Jerry Nelson: Winter driving expectations

Jerry Nelson
Special to the Farm Forum

Blowing snow boiled across the road, creating the illusion that the highway was a cascade of milk. The sky was clear, and visibility was excellent. That is, down to about a foot above the road, where visibility was zero. Were it not for the reassuring rumble of rubber on asphalt, I could have easily imagined that I was navigating a river of moo juice.

Conditions were better when I reached the city, where trees and buildings blocked the wind. I could actually see bare pavement at times. That has occurred so rarely this winter, I felt like taking a picture.

But there was a downside to this naked pavement: potholes. Many of the streets resembled gigantic slabs of Swiss cheese.

On the radio, a DOT spokesman said that we should lower our expectations and only venture out for emergencies. Excellent advice! We shouldn’t expect that we can take corners at tire-screeching speeds when the roads are slicker than a stick of greased butter.

I wish there were automatic traction controls and antilock brake systems for our feet. Stepping onto a patch of sidewalk that is unexpectedly slippery has a way of lowering a person’s expectations.

Such an event can swiftly change your life. Moments ago, you were master of the universe. But after a sudden and violent interaction with a hard surface, you’ve been reduced to a mere spectator. Your sense of dignity is shattered, and you hope that the pain in your heinie is just a bruise.

This has been a winter of mass migration. One day, our snow will migrate from the north to the south. The next day it will reverse course, as if it had second thoughts about living here and wants to return to its northern haunts.

Snowdrifts will thus form on both sides of our roads, creating rows of treacherous white dragon’s teeth that seek to ensnare us in their frosty grip. Only the most skilled can successfully traverse these glacial gauntlets.

The best way to acquire such skills is with practice. And practicing inevitably involves making mistakes. Like many hardened Midwestern wintertime drivers, I have made my share of mistakes. Probably more than my share.

I was a prodigy in this arena. At age 15, I acquired a 1959 Ford coupe. Major portions of the Ford were held together by rust, but I didn’t care. The main thing was that I had my very own set of wheels.

One midwinter afternoon, I decided to go to town. This was normally a ten-minute drive from our dairy farm. But conditions weren’t normal.

It was one of those drifty winter afternoons, with prodigious amounts of snow blasting across the roads. I opted to ignore this low-level whiteout.

I pointed the Ford eastward on a gravel road. Or at least I think it was a gravel road. It was impossible to tell amidst the blinding swirl of white.

Unable to see the actual road, I made my best guess regarding its location. After successfully navigating the first half-mile, I congratulated myself on my dead reckoning skills.

A humungous drift suddenly reared up before me. I had no choice but to try to punch through.

The Ford smacked the snowdrift with a soft “whup.” The windshield turned white and all motion ceased.

This usually wouldn’t be much of a problem. Ordinarily, I would skillfully manipulate the clutch and the gearshift to rock the car out of the quagmire. But the cooling fan had blown a metric ton of snow onto the engine. Some of it had melted, saturating the distributor. The engine coughed feebly when I tried to restart it.

The only sound was the moaning of the icy cyclone. There’s nothing scarier and lonelier than sitting in a rapidly-chilling car as the wind buries it beneath a frosty dune.

My options seemed to be staying and freezing or walking for help and freezing. But then a pair of headlights appeared behind me. Through the blowing snow, I discerned the hazy outlines of the pickup that belonged to Martin, our elderly bachelor farmer neighbor.

My expectations hadn’t included being rescued! I scrambled out of the deceased Ford and galloped to Martin’s pickup. I thanked Martin profusely as I clambered into his toasty pickup cab.

Martin was startled to see me. He asked why I was out in such weather and I mumbled something lame about getting to town.

“Well, we can’t go east!” exclaimed Martin as he turned his pickup around. “Maybe we can make it by taking the south way. Stick your head out the window and tell me where the road is. This is an emergency! I’m down to my last pack of cigarettes!”

Jerry Nelson