Adventures in Tobogganing

by admin on October 23, 2012

Some of you might recall that my last post ended with the words, “And now it’s time for me to brave those snowy mountain passes and drive back home.” Well, it turned out to be a little bit more of an adventure than I bargained for! In fact, I’m beginning to understand why Mrs. Walter Browne was so eager to have her husband drive home immediately on Sunday night, before the storm hit.

Because the Western States Open is always held in late October, and the Larry Evans Memorial is always held on Easter weekend, the weather has occasionally been chilly and I have occasionally seen some snow flurries while driving to or from the tournament. And of course, one of the years I didn’t go to the Larry Evans Memorial was the year that Jesse Kraai got in a car accident on the way back home (due to a snowstorm) and broke a rib. But until yesterday, I had never personally experienced a serious storm myself. I’ve driven in snow many times back east, though, and I wondered, “So what’s the big deal?”

Just before Donner Lake there was a roadblock, so that everybody who didn’t already have chains or snow tires had to stop and put chains on. For people like me who didn’t bring chains, that meant we also had to buy them on the spot. (Why would I bring snow chains? It was 91 degrees Fahrenheit — 33 degrees Celsius — on Thursday, when I left for Reno!) I imagine that every enterprising service station mechanic in the Donner Lake area was out there in a yellow vest selling chains, because they had a bunch of customers with no other options.

I’d never driven a car with chains before, and one thing that didn’t quite sink in as it should have was that the chains are only on the front tires, which means that the traction of the back tires is just as bad as before. I felt the car start to fishtail on a couple occasions and kept it under control. But finally, one time, I couldn’t keep it under control and went into a full-fledged spin. This ended up with me coasting backwards across two lanes of highway and into a snow bank at the side of the road.

At this point I want to say just how lucky I felt. First of all, there could have been cars behind me and I could have been hit broadside. Fortunately, there weren’t. Or I could have backed into a guard rail and damaged the rear of my car. Or I could have backed off the road and right down a hill, of which there are plenty in the Sierras. Instead I got lucky and backed into the biggest pile of snow I saw all day. So there was no injury to my car or to my person, only to my pride.

However, there was a slight problem: I was now stuck in a snowbank, facing at right angles to the traffic. There was a wide shoulder so that I was completely off of the road, but still it was an uncomfortable situation to be in. But that was when I got lucky again. A good Samaritan pulled over and offered to help push me out. I thanked him profusely, and it turned out that one little push was all I needed to get unstuck. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to stop and thank him again, because I didn’t want to stop moving and get stuck again. The best I could do was roll down my window and yell out, “Thanks!” but I really don’t know if he heard me. I sure hope he realizes what a good thing he did. My wife told me, “You’ll pay it forward sometime.”

After that episode, I drove the next 20 miles with white knuckles and an acute sense of paranoia! I did not want to even tempt my rear wheels to start drifting off course again. So I did not make any more lane changes (that was what got me in trouble the first time), although probably for half of that stretch it wasn’t even possible to make a lane change because only one lane had been plowed. I also stayed well under the speed limit of 30 mph.

Finally we got to the end of the chains-only stretch of highway. I pulled over to the side of the road at the designated spot, and then I had to face a problem I knew was coming: I didn’t actually know how to take the chains off. You see, I couldn’t watch the guy installing them at Donner Lake because I had to be in my car to back up and move forward at key points. So I didn’t know how many clasps there were, what order to remove them in, etc. I did my best but I couldn’t find the clasps that were hidden behind the tires, and I was afraid now to drive anywhere for fear that the chains would wrap themselves around my car’s front axle.

That was when my second good Samaritan of the day stepped in! Actually, this one was more like an okay Samaritan, and he didn’t step in, he charged in with a full head of steam. This truck driver came and parked behind me, and when I say “parked” I actually mean he came in so fast that I was sure he was going to hit me, but he managed to stop his truck about a foot short of my car. After he saw that I wasn’t moving, he got out of his truck and asked if I could pull forward a bit because he didn’t have space to take off his chains. I then explained that I wasn’t moving anywhere because of the mess I had made of my chains. (In fact I had called a tow truck and was waiting for it to arrive.) That was when he offered to help, and of course he knew exactly what the clasps felt like and how to undo them even though they were hidden behind the tires. So within one minute, the chains were off and I was ready to go again. I thanked him and called in to cancel the tow truck.

The rest was smooth sailing. I didn’t even get stuck in rush hour traffic in San Jose, so I think the traffic gods felt that they had given me enough trouble for one day. As you can imagine, I was very glad to get back home to Santa Cruz, where it was sunny and 61 degrees!

So that’s my story, and if you’re thinking that I sound like the kind of idiot who shouldn’t be out on the road during a snow storm, well, you’re probably right. At least I own a pair of chains now, and probably I will practice putting them on and taking them off before the next time I go to Reno (next March).

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