I have become convinced that the part of my brain that’s in control when I’m driving through deep snow is broken.
Some synapse isn’t firing or there’s a bunch of ganglia with a glitch.
Anyway there’s a bunch of cells up there which in a normal brain recognize trouble and bark out, like a drill sergeant, the simple command:
“Turn around, dummy. Or do you really want to walk 10 miles through knee-deep slush with nothing to eat but a packet of peanuts that not even the stingiest airline would toss in your lap after takeoff?”
My brain cells, by contrast, crack open another can of Keystone Light and tell me to “give ’er some more gas.”
Helpless as a drone, I invariably comply.
Mostly I’ve been lucky.
I had to walk back to town from up by Elk Creek once when I bogged down my old Scout in a hip-high drift. But usually I get home with nothing worse than an incipient blister from shoveling snow from around the tires and extricating the rear differential from its temporary icy tomb.
Many times I didn’t even get stuck, but merely had to back up a ways to build momentum, Evel Knievel-style.
(In my warped view, you’re not truly stuck unless you both have to get out of the rig and you end up with mud or snow, or both, above the waist.)
I got to thinking about my neurological shortcomings while driving in the Elkhorns on Saturday, Oct. 14, the day after the heaviest snowfall of the autumn.
It was the epitome of the ideal fall day. The sky was the iridiscent blue unique to the first day following a storm, as though the snowflakes and raindrops had lifted the summer’s dirt and smoke from the atmosphere and the north wind had served as a chamois, polishing everything to a fine sheen. The tamaracks’ yellow-orange needles seemed almost to glow against the drab green backdrop of their more conventional coniferous cousins.
As for the snow, there was quite a lot more of it than I anticipated, just a few weeks past the equinox.
My plan was to drive the High Mountain Road, which runs through the 1960 Anthony burn between the Anthony Creek Road and the Ladd Canyon Road, then follow the latter south to the Anthony Lakes Highway near the ski area.
My father-in-law, Howard Britton, went with me. It was a decision he very nearly came to regret, although he’s much too thoughtful to have said so.
We went in my 2008 Toyota FJ Cruiser.
The vehicle has considerable capabilities, and in fact it has never left me stranded despite my predilection for plowing ahead regardless of the obvious signs — snowmobile tracks, for instance — that to proceed is foolhardy.
Except the Toyota’s tires, which when new had lugs tall enough that a small rodent could have hidden between them, are in their last month of faithful service, and they no longer bite with anything like their original tenacity.
As the depth of the snow inexorably increased — my route tops out above 7,300 feet — I thought about the tires, which are the equivalent to a mouthful of incisors and canines worn smooth to rounded nubs, and I began to feel that disquieting sense that my itinerary was perhaps a trifle ambitious.
This annoys me because it proves that my brain doesn’t completely lack of the ability to recognize looming trouble. Indeed, pretty much every time I’ve ventured far off the highway into snow that creeps more than halfway up the tires I’ve felt that same trepidation. I even start to look for places where I might easily turn around. Yet that crucial signal — that drill sergeant’s voice which brooks no dissent — never filters through.
I figured, with the sort of naíve optimism that always afflicts me in such circumstances, that if we made it to the High Mountain/Ladd Canyon junction we’d be all right.
I was confident in part because I figured at least a few rigs would have traveled the Ladd Canyon Road and broken trail. Deer season was over but I expected some elk hunters would be out to see whether the storm had convinced the herds to move around.
But when we reached the intersection the snow was unbroken, except for the track of a lone elk in both directions.
I turned onto the Ladd Canyon Road anyway.
I rationalized this decision — that part of my brain, at least, functions at a high level — by concluding that the road is relatively level and thus the snow wasn’t likely to deepen.
This might have been rational, but it was also wrong.
Probably it ought to have occurred to me, notwithstanding topography, that the closer we were to a ski area, the deeper the snow was likely to be.
The greater challenge, though, wasn’t the depth of the snow but rather its consistency. As is typical with an early storm, with temperatures near freezing rather than well below, the snow was more slush than powder. The wetter the snow the denser it is, and, generally speaking, the more likely it is to leave you with wheels spinning fruitlessly.
Which is what happened on the only steep pitch. Worse yet there was a waterbar — basically a ditch that runs at about a 45-degree angle, downslope, across the road.
Waterbars, as the name implies, are designed to divert water away from the road to prevent washouts, a task for which they are well-suited. But when a water bar is covered by a foot or so of sloppy snow, it becomes a serious obstacle.
We made it about halfway up the hill when the Cruiser’s rear end started to drift to the left, and forward motion stopped. I reversed several feet and tried to inch forward, but it was obvious this wouldn’t work.
I backed up to where the grade eased and engaged the locker on the rear differential. This handy gadget ensures that both rear tires get equal amounts of engine torque (when the differential is not locked, most or in some cases all of the torque will go to the wheel with the least amount of traction. Which is rather like trying to sprint with one foot stuck in quicksand or a coyote trap.)
We gained some speed and I steered toward the right side of the road to avoid the deepest part of the waterbar. The Cruiser clawed up the slope and we continued on our way.
This episode took a lot of the starch out of me, though. Until the waterbarred hill the Toyota had powered through the drifts with little or no slippage so far as I could tell. Indeed the snow was deep enough that it smoothed the worst of the bumps, in the way that hiking on sand is gentler on the knees that clambering across a boulder field.
But after our temporary halt I didn’t quite trust that we would make it to the highway. This has a lot to do with how I think about machines in general, and vehicles in particular. I might believe when all is running well that I have immense trust in the Toyota — as I mentioned, it’s always come through for me. But in reality this is a fragile sort of faith, at least on any given excursion. Once the rig has shown the slightest weakness I’m anxious until I get back to something resembling civilization. The rest of the six miles or so to the highway I cringed slightly whenever the grade steepened a bit, or when the road dipped into a hollow where the snow had drifted and I had to nudge the accelerator to keep the speed constant. I never completely believed we’d avoid getting mired or, almost as bad, having to turn around and retrace our route.
Actually the latter result might have been worse. I find nothing quite so onerous as having to backtrack when I had intended to complete a loop.
Of course it didn’t occur to me until that evening, when I was safe at home, the Cruiser still dripping clumps of Elkhorns slush on the driveway, that I could have spared myself much anxiety by simply turning around at the Ladd Canyon Road junction.
Unfortunately my brain, as the saying goes, just isn’t wired that way.
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.