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Monday, December 31, 2012

DRIVING ON ICE IN THE MOUNTAINS

     mark tobey, 1957


Yesterday, next to the last day of the year, I started on the road to visit friends and watch football, the Redskins and Cowboys. It's a 23 mile trip by highway and 15 by the Parkway. I decided to take the Parkway, not thinking about ice or any possible reason not to go that way. Starting up Air Bellows Gap Road, I saw the last half mile uphill toward the Parkway was sheer ice, the slickest kind. Front wheel drive and new front tires, I was feeling like I could make it. The best word I know to describe driving up that long hill of ice, a drop-off nearly straight down on the left side of the road and a ditch on the right, was "techous." That's mountain for touchy, like "tejus" is mountain for tedious. It was both techous and tejus. I made it to the Parkway. The gate to the Parkway had been closed, but the lock was missing, so the gate was hanging half way open. I stepped out, opened the gate, looked at the ice on the Parkway and thought: I can make It.

As soon as I started driving on the Parkway's ice, as glass-like slick as ice gets, the kind of ice you have very limited control on, I read the ice and saw I was in for it. Also saw I was not going to go back down that road to the Parkway. On front wheel drive, the rear end is bad to swing around going downhill on ice. I assessed I had a better chance on the Parkway. Going into the first curve opposite the Air Bellows Overlook, the road slanted toward the ditch from the centerline for runoff, and that little bit of a downhill grade to the side took my traction. About 3 seconds of sliding sideways toward the ditch, traction took hold and I kept it in the road. There I got my learning: do not trifle with this ice. Coming out of that curve I saw the pavement was dry in places where the sun hit the road. It was in shady places with a wall of mountainside on the south side of the road. That told me where I would encounter ice all the way to where I intended to get off, maybe Mahogany Rock Road (Cable Car Road), but it is a very steep downhill grade leaving the Parkway there and I wasn't so sure I wanted to attempt it. It would be ice at least half a mile and the last 4/5 of that half mile spinning around and around and brought to rest by a tree. I thought I'd take it all the way to 21, then get on Glade Valley Road.

Several long patches of ice to deal with never got any easier from one to the next. Mostly the ice was in curves. One long stretch that was semi-straight and a pretty good grade downhill was so long that I stopped before entering it, assessing how to handle it. I went slow as I could, keeping foot on brake just enough to keep the momentum from carrying me away, never enough to lock wheels and lose traction. The stretch of ice was so long that the momentum took me past what I could control with the brakes and the car started moving along. Too late to put it in a lower gear. Ride it out and do the best you can. The dry pavement arrived just at the time I could see I'd be losing traction very soon. What a relief that pavement was. Then I had a series of curves to go through with mountain on the south side all the way. The downhill grade was not steep enough for gravity to take control away from me. Between 5 and 10 mph. Lots of holding my breath unconsciously. A few times I reminded myself to breathe. I wasn't afraid of tearing up the car, because at most it might get a dent in a corner, but no big deal unless it broke a headlight or taillight.

The worst would be to get stuck. No cell phone. I'd have to walk five miles home, much of it on ice, in cold wind. I didn't aim to do that. Not an option. Coming out of the last curve before Mahogany Rock Road, I saw the gate was closed and locked. I looked to see if I could drive around it. No. Only one thing to do. Turn around and go back over everything I'd been through and do it again. Driving uphill on the ice was so much easier it was almost like there was no ice. Driving back, I entertained a dread that Parkway rangers might have been by and repaired the gate with the missing lock at Air Bellows before I made it back. Slim chance on a Sunday, but freakier things happen. Driving around the curve at Air Bellows Overlook was the worst ice of the uphill run. That was the place I lost traction on the first run. The hairpin turn leaving the Parkway was sheer ice and the drop-off at the very edge of the road. I recalled a time I was leaving visiting friends on a night of pea soup fog. I was warned, "If you don't make that turn, the rattlesnakes will eat you up before you get to the bottom." I remember that sentence every time I go around the curve. I've done it so many times I wasn't concerned about making the turn. The worst of going off the road there would be bouncing from tree to tree like a pinball to the bottom or until wedged. Again, not an option.

From there I took a brief tour through the Air Bellows Outdoor Art Museum of Spontaneous Teenage Angst. It's the tunnel covered with spray-can graffiti that goes under the Parkway on the way toward the downhill grade on the ice I had dreaded since realizing the necessity of turning around. I did not want to do that. Inside the museum, maybe 20 feet long, the pavement was free of ice. I paused, calling upon mindfulness, and set out on the slickest ice I'd been on, downhill; the slant of the entire road for runoff leaned toward the side that went straight down again. More rattlesnakes and pinballs. I stayed on the upper side with left tires off the road on the side of the ditch. Traction. I made that stretch without losing traction. Next, the road took a steep downward direction with a curve at the bottom, ice slicker than on the Parkway because it had been driven over so much, telling me, for one thing, I could make it. From a dry spot in the road at the top of the downhill run where I stopped, I saw a car sideways in the road about half way up the hill. I saw that it would be a good chance of hitting the car if I made the attempt. He had front wheel drive too, but not new tires. I always go into winter with new tires on the front. They matter, especially when you live at Air Bellows.

A man standing outside the car. I pulled as close as I could get on the dry place and stopped. He and I talked. He was with his wife. Thought they'd drive on the Parkway and look at the scenery. I told him he doesn't want to do that. I was thinking, but couldn't say it, If you get on that Parkway, your wife will be cussing you for the next week, even if she's a good Baptist. I recommended when he got going again turn around and go someplace else on a state road that's maintained. I told a little bit of what I went through, the ice, the ice, the ice. He said somebody living nearby had gone to get a shovel. That didn't make any sense to me--a shovel and ice? I don't like to question other people's reasoning. I didn't have any sand or salt or even a shovel. I saw I could get around his car by leaving the road on the left, which I knew to be firm ground under the ice, a place I could keep traction through that difficult spot. He wasn't sure I could make it, but I knew my car, the road and myself. I was actually glad I had to drive around his car uncertain if I could make it through that particular grade without losing traction. I would have gone down it with left wheels off the road anyway.

I came out of that curve and the road was clear from there on. Great relief. I went over the decisions I'd made that in hindsight looked retarded. I told myself I should have turned around when I saw that hill of ice, the first place to freeze, the last place to thaw. It told me what the Parkway was, and I knew I could make it. Any degree of foresight would have told me the Parkway gate would be closed at Mahogany Rock. It never entered my mind so caught up in the present moment. Driving on ice is totally a present moment experience. Mind dares not waver. Mind pays total attention or you're lost. Thirty-five years experience driving on ice, every kind of ice there ever was, even ice under several inches of mud, I looked back over the day's experience as a driving rodeo. Didn't get stuck, the main thing, didn't hurt the car, only lost traction once, used every skill I'd developed over the years. I came out of it feeling successful. I had tested my skill to the very edge and it held. The mountains do indeed teach the people of the mountains how to drive.




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