Peering out the side window, I could see I was somewhere on the road. Whether I was in the right lane was anybody’s guess. Gripping the steering wheel ever harder, I could feel the tension in my shoulders as the windshield wipers went back and forth. I felt like I was in a vortex, with the sensation that in fact I was standing still while everything around me was moving, even though I knew that was not the case. The snow came down ever harder and faster.
Those nineteen miles between Black Hawk, Colorado and my hometown of Nederland had never seemed longer than the other night as I drove through a pounding snowstorm on my way home from Winter Park. Though there were intermittent flurries throughout the day, nothing earlier in the day had hinted I would run into such treacherous road conditions. But as I climbed up Colorado Highway 119 out of Black Hawk, the snow started to fall. As each minute ticked by, the snow picked up in intensity, coming down so hard, I could barely see the road 10 feet in front of me, and soon the entire roadway was packed with snow. I had no idea where the center stripe was, and was just desperately trying to stay somewhere on the pavement and keep moving forward. Normally the drive time to Nederland is 30-40 minutes tops, but as I slowly inched forward at 20 mph, I knew it was going to much, much longer than that.
Before I moved out west, I had never experienced such snow storms — it’s hard to put into words what it feels like to try and drive through snow coming down 2-3 inches per hour. You have no sense of space and time. Road that you’ve driven hundreds of times seem suddenly unfamiliar, and you have no sense of where you are along your route. I strained to see the orange road signs by the side of the road, a small comfort that yes, I was still on the road. I’d experienced this sense of tension and yes, scariness, while living in Lake Tahoe. One particular time came to mind as I finally made it home the other night.
The first winter I lived in Lake Tahoe was spend in a town called Soda Springs, which is as close to Donner Summit as you can be. A friend and I had decided to drive to Truckee, normally around a 15-minute drive to go out to dinner. During the course of our dinner, snow started to fall, gently at first, flakes swirling around, and then fast and furious, a couple of inches piling up in no time at all. By the time, we started heading back, the snow was coming down hard, conditions had quickly turned to R-2. In the Sierra, Cal Trans uses a three tier system to type the road conditions in winter. R-1 is really no big deal, cars need some sort of mud and snow. But R-2 means things are getting serious, any 2-wheel drive car must chain up, and 4-wheel drive cars must have snow tires. R-3 means all vehicles must chain up, and as my friend Ron says, if it’s R-3, you really shouldn’t be driving period.
As I drove that night up the Old Donner Pass Road, the snow kept getting deeper on the road, and I couldn’t figure quite where I was on the road. Thankfully, my friend kept looking out the side windows, looking at the pine trees lining the road, and being able to direct me where the curves were accordingly. I don’t know how long it took us to get home, but it seemed like an eternity.
Like that drive, the other night seemed unending. Fortunately, I know Highway 119 so well, I could look for landmarks to give me some sense of where I was and also provide encouragement. I was never so thankful as to see Bryon and my favorite breakfast cafe, the Sundance, knowing it was just 1.5 miles south of Nederland. I heaved a sigh of relief, feeling like I could make it to town and eventually home.
Western snow storms are no laughing matter — people have been trapped in their cars, or worse, left their cars upon being stuck and have died. Once in Lake Tahoe, a snow storm blew in dropping snow at a rate of 6 inches per hour. Even the Cal Trans plows couldn’t keep up with that one, with Interstate 80 closing for the night until the storm weakened and they could clear the roads. Our snow squall the other night only lasted a few hours, but I’m still grateful to have survived my epic drive.