Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Hell of California

I left Moab, Utah with a heavy heart -- partly because it's beautiful and I love it, the clean, cold isolation and lovely ancient rock formations, and partly because I knew it would be an eleven hour drive to Reno. Nonetheless, I drove onwards through the desert...and then more desert...and then some more desert...until we got to the glittering, confusing lights of Reno.

Reed, my partner in crime for this camping trip, had been remarkably patient with a great many things beyond either of our control. For example, when he arrived in Boulder and I told him we were staying an extra night so we didn't have to drive in the dark and camp in someone's hippie friend's trailer's front yard (thanks, Katie!), he went with it. When there was a crowd of people he'd never met imploring him to do yo-yo tricks, he did them. And when my windshield wipers completely stopped working, stuck over at the farthest point, outside the snowy, slushy town of Silverthorne, Colorado -- town motto: It's Real Close To Everywhere Else You Want To Be! -- he very kindly did not pout when we tried to find a mechanic.

We found one. He was very nice, but said he'd have to order a new motor from Denver and have it driven up...and since we had some time, why not get lunch? He regaled us -- well, mostly me -- with filthy jokes, a running commentary, and aggressive flirtation for about an hour and then we retired to Borders, and waited. And waited. And finally, the car was fixed, and we got as far as Grand Junction before collapsing for the night. It had, I feel I should point out, stopped snowing in the amount of time it took to fix the wipers, so we didn't need to use them again, and we had a wonderful view of Breckenridge, Telluride, Vail, etc. Aspen, by the way, is the only town in Colorado with gas at $2.19. Everywhere else, it was $1.79. Aspen is clearly designed for rich jerks in BMWs and should be peed on.

By the way, not that this is relevant, but the mechanic was driving a Mustang sports car. "I know this is an impractical car for winter," he said. "But all my other cars aren't working." It was both hilarious, ironic, and kind of awesome that anyone would drive a Mustang convertible at 9200 ft, in six inches of snow. We watched him pull out onto the icy street with remarkable, wheel-spinning aplomb.

So today, after the most beautiful trip through Moab possible, we woke up in Reno with a couchsurfer, whose 10 year old limping short-haired chow spent all night snoring solidly across my legs, pinning them to the air mattress. It's a six hour drive to Reed's, in San Francisco's national park, the Presidio, from Reno. Burning Man is good for allowing us to estimate how far everything is from Reno, that's for sure.

It got bad about twelve miles west. On highway 80, we hit the most atrocious traffic jam known to mankind. Traffic was crawling, practically at a standstill, and as we crept along the winding road into the Sierra Nevadas, we saw more and more cars sitting, blinking hazards, by the side of the road. It was lightly raining, but hardly "sit out the weather on the shoulder" weather. Then we saw some trucks pulled over.

Then we saw a bunch of guys in bright yellow jumpsuits, and signs that said, "Snow Chains $30". And a sign that said "Snow Chains Required." And then another sign that said "Chain Control 1 mile."

So we went up a mile to the guy in the orange jumpsuit and I opened my door, since my window doesn't roll down.

"What's going on?" I said.

"You need chains past this point," he said.

"Why?" I said.

"It goes up to 7200 feet!" he said, in a tone of voice that indicated the argument was now closed. "And there's snow on the ground up there!"

Let us stop to consider for a moment:

1) I had just spent almost a week in Boulder, Colorado, whose elevation is approximately 8000 feet.
2) I was born in Canada, and lived in Pennsylvania until last April. Not only have I never used snow tires, but I've never met anyone who needed snow tires.
3) When I left Canada, I did it through about six inches of standing snow on the ground. Just turn the wheel into the spin, people!

"How much snow?" I asked. I was mostly surprised and frustrated, not antagonistic. I was really curious about how much snow had been delivered to the Sierra Nevadas that I would need snow chains, when I never needed them in Ontario, New York state, Pennsylvania, or the Rockies. Or Vancouver. Or, presumably, the Arctic.

He flushed. "We're done playing twenty questions," he shouted. "You have to go get snow chains!"

After an aborted attempt to get on highway 50, we did, in fact, get back on highway 80, about two hours after we first arrived at the checkpoint. Then we drove past it, into the dreaded area of extreme snow, and 7200 ft of elevation. It was snowing. Not a lot, but it was. The road was a mite slushy, and festooned with broken snow chains.

Then, about six miles later, we saw the sign: End Chain Control.

Yep, we had essentially wasted three hours and $36 to have the California government waste taxpayer's money to have chains on the car for SIX MILES.

We wasted no time in getting them off, let me tell you.

Then, we hit neverending traffic outside Sacramento...and Vacaville...and then, about half an hour from San Francisco, my windshield wipers died. Again. In the rain. In the dark. I almost cried.

Reed took my whole windshield wiper assembly apart with his Leatherman and a cheap socket set from Walgreens, and wired back together the cheap-ass fix our Silverthorne mechanic charged me $150 for, using the twist ties that had held the snow chains together in their package. At least they came in handy for something.

1 comment:

MaggieMayDay said...

Donner's Pass is notorious for making vehicles chain up. Trucks most especially, the fines are astronomical.

One of the drivers who works with Larry had a student on the truck. They got to Donner, likely the same time as you did, and were told to chain up. This is no easy chore on a semi, it sucks big time and is very time consuming. Dangerous even, on the side of the road like that. But chain they did. No sooner had they chained all those big-ass tires than they looked up and saw the chain requirement had been lifted. They hadn't even moved the truck.