Barry Smith: Irrelativity
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
(Barry Smith is on the road. This dispatch comes from somewhere in Nevada.)
Except for having a sleeping bag in the back, my van is not set up for winter – no snow tires, it’s not 4WD, I don’t have a set of chains, and there’s no flush toilet. A flush toilet isn’t usually part of the standard “vehicle winterization” package, but it certainly would have come in handy two winters ago.
I’m driving over a mountain pass and it starts to snow – hard – and within seconds the van starts to fishtail. Slightly at first, then more and more. And more. Soon I’m going as slow as I possibly can but my tires are still spinning wildly. There’s no guard rail, and an impressive drop off to my right. Up ahead, where there actually is a guard rail, I can see cars wedged against it, their hazard lights flashing through the snowstorm.
I’m freaking out. My mouth has gone so dry that a warm cup of sand would be refreshing. I’ve heard this happens when a body goes into fight-or-flight mode. Unfortunately neither of these is a viable option in my van. I start to hyperventilate. I try to console myself by thinking, c’mon, it’s not like I’m gonna die, except that I know there’s a pretty good chance that I will. And passing out will certainly help me down this road to death. I come to a little shoulder and I ditch the van to the side of the road and begin to bemoan the lack of a flush toilet.
I know this isn’t a valid “adventure” story. I live in a town full of adventure seekers – you aren’t even allowed to use the word “adventure” unless you’ve had to gnaw off your own lower torso in a car-camping trip gone bad. But I’m not an adventure seeker. I’m just a guy in a van. A scared guy in a van.
A snowplow comes by in a few minutes and I follow it over the hill, park the van for the winter and begin a two-year run of telling this story to anyone who’ll listen. Sorry, everyone.
Last week I started up the van and pointed it toward Nevada, excited for a nice little road trip. It’s spring, and I’m headed West – I’m not even thinking about weather.
Around noon I see the first flurries of snow on Highway 50. I’ve never taken this highway before, but I’ve always wanted to. Until now. I see a sign that says, “Chain Up/Removal Parking Only.” The road starts to go upward. Not too sharp, but consistent. Then I feel that old familiar feeling of the instant removal of every bit of moisture from my mouth. Before I know it I’m on a snowy, winding mountain road.
I know, I know – why didn’t I check the map, right? Maps show things like mountain passes. There are online resources for winter road conditions. There’s an endless supply of information readily available to me to ensure that, even if not prepared, I wouldn’t be surprised.
I know, I know, I know. Yet I also don’t know.
The second pass comes half an hour later, just as the adrenaline rush has subsided and I’m ready for a nap. A little steeper, a little more snow. Then the third pass. I’m starting to have Pavlovian reactions every time I see a roadside sign with the word “chain” on it. None of these passes are extreme, but there’s enough snow in the air and on the road to make me grip the wheel with all available hands.
But then I settle in to it. By the fifth snowy pass in three hours I’m actually feeling OK about it all, maybe even a bit bold. It feels like I’ve looked Death in the face and it had a piece of refried bean on its tooth. Not only do I not fear The Reaper, I’m scrolling through playlists on my iPod while He swings his scythe futilely in my direction. Checkmate, punk.
Oh, and I bought chains along the way, just in case.
This newfound lack of the fear of Death is likely to come in handy soon: next stop, Fresno.
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Letters to the editor are starting to crop up, complaining about the behavior of tourists and out-of-towners ignoring crosswalks, honking their horns, blocking traffic with their bicycles, and on and on. My only question is:…