Wednesday, January 14, 2009

My final leg of the trip home

As I climbed the grade driving out of Las Vegas headed toward Mesquite, NV. I kept thinking about why I chose this route to drive home instead of my more familiar way through Flagstaff AZ. Sure I got lulled into thinking that I wouldn’t have to take the chance of getting stranded in a snow storm but at least if I chose to drive that way, I would have been mentally prepared for snow. This way I wasn’t.

After I calculated how far I would have to drive until I got to Mesquite, I started to feel better about my chances of making it safely. The non-damaged taillights would at least make me visible to vehicles coming on me from the rear so I should be OK that way. I decided to stay as close to a big rig directly in front of me allowing him to be my lights and in no time at all I was pulling into the town where I was going to stay for the evening.

The cool thing about Nevada towns, especially ones close to the border of neighboring states, is they survive mainly by offering “games of chance” to its visitors. Legalized gambling in the state of Nevada drives it’s economy and by placing these little “boom towns” along the border of neighboring states that DON’T allow gambling, Nevada assures itself of a steady stream of customers.

The different casinos try various means to attract gamblers to loose their money (I mean try and win a fortune) in their establishments. Free booze, inexpensive meals and of course, cheap motel rooms. I was able to secure a very comfortable room for under $30.00, which if it weren’t affiliated with a casino would have cost at least $90.00 for the night. The casinos underwrite what they loose in lodging by what they gain in they money the house normally makes off its gamblers. In my case, I was exhausted from the day so they didn’t get any additional money off of me. A few cold beers, some dinner and ESPN on TV were all I wanted for the rest of my evening.

After a good nights sleep I awoke to find that the previous days snow storm not only left more snow than this region has most likely seen in a while but was leaving more and more even then. My driving goal for the day was to make it to just outside Salt Lake City where my son and his family live. This is only a 250-mile drive, which in dry normal conditions should only take 4 ½ to 5 hours to drive. Unfortunately, I was sure that the snow floor on I-15 would slow my drive time considerably. I grabbed a cup of coffee at a local drive thru across the street from my hotel and headed out.

Even though the road conditions were less than perfect, I was able to make fairly good time, FOR THE FIRST 10 MINUTES. As I headed towards the summit of the pass I needed to cross, the blizzard grew worse and traffic slowed to a crawl. As I took my place in line, I noticed a highway patrol officer a short distance away starting to direct those rigs without tire chains installed to pull to the right where they could either put them on or if they didn’t have them, to stay parked until the road became safe for them to drive. That caused a major backup. I would guess that maybe 10% of the cars had chains. The big rigs by and large have chains but it takes a fair amount of time to install them. Those of us who drive 4 wheel drive vehicles were able to pass through the road block but the traffic was backed up for over 10 miles so I spent more time at a stand still than driving. When I was able to move, it was only a car length or slightly more at a time. For the next 3 hours I inched my way towards St. George Utah and somewhat better driving conditions.

Once past St. George my speeds crept up towards the speed limit and although I was still driving on a snow floor, traffic dispersed enough to allow those who are used to driving in snow more room to pass slower vehicles. From there up to my son’s house near Salt Lake City it was clear sailing. After spending the night with the family I headed out to my next destination, a good friends house south of Missoula MT. 550 miles away. This stop has become an annual stopover allowing us to catch up on old times as well as bring each other up to speed on current happening. I always cherish this time spent with Mort & Kathy.

The next morning I left for my final days drive before I reached home. The weather was OK in Missoula but as soon as I approached 4th of July pass on I-90 the snow floor worsened and sideways blowing snow started to obscure my vision. On this stretch of highway, especially in the winter, traffic is always light. Even though it is the main east-west artery this far north, I’ve never run into too many vehicles when driving over the pass. This morning was a different story.

The Idaho Highway Patrol was monitoring weather and road condition very closely because of the storm and just as I was to make my climb to the summit I encountered the 3rd road-closing blockade of my return trip. As I came to a stop in one of the chain-up pullout areas, a polite officer explained to me that there was a mandatory road closure and I would have to turn around and wait out the storm. He said they expected the highway to be closed at least 24 hours and that I should try again tomorrow. Totally bummed and dearly wanting to get home I tried pleading my case but I was told no way and seeing that this gentleman was armed, I slowly started to make my way to the exist to turn around.

Just then, I looked in my rear view mirror and noticed a big rig sliding to a stop about a quarter of a mile behind me. The officers all took off to aid this jack knifed rig and I sat there looking in my mirror of the two them running away from where I was parked. For the moment I continued to turn around but my desire to get home out weighed my fear of these fleeing patrolmen so with complete disregard for the law that I hadn’t felt since my teenage years, I took off and drove past the road block.

With adrenalin pumping and the fear of what it would be like to experience sitting in the back of a police car handcuffed vividly in my head, I kept up as fast a speed as I felt safe and continued on. I passed dozens of parked trucks and trailers for the next 10 miles or so. These drivers knew how bad the road was and chose to sit it out. I on the other hand, slowly picked my way through chunks of broken ice that the large trucks created by driving on the 8-10” thick snow floor with their chains. Heavy semi’s + chains + ice = small boulder sized obstacles I had to maneuver around. Right about then I was starting to think that running the roadblock was not one of my brightest ideas but I was too far into it to turn back now so I just kept going. Because there were no other “moving” vehicles on the road, I at least didn’t have to worry about them, just the chunks of ice.

After about eight hours into what would have normally taken me about 3 hours to drive, I pulled into my home town of Sandpoint with just slightly elevated blood pressure and a few more grey hairs for my trouble. With my 2008 show schedule behind me and no more road trips for a few months, it was truly time to relax.

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