Hunkering down in a motel in Mexican Hat, I make phone calls to the family in Milwaukee, and to 5W Nancy in Denver while keeping a horrified eye on the weather channel. Two massive snowstorms are sweeping across America from east and west, closing roads and airports in their wake. The American Christmas traffic, both land and air, is slowly sinking into chaos. The storms are destined to collide tomorrow night over Denver, which is where we are heading. Denver is 750 km away, not really that far, but considering the weather, our chances of reaching Milwaukee by Christmas are looking grim. I make an executive decision; we leave at 4 am tomorrow morning. Driving in the dark will prevent us from seeing the remainder of Monument Valley, but it will up our chances of reaching Denver before the storm collision.
From our warm room we step into a cold so bitter that I warn Alexandra not to put bare flesh to metal. The Wish Mobile leaps to life, and in the headlights I see that Mother Nature is going to make things as difficult as she possibly can this morning. The beams stop short and spread in the thick fog that leans heavily against the windows. I try driving with only the fog lights. This works for all of five minutes, before Mother Nature plays her next card, and throws a swirling shifting fall of snow into the mix. The snow materializes out of the fog like static on a television screen, sweeping across the windscreen; the tiny spots create a billowing vortex of snow and fog. My sense of direction vanishes, the Wish Mobile gives a stomach-sinking lurch across a drift of snow. I yank the steering to get us back on the road, and slow down, and slow down, and slow down, until at a snail’s pace we creep into Bluff.
We need diesel urgently.
Cruising past all the pumps we discover that once again the diesel pump is nowhere to be found. In America the diesel pump is always tucked away in some hidden corner. Fuel discrimination exists. In the station the assistant turns from her phone call, and to my question about the location of the diesel pump, informs me:
‘You don’t want diesel, honey, you want petrol, and the pump is right there next to your vehicle.’
She waves an airy hand at the snowy courtyard behind me. I stare at her in bemusement.
‘My vehicle takes diesel. Do you have a diesel pump?’
‘Are you sure, honey?’
Is she kidding me?
‘I have just driven here all the way from Germany via China, and in all that time I have been using diesel, so, yes, I am fairly sure.’
‘What kind of car do you drive?’
Astounding, she actually does not believe me.|
‘Never heard of it.’
With that, she dismisses my funny car and me outright. She points vaguely towards the dark snowdrifts, before turning back to her phone call.
‘It’s over there.’
Stepping back into the cold I peer into the dark, and in the distance make out a solitary fuel pump, barely visible above the snowdrifts that surround it. This could be problematic. Inching the Wish Mobile through the powdery snow is not difficult, but getting stuck could be equally easy, and being stuck in a fueling station in Bluff is not part of the master plan, so I cautiously maneuver just close enough for the nozzle to reach. But then discover that the nozzle is ice-welded to the pump. My puny yanking and pulling make no impression; that thing is frozen solid. But I have a plan. Stomping through the snow to the back of the car I fumble about for Olga, and, with a sharp thwack of spade on pump, release the nozzle from its icy prison. A half- hour after pulling into the fueling station I finally get to the point where I can fill up.
All the while Alexandra sleeps … until we burst from the fog onto a high prairie and brilliant blue sunlight falls across her eyes. Yawning, she looks over the passing world. Fog fills the valleys, it bounces the sunlight back to the glittering ice-filled clouds. Rainbow haloes shimmer around the sun, which etches a line of light around every snow-fringed branch and blade of frozen grass. Alexandra watches the scenery flash by for a few minutes, then turns to me with one word.
Good call! Pulling into the parking of a roadside diner on the outskirts of Moab, we are reassured by the lack of parking space; the food served will be palatable. Sliding into a fifties-style plastic booth, we make a snap decision. This frozen morning is the perfect morning for an all-American breakfast of piles of thick pancakes, crisp bacon, and lashings of maple syrup, washed down by two bottomless cups of coffee. While we eat, the overhead television spills out bad news – the storm has arrived. Only Interstate 76 to Denver is still open, but there is doubt that the Vail and Loveland passes will remain open for long. With that, we gulp down the coffee, and get ourselves onto the interstate heading east. If there is to be any closing of passes, it is to be after we have passed.
But Mother Nature is just not playing nice this morning; the break in the weather at Moab was just a brief intermission between acts. Act 2 begins as Mother Nature opens the heavenly gates, and within minutes, dumps tons of snow on Earth, completely obliterating the road, the sky, the sun, and the planet in general. She then increases the windspeed a touch, turning the snow into a solid billowing curtain. The only points of reference in the whiteout are the taillights of the car in front of me.
Slowly all cars move into a single file in the center of the interstate, held together only by the small faith that the driver in front of each of us knows where he is heading. I have visions of lemming-like nosedives off a cliff as we slowly make our way up Vail Pass. At an elevation of 10,000 ft, orange emergency signs flash out of the white. They command trucks to apply road chains. On the barely visible roadside, truckers labor around and under their great vehicles, heaving heavy chains into place. I think of the little snow chains under my seat, and wonder whether I should put them on too. I have never driven in snow, and have no way of judging when a car might require a snow chain.
The long upward slope of Loveland Pass makes the decision for me. At 11,992 ft the incline is too steep, the snow too deep. The Wish Mobile meets its match, loses its grip on the situation, as we slide and snake across the road. This is starting to rival Kazakhstan for insane driving conditions. Time for snow chains. I step into the blizzard, and, sinking onto my knees in the snow, scrabble about under the car, clutching the instruction manual in one hand, while trying to place the chains with the other.
Curses, a little practice run in less hazardous conditions would probably have been a good idea.
The wind blows snow into my eyes. Cars and trucks skim by with inches to spare. The cold chews at my fingers, until the pain of my slowly freezing hands warns me that perhaps I should have worn gloves. By the time I manage to get the snow chains in place, the snow has packed on the windscreen, the wipers are frozen, and the little windscreen water tank is a block of ice. My fingers slowly turn black, as I hack away at the snow-laden windscreen. When the pain in my fingers becomes more urgent than seeing through the windscreen, I step gratefully into the warmth of the car, closely followed by the blizzard. Alexandra, not dressed for the elements, howls her protests. These are drowned out by the silent howls of pain emanating from my fingertips as they defrost, shooting pain into my heart, and screaming their anger at the abuse they have had to endure. But the snow is building on the windscreen again. Time to move; the pain must wait.
Slowly we crest Loveland Pass, and as we descend into the valley, heave sighs of relief, believing that the worst is over, only one more small hill, and then Denver. But as the traffic spreads over three lanes, it doesn’t speed up, as would be expected. Instead, each lane of traffic slowly comes to a halt. Alexandra finds the local traffic channel, and we listen with foreboding as the announcer reels off a long list of roads that are closed. Although the 76 is officially still open, we are not moving. The snow comes down in thick flurries, slowly burying the rows of cars as the day fades…