Fill your go-mug with your favourite hot bevvie. This is a long one.
Last week, I experienced the worst winter road conditions of my vehicular life. Not the scariest – that award goes to the time my carpool partner and I were repeatedly blinded by passing semis. But they were definitely the poorest conditions under which I’ve ever ventured behind a wheel.
I work 80 km from the mountain town of 13,000 people where I live. I commute an hour each way and have done so for two and half years. For the seven years before that, the drive was more like 30 minutes. My route is a major transportation corridor; a four-lane divided highway that runs through one of the world’s oldest national parks.
It wasn’t always this way. I grew up in a city of a half million people, now more than 1,000,000. When I was in university there, I could see the mountains during my fifteen minute commute home. My exit was very near the place where the road left town and became a single, unbroken ribbon of asphalt tying the city to the peaks. For me, the mountains always evoked a feeling of unexplored possibilities. I often wondered what it would be like to keep going – past the acreages, the grain farms, the cattle, and the remains of old homesteads, driving right into the long red rays of the afternoon sun.
Eventually I did just that. After a period of unemployment, unexpectedly extended by a broken limb, I landed a summer job. Summer jobs were plentiful where tourists like me went in search of memories and new experiences. (They were also the quickest way to a refuel a bank account stretched by travel and tuition.) Ten years and three jobs later I’m still here.
So, back to last Wednesday, why was I on the road in such ridiculous conditions to begin with? Well, the weather rolled in while I was at work and, short of spending a night at the hostel, my only option was to get into a car and go home.
Staying put might have been a good plan but I had carpooled to work and was supposed to attend a two day meeting beginning the following morning. It was two hours in the opposite direction. Excuses aside, maybe I’d also just come to believe that if I drive slowly enough (with a solid pair of winter tires and no hills to negotiate) I’ll be fine.
I was told to take a fleet vehicle home and drive it to the meeting the next day. Our fleet vehicles are built for winter weather so it was a good plan, as long as I could borrow a car. Our own departmental vehicle was in the shop.
This is “The West” – an iconic place in Canada and the US where the boundary between reality and mythology is sometimes hard to distinguish. If you’ve ever been here, especially in the Rocky Mountains, you’ll know that the most defining characteristic of the west is perhaps its size. It’s big here and the land is elemental – rock, water and forest with a lot of air, like empty canvas, in between. That empty space is part of what makes it feel so big. Maybe it’s also where the feeling of unexplored possibilities comes from? But philosophical musings aside, living amidst all that intimidating space was deliciously exciting. It became a point of unspoken pride, maybe even part of my identity.
When I first moved to the mountains a decade ago I spent a minimum of five hours a week on the road, driving at all hours and in every kind of weather. The radio was my constant companion and I listened to elections, urban development issues, international politics, war, scandals, natural disasters and – rating particularly highly on the smug scale – traffic reports. All the while, this took place under the indifferent and unchanging limestone peaks on the doorstep of the proverbial wild. This video gives you a pretty good sense of what I mean.
After seven years, I lost my job. When I found one again it was not where I expected. “We know you were hoping for the position here in town but we really think you would be a better fit in (insert more remote location here).”
The biggest sticking point was the length of my future commute – 160 km round trip every day. So I did what every self-respecting professional would do. I called a girlfriend.
“I’d have to drive up there all winter long. That’s like an hour each way.”
“Um, Lemon Tart, most people I know drive an hour one way to work. It’s not that unusual.”
In spite of the impressively large landscape my world suddenly seemed very small and sheltered. I took the job.
By midsummer I was working full time and highway driving two hours a day. Each morning I passed “The Vacation Boundary” which was the point beyond which I had only ever travelled when playing. But I was getting paid for this. I was wearing jeans to work. I was beginning every day with a road trip! The kind that carries all kinds of unarticulated cultural and emotional context.
At 6:45am every morning I nearly had the highway to myself. The cliff faces were crisp against the sky, the air was cool and smelled of rock, soil and ice. I felt free, unencumbered, empowered, and independent. There were no traffic lights, no stop signs and only one road running in only two directions. There was only me, asphalt, air, forest, mountains, and the river – persistent, patient, and never still. When I looked at that river I could visualize the glacier where it began. And when I looked at the light left behind on peaks, I imagined the sea. That’s where the sun was headed and that is where I would be too, if I just kept going.
I drove alone that summer so could sing along with cheesy ballads, ponderous emo tunes, or vaguely raunchy dance hits at 8 o’clock in the morning if so moved. Who needed coffee when you had fresh air, blue sky, a reliable ride, and an iPhone adaptor complete with cassette tape deck? That summer there were wolves, bears, and sunsets.
I had a new job, new home, new friends, and the naive, absolute certainty that we were going to change the world – or at least our slice of government bureaucracy.
It was very exciting. Euphoric even.
On this day, though, the snow started at noon. By 3:00pm people who lived out of town had begun leaving work early to get home before the roads deteriorated too much.
It took me most of the day to locate a fleet vehicle. I’d already been told by two snow plow drivers and a highway serviceman how bad the roads were. My manager’s manager had already gone home. I pulled a hood over my head and walked ten minutes to where the vehicle was parked, picked up the keys, and found the car encased in snow and ice. Cracking open the frozen driver’s side door I knelt across the seat and started the engine, cranked up the defrost, located a snow brush in the backseat and went to work digging out the car. Someone stopped to help me scrape the windshield and after many thanks I jumped in, wet and nervous about the drive ahead.
The gas tank was two-thirds empty.
I texted my carpool partner to let her know why I was late, filled the tank, picked her up in the village and hit the road after dark at 5:00pm.
The ditches, shoulders and lanes were one wide expanse of white. The plows had been through but there was still so much snow in the passing lane that no one dared use it. So we travelled like settlers in our steel covered wagons, following each other’s tail lights at well below the posted speed limit. There are no street lights in the mountains and because of the storm, no moon that night either.
The snow was wet and our windshield wipers began to freeze. Soon they dragged heavily across the windshield and I had to crouch over the steering wheel to find the last unfrosted patch of glass. We talked about finding a pull out but couldn’t wait that long and figured they probably hadn’t been plowed anyway. So we stopped on a previously plowed shoulder, waited for a break in the traffic, and stepped out on the highway in the darkness to chip the ice off the wipers as quickly as we could.
Later on, many flashing lights appeared and out of the snow emerged three plows travelling together. “That’s what they call Delta Formation,” I told my friend. (I didn’t hang out with plow drivers for nothing.)
We made it home in a little under two hours. Admittedly, that wasn’t bad considering the conditions.
I was very relieved to be home but, in truth, I also felt awe. Would I want to do that again? No. Was I impressed with Mother Nature? You bet. The same way that I’d been impressed when, two winters before, frequent frostbite from the morning commute had given me chilblains on my toes – a kind of recurring frostbite that I’d only heard of in reference to Victorian poverty in a Dickens novel.
I also felt accomplishment. I’ve learned more than I ever expected to about winter highway driving. Keep at least a half tank of gas when the temperature is below -20. Watch for black ice near the river where condensation is likely to settle. Be vigilant during the first and last snowfalls of the year because the crusts they leave on the pavement can make a car jump sideways. When passing, pull well ahead before pulling over to avoid spraying slow traffic with gravel. It is dangerous for semi-trailers to gear down in poor conditions so give them lots of space when merging and get out of the way on the downhills.
After a while, the expertise I and my carpool accrued created a pocket of perceived safety in the middle of winter driving. We had the pleasure of experiencing things we would otherwise have missed had we been working in a slushy city.
Like potlucks next to a big fire where the punch was iced with icicles, flocks of crimson pine grosbeeks, ponderous moose wading through chest deep snow, dramatic helicopter rescues departing from our doorstep, cross-country skiing on our lunch breaks, visiting pine martens at the office door, and rolling, rather than stepping, over an enormous snowbank to plug in the block heater on the car. It was a black and white, Ansel Adams, photograph during the day, and a cool blue dreamscape during the extended hours of dusk and dawn.
The morning after my big commute, I knew I didn’t have to drive if I didn’t feel comfortable on the road. I checked the road report, weather forecast, weather warnings, highway cameras, and searched for highway conditions on Twitter and finally resolved that, although it would make me late, I would set out after the sun rose but go all the same. Once on the road, I was happy to find that it was -15 and both the pavement and the weather were greatly improved.
This is what it looked like.
I listened to the radio for company and about 40 minutes from home the reception became poor and the static thicker until finally there was no reception at all. I hit the scan button on the radio but, really, I knew it was just going to spin through the frequencies, silently, until I just turned it off.
After that it was just me and this.
I climbed a snow laden pass and descended into an autumn valley, watching the temperature climb from -15 to 0 degrees. Finally I turned off onto a shoulderless, gravel road that would take me the last few kilometres to my destination.
Not far along I saw crows and ravens flocking – a tell-tale sign that something had died nearby. I slowed as I passed so that I wouldn’t run them over. They shrugged their black shoulders and scattered into the forest. One particularly large bird flew for a while in front of the car, then pulled abruptly vertical and landed in a spindly tree next to another bird. They were bald eagles, likely a mated pair. When I slowed and rolled the window down for a better look I was rewarded with a long and penetrating stare.
The next day, the drive home was blessedly uneventful.
I continue to wrestle with my ambivalent feelings about the two hours I spend on the road each day and I have no conclusions to draw. But tomorrow there will be another tank of gas to fill, I’ll have more stories to tell, but I’ll also be grateful it’s only two hours on the road each day and not more.
What mundane and unavoidable tasks in your life make you feel oddly proud of yourself? Where do you find beauty and fear intersect in your life? Or what was the best money you’ve ever spent (December’s question) The past few weeks have definitely relieved a few of the concerns I had about buying an all-wheel drive vehicle, I can be pretty sure about that!