Once, on a deserted rural flat stretch of highway I went 125 mph, a speed where I hit a small bump in the road and thought I’d taken flight. The car was low to the ground, aerodynamic, with handling so tight I usually felt glued to the road. I steered tight circles on clover leaf entrances to freeways while accelerating above 60 and it hugged the road. I loved how I felt when driving that car – so powerful, so in control, able to do whatever I wanted.
But for all its greatness, my car had one significant flaw. It hated snow. The tiniest little snow would fall hit the ground and my car was in a panic. It didn’t matter that it had a special button to push for just such driving situations, my baby would be humming along fine then suddenly the back wheels had a mind of their own and I was sliding across a 4 lane highway into oncoming traffic.
One beautiful New Mexico winter day – blue skies forever, sun bright in the sky, I drove to Los Alamos to meet some former co-workers for lunch. The restaurant windows faced east and I was enjoying the company. From the west, out of my view, clouds began to gather. The sun disappeared and everything took on a gray cast. Realizing that a storm was moving in, I said my goodbyes and headed east down the mountain, the storm in my rear view mirror.
The local radio shared a major storm warning and said the Lab was closing early. I knew that meant there were 3,000 employees leaving work all at once and not far behind me. But I was outrunning the storm and felt good. Until I hit Nambe. A tiny fork in the road where my drive turned south. Within a few minutes the snow was falling and the roads were wet. I slowed and cars began to pass. Then I saw it. The huge hill. 5 lanes going up, all but one now covered in snow.
I had driven that highway hundreds of times when I worked at the Lab, and I have only one memory of that hill. In my memory the hill is a mile straight up. The road is covered with 2 feet of snow and ice. And my expensive car, my machine art, is terrified. The truth is the hill, while big, was maybe a quarter-mile slow incline with only enough snow to turn the road white.
I start up the one clear lane and my car loses power. My speed drops – 75, 65, 55, 45, 35, 25…I’m now going 15 mph up this mammoth hill, maybe half way up, and I realize I’m not going to make it. The back end of my car starts sliding. I look in the mirror and I’m thankful to see there is nobody directly behind me. I do the only thing I know to do – I steer into the slide. The car makes a graceful exit from the one lane into the snow-covered lane to my right. I continue to slide toward the railing 4 lanes away so I turn my wheels even more into the slide. And my car stops. I can’t tell if I’m on the asphalt or the dirt. All I know is I’m not dead. But then I realize I am still in a lane and I am blocking traffic. Because now the 3,000 cars have reached the hill and they are zooming by me. The little compact cars, the big pickup trucks, the vans of carpoolers. Driving through that snow as if it’s nothing, honking at me to get out of the way. Only I can’t. My emergency lights go on and I sit stunned.
I hit the “help” button above my head and a nice man comes on the speaker. They can’t tow me if I’m not off the road. And while they will send a truck it’s a very painful hour away. Snow plows are now whizzing by me spraying my machine art with a mixture of sand and salt. Two highway patrol cars approach and a nice officer walks over to my car (yes, he can walk on the road my car can’t drive on) and tells me politely but directly to get out of the way. I explain that my car won’t move. He laughs and doesn’t believe me. I have one of the most expensive cars on the road, it MUST move. He stands solidly on the barely wet asphalt behind me and pushes the back of my car as I slowly accelerate. It slides into the lane to my left. I am now blocking 2 lanes of traffic. He shakes his head and mutters. His car has big bumpers on the front for pushing cars out of the way, but he has no desire to touch my expensive car with his patrol car and risk scratching my bumper (even though I’ve assured him I’m fine with it.)
I think out loud: since the car is rear wheel drive, if I drive in reverse will it perhaps not slide? He has no idea but he says it’s worth a try. So he positions his patrol car at the bottom of the hill, blocking traffic, and I began to back down the hill. Slowly. It’s a sports car and I have many blind spots, and driving backward is not my strength. But I do it. I manage to get to the bottom of the hill and off to one side, about 100 yards from the start of the hill. I’m still creating issues but at least I’m no longer blocking multiple lanes. The officer calls the snow plows and they clear the lane in front of me. He suggests I get a running start, get my speed up as much as possible on this patch of clear road and ride it to the top. Oh and he blocks all 5 lanes of traffic so I have the entire hill to myself.
I don’t want to. I want to sit at the bottom of the hill until everything is clear and dry, but the forecast for that is days away. So I gather all my courage. I hit the gas and my car shoots forward, 0-60 in 3.5 seconds. I’m now doing 80 mph as I roar up the hill. The lane in front of me is clear as far as I can see. I have the gas to the floor and my car is flying. Until it isn’t. I feel the car sliding again. My heart is pounding and I’m holding my breath. Once again something takes over and I steer into the slide and feel the tires catch the asphalt. My speed slows but the car keeps moving. I’m ½ way, then ¾ of the way, down to 25 mph with the peddle to the metal, praying my momentum will carry me. And it does. I hit the top of the hill and I breathe. It takes me another 3 hours to make the rest of the 45 minute drive home, up a couple more large hills, several patches of sliding. Fifteen miles from home the skies clear, the road is suddenly dry, and my beautiful white car is covered in snow, ice, sand, salt, and muck when I pull in the driveway. The storm bypasses Albuquerque all together and it’s a beautiful sunny winter’s day. All that’s left is my machine art covered in mud, sand, salt and ice, slowly melting in my driveway.
Since that day my life has sometimes been out of control. In fact, I’ve realized that despite thinking otherwise, my life has always been out of my control. Oh sure I can make plans and decisions and I do. I can hang on for dear life but other people will still move off in their own direction. I can pick a particular heading and follow the path I’ve chosen. And I do. But routinely I realize that I’m sliding off to one side or the other. At points I’ve been utterly surrounded by well-intentioned people giving me advice on how to get unstuck. My best friends pushing me from behind. Me holding my breath and afraid to move for fear I will slide again. But I always move.
And I dream of that hill. Not in the way you’d expect – waking up in a cold sweat from a nightmare about it – but more of a reminder. Steering into the slide, feeling that mix of adrenalin and calm while the ground moves beneath me.
When my life starts sliding off to one side, I now try my best to go with it. When I’m stuck, I try backing up. When I get a sense that the road ahead is clear, I floor it. I let my friends push me from behind. I remind myself that fear strikes when I’m sitting still, worrying, thinking of all the possible outcomes. Once I’m moving, even if I slide, my heart takes over and it’s as if I just somehow know what to do. I do catch myself holding my breath at times, I feel my heart pounding. But these are good things. These feelings mean I’m actively engaged. And the slides are just a momentary diversion until a snow plow clears the way.