As I was making travel plans for an upcoming winter week in the Grand Canyon, and wondering why the blazes we would choose the month of February and risk icy roads and snow to get a glimpse of this natural wonder, my thoughts took me back to one frightening wintry drive on a snow-packed highway in the stately Green Mountains of Vermont.
Our daughter, Jenn, was attending a four-year E-game design program at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. I had made my semi-annual four-hour drive north to fetch her and her things for the semester break. I always looked forward to the December ride up. It was like a little mini-vacation, with a night or two at the Holiday Inn Express, Christmas shopping at the festive Church Street Marketplace, and perhaps a stroll by beautiful Lake Champlain.
It was a very cozy, small-town New England Christmas experience, indeed, including snow-covered hills, crispy cold air and holiday lights illuminating the darkness. For the most part, the weather cooperated on those December trips. Not to say that the weather was perfect. After all, I live in New England, where the saying around here is “If you don’t like the weather now, just wait a minute … .” It was not uncommon on the drive up north to experience a few snow squalls, periods of driving rain or fog in the span of an hour, which would make for some challenging driving, especially through the mountains after dark, but was nothing that my little Hyundai Santa Fe couldn’t handle. Little did I know how badly I would underestimate Mother Nature on the return trip home this particular December weekend.
It’s not like I didn’t know snow was predicted. I saw the forecast prior to leaving home and even made a reservation for another night at a hotel just in case we couldn’t make the trip home. On the morning of our scheduled ride home, I watched the local news and weather. Schools were canceled, but the timing of the storm was such that we might beat most of it if we left early. So “Jenn, what do you want to do?”, I asked. She replied, as I knew she would. “I want to go home.” I called my husband at home in Rhode Island. “David, what should I do?” I already knew what his answer would be. “Don’t risk it – stay another night“. I am an indecisive person, and I was torn. Should I listen to my all-knowing and wise husband of 35 years and play it safe, or should I make my daughter happy and take the risk? Jenn and I pondered the question further over breakfast and, for better or worse, decided to make a run for it.
Anyone who has traveled I-89 through Vermont knows that it is a long, lonely road, and the exits are few and far between. The plan was to drive from the college and head down I-89 south to the next exit, a fairly short span. From that point, there would be no looking back. If conditions looked too risky by the time we got to the next exit, we’d simply stop and get a room for the night and ride out the storm. We reached the next exit, and although the snow was falling steadily, it didn’t seem too bad. “Hey, we can do this,” I attempted to convince myself, and armed with our trusted cell phones, off we went on our merry way home. We didn’t have to proceed very far to realize we’d made the wrong choice, and by that time we were well past the point of no return.
By the time we traveled the long stretch to the next exit for the town of Stowe, the conditions were white-out. There was no one on the road except for enormous SUVs which flew past us like it was just another day, not even batting an eye, I suppose. For me, it was a different story. I was crawling along the snowy, untreated roadway, my knuckles turning white from the death grip of the steering wheel. Oh, why didn’t I buy a four-wheel drive vehicle! To make matters worse, my wipers were caked with ice and snow, making it difficult to navigate. I was driving blindly.
Unable to see anything through the windshield, I exited the highway at Stowe, parked on the side of the road and cleaned the wipers and windshield, grateful for the can of de-icer I brought with me. The road was desolate and snow covered, surrounding us with nothing but white. I did not want myself and second-born child stranded here, and I was anxious to hurry up, clean the window and get out of there. Cell phone service was spotty at best. Safely back in the car, we stalled, slipped and slid our way back to the highway and continued on the long, slow mountain trek through the heavy snow, stopping to clean the wipers and windshield several times along the way. Even if we wanted to stop and hunker down in a roadside motor inn, it would require miles of driving down a snowy mountain road to find one, and I wasn’t willing to risk that. To ease our nerves, we loaded the CD player with our favorite tunes and sang along, hoping the time would pass more quickly … or at least I did. I think I recall Jenn sleeping part of the way. It wasn’t until about six hours later, when we reached the Massachusetts border, that we finally got some relief in the form of sleet and rain. I had never been so glad to see road slush in my life!
We arrived home safely that evening, at which time my husband gave me a good tongue lashing for putting our lives in such jeopardy, as I expected he would. Looking back, I realized that what we drove through was just normal New England winter weather. It wasn’t even that huge of a snow storm by Vermont standards. We didn’t get hurt, we didn’t get stranded, and we didn’t even drive into a snowbank. The only thing wounded were our nerves. It my not have been a blizzard, but as far as we were concerned, it may as well have been the storm of the century. It was simply the worst stuff I’ve ever had to drive through.
Grand Canyon in February? Absolutely! The flights and hotels are booked, and the road-hugging, safe SUV reserved. More importantly, I will have a back-up plan and the company of my husband who is far wiser than me.