Jan 31, 2008

Road May Be Impassable

Merlin in Flaming GorgeEvery traveler’s tale has to have something go terribly wrong. It’s required. Readers salivate for it. Since I’m the traveler having the tale, I decided I didn’t need a disaster to keep my story interesting. No lost wallet, no flat tires, no broken camera, no stolen car, no sick dog, nor any number of much worse catastrophes, thank you very much. So, I believed the National Park Ranger when he said the road would be fine, that even if we get 'weather,' the road crews clear it right away. I believed the Utah Welcome Visitors Center lady who checked the current road conditions website and said 'maybe a little rain but nothing to be concerned about'. So I swung back to Vernal for gas and lunch, a hearty pancake breakfast #6 at Betty’s, and turned onto US-191 North through Flaming Gorge. My information said the gorgeous 106 mile drive would take under two hours. I would reach Interstate-80 in Wyoming near Rock Springs before dark and drive another few hours to stop for the night in Rawlins or Laramie. We might even make Cheyenne, where I planned to visit a botanical garden labyrinth. Fed and happy, we looked forward to our wilderness drive.

My first indication that something wasn’t right was the condition of oncoming traffic- a camper RV covered with brown frozen mud, a flatbed trailer with motocross cycles under wet snow, several huge pickups carrying a foot of wet slush. Everyone driving towards us also wore bright orange clothing. It might be hunting season. Orange would come in handy if you were trying to be spotted from a rescue helicopter. They looked funny. I laughed. I wondered where they had come from.

The Flaming Gorge welcome sign declared, Road May Be Impassable. Its surrounding flashers were not blinking. In California, the permanent Chains Required signs on mountain roads are only in force when their lights are flashing, usually a few weeks each winter. Here in Utah, vehicles were traveling in both directions, so I proceeded. A pretty dusting of snow in the far hills contrasted beautifully against red rocks. The road climbed through a forest of bare Birch trees. Apparently I had missed the fall color. Having learned to drive in snowy Michigan, I am a competent all-weather driver, but I was glad the road was clear and dry. Merlin rode with his head thrust out the window, breathing in the wilderness.

Suddenly, two black tail deer trotted into the middle of the road and stopped. I stopped. They looked at us. I honked. They reluctantly trotted to the side. I started ahead slowly. They trotted along side. Merlin watched them with great interest. They were much bigger then his local suburban white tail deer that devour the neighborhood deer-proof gardens. By the time we were pacing them at 10 miles an hour, Merlin had his whole head and shoulders out the window, nose flared and lip quivering as if to taste them. I accelerated and the deer accelerated. Merlin herded the deer from his car for several minutes before they bounded off into the scrub. Definitely a Road Trip highlight for him. He swaggered in the back seat with a huge grin.

Merlin at Flaming Gorge DamI realized the deer were the only life we had seen for awhile. There were no other cars, no Park Rangers. The car engine started to groan and I hoped it was the altitude, not a hose about to split. The car smelt funny when I stopped at the Flaming Gorge Dam overlook. I told myself it was extra windshield fluid that had sprayed after the antifreeze washer nozzles froze. Merlin had a good roll around in the snow. I turned the car heater all the way up.

Perhaps I should have stopped when I saw the cars driving towards me covered with a foot of snow. But the mid-October afternoon was clear and bright, the road ahead dry. Perhaps I should have talked to the Park Ranger at Flaming Gorge Dam when I stopped for a photo. But he sat in his Jeep with the heat running and did not wave me over. I did stop when I came around a curve into emergency flashing lights of two semi-trucks stuck on the black ice. A half dozen cars were waiting and it was starting to snow. I’d driven over 2 hours already, and an early dusk had descended with heavy clouds. Surely, the park exit onto I-80 was just a bit ahead. A little car with Wyoming plates crept forward between the trucks. If he drove up here in that, surely I could follow in my 4 wheel drive SUV. Hazards flashing, we went forward into the night, me aiming for his fresh tire tracks. No one followed. As it became pitch dark and the temperature fell, I realized I was in serious trouble. The unfamiliar mountain road was glare black ice with no guard rails. Any road reflectors or lines were covered with snow. I stopped. I slid. The wind pushed me towards a dark edge.

There is a moment in life when you know your own death. I sat in the car, windshield wipers flapping uselessly, headlights covered with frozen sleet and wanted desperately to be somewhere else, anywhere else. I could not go forward blindly. There was no room to turn around. There was no where to go anyway. I couldn’t face driving back the way I had come with the weather worsening. I sat there shivering with the heater on full, thinking of death. No one knew I was out here. There was no cell phone signal. One of the primary snow driving skills is know when to pull off, and all my wilderness training had taken place in the warm summers of Killarney Park in Ontario. I tried to look at a map but my hands were shaking. Surely I was almost out. Interstate-80 had to be just ahead. The odometer said we had only driven 12 of the 63 miles. So the cold, dark reality was that I was lost, alone. I couldn’t turn off the car in the middle of the road to wait for dawn. We could be frozen by then, or struck by another vehicle that couldn’t see us, or couldn’t stop. The storm might get worse or last for days. Last November a family took a wrong turn onto an Oregon logging road with a broken gate and became stranded for 14 days. The father died trying to walk out for help. Am I even on the road I think I am? Why didn’t anyone stop me if the road was impassible? There is a terrible presence that rises up when one knows one is trapped. I looked out into the blackness in all directions and thought this is what hell must be like. Not heat and flames but blackness and cold, and absolute aloneness.

Merlin had been very quiet in the backseat so I turned to pet him and tried to sound encouraging, muttering something like, ‘what an adventure, eh?’ and ‘You like snow, don’t you?’ As I was insisting snow is our friend, I thought a saw a blinking light in front of me. I wiped the inside of the windshield and saw the little Wyoming car backing up with it’s hazards flashing! With a surge of hope, I inched forward, carefully feeling the road for the difference between wind gusts shudders and tires sliding towards the cliff edge. For the next hour, that little car paced me, going faster when it was safer, slowing and flashing at curves before I could see them. Both hands gripping the wheel, making constant adjustments for wind and ice, I didn’t dare reach for a drink or a snack, or take my eyes off the tiny red tail lights in the blackness ahead. Once I fell behind my escort, electing to go slower than him when I lost control on an icy patch. His lights disappeared around a bend and I was alone. But when I crept around the corner, he was waiting.

My father told me stories about his time in World War II as an Air Force rear tail gunner. His was the most vulnerable position in a B-29, life expectancy about 12 minutes. Not a particularly religious man, he spoke in awed tones about foo fighters, phantom aircraft that escorted lost or damaged planes safely home. When the rescued airmen tumbled out of their aircraft to thank their rescuers, they found no other plane, realizing they had been somehow guided by a ghost, or angel. Even though I was sure this Wyoming car leading me through the dark was real, I began to think of him as an angel, a modern foo fighter escorting me through the treacherous night, north to civilization. Our recently tuned car was packed with plenty of food, water, and warm clothes, but I hadn’t considered a situation like this. I pressed on, trying to match the speed and track of the small car ahead. Time stopped, drawn out into the longest hour of my life. Eventually, the road began to have dry places and the little car sped ahead. I wanted to thank him, to buy him a steak dinner, to buy us both a stiff drink. But once the road was dry, he sped away. Still unable to see very far along the road I fell behind. Eventually I saw a dim ribbon of freeway lights in the distance and blinking lights across the road ahead. Had the car waited? Perhaps I would have a chance to thank the driver after all. But no, it was a railroad crossing. When I stopped at the flashing barrier I realized there was no train track. I drove around the obstacle and looked back. A flashing Road Closed barrier blocked the way we had come. Indeed. Merlin and I got out to stretch. Dog is my copilot. I thanked our phantom foo fighter escort and drove towards the lights of civilization.

Grueling Afternoon/Evening of Day Four: Vernal, UT to Rock Springs, WY. 106 miles.