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Wednesday, February 2, 2011


winter in the mountains

It's a mudsling driving up the mountain either from Pine Swamp or from Whitehead. Both roads are mud from one end to the other. They've dumped gravel up and down the two roads and kept them graded for as long as I've been here. They are gravel roads with multiple dumptruck loads of gravel on them. Where did the gravel go? The roads are better today than they've been the last several days. Going up the road from Whitehead really is a matter of a mudsling. I hear the mud spraying the wheel wells, the sides of the car, the undercarriage. Half a dozen places at least are so bad and the ruts so deep the bottom of the car drags. The ruts go this way and that because there is no way you can drive straight through the mud. It moves you around like turbulent water rocks a boat as it cuts to right or left regardless of what the steering wheel tells it to do. It's like the wheel on a ship, the rudder a little slow to catch hold to turn in the water. My main concern is keeping out of the ditches. The ruts take the front wheels where they want the wheels to go, against the steering wheel's will.

The road up the mountain from Pine Swamp gets very little sunlight at either end with a stretch in the middle where the ice melts. At the lower end going up the mountain it's ice perhaps a half mile uphill and 4 curves before reaching a place not ice. It's less a mud sling and more a run on ice. One night late, temperature below 20, I was headed up the mountain. Approaching the 4th curve was an increase in the uphill incline. I saw a dozen or so skidmarks on the ice where cars had ceased to go forward, the driver touched the brake and the car slid backwards about 6 feet. That's what happened when my forward momentum slowed to a halt and the car started to slide toward the ditch. I touched the brake and slid a ways, but not into the ditch. There was no decision to make. It was only a matter of back out of there, downhill on smooth ice and curves in the dark.

The backup light worked, but it only reflected off the blocks of snow-ice the road grader pushed to the sides. They were my boundaries, the only thing I could see looking over right shoulder, creeping backwards at maybe .5 mph, foot lightly on brake keeping it slow enough to handle and not letting it go fast enough to lose control when I need to touch the brake. I said a mantra over and over, We're not going in the ditch, breathed consciously against the inclination to hold my breath, reminded myself without letup that backing out of there was what I was doing at the moment, there is no room for error. Like Zen archery, it's a one shot deal. Maybe a third of the way down the hill was a driveway I could back into to get turned around. Went into it smoothly without hitting any posts, and rode the rest of the luge track to the pavement slowly as possible.

Next I had to take Pine Swamp Road over to Whitehead and see if I could make it up the mudsling that still had ice in the shaded places. Where the sun hit, the road was mush, slippery mush with ice under the mud as only the surface melted. It was a boat ride. Every stretch of mud I entered with an aggressive foot on the gas pedal intending not to be forced to a halt in the mud pit. Made it through every one, but wondering if we'd make it all the way. To stop would require backing out of the mud pit, which at least is downhill, and back up a ways further to get a run at it. I hit all of them doing pretty good and forced the way through, slowing down toward the end of the mud pit, but pushing until it came lurching out of the mud at the speed the wheels were spinning when they hit the dryer part of the road.

The road to Pine Swamp has ice melted somewhat since temperature has been above freezing. It has mud on top and ice about an inch under the mud. It's slippery both ways, going down as well as going up. It's developing a few mudsling places on it too, but the mud only goes a few inches to the ice, making it twice as slippery as the mud on the other road, or more. Going down the mountain last night not long after dark, I saw headlights coming up the road, a car. I pulled over toward the ditch as it was easier going downhill than up, to give the car room to do its mudsling and moving involuntarily side to side without having to slow down to avoid my headlights. A little farther along another car came up the mountain and I pulled over out of its way to give it room to slip and slide without having to slow down. It was also foggy, so we were only able to see furry headlights.

I get a kick out of the annual mudsling. Moving down a fairly steep hill that is glass-smooth ice all the way to the bottom with a gradual curve to the left, bank straight up on the right side, straight down on the left side, takes hold of my attention, fixes me to the present moment. Barely touch the brake to keep it from going too fast, but not to break traction. Ride the brake with the very most sensitive touch all the way to the patch of road where the ice was melted and it was at least mud. The weight of the car sometimes wants to go faster than I want to allow. I'll hold it the best I can until the "dry" place will come up soon enough to stop us if the tires lose traction. Then I let it roll as it will. Both roads require that I make absolutely no mistakes. Just one and I have to walk home, a mile and a half in the cold, cold night. I've done this winter after winter until I'm used to it. Used to it to where I like it. The Catfish has been a trustworthy companion to sling mud and go ice skating with. Heading toward the mountain last night in moderately heavy rain and light fog, approaching the gravel part of the road, I said to myself this is a test tonight. Kept it at a steady rpm by ear that worked best on ice and on thin mud. It was the easiest run yet. No problem.


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