
After a mile or so, Max saw a slightly wider spot in the road where he could possibly turn the behemoth around. He stopped and got out to look at the spot with Jann. She said, “I don’t know how you’ve kept your sense of humor through all of this. The kids have been waiting for you to freak out.”
“I’m actually not joking…I think I can turn around here.” Max said. Jann made several skeptical noises, but did not object. After a hundred point, Austin-Powers-type turn they were headed toward home in the proper orientation.
There are many lessons to be gained from this entirely fictional, not to be confused with real situations or people, narrative. First: make sure that you have the proper equipment, clothing, and supplies for traveling in the mountains any time of year, lest you become the next Donner party. Second: Working together and refusing to give up can help you surmount any obstacle.
Idaho doesn’t suck…but rotten snow in March sure does!