Peter Shelton

Winter Storm Gandolf

Posted in Road Trips West, Watch columns, Weather & Climate by pshelton on January 18, 2013

I came into the breakfast room at the Best Western motel in Burley, Idaho, to find seven FedEx drivers eating biscuits and gravy and fiddling with their hand-held devices.

We were all stranded. The freeway south to Utah, I-84, had closed the evening before: blizzard conditions. I’d stood in line with a couple of them waiting to see if there were any vacant rooms.

The one I chatted up said, with the kind of blasé weariness you might expect of a cross-country trucker, “Yeah, the wind’s drifting snow through there. The plows can’t keep up.”

I was not blasé. I wanted to get home. I’d left Oregon early that morning, expecting to encounter the remnants of a storm that had passed through Bend without leaving much of a mark. The weather forecasters hadn’t expected it to turn into such a beast, but it had, with continuing snow, 30 mph sustained winds, gusts up to 60 mph in the Snake River Valley, and temperatures plummeting to well below zero.

My drive through Boise, the only big town between Bend and Salt Lake City, had been almost comical. It was mid-afternoon, and the glass-slick freeway looked like a disco floor, so thick were the flashing red and blue emergency lights.

Black-and-yellow cop cars led herds of drivers through the carnage, slowing them down enough, in theory, to prevent more. There were jack-knifed semis off the edge. One late-model, white pickup on its roof. Lots of sedans and SUVs crumpled into the center divider, most of them facing the wrong way.

The problem seemed to be the underpasses. Whatever salt mixture the state crews had put down was doing a pretty good job of generating traction. But in the brief darkness of the overpasses snow and ice remained, or had reformed, or something. You’d go into the shade and your tires would jerk slightly to the side as if seeking an off-center groove. Except there was no discernable groove; it was just slick as soap. Decent purchase waited on the other side, but apparently lots of people overcorrected coming out from under, sending their vehicles skittering down the rink. A banner day for the tow trucks, and the local television news teams, several of which were standing around the medians getting live footage, Pamplona matadors in a sea of out-of-control bulls.

I had hoped to make it to Ogden, Utah, before checking in for some sleep. But as light faded on the wind-pounded potato fields and my little Honda battled ever more drifts across the freeway, I thought about the coming 120 miles of dark and empty. There is really nothing between Burley and Snowville, Utah (population 167), and another big bunch of nothing from there to Brigham City. Nothing except bare hills and high-wind warnings, and I was getting tired of holding it all together – so maybe I should just stop in Burley. Then I saw the electric sign over the freeway saying I-84 was closed.

It was almost a relief, the decision made for me. But the next morning, waiting with the FedEx guys, things seemed worse. New snow was glued to the west side of everything: trees, traffic lights, motel room doors. The wind moaned. We hung out and watched the flat screen where more intrepid Boise and Twin Falls reporters braved the morning mess to bring us pictures of red and blue flashing lights.

Eventually the freeway reopened, and Phern and I (all our cars have names) crawled into line with the FedEx trucks and a long whale-pod of others. There was still a lot of snow on the road, boiling up in the turbulence. It was surreal, like navigating sand surrounded by hundreds of full-sized elephants. Luckily nobody wanted to go more than about 40 mph, and they all seemed cognizant of little Phern in their midst. They could have crushed us like an ant.

The rest of the drive was not much better. Through Ogden and Salt Lake, local traffic swirled like desperate, migrating salmon, spraying waves of liquid salt at 65 mph. Somewhere in there Phern ran out of windshield washer fluid.

In Spanish Fork, where I stopped to buy more, the guy told me they’d had 17 inches on the ground overnight. A lone pickup with an overmatched plow was trying to clear a single lane to the gas pumps.

Soldier Summit was snowpacked wall-to-wall but relatively serene traffic-wise. I had dry roads from Price to Green River, a black zipper in bolts of white, but then ice again crossing the Colorado line, the road shaded by the red-rock high country to the south.

Phern and I staggered home a couple of hours after dark, 36 hours after leaving Bend. The Honda looked like a filthy salt lick with eyes. I lay down on the rug, on my back, and closed mine. The room hummed and swayed around me. I left them closed for a long, sweet time.

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