Saturday, November 27, 2004

Thanksgiving Adventures

During shift draw back in August I wound up scheduled to work Thanksgiving. In exchange, I’ll get all of Spring Break completely off. Since Thanksgiving is my second favorite holiday right behind Halloween and right above St. Patrick’s Day (okay, so those aren’t really holidays, but you get the idea), I was slightly bummed about being stuck in Laramie for it.

Then I found out I wasn’t necessarily stuck in Laramie. It turned out that we had enough RA’s who were going to stay in Laramie anyway, and that I had the opportunity to leave for Thanksgiving Day if I wanted.

Well, I wanted. Not only that, but I had an invitation to Willie’s and Jenn’s place in Steamboat Springs, which is why Thursday morning at just after eight AM I was flooring my little truck down WY 230, heading southwest. The Snowy Range was in the lower right-hand corner of my windshield and their surrogate parents, the Colorado Rockies, were in the lower left-hand corner. I popped in one of my favorite Beatles CD’s, Let It Be, and a few minutes later, practically on cue, the sun lit up the mountains in an orange glow as Paul sang “The Long and Winding Road.”

This was a good sign.

A note here about “Let It Be.” The song “I’ve Got a Feeling” still, to this day, makes me wish I had a band. In fact, if I ever do have a band we’ll be doing that song. And Willie, if you’re reading this, I’m calling dibs on John’s part right here and now.

The rest of the trip was mostly what you’d expect when driving in the West. WYO 230 wound into the southern end of the Snowies – which were, well, snowy – and turns into Colorado 237 (I think) at the border in the mountains. From there you emerge on a high plains in northern Colorado with high mountains rising in the distance on all sides. Passing through the little town of Walden, you catch CO 14 West, a stretch that leads higher and higher until it dead-ends at CO 40.

CO 40 is one of the main arteries in the Colorado Rockies, connecting Steamboat Springs with civilization. I’m not sure what its mean elevation is, but I’m guessing it’s somewhere around 10 or even 12,000 feet. It was foggy and icy in spots; a sporty drive at times but nothing I couldn’t handle. Heading west, CO 40 pierces the mountains at Rabbit Ears Pass, and the resulting five mile freefall into Steamboat Springs is one of the most beautiful stretches of road I’ve ever seen.

Steamboat Springs is really a cute little ski town; the arbiter by which other cute little ski towns are measured. Dave and Jenn bought a condo there, and from their front porch you can see gondolas zipping through a skyline composed of other condos.

Please note that there were about four or five inches of snow on the ground, and all the sidewalks and roads were clear. This will be an important detail later.

Their place smelled like Thanksgiving. Jenn’s mom lives there too, and clearly they’d been cooking for a good while – and it was a little after 10 in the morning. (I’ll spare you the math: it took shortly over 2 hours to get there. This, too, will be an important detail later).

Dave and I drove around Steamboat Springs, checking out his new digs at the college library, the actual springs for which the town is named (they’re the size of your kitchen table, they smell horrible, and they’re too hot to bathe in), the high school (because teaching in Steamboat Springs would be really fun except for the housing prices and the bratty kids), and finally the liquor store where we loaded up on microbrews and wine.

Back at the condo, food and other guests started appearing.

Round 1: Crackers, cheese, and an amazing chipped beef ball (pronounced “CHIBEEBA!”), beer.

Round 2: Chex mix. Sweet fancy Moses, someone (Jenn’s sister) made Chex mix. More beer. My boys the Detroit Lions get their asses handed to them by Peyton Manning and the Colts.

Round 3: A return trip to the crackers and CHIBEEBA.

Round 4: The turkey appeareth. Stuffing. Mashed potatoes. Ham. Vegies. Wine.

Round 5: Pie. Ice cream. Australian port.

The turkey came out around 2 or so, and the rest of the afternoon is a haze. I think I fell asleep for a bit and then stayed conscious for all of “A Christmas Story,” then drifted in and out during “Will and Grace.” By that point most of us were TV’ed out, and Dave, his friend Mike, and I all took out our guitars and started playing. From there it was a long evening of Australian port, REM covers, and a few originals.

I crashed on their Murphy bed and their dog Sadie joined me. They’d warned me that Sadie snores, but I didn’t hear a thing – probably because my snoring drowned her out. In the morning I took Sadie out before anyone else was up and managed to lock myself out.

This is a good time to mention the snow. It hadn’t snowed during Thanksgiving Day much at all, but throughout the evening the snow started falling and steadily increased. By Friday morning damn near six inches had fallen and wasn’t letting up; the sidewalks were completely covered and it packed in between my ankles and shoes when Sadie and I walked around. I was mildly concerned about the drive.

So there I was, locked out in a heavy snowfall. After a bit of pounding Jenn’s mom let me in, at which point the morning started rolling. Coffee and ham sandwiches for breakfast. I called a coworker back in Laramie to let her know where I was and that I was heading back. Because, you know, if I didn’t show up for work this morning they should probably alert the highway patrol.

Simply brushing the stuff off my truck took more effort than should have been required; it was six inches deep and sticky. Jenn and Dave came out to help, and after a few tries I made it out of the parking lot. It was going to be a long drive.

The first few miles – the flat stretch leading out of town before the sudden climb back up to Rabbit Ears pass – were clear. The instant the road went vertical, though, it got icy. About a mile into the drive traffic was stopped because someone went over the side at the steepest part. Emergency crews stood at the top, pointing. One of them shrugged.

I drive a 2wd Toyota Tacoma. This translates into: lightweight, rear-wheel drive, and automatic transmission. This translates into: horrible, horrible vehicle for winter driving.

CO 40 heading east up to Rabbit Ears Pass is two lanes. The left lane had been sanded the day before but was still slick; the right lane was a veritable luge track. I crawled up to the pass in the left lane, pulling over only when someone wanted to pass – which was infrequent. The truck fishtailed a few times, but mostly this stretch was just icy and slow.

At the top, though, it was more or less a blizzard. The only time it wasn’t icy was when the snow had drifted over from the ditch. I fell in behind a slow-moving Lexus SUV and stayed relatively close; when I slipped out of their tracks my wheels spun and the RPM’s skyrocketed, even in low gear. To top things off, my windshield wipers weren’t working and left a big icy spot on the driver’s side, so I was leaning to the right and peering through a small spot where the heater kept the glass clear.

It should be noted that there were many, many vehicles in the ditch, many of them 4wd models. Now, I’ve long believed that I’m a better driver than most people. And actually, a small part of me thrilled at the idea of challenging driving conditions – winter driving provides a rare opportunity for truly skilled driving with automatic transmissions. On hills and icy spots I was all over the shifter column, dropping it into 2 or, when things got really sporty, L.

But the fact of the matter is I shouldn’t have been out there. 95% of successfully navigating winter road conditions is having enough goddam sense to not try it.

As CO 40 descended a little, the weather cleared. The road was still awful, and for a while I considered just heading into Denver instead of risking CO14. At the intersection, though, I saw a bunch of pickups and trailers taking the turn, so I assumed safety in numbers and followed. For 20 miles it too was icy but not snowy; 10 miles from Walden it cleared completely.

Gas, hot chocolate, and a bathroom break at Walden, 60 miles and one more mountain pass from Laramie. The ten miles into the Snowy Range was clear, but the second the road curved into the mountains it got icy again. Where ice and snow conspired to wipe me out in the Rockies, here ice and wind did their best. On one stretch the truck fishtailed to over 45 degrees past center. Vague survivalist machismo became concrete survivalist plans in case I went into the ditch.

Somewhere past the Wyoming border, up in the Snowy Range, WYO 230 crested and started to descend. Occasional clear spots became more frequent. Near the last few turns it cleared completely, the speed limit was posted at 65, and the sun shone clear and bright.

The last 20 miles into Laramie was a high speed burn. In the rearview mirror I saw chunks of snow blow off my roof and disintegrate on the road. I probably looked like a giant snowball, or a meteor with a white vapor trail.

A trip that took just over two hours Thursday morning took just under four hours Friday morning. Back in my room I called my mom, who along with my stepdad were on their way back from an East Coast trip, and then called M, who’d made it home on 287 (the notoriously hellish road between Laramie and Fort Collins) without much trouble at all.

After a nap I met M at her friends’ house for dinner. S and K are grad students from England; not only are they amazing cooks but absolutely hilarious. That, and they have one of the coolest houses I’ve seen in Laramie. Also, the wine went down really, really, REALLY well for some reason.

Wow. If you’ve made it this far, thanks. I wrote this this morning but Blogger wouldn't let me post until tonight. I got a bit more of the Beowulf paper done this afternoon, and I think the paper has turned a corner . . . the words are starting to come a bit easier. I should have the first draft completed by tomorrow night, thank Christ.


Blogger Chad said...

Man, glad to hear you made it back ok. I had an interesting driving experience between Steamboat and Laramie once, but not quite as harrowing as yours.

10:58 AM  

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