Driving On Ice

image of Council, Idaho, Winter 1989, Tim shovels snow a few weeks after black-ice night-drive from California

Driving “Emma” the truck from California to Idaho

TUESDAY, December 27, 1988.

Tim: We got a late start but made it without incident from Santa Cruz to Fairfield …

Frances: … where we stopped and I used a pay phone to get the weather conditions: Highway 80 was open, but chains required at Applegate, which is just up from Auburn. Wind warnings on Altamont pass, no campers, no trailers. The road from Redding to Burney was closed. All the side roads that we took coming down from Idaho were now closed. Chains required on Highway 50. We’re ready to go!

Tim: Outside Sacramento we topped off both gas tanks and the jerry can, then dumped the remainder of the under-slung 60-gallon water tanks and blew them out with compressed air. We had about two gallons of drinking water in various indoor containers. We drained a gallon of water out of the radiator and replaced it with anti-freeze, so the engine was now protected to minus thirty degrees Fahrenheit, according to the little measuring gauge. We opened up the engine cowl and topped off the oil. Then we drove on.

Sure enough, by the time we reached Auburn (elevation about 1000 feet), it was snowing, snow all over the place. “Chains required beyond here.” And we were going to 7000 feet. There would be much more snow tomorrow. For the first time, we would need to put on the tire chains we bought in Cambridge, Idaho, only a short time before, on our way back from New York to California. Luckily we had thought ahead and gotten the wheel wells cut out by our friend Charlie while we were down in Santa Cruz, so I would be able to reach around and install the chains on the hefty load-range-E tires. But we still needed to get some elastic tighteners to hold the loose links snug.

We stopped for the night in a Safeway parking lot, hoping that we’d be undisturbed. It was 9:30. Frances made onion soup from a package and it served us like a feast. We finally got the bed down after shuffling and miggling and variously sorting the boxes and the instruments and all the other indispensable stuff we were carrying. We got a good night’s sleep in our cozy warm bed before the next day when we would have to go out and face a blizzard.


We woke up, bought some things at Safeway, then went to an auto parts store and bought the chain tighteners. Soon we were on the road again. From here it starts getting steep, and we went up thousands of feet with no problem. No snow on the road, it had mostly been plowed off and the remainder melted. This was a big surprise because we had no radio to help us stay updated on road conditions and the weather forecast. So we continued up and over the summit and down to Tahoe, and just drove right on through Reno. Stopped for gas beyond Sparks. Then just kept on going. The road was pretty dry and it was mid-day. Frances took over the driving while I played the old beach guitar. Mile after mile at our standard cruising speed of 47 miles per hour. It started getting colder, down into the teens. Even with the fan on high, the heater couldn’t keep up with the air coming in through the leaky door and window seals, although it did manage to keep the driver’s corner of the cab warm. With Frances still at the wheel, I turned on the electric blanket and got into bed. Took about a forty-five minute nap.

Frances: It was more than that!

Tim: It was warm and cozy, a simple luxury. I got up rested and alert. Finally as evening drew near, it must have been up around Lovelock, I took over the driving. Frances got in bed and moaned about how good it felt. I was tempted to park somewhere and join her, but we had momentum going, so I drove on. To take a bit of the nip off the air (we could see our breath inside), I turned on the propane oven in the back of the truck. It put out some heat, and there was no danger of asphyxiation, thanks to the constant breeze inside. When we got to Winnemucca and left the freeway behind, Frances called her daughter Suzy in New York.

Frances: Dan answered. Suzy was in the hospital, she was very sick with  dehydration from not being able to keep anything down. For three weeks she’d been lying on the couch throwing up everything.

Tim: We gassed up again, for the long push. Frances got back in bed, and we drove north to McDermott and beyond on the old 2-lane road. It was completely dark by then. The temperature dropped as far as eight below zero. (Every now and then I’d shine a flashlight beam out onto the thermometer I had attached with bailing wire to the supports of the big rear view mirror, to see where the red alcohol line stood.) Right out of McDermott there was a lot of black ice, patchy in places, then solid ice for miles. The snow had mostly been plowed but the remainder must have melted and refrozen into a lumpy surface. The ice was a constant reminder of the two winters I had lived in Fairbanks, Alaska, twenty years before. And the long bumpy road reminded me of the 1100 miles of bone-rattling that I had experienced while driving the Alcan Highway.

We pushed on. At one point a big tractor trailer rig was off in the ditch, but it was upright and there was no sign of life, so I kept going. Mile after mile. I sang and whistled and tapped out interesting rhythms. We got into Jordon Valley around ten o’clock and I gassed up again. We pushed on and finally came to that abrupt downgrade where you lose a couple thousand feet or so and enter the Marsing area in the southwest corner of Idaho. It warmed up to about five above zero. We drove on, road still icy, just clinging to US Highway 95. As we finally approached Interstate 80, I saw a car spinning out and coming to rest at the side of the road. The driver must have decided he was going the wrong way, east instead of west on the freeway. Trying to turn around on the cloverleaf, he started slipping on the grade of the overpass and gave it too much gas, tweeting out and doing a big spin there on the span. I watched the whole thing because I was approaching with good headlights. That driver was learning how to drive on snow and ice with almost no traction. You can’t just step on it, you have to be gentle with your acceleration. He did regain control at the last minute though, and no harm was done. Frances woke up and I pointed out the car while telling her what I had seen.

We kept on going and going and finally made it up to Payette. There was still lots of ice on the road and snow at the shoulders. We continued. It’s about fifteen miles or so between Payette and Weiser. But only a few miles into that stretch, a very dense fog set in. At one point I was creeping along at five miles an hour, and I didn’t know if we were going to make it. You couldn’t tell where the road was because the shoulder and the ditch (that I remembered from long before) now looked indistinguishable: grimy white in the murky fog. Dirty ice obliterated the middle line and there was no contour to be seen, all dips now filled with snow. I could see an occasional marker post along the side of the road, but they were far apart and hard to see through the dense fog, and what part of the landscape were they planted in anyway? It was very tense. Luckily there was no traffic at all, we had the road to ourselves. We crept on and on at what seemed like a walking pace.

Eventually, just before Weiser, it began to clear up. We pulled into the town, famous for its fiddle festivals, and I said, “This is enough, we’re not going any farther.” It was about 12:30 AM. We stopped for the night on a little side street. I lit a stove burner in spite of the risk and turned it down low, then closed the heavy curtain behind the front seats to hold in a little bit of the warmth, even as the wind outside carried most of it away through a gentle indoor breeze. Of course the electric blanket had been on all during the drive as the 100 amp alternator fed the 120 volt inverter and the five deep-cycle marine batteries, so Frances was nice and warm under the winter covers. I turned off the blanket, crawled in and went to sleep.

When we woke up the next morning we couldn’t see out the windows, they were covered with snow on the outside and had a thick layer of ice on the inside. It looked like we were living in a walk-in freezer. I wanted to stay warm in the bed while Frances got up to make her signature strong coffee, but all our water was frozen, so we bit the bullet and just got up, stumbling over boxes and instruments that monopolized nearly every square foot of the narrow floor. No wiggle room to put the bed up, it was a cargo shelf when we were driving. And of course the water system and drain, the toilet, everything wet was frozen up solid. We scraped off the inside of the windows onto towels, and dumped the ice. Frances went out and cleared the outside of the windows. She suggested using the windshield wipers and, lo and behold, they worked. So the new snow that was falling, at least we could keep it cleared off. I got a wire nut from the hardware box and fixed the passenger side defroster fan, and suddenly we could defrost that window. I started the engine, having changed to very light-weight oil in California, and warmed it up for a long time with all fans going to spread the heat. Then we drove a few blocks to a restaurant with a fiddle on its sign, and enjoyed coffee and pancakes as though we had just hit civilization after nearly starving in the desert.

Back outside, we were parked in about eight inches of snow. But the truck took right off without any traction problem at all. In fact on the entire trip, we never slipped once, which was phenomenal. It’s a very heavy truck and we did have good tread on those tires, a combination highway and off-road tire. Load range E, wide radials that put a lot of rubber on the ground. The combination of weight and tread, by George it was great. We never did need our chains. So there’s a hundred dollars of unnecessary expenditure. Maybe we needed them “just in case”. Oh well, I was sure glad I didn’t have to get out there on my back in the ice and put them on.

So we drove out of Weiser, going slow on the solid packed ice, and the next challenge was Midvale Hill. We were beginning the grade, only about a quarter of the way up, and we came upon a wreck: a head-on collision between two compact cars. They were both totaled, the corners of them destroyed beyond repair. Someone had come down the hill too fast and shifted into low gear, that’s what the lady said, lost traction, went skidding onto the wrong side of the road, into the other car. No one was hurt except for a minor cut. We gave two of our big long flairs to a couple of guys who were trying to warn oncoming traffic. If we’d had our walkie-talkies with us we probably would have offered them to the guys for a while because they were trying to allow either uphill or downhill cars to go in the one open lane, but not both at the same time. Anyway Frances got out and put her arm around the lady who caused the wreck.

Frances: She was reticent at first.

Tim: But she did warm up to you, I saw her arm around you. She needed some comfort.

Frances: She said, “The Lord was with us.”

Tim: We took one of the traffic control guys up to the top of the hill so he could warn cars far in advance to slow down gradually. The road had been sanded, which kind of melted into the ice, and our traction was good. We went down the other side of the hill slowly in third gear, we poked down, because downhill is the dangerous way. You can’t use hit the brakes or your front wheels will lock up and you can’t steer. We got to Midvale without incident, then chugged on into Cambridge. Cambridge was still all iced in and deep in snow. Frances called her daughter, Suzy, and talked to her for quite a while. She was in the hospital, and feeling pretty down, but she was in good hands, and Frances told her she should stay.

Frances: She had been suffering from migraine headaches at home, and she was delirious. The whole right side of her body went numb. She said when her face went numb it really scared her. She was in such pain that she couldn’t see, she had lightning bolts shooting out of her eyes, and of course Dan wasn’t there, he was at work. Her friend had to take her to the hospital. Suzy wanted to keep the baby against all odds.

Tim: We took off and drove up to Council. Went to the store. Frances bought a big turkey and all the stuffing and potatoes and peas for a celebration dinner. We went to the post office, where we had rented box 583 before heading down to California. Finally we had an address of our own, which was amazing after living so long on wheels. Frances used the pay phone (no home phone) and called her daughter Debbie back down in Santa Cruz. I wrote a card telling my folks that we’d arrived safely, and dropped it in the mail box. Then we drove over to the apartment, parked the truck in our own special spot, and walked the path to our front door. Put in the key, turned it, twisted the knob, and pushed open the door. The front room was just as we had left it, empty except for the wall-to-wall dark brown carpet. I suddenly grabbed Frances against her loud laughing protests and carried her over the threshold like a babe in arms. I felt like a king with a new castle and a new bride. I put her down on her feet, and we explored our space. Turned up the water heater and the thermostat. Fell immediately into planning mode – where would things go? Soon it became clear that with the “hot” water still too cold for bathing and the rooms still too chilly to afford us comfortable flopping, the obvious thing to do was to bring loads of stuff in from the truck. We got dressed in warm clothes – long johns, double pants and socks, tall boots – and started carrying armloads through the falling snow. Our boots crunched on the path between little walls of snow about two feet high, produced when the snow that fell during our quick trip to California was shoveled or plowed. Meanwhile, the old guy living next door was shoveling snow from his own path, probably for exercise and to make future shoveling easier. We exchanged hellos and returned to our respective tasks.

Frances: I carried seven or eight armloads and you did the rest, because I was slipping and falling.

Tim: But you were organizing the house, having the time of your life. You’re a natural born organizer. By now, you have the kitchen all done, the book shelves going up, the instruments in their places, and your office with the Commodore-64 word-processing computer set up. I have the robot workshop coming together, and you have the turkey in the oven.

Frances: There’s no way we could have had all this stuff in the truck, it wouldn’t fit. But it did. We must have compressed it or something.

Tim: It’s amazing. We have floor space now. For us a one bedroom apartment is gigantic.

Frances: Not too big though. Not even too big at all.

Tim: We have the little recording studio in the livingroom, and a bedroom with the bed made, complete with electric blanket. We have a closet with clothes hung in it, and another one near the front door for coats. Last night you jump-started the first rehearsal in our new digs. You played your new Keytek keyboard and I played my cello, which was fantastic. Felt like I hadn’t played Ludwig for a year. But then we got hit with a power failure and suddenly it was dark, totally and utterly pitch dark. It went on for about an hour. We used flashlights and candles – candles especially during our hot bath. I figured the best thing to do with last night – in the dark – was to go to bed. We fell asleep easily, happily, deeply.

And that’s the end of this trip journal. Anything else to be written is not part of this journal because we’re home and we’re gonna stay for a while. Over and out.

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