Friday, October 29, 2010

Scary Scary Drive

Friday, October 29

My mother and I drove from Los Alamos up to Salt Lake City a week ago today. We spent the night in Monticello, Utah, a little Mormon town with a Temple, a couple of inexpensive but clean motels, and an interesting little grocery store. I was a bit surprised to see so much Mexican food there, including moles,  nopales (bottled cactus), and pan dulces in the bakery section. They aren't used to foot traffic, we were almost run over by a giant semi tractor trailer that was turning as we crossed the street. I swear the driver never saw us, and probably walking people was the last thing he expected to see in the darkened street.

We drove to Moab the next day and had breakfast at a darling cafe at the north end of town. Most places appeared closed, which seemed odd to me in such a tourist town on a Saturday morning. This little cafe also sold antique collectables from shelves placed in the windows, ledges around the walls, and I think even the furniture was for sale. We placed an order and were given a plastic banana so when the food arrived the waiter could find our table. I've been given little flags, numbers, even colorful bandanas in places like this, but plastic fruit was a first. The coffee was excellent and the food good. We visited with a man who eats there two or three times a week when he's in Moab. He was a geologist at a nearby mine, working on contract, and lived in Ft. Collins Colorado. I love how people are willing to visit with people they've never seen before and will never see again. It's not just passing time, it's that quintessential human experience of visiting, learning something about someone, and maybe in some off-chance, it will somehow change your life.

The drive north through Utah was a stark desert drive with dark low shifting clouds and light play on the BookCliffs and that rough country west of Green River. I would have enjoyed seeing the museum of Natural History again in Price but we were in a bit of a hurry to get to SLC and go to IKEA. You see we were IKEA virgins and had heard how wonderful the experience of an IKEA is. We had no idea. It is situated about 30 miles south of Salt Lake City, a huge blue warehouse visible for a couple of miles down the freeway. We got there at 1:30 and didn't leave till 4:30. Didn't buy anything either, that would happen the next day. Just getting out of there required a store map, a compass, and my cunning navigation skills as my mother began to feel quite sick and we needed to leave. However the Swedish meatball plate, greek salad, and the array of desserts made eating in their cafeteria an experience, and one we would repeat on Sunday! We never did figure out what had made her feel sick.

After much driving around in the area where my son used to live, an area I thought I could find my way around in again, we found a hotel and checked in. Mom said she just wanted to rest, sleep cures most ills, so I dressed up and went to my friend Steve's 50th birthday party. He and his wife Sue have lived in SLC now for about 9 years and I've visited and stayed with them often. Our mutual friend Becky from Eugene Oregon was there and we had a wonderful time. There were about 25 people at the party. Sue's old friend Andrea, a chef and caterer from NYC, made the food and was herself an interesting and entertaining person. It was nice to see Jo, Steve's mother and Sue's mother too. Both have moved to SLC to be near the last grandchild for both of them. All the other grands have grown up, but Andrew is 12 and could still use some grandma influence. This is one family that has stuck together. When the kids moved away, the parents followed. So many families are scattered all over and some kids don't ever get to know their grandparents very well.

Steve got to have all his important women there for his big birthday. I was his neighbor 25 years ago in Albuquerque. I introduced him to Becky, my old friend from high school, and they dated for a while. Then broke up amicably, and eventually Becky introduced him to Sue whom he married. So, if it weren't for me, Steve would not have the life he has now. His path would have been down an entirely different road. I think he's very happy with his life, so I feel no guilt.

On Sunday, I visited with Becky and Andrea for breakfast, then Mom and I went back to finish our IKEA experience. I was specifically looking for a desk to put into a 5 foot wide space in my bedroom. IKEA had exactly what I needed, plus we purchased all kinds of other stuff including a bag of frozen Swedish Meatballs, some salty licorice, dark chocolate, and lingonberry preserves. IKEA stuff comes in build-it-yourself pieces, which fortunately all fit into the van and we were on our way.

Early Monday morning, long before sunrise we headed east on I-80. It was raining and by the time we got up in elevation the rain became a blizzard. Huge flakes splatted against the windshield and monster trucks, acting invincibly, zoomed past us and pummeled my view with slush. I'm surprised the wiper blades didn't fly off the car they were moving so hard and fast. It was tense going so when we reached an intersection with a gas station I pulled off and we went in for coffee and a potty break. Of course everyone who came through the door had a weather related story. Further on it was bad news, slick roads, no plows through that section yet, etc. When it was daylight we went on. The roads weren't too bad, slick in places so we never got above 45 mph. I could tell this route to Boulder was not going to be a simple 8 hour trip. We stopped at the visitor's center in Evanston. The wind was howling and snow blew across the road like a blizzard. I had to pee so badly I was about to burst.  I shouldn't have drunk all that coffee at the gas station. The visitor center's electricity was out, so the two ladies running the place wouldn't let us use the restroom. Their toilet flushers are electric! OMG, our culture has become so dependent on electricity we can't even flush the john by ourselves!

My mother noted that the men's room had doors on the outside of the building, so we casually walked out of sight of those women, then dashed into the men's room. Mom held the door open slightly so some daylight would come in, and we took turns using the handicapped toilet. I guess someone else probably flushed it after the electricity came back on. I wasn't about to leave any yellow snow in that wind, even if there had been some bushes to pee behind!

Across Wyoming, there is wind. Perpetual strong wind, and these days: wind farms. I never saw so many of those giant windmills. In one particularly icy stretch, when we could barely go 20 mph, I spotted a ridge and did a quick count of ten, then visually multiplied it to get around 60. I know they cost at least $1million apiece, so that is quite an investment by some company. And every one of them was whirling around like a kid's pinwheel on a stick. I wonder how much of that electricity is used to flush toilets?

In that same area, on the opposing lanes of I-80 a trailer had been blown apart. The tractor and the flatbed of the trailer were on one side of the two lanes, and all the goods, aluminum skin and frame were on the other side. I was busy trying to stay on the road. Mom said she couldn't really see what the contents of the trailer were. Looked like mattresses and boxes of fluffy stuff to me the few times I was able to glance over. There were several emergency vehicles but the tractor was upright and I doubt the driver was hurt. What a mess though!

We gassed up in Laramie and had dinner downtown. We spotted several steak houses, but when we walked up to them after parking, they were all closed for business. We spotted a bar but they didn't serve food. This is a university town! There ought to be bars and food everywhere. Eventually we did find a nice little restaurant that served buffalo burgers and sweet potato fries. So, filled up, we headed south on 287, the old north-south road that goes all the way into New Mexico.

I had no idea what I was facing. The reports we'd gotten from gas stations and truck stops along the way showed little weather in that area, it was all to the north, but as the road climbed in altitude, the road went from dry to wet to black ice. On one hill, I gently pushed the brakes to find I had no traction at all. So I slipped into second gear and slowed down, kept a steady grip on the wheel and just went around the curves hoping we would not go straight off a cliff. Climbing up the pass, a truck was tailgating me and I kept slowing down. He must have noticed he had no traction either because at the top of the pass several trucks were pulled over. I pulled in front of them, and so did he. We just sat there for ten minutes. I tried to quit shaking and spent a little time flexing my hands, they'd both gone numb from gripping the steering wheel.

"What do you want to do?" my mother asked.

"Well, it's not going to get any better, so spending the night here is probably not an option. If we can get to a lower elevation, it should warm up. But who knows when that'll be?"

I discovered that if I kept to the shoulder there was a little snow for traction and the rumble strips gave at least one tire a grip on the road. We oozed down the pass at 15mph and eventually the black ice turned back to wet pavement, and I could drift back into the road. I noticed that nobody had followed. For the entire drive to the bottom of the pass there was just blackness in my rear view mirror. On dry roads we picked up speed and made it to Ft. Collins by 8:30. It was another hour and a half to Boulder but it was smooth sailing after a break in a grocery store parking lot to stand up, stretch, and celebrate our safe passage.

We pulled into the Barta's driveway at 10:00. Sixteen stressful hours after we left Salt Lake City. Whew.