Peter Shelton

Temporary blindness

Posted in Road Trips West, Watch columns by pshelton on December 10, 2009

Blizzard Warning! We had one this week accompanying a storm that did, in fact, close the passes and turned the mountains into a giant Cool Whip dessert.

The prospect of driving through a swirling white-out kept Ellen from motoring up to Telluride for a meeting. I don’t blame her. She was thinking about the time last winter when we went up together, the wind and snow kicked in during the afternoon, and it took us three and a half hours to crawl home to Colona, a trip of just over one hour in clear weather.

It’s not the porcelain road surface so much. We have good snow tires, and we know what our cars can and cannot do. (The other drivers out there? The ones braking in the curves or passing to gain a single place in line? That’s another story.) No, the real drama starts when you can’t tell where in hell the road is.

The plow drivers do their best. But on days like these, when its snowing and blowing everywhere, up high and down in the valleys, too, there just aren’t enough of them. Their priority is not where you are at the moment. The asphalt grows a slick, teflon coat. And on top of that it may be drifting and sifting like a cirrus cloud come to earth. The yellow line vanishes. And then, if it’s snowing hard enough, the edges of the road disappear too, become indistinguishable from the great wilderness beyond. The whole world is white: sky, air, ground, up and down, left and right.

You may or may not have tracks to follow. Ellen and I were driving home from dinner with friends in Durango a couple of winters ago. It was snowing as we pulled out of their driveway, but not sticking. Stay, they urged. But we had something we needed to get home for, we’d be fine, thanks anyway, off we go.

By Purgatory, the snow was sticking. And half way up Coal Bank Pass it had become a virginal, five-inch carpet. Not a plow in sight. A set of old tire tracks, mostly filled in, was still faintly visible in the low-beam headlights. (High beams were out of the question as they turned the whirling snowflakes into a Star Trek, warp-speed cosmos of deadly asteroids.)

At night, on a road that feels as if it’s been abandoned, or closed, or should be closed, you follow those tracks with a mixture of gratefulness and dread. Grateful because without them there would be nothing to indicate the road’s dimensions, its continuous, reassuring solidity. But what if the guy who came before couldn’t see any better than you can? What if this crazy SOB drove himself right off the edge? Might your blind dependence lead you right over after him?

It’s akin to following a ski track traverse at a ski area that’s new to you. You hope the person who made it knows what she is doing, that she is leading you to something out-of-the-way and delicious. Or. . . you never know.

The official explanation for the death of that old guy from Montrose who drove off in his pajamas without telling anybody and then drove off a cliff on Red Mountain Pass was that he “failed to negotiate a turn” on that windy, precipitous path. Certainly his old truck failed to negotiate a turn, but maybe he couldn’t see it either. Was it snowy that night? Maybe he was hypnotized by headlight asteroids?

The worst, of course, day or night, is when a ground blizzard envelopes you and you cannot see anything. You have to stop, but where? Don’t drift left, for heaven’s sake! Off to the side would be best, obviously, but where is that? Where is the edge? You’re floating in a shook-up snow globe, and the gods couldn’t care less.

Poor Bode Miller was stricken with sudden goggle-freeze blindness on the first run of the giant slalom at Beaver Creek last weekend. The media reported only that he “skied out.” Bode is never into excuses, and his goggle sponsor certainly wasn’t about to advertise the fact. So, only a few people knew that at 40 mph his goggles iced over, and he couldn’t see the next gate.

Like when you were headed to Denver on I-70 rolling east out of the tunnel at 60 mph, and a semi careens past on the left spewing slush from all 18 wheels that plaster your VW’s windshield with an instant ice cataract that no amount of wiper-blading can touch. . .

Not good. It’s a wonder we go out at all.

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