Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Tire Chains II - The Spawning


I am happy to announce that this is my 200th post on albertnet!  My first post was in February of 2009, over four years ago.  My 100th post was in March, 2011.  Odd … it doesn’t feel like I’ve been at it that long.


You may wonder what I mean by “The Spawning.”  Well, that’s just an extra phrase I like to add when giving the name of any sequel, because it just says “cheap retread.”  I got this phrase from “Piranha II – The Spawning,” which was James Cameron’s first full-length film, and a bad one—one reviewer called it a “near-total disaster” and “almost impossibly bad.” Oddly enough, “Piranha II” wasn’t actually a sequel to “Piranha.”  Its original title was “Flying Killers” and I guess making it look like a sequel was an attempt to cash in on the earlier (also terrible) movie.

This post isn’t exactly a sequel, either, though it has much in common with an earlier archival post, “Trouble with Tire Chains.”  What follows is another snow-packed tale of road trip woe, this one even more harrowing than the original.  I think the phrases “near-total disaster” and “almost impossibly bad” work pretty well in describing it.  (Of course it could have been worse, like if somebody had been injured, but then I wouldn’t be blogging so lightly about it.)

It started as a vacation

My family decided to spend the kids’ spring break in Colorado, where we have friends and family.  Five years ago we did this same trip and encountered a freak snowstorm on Vail Pass, where our 1984 Volvo had just enough traction to keep moving.  On the way home from that trip, we took I-80 through Wyoming to avoid Vail Pass, only to hit an icy section and slide right off the highway, as had more than a hundred other cars on that stretch that day (click here and search on “April 11, 2008” for details).  We figured the weather should be better this year; I mean, what are the odds we’d get such strange weather a second time?

Ha.  Ha ha ha ha ha.  This time the storm was far, far worse.  The weather in Nevada and Utah had been fine, but the closer to Vail Pass we got, heading east on I-70, the worse the reports were.  Vail Pass was eventually closed due to ice and multiple accidents.  A parking lot was set up to accommodate stranded motorists, but it was full by the time we got there.  We could have stayed the night somewhere to wait out the storm, but the weather forecast for the area was “endless snow for the rest of our miserable, frigid lives with absolutely no sign of respite.”  (I’m paraphrasing.)  I didn’t fancy living out the rest of my days in a little town like Eagle or Edwards (slogan:  “Home of the Kobe Bryant sex scandal!”).

So:  onward.  Electronic signs advised us to use “alternate routes,” of which there was only one:  taking Highway 24 south to Leadville, and coming back northeast on Highway 91, about a 45-mile detour.  We guessed that this is what the signs were suggesting (the lack of specificity perhaps being for liability reasons).  The gal at the Colorado Visitors Center in Eagle checked the conditions on these highways and said they should be okay.

Detour around Vail Pass

Much signage warned that commercial vehicles—i.e., semis—were not allowed on Highway 24, but that didn’t stop one trucker from trying, and jackknifing his vehicle in the process.  An indescribably masculine tow truck was hooking up to it when we came by.  I immediately thought of a Radiohead song:  “In the next world war/ In a jackknifed juggernaut/ … An airbag saved my life.”

Traction wasn’t bad on these twisty little highways.  Our car, a 2006 Volvo V70 wagon with front-wheel drive, has good tires on the front and new ones on the back, along with computerized Stability Traction Control (STC) and a winter-driving mode that rides the clutch while you start up from a stop.  So I figured we’d be okay, even though it was snowing increasingly hard and it was becoming difficult to keep ice off the windshield.

From bad to worse

When we got back on I-70 eastbound there wasn’t much traffic—only those cars that had taken the detour like us—but a number of drivers were going way, way too fast.  I’m not some craven poltroon when it comes to snow driving—I learned the craft as a teenager in Boulder, without the inhibition of a fully formed prefrontal cortex—but I have respect for icy conditions and the high stakes of highway driving.  (After being a passenger in a high-speed rollover back in 1984, I learned to appreciate that these kicky, fun vehicles—the heartbeat of America—can also be accurately described as killing machines.)  I crept along at about 30 mph while guys in 4WD pickup trucks sailed by at 50 or 60, with complete faith that 4WD means nothing bad can happen.  This blithe belief in pure fiction reminded me of something … but what?  Finally it hit me:  in their carefree ignorance these motorists are just like the teenage girls who believe they can’t get pregnant the first time they have sex.  Sure enough, we did see a few vehicles off the side (all of them 4WD, I hasten to add).

Everything was fine (other than increasingly poor visibility) until we hit a long uphill and the strangest thing happened.  The car just started to slow down, regardless of what I did with the gas pedal.  Moreover, the Stability Traction Control (STC) light on the dashboard, which lights up when this feature kicks in, went from an occasional flicker to being on practically all the time.  According to an online Volvo forum, when STC detects slippage it “retards the timing to keep the revs at an acceptable level to prevent slip.”  The problem was, there was so little traction, the transmission was putting power to the wheels less and less of the time.  After making sure nobody was behind me, I tried the left lane to see if it was less slick.  It wasn’t.  Eventually, to my utter horror, the car simply came to a stop!

I had thought that making it through this ordeal would depend mainly on my skill as a driver.  So long as I kept the speed down, used engine compression (not the brakes) to decelerate, and kept a cool head, I figured, everything would be fine.  But it turns out the enterprise was doomed from the outset.  A car this heavy, with these tires, on a road surface this slippery, could not possibly make it over a grade this steep, no matter who was driving.  It was all a matter of physics, with no room for negotiation.

Completely screwed!

In accordance with a corollary of Murphy’s Law, my car had come to a stop not far after a blind curve.  I immediately checked behind us—still nobody coming—and attempted to back up and steer right, to get the car onto the shoulder.  Actually, there wasn’t much of a shoulder, which is one of the reasons I hadn’t attempted to install my tire chains:  the chances of being run over by an overconfident driver had, up until now, seemed higher than the likelihood of chains being necessary.

Have you ever watched a propeller plane stunt pilot do a hammerhead stall?  The plane flies straight up until it stalls (or seems to stall), and then the nose comes around (whether due to pilot input or some by-product of the physics of the aircraft) and the pilot flies straight down until he gets enough speed to regain control.  Well, for some reason, as I rolled backward, my car attempted a hammerhead stall of its own.  There was absolutely nothing I could do to keep the front end from swinging around.  This is how I found myself pointing the wrong direction on I-70!  It was all I could do to steer into the snow bank beside the left lane.  I ended up stuck there, facing the oncoming traffic!

Keeping an eye on the road and honking my horn whenever a car approached, I dialed 911 from my cell phone.  When the dispatcher gathered that my car wasn’t damaged and there weren’t injuries, she transferred me to a DOT call center.  The person there said she’d try to get a tow truck out to me.  This of course seemed highly unlikely:  the only way to get to where I was, to my knowledge, was via that 45-mile detour near Leadville.  The cars I’d seen off the road looked to have been long abandoned.  My options seemed limited to sitting in my car and waiting for help, or installing my chains in the middle of the interstate just past a blind curve.  (My wife thought of a third plan—she offered to try pushing the car out—but I refused:  too dangerous, plus it wouldn’t address the greater problem, which was our ongoing lack of traction.  I could see my hammerhead stall scenario simply repeating.)

Tire chains and the law

Before too long a DOT truck pulled up.  The DOT guy parked in my lane about fifty feet back with his big yellow warning lights on, and came over to assess my situation.  He said a snowplow was on its way, that was spitting sand out the back.  Sure enough, it showed up, and stopped just ahead of my car (i.e., uphill from us).  The DOT guy pulled out a shovel and started taking loads of sand from the back of the snowplow truck and shoveling it under my tires.  He was oddly cheerful, like this was all just a grand adventure.  As I walked to the back of the car to get my tire chains, I realized the entire surface was nothing but ice.  Really:  no bare asphalt, no sand, no mere packed snow.  My feet were slipping all over the place.  The road was all ice, the whole damn thing.  With the right power tools we could have made enough Slurpees for everyone in Colorado.

A cop showed up.  He eyed my tires and said, “Those don’t look like very good snow tires.  You should think about getting something better.  Continental makes some nice ones.”  I replied, “Well, I’m from California.”  (Driving in snow as seldom as I do, I’m not about to buy snow tires.  Frankly, if I’d had any inkling the roads would be this bad, I’d have simply canceled the trip.)

I do wish, now, that I had some photos of all this.  A picture in this case would be worth about five hundred regular words and five hundred profanities, many of them from you.  But of course getting out the camera would have been ridiculous.  In the midst of a crisis, snapping photos is in very poor taste … just ask Lynndie England.

The cop asked what the plan was.  The DOT guy said, “I’m going to finish sanding behind his tires and then push him out, and then he can follow the snowplow the rest of the way.”  The cop told him, “Don’t try to push him out.  It’s too dangerous.  He could crush you with his car.”  I told the cop, “I was thinking of putting on my tire chains, now that the traffic is blocked behind me.”  I had the chains out now and was untangling them in preparation.

If you read my other tire chain post, you know how much I despise chains, but most of that is ideological:  whenever I’ve had to use them, it was because the DOT pointlessly mandated it, when the conditions were actually fine.  Sure, chains are a drag to install, especially when it’s only 20 degrees out and your hat and gloves are buried in your luggage, but when your car has become a two-ton paperweight stranded on the highway, you suck it up.  Or at least I do.

But the cop replied, “Don’t put on your chains.  They’re not going to help, not here.  Actually, I don’t think chains really belong on cars.  They work for semis and that’s about it.”  Surprised as I was to hear this, I wasn’t going to argue.  For one thing, I try never to argue with cops, and for another, his confidence in me, a California driver with three-season Yokohama tires, was infectious, especially when I had a sand-spewing snowplow to lead me.

The only problem was, the cop continued to argue with the DOT guy about the pushing-me-out strategy.  It got pretty heated.  Eventually the DOT guy said, “Hey, man, I’m just here to get a paycheck!”  Incongruous as this was, the cop either acquiesced, decided at this moment debate was pointless, or got sick of my ordeal—who knows which—and got back into his car.  Following this the DOT guy successfully pushed me out, the snowplow got rolling again, and as the DOT guy yelled “GO!  GO!  GO!” my car magically gripped the sand-enhanced road and we set off.  I don’t think we broke 10 mph, but I wasn’t complaining.  This went on until the Eisenhower Tunnel, at which point the snowplow pulled off and I was on my own.

Once more into the breach

While we were stopped, my wife had scraped clean the windshield, so visibility was a lot better for awhile, but I know we weren’t out of the woods yet.  It was snowing harder than ever and the road was still slicker than snot.  Still, I figured the closer we got to civilization and the car-worn roads, the better off we’d be, and I was actually starting to feel more optimistic when we made it past Georgetown (elevation 8,530, a couple thousand feet lower than Vail Pass).  Looking back, it seems impossible that this is a distance of only thirteen miles.  Covering it seemed to take forever.

And then, on an uphill that came out of nowhere, I felt that dreaded sensation of the car losing more and more speed.

When it became obvious we were grinding to a halt, I acted on a desperate hunch that the STC might be too conservative, cutting too much power to the wheels.  So I turned it off.  Whether due to the lack of STC or my having taking a hand off the wheel, or both, I immediately lost control of the car and we veered sharply to the right.  By this point we were out of momentum and traction anyway, and the car came to a halt.  Again, this was just past a blind curve.  What’s worse, traffic had picked up, and it was dusk (a terrible time for visibility). 

Prior to this trip, I wasn’t sure whether or not my two daughters knew any swear words; now I’m certain they do.  As my wife scrambled to find the DOT phone number I’d jotted down earlier, an old beater car passed us and pulled over.  I abandoned the phone call (what would I have said anyway?) and got out to talk to the car’s driver, a twenty- or thirty-something guy with the hip, sporty look of a rock climber and/or espresso aficionado.  He cautioned me that he’d seen a driver stuck in this spot before and it had caused chaos, with cars and big rigs having to change lanes very suddenly in the midst of the curve.  “I can park behind you, before the curve, with my hazards on,” he told me.  “Do you have chains?  If you’ll take care of me, I’ll put them on—I know how.” 

I could have installed the chains myself, with him merely stopping traffic behind me, but we were quickly running out of daylight so it made sense to tag-team it.  I must say I was happy to let somebody else lie down in the road to get the inboard side of the chains hooked up.  He had a snowsuit, at least.

Tire chains vindicated

The process didn’t go too badly, considering.  Sure, my hands got so numb I couldn’t even tell I was cutting them up on frayed steel cable strands, and it was hard to tell what we were doing in the dim light, and our feet were slipping on the ice road, but we got ‘er done.  We also troubleshot the windshield wipers, which had become less and less effective since the tunnel.  It turns out that so much ice had built up within the mechanism at the base of the wiper arms, the blades weren’t even contacting the windshield.  I dug the ice out of the passenger-side wiper while the Samaritan guy worked on the driver side.  Suddenly the wiper blade snapped off in his hand.  I held out some hope that it was just the one-size-fits-all adapter that had come unsnapped, vs. an actual breakage, and to my great relief this turned out to be the case.

I gave the guy all the cash I had, which was $60, and he looked totally stoked.  “That’s too much!” he protested.  I insisted he take it.  He offered to drive behind us until the top of the hill just in case anything went wrong.

Unbelievably, my car did manage to creep forward up the hill.  I couldn’t get much speed up—the STC light was still flashing continually—but the chains were doing the trick.  Alas, there was a very ominous thwack-thwack-thwack sound from one of the chains, so I had to stop again.  The Samaritan stopped again and came to help.  The loose end of the cable had come unclipped but the chain was still intact.  While he and I fixed this, a DOT truck saw us and pulled over.  It turned out to be the same guy who’d helped me earlier.  “You again?!” he said.  I told him I was basically okay this time and thanked him for stopping.  As he made his way back to his truck he said, “See you around!”  I replied, “Hey, no offense, but I really hope I never see you again!”

(By the way, as regards that heading above about tire chains being vindicated:  that applies only to ice-rink conditions such as you’ll sometimes find in Colorado.  I still stand behind my previous excoriations of pointless tire chain mandates for the occasionally cold, wet roads you’ll find in California.)

Final leg

With the chains on and the wipers working, our progress was more predictable (though still really slow).  It got dark.  The snow was blowing so hard, and my eyes were so tired, I was stunned again and again by a deeply disturbing optical illusion.  Have you ever been in a car wash, with your engine stopped and your parking brake on, and you suddenly thought the car was rolling forward because the big mop-like brushes came at you and shifted your frame of reference?  Something similar was going on here.  My windshield was once again icing up (despite my running the defroster full time), so I was watching the taillights of the car a couple hundred feet ahead of me, matching its speed exactly because the driver seemed to know what he or she was doing.  The combination of my low speed, my lockstep progress behind this other car, and the absence of any other visual cues indicating forward motion, along with the millions of snowflakes blowing by (like the stars when the Millenium Falcon reaches light-speed), gave the perception that my car was standing still.  This of course was frightening given that coming to an unplanned stop was my greatest concern.

Throughout this drive, my kids were chattering away merrily in the back seat, evidently completely oblivious of the danger we were in.  I guess I should be glad they have such complete faith in their parents, as opposed to thinking we’re totally lame (though I know this will come soon enough).  At times, though, it was oppressive trying to concentrate amidst all their giggling and (occasionally) their fighting.  And while I was wondering if we’d even make it at all, my younger daughter kept asking, “How long until we’re there?”  I’m proud to say I resisted the temptation to yell, “SHUT UP OR WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!!”

Just as we reached Boulder, heading north on Highway 93, we saw a car that had gone off the road, pointing north but in the ditch on the left.  Either he’d been heading north and somehow slid across four lanes, or he’d been heading southbound and did a 180.  My wife phoned to report it as we continued on our way.  We were halfway across Boulder when the Samaritan passed us again, tooting his horn.  Finally we arrived at our friends’ house.  The 400-mile drive had taken over twelve hours. 


It snowed in Boulder again the next day, and the day after that.  It snowed again this past Monday, and yet again yesterday, but I don’t care anymore because we did manage to make it home last Friday without further incident.  I spent half of Sunday overhauling my poor bike, whose headset and bottom bracket bearings were completely black when I repacked them.

Needless to say, the whole time we were gone it was gloriously sunny and warm out here in California.  I think I’m done with spring break in Boulder.  Next year I think we’ll just stay home and hang out.  I can rent some movies for the kids … maybe “Alive” or “Death Race 2000.”  Hell, I might even check out “Piranha II – The Spawning.”

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