A Champion and A Fool

November 20, 2013

in Other Travel


This is not good. This is a picture of little Santa Fe stuck on a patch of ice. After dark. In the Sequoia wilderness.

In my defense, I wasn’t careless in heading down this road. It was well-marked on the map, crosses through the National Forest, and had no signs about chains, ice, or any such thing. I merely wanted a road less traveled, and it all started off quite well.

After a long day through Death Valley, I crossed I-395 in the Eastern Sierras and started to climb up, up, up on twisting curves and switchbacks. I hit the town of Kennedy Meadows—a mere collection of homes buried deep off private roads—and spontaneously decided to take a run. (Why I think running at 6000+ feet is a great idea I can’t explain. It was hard, and it was lovely, and it’s one of the best parts of traveling alone, to just stop on a whim and run.) Salty, hungry, and happy, I sat back in the car to cross the pass and find a hotel for the night. The sun was dropping behind the mountains already, and it set 15 or 20 minutes later, about 5pm. I thought I’d be cozied up in a warm room by 6pm.

The road wound and curled through the mountains. The few pickups–and I mean big hauling pickups–that I had passed earlier had disappeared in the dusk, no doubt to dinner and feet up. When I hit the first patch of ice, I immediately slowed down. The ice was spotty–mostly road, with long streaks of ice–and as long as I took it slow, it was no problem. I stopped at a deserted ranger station, checked the detailed maps. Everything seemed fine. The signs counted down the miles to Kernville: 31, 24, I couldn’t be more than 18 miles from a hotel, a shower, and a hot meal.

I hit a thicker patch of ice, slowed way down, and went up about 10 feet, then skidded a bit, found traction, went 5 feet more perhaps. Then my wheels spun and the back went sideways. Uh-oh. Give it gas? No, the wheels are definitely just spinning. Reverse? No effect either. I get out of the car, slip and slide on the ice a bit, and start to realize just how slick it is. Right. I am actually stuck. No cell service, deep in the woods, and little chance of a car coming along. I’m starting to know why I only saw big work pickups coming down from here earlier. It’s 5:20pm. It’s more than 20 miles in either direction to a phone. My car is in the middle of the road between two curves. I put the hazards on in hope that no one will hit me. I have food and water and gas–worst case is that I’m going to spend the night in my car. Best case is that I’m going to get out of this.

I put on warmer clothes. I grab a headlamp. I check the emergency jack and find a small tire iron. I try to chip away the 2-3 inches of ice to get to the asphalt. It turns out that ice on the road is waaaay harder than one might think. It’s hard to chip, even with a tire iron. When I drove a car last, I lived in Florida and Louisiana. I’ve never actually driven in snow and ice. I’m not quite sure what to do, but I’m sure that I’m not leaving the car and walking off into the wilderness, and I’m not resigning myself to sleeping in the car yet, so….

So. Am I trying to go forward or backward? I walk-slip-skid up the road about 15 feet. It’s still icy, and the ice continues around the curve. I think I have to go backwards to before the ice. Really? That means back more than an hour to 395 on winding roads and then another hour perhaps to a town with a hotel. Really??? I look up the road. No telling if there’s more ice further down the road. I have to go back. If I can go anywhere.

I put the car in neutral and try to push. Ridiculous. I try chipping the ice just below the front tire. Equally ridiculous. I push again. Hard. It goes an inch of nowhere and rocks back. Rocks back? It rocked back. I start to push the car in rhythm, rocking it, rocking it, rocking it harder, pushing with everything I’ve got when it rocks up on the forth or fifth time…and the back wheels slip 3 or 4 inches. Aha. That’s movement. I get in the car and start it. I try going forward, the tires only spin. I try going backwards, the tires only spin. I turn the car off, get out, and start to push from a different angle. Rock, rock, rock, and push with every extra ounce of strength my meager arms can muster…and as the front rocks an extra inch forward, the back end skids an inch or three downhill.

I’m breathing hard, and I’m still a good 12 feet from where there’s traction and some road surface peeking between the ice. I’ve spent 30 minutes scoping out the situation and moving 3 inches. I’m going to have to get diligent about this if I want to get anywhere before midnight. So that’s how I spend the next hour: rock, rock, rock, shovewitheveryounceofstrength, slip a little–get in, start the engine, spin forward, spin reverse, get out–check tires, chip at ice right in front or behind, depending on which direction I’m going to push from–then rock, rock, pushshovestrain, skidslip a few inches–get in, try to drive in either direction, get out–push. Again. And again. And again. And if you know me, you know that I don’t lack for will. I quit thinking about it and just repeat again, and again, and again. Until one time I push, and the rear end slips two feet. The car is less sideways than it’s been, so I hop in and start it. I get a little traction and driveskid in reverse about 8 feet down to clear road. Excited and pleased, I actually say with loud vehemence, “You are a CHAMPION!!” Oh yeah! I’m proud of the persistence and strength that got me out of this mess. And then I remember who got me into this mess and think, “You are a FOOL.” And a champion. A champion and a fool. Good luck to you.

Now I can drive. Back from whence I came. It’s nearly 7pm, which is getting late when you’ve been up since sunrise. I hit Kennedy Meadows just before 8, and the only light I can see anywhere near the road turns out to be a guy running a generator to work on some machinery. He tells me he damaged his trailer on that ice two days ago. The pass can only be crossed with 4WD because of that one patch of ice. He also tells me there’s absolutely nowhere to stay in Kennedy Meadows and nowhere to eat. He gets down on the ground, checks the undercarriage of my car, and certifies it’s fit to drive an hour or more back along the winding roads to the town of Ridgecrest.

I know it could have been so much worse, in so many different ways. I can’t even be upset about it as I drive back over the mountains (eating Alien Beef Jerky) because I know how lucky I am. My car and my body are undamaged. It was only a few hours delay. I head off, salty, sweaty, tired, hungry, bleary-eyed in the night, and thankful, truly thankful, that it was such a small bump on an otherwise perfect trip. What would a road trip be anyhow without a little mishap along the way?

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