For those of you that had a true best friend in childhood why I did what I am about to tell you about is going to be understandable. Some friends in life are worth walking over hot coals for. Or in my case, driving over the Rockies in February for.
In the winter of 1992-93, the last year I lived in St. Charles, MO, I received a phone call from my best friend from gradeschool to graduation, Linda. She and her husband were moving to Boise, ID. I was overjoyed. She was going to be within driving distance.
If you have at least a passing knowledge of geography the above paragraph isn't going to make sense to you. There are, after all, 1600 miles and a mountain range between St. Charles and Boise. It is all a matter of perspective, however. Linda and I grew up in Alaska. I had fled at graduation and she had stayed. So 1600 miles? No problem. Not compared to 3600 miles and the AlCan highway.
Where we grew up also goes a long way towards explaining why I didn't even blink at travel in snowy climes in the middle of February. When you grow up someplace where 40 below zero is a warm day at that time of year, a little snow and some mountains makes you scoff. Of course they can't throw anything at you that you can't handle. Right. Little did I know.
So happy and confident I packed up the car, strapped in the 3 kids and was Boise bound. The first part of the trip was pretty uneventful. Unless you count discovering that there are toll booths literally in the middle of nowhere in fly-over country and you have to buy stuff at strategically located convenience stores to get correct change. Quite the little scam, that. Or count me figuring out that, in spite of the fact I was an old hand at breastfeeding, 6 week old babies eat all the time. And they are always hungry at the point in the road where there is nowhere to pull off. Kids are born with the instinct for being contrary like this.
Things didn't start to go pear shaped until outside of Denver where there is a stretch of road that is the flattest thing outside of Kansas. It runs right through a large swathe of prarie. The weather wasn't great, but it was just a little snow and some high winds. I wasn't worried; I had learned to drive in worse weather than that. What I didn't realize was that the snow, coupled with people driving over it, and the wind coming off the prarie after it had miles to build up a real attitude and nothing to stop it, meant that the road under the snow was slicker than snot on a doorknob.
For all my confidence I was still driving cautiously and well under the speed limit. Not so the jerk in the lane next to me that tried to pass me going 65 mph at least. I'm not sure if he was just an idiot or he thought his 4wd made him invincible. Probably a bit of both, but whatever it was he lost control and began to spin towards me.
Now, when you are driving a little Ford Escort and you see a large SUV spinning in your direction two things happen: 1) Your navel puckers so hard it comes to rest on your backbone. 2) You jerk your wheel to try and get out of its way. I did manage to avoid becoming a statistic but this put me into my own spin.
After trying to correct and realizing that the road was so slick this was pointless I settled for chanting "Ohshitohshitohshit!" for the duration. I spun across two lanes, half off the road, took out several reflector poles and finally came to rest completely off the road, nose end facing the prarie. As these kinds of things go it wasn't a bad wreck. Two of the kids had slept through it and the one that was awake declared it "Fun!" The only real casuality other than my paint job was the driver side mirror which was hanging by some wires.
When the hyperventilating was over I tried to back up back onto the road. This was not going to happen. There was enough of an incline and the snow was slick enough that there was not enough traction to get back up there that way. So there I sat trying to figure out how I was going to get myself out of this one. I sat there until a Highway Patrol cop knocked on the window to make sure that we were all right. I assured him that we were but, and at this point I waved my hand vaguely at the prarie.
"But you are out in the toolies?" he laughed.
I agreed that this was, indeed, the case. He told me he would call us a tow-truck and left to check on other people. I hope the jerk in the SUV at least banged the hell out of something painful. I then waited. And waited. And waited some more. Finally, I grabbed both the floor mats and got out and put those behind the back tires to see if I could get some traction that way. No dice. The back tires were able to grab the mats but they promptly flung them 25 feet out into the prarie.
Walking out to retrieve the mats I realized that the prarie really was as flat as it looked and seemed pretty solid. I jumped up and down on it a few times and decided that just maybe I had been going about this all the wrong way. I got back in the car and drove forward. So far so good. I turned the car and drove alongside the road until the incline was lower and easily drove up it and was back on the highway.
If you are the tow-truck driver that eventually came to find me, I apologize. However, you took forever and I am not a patient woman.
At this point I had to turn around and head back towards town. I needed to get the mirror on the car fixed before I could continue. I found a body shop with a loaner car and that wasn't too far from a hotel. They charged me $350 dollars because it was an electric mirror but they could do it by the next day so I stifled my annoyance and paid out. At the hotel they didn't have any rooms available because flights had been grounded and it was too early in the morning for people to have checked out yet. So I camped out in the lobby to wait until they had a room. The baby chose this moment to start squawking for sustenance.
Now, as I have mentioned, I was an old hand at breastfeeding by then. I pulled out the receiving blanket and discreetly started to feed the kid. Imagine my surprise when some repressed, rude old twitch looks right at me and says loudly to her friend, "Why can't she do that in the bathroom? It is disgusting in public."
It is really not a good idea to screw with me when I've had an eventful day and am in a mood. So maintaining eye contact with her I removed the blanket, detached the kid, and showed her my whole boob. Milk dribbling and all. She gasped, I flipped her off and then pointedly ignored her and resumed feeding my child. That's right, lady, you want to be shocked and appalled? I'll give you something to natter about for years.
When I finally got checked into my room nothing would do but that I dye my hair. Why? Because that is what I do when I am under stress. I screw up my hair. I picked up a bottle of very dark brown at a drugstore and that night dyed my hair. Only it didn't work out as planned. Either something about the dye job I already had or something in the water caused the dye to turn my hair a lovely shade of olive greeen. What can I say? That's just the kind of life I have.
The next day the weather was still blowing snow but I left anyway. I figured after the day before I had used up my allotment of bad happenings. Driving over the Rocky Mountains is something every person should do at least once. It is like the Grand Canyon in that when you are there you really are blown away by the grandeur of nature. My best memory of that whole trip is when I pulled into a rest stop that was next to a gorge and breastfed my son while watching a waterfall wend its way down the mountain face on the other side.
Driving through Vail Pass was just as spectacularly beautiful. It was also where I, to date, came the closest to losing my life. I was driving along past Copper Mountain towards Vail when suddenly I heard a noise that sounded like God had reached down and uprooted the whole mountain range. I don't know why I knew what it was, I had never experienced one before, but I knew that it was an avalanche. I was close enough to it that the displaced air that whipped through the pass hit the back of my car and cause me to fishtail.
If I had stayed at the last rest stop for 15 minutes longer it would have rolled right over the top of me. 4 cars and a semi were not as lucky. They were buried as were both lanes of I-70. There were no fatalities, but there could have been. I still have nightmares about that.
I pulled into the first hotel I found and happily paid the ridiculous room rate. My hands were still shaking as I handed them my credit card. I needed a drink, a bath and a change of underwear. Not necessarily in that order.
The rest of my trip was blessedly boring. I think the Fates got together, discussed it amongst themselves, and decided that I had been punished enough for my hubris. They certainly made their point; driving over the Rockies in February was not the brightest idea I'd ever had. I still think it was better than my trip by Amtrak to California (see Adventures with Arlene pt. 1) since there were actual good moments to be had in it. Also, the thing that I worried about before the trip, that the kids would go nuts during the trip and drive me there hadn't happened. They were troopers.
I'm going to whisper this in case the Fates are listening, but, it was totally worth it. Tap dancing sessions with the grim reaper aside I got to witness beautiful country and at the end I was able to spend time with Linda, the keeper of my secrets from childhood, and still the best person I know. I'd do it all again for that alone.