Wow, we had a rather nerve-wracking drive home from a great day of skiing the other night. We went over to Winter Park to go skiing the other day, and the snow came in during the mid afternoon. It normally takes us around 1 1/2 hours to make the drive from Winter Park back to Nederland, but it turned into a rather lengthy drive as the snow started falling heavily, and the winds picked up. Driving windy mountain roads at night, in a snowstorm can be incredibly challenging, as well as filled with sweaty hands gripping the steering wheel. After many experiences of driving in the moutains of the Sierra and the Rockies for several years now, I have a healthy respect for winter weather and winter driving, and err on the side of caution. I didn’t really have a lot of winter driving experience growing up in Missouri, because snow storms were not very frequent. I got my first taste of it, driving in New England after college, and really got initiated to it while living in the Sierra, both in Lake Tahoe and Mammoth Lakes, California. Basically, the tips shared by others that I still go by is do everything super slow, accelerating, braking, etc. In the Sierra, once the roads get any kind of snow on them, Cal Trans requires all 2-wheel drive cars to “chain up.” When I moved there, I had no idea what chains were, or how to put them on. The funny thing is, the instructions say something like, lay the chain out in front of the tires, drive over them, and fasten the chain in back. Sounds simple enough? But, what it doesn’t tell you, is what do you do, when you come out to your car in the morning, and there’s alrady a foot of snow on the ground. How do you actually lay the chain down only to get buried in the snow? Also, the reality is that when you actually chain up, it’s super cold, and you have to lie on the ground in the slush and muck to connect the chain in back of the tire with frozen fingers that can’t grip very well. It’s a thankless, disgusting task, which explains why there are so many Subarus and other 4-wheel drive cars in mountain country. It also explains why, in places like the Sierra, where they actually require chains, there is an entire business of independent “Chain Monkeys.” Chain Monkeys are usually guys (with an occasional woman), who are permitted by Cal Trans, who hang out at the chain up areas off highways and roads in yellow slicker type jackets and pants, and will provide the chaining up and chaining off services for motorists for the modest fee of $20-$30, so you don’t have to get all mucky and gross. I knew a guy named Joe who was a Chain Monkey in the Sierra, who sometimes made as much as $1000/day during a busy weekend during snowstorms.
Here in the Rockies, CDOT doesn’t require non-commerical vehicles to chain up, only trucks and buses, so no Chain Monkeys exist. And for myself, even though I had a 2-wheel drive for many winters in the Sierra, I mastered the art of chaining up myself. One time, I drove my little chained-up Ford sedan down to the grocery store in Lake Tahoe, and when I came out, found a family from Texas looking at my car. They had just bought the chains, and had no idea how to put them on, and thought if they looked at my car, they could figure it out. Knowing how hard it can be for newbies, I graciously offered to help them, and ended up putting the chains on their car for them. As I was underneath the car, I could hear them talking with another out-of-towner who also needed help. Then I heard a woman with a thick southern drawl say, “And get this, she’s a girl!” Though I expected nothing, they gave me $10 for my assistance — I guess that was my brief stint in the fine art of Chain Monkeying.
As I reflect on my many drive through the mountains in snowstorms, a certain saying about seeing the Forest for the trees stands out. I have seen both Rocky Mountain and Sierra snowstorms come in with such force, that they can drop snow up to 5 inches per hour. Because the roads become quickly snowpacked and the winds are whipping the snow all around, visibility can drop to just 50 feet or less. That’s when I think about that saying about seeing the forest for the trees. Because when you can no longer see where the road is, the center stripe or anything, the last resort is watching the trees alongside the road, and staying somewhere in the middle. Sometimes breaking things down into the most simplistic way possible is the best way, and I’ve found that when it comes to driving in the driving snow, patience, taking things slow, and being in the moment gets me to where I’m going.