Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Ice Road Truckers - Montana Style

. . . This is the last chapter of Hand Me Downs, posted out of order. Chapter 1 and 2 are posted below if you wish to read them first. . .

But this was not the last of several stories told during the stormiest Dakota winter in twenty-five years. Tamara shared one more snowy adventure.
Just before Thanksgiving a couple of years previously, feeling a need to connect again with family who lived in the southern part of the United States, Bert and Tamara decided to spend the holiday with family in Zion National Park, a hundred miles north of the Grand Canyon. Their destination — an out-of-the-way region in the red rock country of south-western Utah.  One of America’s most beautiful wilderness parks, Zion’s crags and monoliths lined the un-dammed Virgin River that over the centuries cut through the red rock limestone of the landscape to sculpt enormous uplifting ridges of extraordinary beauty.
 As this intrepid duo headed southwest three days before Thanksgiving to Bozeman and then Salt Lake City, they knew that winter weather might curtail their journey. However, they trusted their little white and blue zephyred 1993 Toyota four-wheel-drive pick-up, which had previously taken them places that no woman had considered visiting before.  They were sure that one more time their chariot would take them to their appointed celebration.
Arriving in Three Forks just west of Bozeman, Montana, on Highway 90 around six p.m. at the end of their first day of travel, Tara, in her possum beanie, her thickest gloves and her hiking boots with heavy soles shoveled herself out of the passenger seat and checked them into a non-auspicious motel as the weather forecasters on the radio warned of an approaching first storm of winter.
Bert parked their 1993 pick-up close to the motel door. Fortunately, their ride was not the one with an extended cab, which meant they had not had to heat as much space as existed in an extended cab on an afternoon taken directly from Ice Road Truckers. There were some comfort issues, though, as six-foot-two Bert wheedled down the Montana highways with his knees almost touching his shoulder blades.
Tamara unzipped her seven-layer down jacket that was so big you’d think it was made for the north slope of Alaska as the two of them unlocked the door of their room.
Meandering around the motel room, Tamara took her shower, put on her p.j.s, and turned on the TV weather forecast. They were supposed to be in Vernal, Utah in two days to meet Tamara’s middle child, Elizabeth, who was driving north from Flagstaff around the eastern end of the Grand Canyon. Bert was driving them south from North Dakota near the Canadian border. Tamara, however, had lingered way too long at the Bozeman Co-op, one of her favorite markets to buy a soupy supper, freshly baked bread, pungent cheese, and a dose of damn fine wine – none of which they had unpacked yet.
The weather forecast predicted miserable, terrible, unbelievable storms moving in from the west coast the next morning, but clear skies still dominated the Montana, Idaho sections of Highway 15 South, which the twosome intended to follow out of Butte.
“Bert, look outside,” Tamara urged.
“Incredible. Why are we staying here? Skies are clear. I can see every star in the heavens.”
“Let’s pack up and go. It’s four hours to Idaho Falls. We can beat the storm, hole up there if we have to in the morning and go on the next day. It would be a long drive, but we could still make it to Vernal before Elizabeth gets there.”
“You game?”
“Yeah,” she said. Good highway between here and Idaho Falls. We might get a light snowfall at the start of the storm if it comes in early, but we’ll be safe in a motel before the weather really hits.”
“Ok, pack up. We’ll do it.” He was enthusiastic about the competition to beat the storm gods, to make it south before the worst reached the highway.
Twenty minutes later, leaving the room keys on the bathroom sink, they tucked themselves into the cab, gassed up at the station next door to the motel, and settled into their seats. Bert asked one more time, “You sure you want to do this?”
“Do we have enough gas to get to Idaho Falls?” she asked.
“Sure do. Only about 230 miles. No worries.”
“Then let’s bogey.” 
The little Toyota revved her engines and the twosome steered back onto Interstate 90 headed west to Butte. Roads were clear. Stars kept them company. It was nine p.m. when they hit 15 South; all looked clear.
“This is a breeze. Would you like me to drive? You can nap and take over a bit later. We should be in Idaho Falls by midnight,” Tamara suggested.
“Do you think we’ll find a motel room that late?”
“Oh, sure. No doubt. Have you ever counted the motels in that town?” 
Whipping through the winds that began to pick up on the highway, slaloming through the canyons of the high country in Montana’s southwestern ‘insect burl’, they talked on about the beauty of the clouds as they moved through the full moon light. 
As cloud cover began to move in from the west, star shine from the east lit the eastern side of the road. Winds erratically buffeted the pick-up forcing Bert to keep a firm hold on the steering wheel. Their tiny profile was a positive here, less flat surface for the wind to strike.
Tamara opened the food from the Co-op and offered Bert a bite or two of cheese. They didn’t try the soup. It was no longer hot and would have made a mess if a wind gust hit the car as one of them was in mid-sip.
They were comfy. The tiny cab held them safely.
Not suddenly, but in a dreamy sort of way snow pellets began to move in from the west. The Toyota was headed almost due south, having already passed Dillon, the last gas station in Montana, as they headed for the high plains drifter country. Mountains on the west of the highway disappeared behind cloud cover. Mountains to the east hovered like huge snowy ghosts.
Off ramps began to look dangerously full of white as the snow filled the dips that eventually led to overpasses for one-horse towns. Occasionally a light streamed through the darkness. Tamara and Bert had driven this highway several times and both knew most exits had no services. They were simply off ramps to ranches or over-passes that led to homesteads. 
“Do you think that if we had to get off, anyone would let us in for the night?” she asked.
“Doubt it. But not to worry. We won’t need to get off.”
Imperceptibly the speed of the wind increased; snow began to swirl in every direction coming at them from the south and the west, reflecting off of the headlights in a confusion. The only window out of which they could really see any distance was the driver’s door window on the east side of the cab.
“Think I’ll shift into four-wheel drive, “said Bert. 
“Can you do that while traveling at this speed?” she asked.

“I’ll slow down. Not much traffic. It’s safe.” Bringing the pick-up almost to a stop, Bert slipped the cogs on the gear-shift that moved the pick-up into four-wheeling. “Ah, that’s better. I can feel the road now. We’ll have to travel slower. The transmission’s in high four-wheel, not low, so we can go fifty or so.”
“Seems fast enough. We have all night, “she softly admitted. Even in her beanie and heavy down jacket, she was a tad cold. It was not cold in the cab. Fear had begun to dig away at her body-heat looking for a place to lodge in her chest or maybe store away a few tingles in her fingers clasped tightly into a fist. She was acutely aware that she often couldn’t see the white line on her side of the roadway covered in inches, maybe feet of billowing snow. They were traveling on a four-lane super-highway, one of the best in the world. Heavy duty cement and blacktop sloped gently at the edges swooped properly around all curves keeping automobiles and huge semis moving smoothly, she thought and then immediately realized they were seeing fewer and fewer big trucks. The fast lane was essentially invisible, totally covered in snow.
 She also noticed they were going slower and slower. Tamara said nothing as she glanced at the lighted speedometer on the dash. Bert was traveling at 40 mph along one of America’s premier roadways, which usually carried traffic at 75 mph. 
“Is it the wind that is slowing us down? I don’t hear it whistling,” she asked.
He responded, “It is strong; comes in clusters.”
Just then the whole pick-up fidgeted to the side when a huge gust caught them broadside as they swung through a mammoth curve. 
“Oh, like that, you mean?” Her voice echoed with fear.
“We’re ok, Tamara. Don’t panic. Slow and easy.”
“Oh sure.” She grimaced helplessly. “As you always say, if you do it slow enough, you can do absolutely anything. But I thought you were talking about old men in hats, not us.” 
“Yeah, well, I was, but in these conditions since I can only see twenty feet in front of us, it seems the better part of valor not to rush.”
“Just then a huge semi slowly passed them in what they usually called the fast lane. Huge tires kicked up snow into swirls of powder. Twenty feet? Could they see twenty feet of the roadway in front of them? No! More like five feet in front of them their headlights reflected off the white stuff covering the roadway as far as they could see out the windshield with the wipers slowly clearing what could not be cleared, a massive wind driven snowfall. 
The next instant visibility was non-existent. They were moving forward just because there was nothing else to do. To stop meant to be covered in drifting snow and probably destroyed from behind by one of the behemoths with whom they shared the road. The driver wouldn’t even have noticed they existed.
Straining to see into the falling snow and a tad relieved for some unexplained reason, Tamara spoke softly. “The semi left tracks.”
“Yep, if we don’t follow too close, his red tail lights give us an idea of what’s up ahead, but I’m not so sure I want to keep up. He’s going pretty fast.”
She looked again at the speedometer. Twenty-five mph. For the first time in years, she was contemplating what hell might really be like. She was imaging herself in a coffin, but she didn’t say a word.
Gathering a little self-control and at the same time staring desperately into the falling snow, she noticed that she could see the yellow line on the inside of the fast lane. How strange. The lane was mostly filled with billowing snow, but the yellow line somehow stood out in the headlights. The white line on the right-hand side of the road was invisible, covered with what could have been several inches of snow. “Bert, can you see the yellow line, too?” she asked.
“I can. Makes it easier to track the side of the road, but I don’t want to travel in that lane just in case another semi comes up on us.”
“Up ahead is an off-ramp. I just saw a sign for it. Perhaps we ought to pull off til morning. Do we have enough gas to keep the engine and the heater running?” she asked.
“Yep, we probably do. Does the off-ramp look like it goes up? No dips?”
“Can’t tell for sure.”
Bert steered toward the right side of the road. Immediately they were bogged in heavy snow. The engine lugged. He shifted lower and steered back toward the roadway and away from the shoulder. Ahead a ghostly semi that had just passed them slowed. Obviously, he would have stopped if they had found themselves stuck in the snow. How weird to be so sure that the community of the roadways was working. They knew it to be true whether any language was exchanged. 
“Whew. Glad you didn’t take my advice. We would have been stuck for sure. The snow didn’t look that deep.”
“It’s about two feet deep there. The differential would have hung up and we would never have made it to the top of the overpass. Guess we won’t try that one again. What time is it, Tamara?”
She opened her phone. “One a.m. We’ve been on this road for four hours. We should be close.”
“No, the Idaho border is on the other side of Monida Pass.”
“My gosh! We haven’t reached the Pass yet. That’s right.” She stared into the snow flurries driving themselves against their windshield making it almost impossible to see more than a couple of feet in front of the car.
“Haven’t seen any headlights coming from the other direction in a long time. Traffic must have been stopped somewhere down the road,” murmured Bert. 
They passed a semi and then moved back into the slow lane when the big eighteen-wheeler slowed down to almost ten mph. “How fast are we going,” she asked.
“Bout twenty. I don’t think we should go faster. The wind is terrific. We’re headed straight into it from the feel of things.” 
Suddenly, the car swerved on the icy roadway, slid corkscrew-sideways across both lanes and stalled out.
She held her breath and knotted her gloves as Bert switched off the ignition, restarted it, and slowly, carefully steered the little pick-up back into the slow lane. He knew the semi was behind them. They could only hope it hadn’t sped up as they had. It could never have stopped in time if it came up behind them.
For an interminable four more hours they managed to remain on the highway. They saw no trucks, no cars except when their headlights caught the reflection of tail-lights off to the side of the roadway where others slid into the snow. 

Slowly, very slowly, they approached Idaho Falls where they took a cleared off-ramp to the middle of the city. There, after a right hand turn onto icy city streets, they stopped at a twenty-four hour gas station. It was five a.m. They had been on the road for nine hours. Exhausted, they filled up with gas, visited the rest rooms, threw water at their haggard faces, and bought coffee.
At the counter, Tamara asked where the closest motels were. Directions took them around snow filled corners, down two icy blocks to a Motel 6. Tamara struggled again out of the car and paid $65 for a room, which they would have to vacate by eleven a.m.
Bare floors and corner shower, cool sheets and a light weight cover were all they needed. From her little carry-on bag, Tamara pulled out a warm flannel nightie that had once belonged to Pat, who might have died, but who had excellent taste in clothes. Tamara recited a brief mantra thanking the universe that they had survived while she took her shower, and fell into the queen-sized bed beside her husband who was already softly snoring, sound asleep.