Saturday, February 15, 2014

Winter off-roading in Wyoming

A week ago today, I sat in my Ford staring out at the frozen tundra of Carbon County. I was about ten feet off of Hwy. 287, rear end facing the road. My tires had carved a trail as straight as an arrow from road to final resting place, a slight depression midway between asphalt and barbed wire. 

My mistake was going too fast through a slushy mix of snow and ice. You'd call it "hydroplaning" if the road was awash in rain water. The tires lose contact with the road and the car goes into a spin. Florida people hydroplane all the time. It's an official state sport.

But it rarely happens in Wyoming, where rain usually falls in a fine mist. Hail is a different kettle of fish. I once was caught in a hailstorm in I-25 near Buffalo. My car began to lose traction as hail swamped the road. Couldn't see either. So I slowly rolled to a stop on the shoulder, coming to rest five feet behind a truck hauling a horse trailer.

Last Saturday, I sat for a few minutes and then decided to take a look at my predicament. The wind blew about 50 mph but it was a warm wind, as these things go, not an Arctic blast but a downslope wind, a chinook or "snoweater" as Native peoples used to call it. It also blows freshly fallen powder snow in great quantities across roadways, leaving snow traps for the unwary.

My front wheel wells were clogged with wet snow. My running board rested on a snowbank. I guessed that I was high-ended, the term used when your car's mid-section rests on a mound of snow or sand or dirt and your wheels can't find traction. This usually means a tow, or getting pushed out of your predicament by a roving band of cowboys or collegians. When I was younger, I found pleasure in helping push people out of predicaments. My damaged heart won't let me do that any more.

A father and son in a small truck pulled over and asked if they could help. "Don't have anything to tow you out with," said the man. "Want us to call someone?"

I showed him my phone. "I'm going to call my insurance company."

He nodded and pulled away.

I extracted my gloves and ice scraper. I dug out around the front tires and poked the scraper beneath the car, trying to loosen the snow that kept me high-ended. I scraped the snow down to the prairie grass, hoping I could get a purchase on dry ground. Winded, I got back in the car and caught my breath. Bluegrass tunes played on the radio. At least I could get Wyoming Public Radio. 

I rocked the car -- reverse to forward and reverse again. The car moved a tad, but finally got stuck again. I shifted back into park and fished out my insurance company's 1-800 roadside assistance number. I called. Reached an electronic voice that transferred me to another e-voice and then I got a real person. She wanted to help me. I reconstruct our conversation from memory.

"Where are you located?" she asked.

"Off of a state highway about 10 miles north of Rawlins, Wyoming."


"Off of Interstate 80, north of Rawlins in Wyoming." I was tempted to add: "The big square state right in the middle of the map."  But didn't.

A few seconds passed. "I-80 -- found it," she said. "You said Rawlins?"


I heard her tapping on the keys in an office somewhere in Dallas or Indianapolis or Portland. "State highway, you said?"

"Can't remember the name. 287 I think."

More tapping. "Ah," she said. "Highway 287."

"Sounds right."

She asked me if I was stuck. I said I was. She asked if my car was damaged. I replied that it was OK. She asked if I was less than or more than 10 feet from the road. I thought it would sound better if I said less than ten feet so that was my answer. She asked if she could have permission to log into my phone's location finder. I told he that my smart phone was busted and that I had a dumb phone with me. That didn't seem to phase her. She said she was going to locate me, said I would get a call from the responder. We said our goodbyes and disengaged. Wind rocked the car. Old-timey banjo music played on the radio.

I looked to the south and saw two snowplows headed my way. You couldn't have been here a half hour ago? They stopped just short of me. Both drivers disembarked.

I got out of the car. 

"Need any help?" asked the first driver, who was surprisingly young. He looked at me and then at the car.

"I have a tow truck coming."

He nodded. "You sure?"

"I'm sure."

We parted ways. During this three-day trip, I had seen a dozen snow plows. It's winter in Wyoming and this winter is a doozy. The WYDOT plows get a lot of credit for keeping the roads open. But it was a closed interstate that brought me to this predicament. I-80 was closed between Rawlins and Laramie and it didn't appear it would open any time soon. And I needed to get home for my wife Chris's birthday party. So I was taking the long way around, going north around the snow, or so I thought.

My phone dinged. I answered an automated call. It went something like this: "Your roadside assistance vehicle is on its way. You can expect it in approximately six hours."

WTF? Six hours? I'll never get home. The call disconnected. I noted with alarm that I had only one bar of service showing on the phone face. How did I get so low? Now I was going to sit here for six hours with very little phone service, a heart patient trapped in a snow bank. Cars and trucks passed on the road. I thought about making a sign and standing out by the road. "Heart patient needs help." Or maybe "Help -- Wife will kill me if I don't get home for birthday."

As I contemplated my options, I noticed a surprising number of cars and trucks and SUVs passing me by. Would I stop if I saw a stranded motorist on the side of the road? Depends. It was the middle of the day and, if they were to get a good look at me, people could tell that I was somewhat harmless. What does a red Ford Fusion tell you about the person inside? Buys American cars. Wyoming license plate. Probably not a very good driver -- what kind of knucklehead slides off a road in the middle of a sunny February day?

Someone did stop. Dark blue pickup. Guy got out. I got out. Young Latino, maybe 30. Wore a light jacket and a ballcap. Asked if I needed help. I told him my story, said a tow truck was coming but not until dark. He walked over to the car and looked around.

"I think we can push it out." He spoke with a slight accent. "My girlfriend is in the truck -- she can drive."

I thought about it for a second. I really shouldn't be pushing out any cars, even my own. But he seemed very certain that we could do this. I nodded. He waved his girlfriend out of the car. She came out. Very pretty woman wrapped in a bulky coat. She walked over, the two spoke and she got behind the wheel. 

The man and I pushed. The girlfriend turned the wheels and the man said to keep the wheels straight. We pushed again, the car moved back a few inches and I fell on my face in the snow.

"You OK?" said the man.

I nodded. Deep breaths. Deep breaths. Don't be a weinie. Heart don't fail me now.

We pushed again. I slipped in the snow. The car moved back toward the road, slowly, and then it gained traction and reached asphalt. Two cars on the inside lane had stopped, giving us some room to back up. The girlfriend backed gently onto the road, and then pulled forward on the shoulder. I breathed heavily, my heart pounded. 

"Thank you so much," I said to the man and his girlfriend. She grinned. I never heard her speak a word. The two walked back to the car. I got into my Ford, looked in the rearview mirror and saw them get into their pickup. I waved. I put my car into drive and gently pulled away, hoping I hadn't sustained any front-end damage. The car purred. I drove. It was a good 20 miles before I caught my breath. From there, it was mostly smooth sailing.

Also see my post that day from the new Burger King in Rawlins, written while I waited (in vain) for I-80 to open. This new BK featured gaming PCs at several of its tables and AT&T wireless. The password: ILoveBacon. Read my blog from Rock Springs about the travails of Elk Mountain here.

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