Safe Winter Driving

Outside the front door, Dewey, AZ

In actuality, the safest thing to do when the snow is falling and the temperatures are below freezing is to just stay home. That was advice that I gave myself and planned on heeding in the future no matter what my husband, Bernd, might have to say.

Because we had everything set up for our move to Riverton, Wyoming at the beginning of December in 2020, we had no choice. South Pass was a mess. Never want to do that again.

It had snowed in Wyoming a day before we were to leave Arizona. It was a big snowfall. South Pass is one of the passes (Togwotee is the other) that go over the Continental Divide. It is almost a mile and a half in elevation and is the lowest point on the Divide. There was probably some other way to get to Riverton, but we had no idea what it might be.

It seemed like the road was mostly ice. The windshield washer in my Jeep had quit working. I was following Bernd in his Escape and it was making a mess of my windshield. We were creeping along and I thought it would never end. By the time we finally got to Riverton, I wanted nothing more than to sign the final papers, get the keys to our new house and pass out for a while.

But when we got to the house, the previous owners were still in it. Yes, they were mostly out, but they were not completely out for nearly an hour and a half of sheer torture. I kept thinking “please just get out of our house … NOW.”

However, what really inspired this post was something that happened while we were still living in Arizona and made me give myself that advice in the first paragraph. And yes, Arizona gets snow. Quite a lot of it, actually. Not all of Arizona is like Phoenix. Apparently that is a popular misconception. We lived at about 5,000 feet of elevation in central Arizona. It got cold and it got snowy

So anyway, one weekend, we had our first major snow storm. I don’t remember exactly when that was. Bernd and I found ourselves without much direction late on a Saturday afternoon and he suggested we go check out the new CAL Ranch store that opened up in downtown Prescott in the old Kmart building. I had wanted to do that for some time so I was pretty gung ho to go … except for the snow. Bernd thought it should be okay. I reminded him that Prescott was a few hundred feet higher in elevation than at home, but he was not to be deterred. Frankly, I was somewhat nonplussed by his desire to do this. Normally he didn’t have much interest in anything having to do with my obsession with horses at that time. Then I found out that on the way home from CAL Ranch, he wanted to check out the Fry’s grocery store in town.

All his co-workers had been telling him that it was better than the Fry’s that was closer to our home. Suddenly it all made sense to me. If it has to do with food, he’s all for it. So we dressed warmly, put on our sturdiest footwear and loaded ourselves into my Jeep.

The Jeep I had at the time was old, but still plucky. It had four-wheel drive and good tires. It did well in the cold weather, even if the power steering did tend to get a bit stiff. I topped of the gas tank at the gas station right at the entrance to our housing complex and we headed for downtown. We took the back way because it involves fewer traffic signals and I was already anticipating having trouble stopping.

As we drove into slightly higher elevations, the snow started coming down more thickly. The back road (Fain Road) had a speed limit of 65 miles per hour, but I found myself sticking to about 45 because the visibility was so bad. And mind you, it was still daylight. Albeit a very weak and watered down daylight.

The road had not been plowed and no cinder had been put down so my tires were making all sorts of squeaky noises in the snow. When I came to the first bridge, I could hear the crunch of ice under my tires. Because it was snowing so heavily, I could hardly see the first traffic signal even though I knew where it was. I drove this route several times a week on my way to visit the horses so I was very familiar with it. Still, I started to think about turning around and going home. But we forged on instead.

It was impossible to see the lane markings and we and the few other cars that were out were pretty much just driving in each other’s ruts. When I got to the traffic signal where I had to make a left turn onto Willow Creek Road where the CAL Ranch store was located, I had no idea if I was really in the turn lane or not. They hadn’t even plowed that major link between Prescott and Chino Valley yet.

With the snow still blowing and the sun barely lighting the day, we did make it safely to the parking lot of CAL Ranch. I parked and we enjoyed examining all that they had to offer. And it was a lot. Clothing, all sorts of boots, stuff for keeping pigs, chickens, goats, horses and you name it. Along with guns and rifles, and all sorts of hunting, fishing, and camping gear. It was heavenly.

By the time we were ready to leave, the sun had gone down and the temperature had dropped precipitously. And we thought it had been cold before that. Bernd said that maybe we should skip going to Fry’s and just go home. I thought that might be a good idea also. But I could feel his disappointment when I rapidly agreed.

We decided to go home the same way we had come rather than drive through downtown with its hundreds (okay, that’s an exaggeration) of traffic signals and some fairly steep hills. There is one piece of the main road (Gurley Street) that they close when it snows because it really is only good for sledding.

Leaving the CAL Ranch parking lot, I was extra careful to allow myself lots of stopping room. I had gotten immediately into the outside lane because the roads still hadn’t been plowed and it seemed to be more clear than the inside lane. I came to the first red traffic signal and stopped just fine. The next couple of traffic signals were green. But even so, I was only traveling at about 20 miles per hour. I thought that I had a better chance of stopping “suddenly” the slower I was going initially. Hah!

Unfortunately, I had to move into the inside lane due to a car that was stopped in the outside lane. Also unfortunately, the traffic signal just ahead was indicating by the walk/don’t walk signal that it was about to change to yellow and then red.

I had stayed in the inside lane after passing the stopped vehicle because it didn’t seem to be all that bad and crossing over the ridge of snow and ice between the lanes again didn’t really appeal to me all that well. The couple of cars behind me did, however, move back into the outside lane. I wish I had.

Right away when I saw that the signal was about to change, I started very carefully applying pressure to the brake pedal. Very carefully. The back end of my Jeep immediately began fishtailing all over the road. First one way and then the other as I let up and reapplied pressure. I realized that I was not going to be able to stop on what turned out to be ice and said so to Bernd. I looked at the intersection and saw that there was one cross-traffic car waiting to enter the intersection and I started laying on my horn. Just as I began to do that, Bernd rather excitedly told me to honk my horn. Thank you, Sweetie.

The light turned red before I got to the intersection and I went skating right on through. The car waiting to go waited until I had passed. The cars that had been behind me and had moved back into the outside lane were able to stop. I made careful note of that fact.

So, all of a sudden, I decided to stop at Fry’s after all. My nerves were a mess and I needed some time off of the road to calm down. I figured the roads weren’t going to get any worse than they already were. What I didn’t figure on was ice fog.

We had a nice time in Fry’s and picked up a few things that we could use. Bernd decided he was in the mood for hotdogs and so we found some without nitrites or nitrates and got some reasonably healthy buns (well, actually you probably wouldn’t want to eat them if they were actually healthy). We decided that Prescott’s Fry’s was not nicer than the Fry’s nearer to our home. Bernd said he wouldn’t have a need to go back there again anytime soon.

We spent enough time in the grocery store that my heart rate had returned to normal and the buzzing from adrenaline had abated. I could feel my hands again and I felt I was good to get us home.

When we left the Fry’s parking lot, I was so darn careful. I didn’t want to go ice skating with my Jeep ever again. I got into the outside lane and stayed there. I drove really slow and didn’t care what anyone might think. When the big black pickup truck flew by me in the inside lane, I thought it was an accident waiting to happen. Luckily, it didn’t happen before we made the turn off of Willow Creek Road.

All went relatively well until about the last, or what I thought was going to be the last, ten or so miles. That’s when we encountered the ice fog. I had been moving along at a nice 35-40 miles per hour after reaching a lower elevation and getting past the ice on the road. It had been just snow on the road for a couple of miles and I started to relax. But I could see ahead of us a wall of white and wondered what the heck we were heading into. Normal fog is bad enough, but ice fog is something else. Once again, we had to slow way down.

There was this one really big bump in the road that comes up just before the “off ramp” for Lakeshore Blvd. I knew that bump well so I knew where we were. Otherwise, we were just surrounded by white and couldn’t really see anything. I thought about pulling over.

 So why it’s called Lakeshore is a mystery to me unless it has something to do with the fact that all of Prescott Valley had been an inland sea at one time many eons ago. Why it’s an “off ramp” is an even bigger mystery. Anyway, after that bump, it was usually just a matter of minutes and about six miles to get home.

But, just ahead of me, I could barely make out a flashing light in the ice fog. I slowed down even more and approached it at a crawl. When I was very nearly right on top of it, I saw that it was a highway patrol vehicle. The officer was standing outside and behind it with a wimpy little flashlight signaling me to get off Fain Road at Lakeshore. I did and the “on ramp” to get back onto Fain was blocked by a snow plow. I thought they could have put that plow to much better use.

Bernd has no real sense of direction and so he was a little bit panicked at the detour. I was more incensed than anything else. I really, really, really, just wanted to be home and I had a good idea how far west on Lakeshore I was going to have to go before I’d come to a street that would take us to Highway 69 where I could head east toward our house. My few minutes from home turned into nearly a half an hour.

We did make it home safely and in one piece. And I acquired a new appreciation for traveling in winter weather. Honestly, I don’t know how folks back east deal with it all winter. Seems like there would have to be a lot of accidents, frayed nerves and cursing.

I know it might still be hard to imagine that it snows in Arizona, but I have lots of pictures to prove it. I’ve included one at the beginning of this post. It is the front yard of the house we had in Dewey, AZ.

Just in case you absolutely have to drive while it’s snowing, I’ve put together a few tips to help you:

  1. Just make any left turn from the outside lane. It’s probably the one most traveled in and more likely to be free of ice. Chances are there won’t be too many other foolhardy people on the road anyway. Hopefully.
  2. High beams are of no use whatsoever in an ice fog. And that trick people tell you about wearing your dark glasses is bull pucky.
  3. Allow way more stopping distance than you think you will need. Even then you’ll need more. Sometimes a lot more.
  4. Stop well back of the car in front of you. This allows you to test your stopping ability before rear ending them. Then too, it allows you some “wiggle” room when the person behind you looks like they are about to rear end you.
  5. Try not to stay out after dark. Previously clear roads will turn icy in the blink of an eye.
  6. Remember that ice will form first on the bridges.
  7. Do not make any sudden changes in direction even if you think you are going slowly enough.
  8. Do not do anything else but drive. I’m serious about this. Turn off the radio, do not have a conversation with any passenger, do not consult a map, and absolutely do not talk on your cell phone. Driving on snow and ice requires your complete attention.
  9. Keep at least one blanket in your vehicle in case you do have a problem. Some water and a few snacks are a good idea too. You can’t rely on emergency vehicles getting to you quickly.
  10. When you do get home safely, congratulate yourself and have a nice hot cup of something soothing. I did.
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Published by Dianne Lehmann

I'm a writer. But I'm also a wife and a mom to a couple of fur babies. You could call me a cook (but never a chef, I'm not that good) and provisioner as well. Laundress? Yeah. Probably. I design jewelry and I crochet. But mostly I love to write. I love words and how they sound. I love their meanings and origins. I love stringing them together. And of course, I love to read. Thinking about it just now, I realize that what I love most is life and the people around me with a special place set aside for my wonderful husband, our adorable dog and our inscrutable cat. It's the world and the people in it that fuels my writing. So thanks to you all for being the amazing beings that you are.

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