This is a story of an adventure a little too outlandish to tell over and over again. So, I thought it might best serve to be written down. Like all good journey stories, this one has a map. I’m writing this for my own insight, but I thought I’d share it anyway. So, take a good look at the map, grab yourself a tall cup of coffee, and plunge in.
My old friend Patricia calls to tell me that someone canceled on their ski trip for this weekend. Would I like to go? Certainly! I make arrangements for my puppy. I throw my gloves, fleeces, coats, shell, ski bib, snow pants, hiking boots, gaiters into a bag. I glance at my sleeping bag, a thick, purple, zero degree cocoon bag hanging in my gear closet. I decide to take it. Then I look at my compass and altimeter. Somewhere between glancing at those and trying to stuff the sleeping bag into my duffle (I gave up) a vague sense of unease settled on me. I am just tired, and I need to get in early tomorrow. Going out for a weekend will do me good, and I haven’t seen Patricia in almost a year.
It’s raining. A cold, constant sulking rain. As if, since it can’t storm and do this right it has to just spit on us the entire day. I eat a big lunch that I didn’t really like, since I know it will be a while before dinner. I leave work at 2, saying goodbye to my dog.
Traffic. Tons and tons of traffic. I had hoped to miss this, especially with the rain, but the entire workforce of Silicon Valley has decided to head to higher ground it seems. We splash and slide along 101, we park on 880 and 680. Even when I turn for the hills onto 580, and I think that surely here I will find some open road, but the valley’s traffic is not to be defied.
Three hours have gone by, and we are just now crawling through Tracy. I have driven sixty miles in about three hours. I miss my dog. I’ve never left her in someone else’s care since moving out here, how will she handle it? I call Julie, and my puppy is fine. She’s happy as only a boxer can be, eternally living in the microsecond. Should I turn back? I call my friend Chris, and she urges me to go on. A weekend out will do me good. Strange to hear the echoes of my own thoughts from her. Maybe it’s just the rain and the traffic. I tell Patricia that I’m not going to be in Mammoth Lakes until very late. It’s a six hour drive, and if the traffic were to magically disappear, I’d still have five hours left to go. Hopefully, when I turn off the interstate in Stockton for highway 88 things will be better.
Highway 88 turns out to be a dark, two lane road that winds through small town after small town. Stuck behind a horrendous line of cars, there is no way to pass. I wonder who is in the front of all this. We are averaging about 45mph in a 55mph zone. After the hopes I had for this road, my mood grows even more sour. I call California’s DOT and find out that not only will I need snow chains in Mammoth Lakes (which I knew), I’ll also need them up ahead on 88 when we go through Kit Carson pass. Lovely. There is a Wal-Mart in Jackson, up ahead, and I make for that. To content myself, I start singing Johnny Cash’s Jackson for the last twenty miles. And as I arrive at the light for the Wal-Mart, I see the CHP car that was at the head of the column all this time, with his cruise set firmly on 48mph. Deciding not to throw a rock at him, I turn right.
Buying chains is really a pretty easy process. You just read off the tire numbers and go get the box that the book points you too in the store. Tire size: 265-75-16. I even checked it twice, knowing how dyslexic I can be with numbers. I also grab a box of granola bars to snack on, and rush on up the hill.
It looks like I’m the only car out here on this tiny highway. I keep going up, passing elevation markers: 2000 feet, 3000 feet. There are no lights behind me, and no one is coming down. Every once in a while, there is a little sign stating that “chains required” ahead. I pass a giant shaggy white dog. As I pass, there is something about the matted hair, about the way he stands, lowering his head, and looking at the truck as I motor on past. He’s not domesticated. A wolf? A coyote? Pretty big for a coyote. Not sure if it was big enough for a wolf. There’s still no one on the road. 4000 feet.
The going has gotten snowy. I pull to a convenient look out point, and take the chains out of the box. The first sentence of the instructions is heartening: “practice putting these on before you go into harsh conditions”. Yeah. I pull on my coat, my hat, grab my headlamp. The instructions don’t say which set of wheels to put them on. I remember putting chains on all four wheels of my dad’s truck the last time I did this, years ago. But, there are only two cable sets in this box. The rear wheels would make sense, it’s a rear wheel drive vehicle. I look to my left, and there is someone with an SUV, putting on chains on the front of his car. Maybe that helps with traction when turning, to keep you from spinning. Someone else pulls up behind me in something sizable that should be rear-wheel drive and starts messing with his front wheels too.
Front wheels it is. I wrestle these things around my wheels, tugging and cursing at them. I slide under the truck a couple of times on the ice. My headlamp goes completely out. So much for New Batteries. I knock it against the tire. It comes back on. Great. It’s really hard to get the cables taut across the tire. I have them to their last link, and try to fasten the remaining strip of metal to the fasteners in the cable so that it doesn’t fly about when I’m driving. My hands are completely numb, but I gave up doing this in gloves several minutes ago. One wheel finished, I work on the passenger wheel. This one goes much faster, now that I know what I’m doing. Again the light dies. I use the headlights from the guy behind me. Trying to fasten the catch lever, my hands slip off, I fall into the truck. I roll the truck forward and in spite of the frostbitten pain in my hands I manage to mash the lever closed through sheer force of the curse words I hurled at it.
Shivering, I get back in the truck and put the heater on—full blast. I put my hands over the vents and groan as an agonizing pain returns to them. Blood is all over my right thumb. I don’t have a whole lot more of the two liters of water I brought to drink, so I spit on the thumb, scrub it with the inside of my shirt. The cut is small but deep. There are cuts in various places all over my hands, but at least they aren’t bleeding. I curse the chains one more time, put the truck in first and start on up the snowy highway.
5 minutes later
The cables are thwacking against the truck. I can’t take it anymore, wondering what it will do to my paint job. After a curve, I pull to the right on a slide widening, put on the hazard lights and step outside. The extra end of the driver’s side cable has come loose. I reset it, mashing the fasteners together with my thumbs. I walk around the truck. Squinting in the darkness it looks like—I feel the tire. There is no chain. My headlamp conveniently decides to work again and I check under the carriage. Not there either. I walk back to the curve, unwilling to walk around that on this narrow, ice covered road in the dark. I don’t see it. Don’t even see a glint of steel in the gloom. My feeling of uneasiness comes back. I wish I wasn’t alone, wish I could somehow perhaps turn around, but there is nowhere to turn around, and anyway, I’ve come this far.
I can’t make very good progress with the one chain. My rear wheels slip from time to time, the truck tries to slide laterally, and I am only going slower. A line of people are forming behind me. The one in front keeps riding my ass. I keep pulling toward the right, whenever the road widens slightly but he doesn’t take it. Wind blows snow across the road like tiny gray sandstorms in my headlights. We start up a rise in the road, and this dude is still right on my ass. My rear wheels spin. I ease up on the gas a bit, trying to get it under control and in a sick feeling realize I’m sliding backward. I give it some gas, gentle as I can in my panic and they spin more, and slide downhill, thudding into the snow piled on the edge of the road. Fortunately, it stops me because I can see there is nothing but air past it.
I take a deep breath, and get outside to inspect the damage. The bank is thicker than I thought, so it’s not too dangerous. But, the rear passenger tire is wedged firmly in the snow. The tailgater gets out of his car. I recognize the uniform instantly: he’s the Sheriff.
“Why’re your chains on the front? That doesn’t do any good.”
My heart sinks. I’m shaking in my tennis shoes, wondering if I’m about to get some kind of ticket, and wondering if I can get out of here. I mutter some response and start taking the one chain off the front. I tell him that I lost the other chain and he doesn’t say anything. We dig out more of the bank, put the chain down behind the wheel and I roll the truck backwards into it. We wrap it up.
“Alright. Try to go forward.”
Tires spinning, chain singing out against the asphalt, I cringe. The acrid smell of burned rubber lingers on the cold wind briefly.
“Let off the clutch very slowly.”
I try that and manage to start moving up the hill, and then slide right back into another section of the bank. I’m now at a forty-five degree angle across my lane. A snow plow rumbles past, stops, sets flares, talks to the sheriff, looks at me, and goes on. The sheriff and I try several more times to get the truck out, and he concludes I’m stuck.
“I can’t get anybody on the radio over here. I’ll drive over to the other side and radio a tow truck for you.”
I thank him, and he drives on. The line of cars passes me slowly. Given the curve at the bottom of the hill, and the angle of the truck, I’m leery of sitting inside. If someone comes around that curve, and can’t stop on this ice, they will hit the very center of the driver’s side door. I bundle up more and sit on the side of the truck bed, dangling my feet over the wheel. It’s just me and the wind for a long while. Two cars slow down cautious, but are too afraid to stop and they go on. I’m not sure what they could do anyway. There’s a gigantic rumbling noise and the snow plow returns.
The driver gets out. I tell him what the sheriff’s doing.
“We’ve got to get you out of here. This is really dangerous with that curve down there, and I need to sand this section. You’re the second guy that got stuck here tonight.”
Well, there’s consolation. “But it’s stuck.”
“If I had a chain I could pull you.” He stares at the truck a moment. “Turn your wheels all the way to the right, get your tires going, that will spin the ass end around, then turn your wheels all the way to the left, and you’ll get uphill.”
I look at the bucket of the plow, which is where the truck will end up if this goes awry. I express my doubts, but get in anyway. He stands outside the window. Wheels spinning, tires burning, chain singing, the back end of the truck does spin around. I end up in the oncoming traffic lane, and one wheel briefly catches on the sand. I spin my front tires the way he’s shouting and with gradual lurches and spins I inch up the hill. He yells to go slow, and I do. I’m driving at fifteen and twenty miles an hour, cringing every time I touch the brake or the clutch since the chained passenger tire sends the truck into a left spin. I don’t know how long I drive like that, with the snow plow rumbling behind me. Eventually, he passes me, laying sand down before me. A host of other cars pass me, and once again I’m alone on the mountain. A gray fear overtakes me, the snow becomes its spirit, stealing across the road in snarling spirals.
I reach the 8600 foot summit of Kit Carson pass, and see the newly risen moon. It’s just shy of full, and paints the snowy landscape before me in a deceptive blue. I begin the long ride downhill. This side of the road consists of long, straightways that end in hairpin turns. I downshift into second gear too hard, and the truck slides left, and goes down sideways for a few gut wrenching moments. Remembering the snow plow driving lesson, I right the truck’s slide and manage to make the turn. If I don’t keep this thing steady I am going to die on this mountain.
Still going down. I my left hand grips the wheel in a white knuckled grip. My right hand alternates between choking the the shifter and strangling the steering wheel. I keep having to remind myself to breathe. I’m flinching every time I have to press in the gas, the brake or the clutch. Keep it slow, keep it steady. It becomes a mantra. The chain has come loose and is whacking some part of the truck again. I don’t dare stop. I’m not sure I can get started again. I’ve seen no one else on the road.
I have decided that the whacking chain is a good sign. This way I know that the last chain hasn’t fallen off. Besides, if I lose control of this truck, a paint job is going to be the last of my worries. It’s maddening to go this slowly. I pass a sign saying that this was the route the pony express once took. I imagine them here, traveling about the same speed, ducked into the cold wind, hat pulled low, snow swirling about their mounts hooves. I think I’m going insane. My muscles are shivering either from cold or fear, I’m not exactly sure. Keep it slow, keep it steady.
I come down onto a welcome bit of flat ground. The snow fades away. I’ve done it! I’m down! I stop the truck, take the damnable chain off the tire and throw it into the truck bed. I still have no cell phone signal. Haven’t had one since the beginning of the trek up the mountain. The inside of the wheel well feels rather chewed up but there is not much external damage that I can see. I jump back in the truck and relish the feeling of driving in fourth and fifth gear. I finally breathe deeply again.
I get into Gardnerville, NV and pick up Highway 395. It’s going to take me all the way to Mammoth Lakes. I call Patricia, waking her up. She asks where I’ve been, and I give her the short version. She urges me to call if anything else untoward happens. She’s going to try to sleep, but I am to call when I get down to Mammoth Lakes. No problem it should be no more than an two hours now. I find an all-night convenience store and buy a coffee and some food for “five hundred twenty nine cents” the clerk tells me. He got excited when I paid with a “ten thousand” cent note. I laughed. It felt good. The rest of the trip will be ok.
I cross back into California on 395 and there in stark yellow digital letter is my nemesis: Chains required in Mono County. I check the map. There are two mountain passes before I get to Mammoth Lakes. My heart sinks down into my toes. I take a deep breath, a sip of coffee for courage. I can do this.
Saturday – 12:30AM
I breeze through Coleville and Walker. The road heads up a canyon following a river. We’re going up into the mountains. I glance at the clock. I have been driving nearly eleven hours. I pull to the side of the road. Even if I down the rest of this coffee, I’m not alert enough to do this again. The climber in me finally starts talking and asks me where I would prefer to camp: stuck on the mountain somewhere or back down in Walker. Temperatures are dropping. Everything up there will be ice. Wouldn’t it make more sense to let the plows sand this in the morning before attempting it?
I u-turn back toward Walker. Not a car stirs, not a light is on, except for the “No Vacancy” lights at the handful of motels. I recall seeing a “rest stop”. I follow the signs to it. It seems to be part of the town’s community center. It appears that some local church uses the five space parking lot as storage for their vans. I park next to those. There is a public bathroom that is still open, not that it matters much in this town at this hour. There is no cell signal here. I need to tell Patricia that I stopped for the night, but I wandering around the community center doesn’t turn up a pay phone and only makes me cold. I give up.
I pull out clothes, putting everything I take out of my bag on until I look like the Michelin man. I pull my sleeping bag out of the back, recline my seat, and try to cover myself in the bag. I finally manage to doze off in fits of sleep and dreams that make no sense.
It’s COLD. I’m shivering underneath everything. I can’t feel my toes. I turn the truck on, let it heat up, walk around a bit to get some blood flowing and go back to sit in the truck. In about fifteen minutes I’m warmer and slip back into sleep.
A vehicle pulls up right behind me. Some type of SUV. It has to be a cop, and as if answering my thought, he aims the spotlight at me. I stretch, sit up and open the door. He steps around, he’s young, probably younger than me. Wants to know if I’m ok. I say yes. And then he asks why I’m sleeping here. I tell him the story. He says I’m only seventy miles from Mammoth Lakes. I thank him for waking me up, and turn the truck on. I stuff the sleeping bag back into the back, along with some of the extra clothes. I find an open gas station, with a pay phone. Patricia’s groggy, and more than a bit worried. I tell her it will take me at least another hour and a half, if not more.
I get some new coffee and some gas. A snow plow driver is filling up and talking with the owner of the store. There are three plows up on the mountain, he says. They mourn the dwindling supply of diesel, and hope that the next storm will hold off long enough for a new shipment up here.
I’m on the road up. The sun is just beginning to color the eastern skyline behind the mountains. The road is well plowed, I’m making good progress, but I’m still overly cautious. I’m waiting as long as I can to put on that chain. I hate that chain. I manage through Devil’s Gate pass without any help from the chains, thanks to the plows.
Mono lake opens up before me. It’s so big, so blue, I have a hard time realizing that it is actually water. It looks like a wayward ocean that beached itself up here in some kind of a geologic mishap. The sun breaks over the mountains coloring the sky a powdery blue. The snow glints and sparkles. Evergreens dot the landscape and Aspen skeletons intermingle with them. No picture, no amount of words could capture the mind-dazzling beauty of that view. I crunch onward, slowly heading through the valley, gawking at the lake until it disappears behind me as I climb once more toward Conway summit.
A storm broods over the mountains ahead of me. I curse under my breath and wish that somehow I could get through before that thing decides to dump a ton of snow up here. As I get closer to the pass, I find that it has already begun snowing. I crunch out of the car, put the chain on my passenger rear wheel—why change now? The chain begins slapping the truck again, and then after a mile, it stops. Cursing every chain ever made, I stomp around the truck. The chain is still there—mostly. The extra length is gone, it now ends in an evil bunch of spiny cables. The catch lever is bent back on itself and the entire thing is sagging.
Taking a breath, set to work rebending the catch lever using the wheel as a fulcrum and my weight as the force. I manage to avoid gouging my hands on the bristling wires and reattach the chain. I start again uphill through the snow. Snow whips the car as the truck and I grind our way over.
Mammoth Lakes – 20 miles. It’s the first sign where I’ve seen any mention of it. The road here is somewhat plowed and I take the chain off, convinced that it’s going to ruin my tire if I leave it on there. The last twenty miles will not pass. It seems like I drive another hour, but it’s only about fifteen minutes. I take the exit onto the snow covered highway 203 and head into Mammoth Lakes.
There are signs everywhere that “Chains are Required”. There are two orange jumpsuited men on the road into town that try to flag me down. One holds a sign that he will install the chains for me. I am not about to stop now. If I get stuck, I’ll just hike the last damned mile.
Patricia leads me uphill via instructions on the cell phone. I’m still repeating, “Keep it slow, keep it steady”. By some miracle, none of the tires lost any traction, and I marched right up to the condo. She showed me where to park, and I literally fell out of the truck. Relief washed through me, and without the constant stress, I found I could barely stand. I braced myself with the truck for a moment, then pushed free and hugged her.
The journey of course did not end there. We managed to do some great skiing. We were snowed in on Sunday, and much of the stretch of 395 that I had driven, from Gardnerville to Bishop closed. I don’t know if those plowmen in Walker ever got their diesel. When we left on Monday (sporting new chains for tires that are actually sized 245-75-16, and that were installed by an orange jumpsuited man), I had to head south into the Mojave desert and work around the sierras. Even if the northern route had been open, I’m not entirely sure I would have taken it.
I had hoped that my full truck bed of snow would last until I arrived at work tomorrow morning. We could have a Mozilla snowball fight, or make a Snow-Dino. But, there was only one fist of it remaining when I arrived home. I threw it up into the air, and let its flakes shower down over me.
Oh yeah, and on Saturday night, we ate Chinese food. I read my fortune cookie and fell out of my chair laughing. It said: “Even the toughest of days have bright spots, just do your best.”