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How Far Can You Drive With Your Eyes Closed?

November 27, 2013

I need a car for a trip to Sacramento.

Sorry, can’t help you.

Huh? Why not?

See the snow outside?

Yeah.

That storm came off the Pacific. Donner pass is totally socked in. They aren’t allowing anything except four wheel drive vehicles through. And we don’t have any left.

Now what?

It was 10:00pm on a Wednesday night and I was standing at the rental car desk in the Reno airport. My car was 80 miles to the East with what would turn out to be a very expensive broken fuel pump. A complete stranger had driven 160 miles round trip to bring us to the airport. I had my ten year old daughter with me and she had a surgery appointment at Shriners hospital in Sacramento at 10:00 the next morning.

Ok, you’re supposed to be good at problem solving. THINK! What are your options?

Look, I know you’re just doing your job. I need to be in Sacramento tomorrow morning so she can have surgery.

I wish I could help you, I really do.

What other rental companies operate out of this airport?

Well. . .I guess I could check with them. Sit right here and let me see what I can find.

My daughter was past the read a book phase. She just wanted to lay down somewhere and go to sleep. I didn’t blame her. After over 12 hours of travel, I was ready for bed myself. And even when we got this current problem solved, I still had hours more driving to Sacramento. . .in the snow.

Okay, here’s what I found. Most of the agencies won’t rent to a walk in this time of night. If you don’t have a ticket, you have to wait until the morning. I did find one company that has a car that they will let you have tonight. But. . .

What, is it not a four wheel drive?

Oh no, that’s not it. It’s a Jeep Cherokee. Great in the snow.

Well, then what?

It’s a little pricy.

Oh?

Two fifty a day plus mandatory insurance.

I’ve gotta be there by the morning. I’ll take it.

It’s the storm. The prices go up.

Yeah, I know. Hey. Thank you so much. I appreciate you tracking it down for us.

Good luck with her surgery.

So, one more problem down. The only thing left was to drive the 130 miles to Sacramento, down Donner Pass, in a blizzard. The nice thing was that it’s pretty much impossible to get lost headed from Reno to Sacramento. You take I-80 and stop when you get to Sacramento.

My daughter quickly curled up in the back seat and went to sleep. The beginning of the trip wasn’t bad. It was snowing, of course, and it was even sticking to the freeway, but visibility wasn’t too bad, and the Cherokee handled really well. We made good time. . .until.

The state patrol had a roadblock set up at the top of the pass. The snow was about 6″ deep on the road and it was still coming down hard. I watched the California highway patrolman direct one car after another to a crowded parking lot. He was letting several of the semi trucks through. As I approached he simply waved me through. Maybe, it won’t be so bad? It started, not exactly bad, but certainly cautious. Windshield wipers going full blast, the heater keeping the inside toasty. My daughter peaceful sleeping in the back.

Eventually the wipers were having trouble keeping up with the snow. They managed to keep the wiper area mostly clear, but the rest of the windshield quickly filled up with snow. I was peering out through a white tunnel into a white expanse of white. And the snow got heavier. I could no longer see the road. Soon, I couldn’t even see the markers on the side of the road.

I’ve often wondered how it was possible for people to end up driving off a broken bridge, simply because their GPS told them to turn. I thought, “Don’t those people have eyes?” Now, I understood. My entire world narrowed down to a single set of tire tracks in the snow in front of me. I couldn’t see the car or truck that had made them. The truck was frightenly close somewhere in front of me. I would occasionally see a flash of brake lights in the cotton blanket that I was driving through. I was going to follow those tire tracks wherever they led. If the truck was in the ditch, I’d never be able to stop in time. I wasn’t going very fast, but with the grade of the pass, and the slick snow, I had to constantly fight to stay on the road. And the snow continued to come down heavier with each passing mile.

Mile after mile, I followed those tracks. And then they were gone!

And I realized that not just the tire tracks were gone, the entire world was gone. The windshield was simply white. I couldn’t see the tire tracks, I couldn’t see the road signs, I couldn’t see the hood of the Cherokee! For a terrifying moment I was completely blind. I thought I understood whiteout conditions. I didn’t. Not before that trip through a frozen hell.

Just as quickly my limited visibility came back. Should I stop? Where? I have no idea how far it is to the shoulder. And what then? I can’t sit on the side of the this mountain all night.

So, we pushed on. me trying to choke the steering wheel to death, my daughter blissfully unaware. The whiteout conditions were a constant companion, always hovering at the edge of my vision, occasionally swooping in to stop my heart.

I did realize that there are some signs that are really irrelevant in a blizzard.

Speed patrolled by aircraft
Bridge may be icy

And my favorite

Food ahead. . .Arctic Circle

I can’t tell you how long we took to creep down that mountain. It’s like those times you think you hear a sound in your empty house and you tense up and strain your whole body to hear a sound that isn’t there. Except that I kept that vigil for hours upon hours.

Donner Pass is 7,000 feet above sea level. Sacramento, although far inland, is at very close to sea level.

Finally, the snow started to lessen. The tire tracks turned from white to grey and then to black. Eventually the snow started to mix with rain and the road reemerged. I let go the breath I’d been holding since the top of the pass. I sped up to about 40 mph and felt like I was flying. The adrenaline rush carried me all the way into Sacramento, where we checked into our hotel very late and left a wake up call for 7:00.

Whew. I never want to repeat that drive.

The next morning dawned bright and clear, like many California winter days do. We made it to the hospital in plenty of time and the surgery went spectacularly well. Shriners is a great organization.

20131127-011154.jpg

The day after the surgery was Friday. I was very aware that each day I kept the Cherokee I was being socked for nearly $300. A series of calls to the garage in Fallon where my broken Suburban was at arranged for a new $1000 fuel pump to be installed. Friday morning, I headed back the 130 miles to the Reno airport to return my four wheel drive, limo. I also called the guy in Fallon who had driven me to the airport.

I’ll be at the Reno airport about eleven. Would you still be possible for you to meet me and give me a lift into Fallon?

No problem. See you there.

Sometimes you meet people that owe you very little and give you an immense gift. He was one of those guys. The drive from Sacramento to Reno was as different from the earlier drive as it’s possible for two drives to be. It was during the day. The sun was shining. The snow was gone from the roads and it was bare and dry. The scenery, that I’d barely got glimpses of last night was gorgeous.

I returned the rental car and road with my Good Samaritan back to Fallon, about 250 miles from Sacramento. My Suburban was ready to go. I got it about 2:00 in the afternoon and immediately turned around and drove back to Sacramento, another 250 miles. I realized that I had just driven as far on Friday retrieving my car as I had earlier getting from Utah to Fallon.

So, what did I learn? Some important things. Some silly things. And some humbling things.

I realized that our entire adventure could have been avoided if I’d just taken my wife’s advice and flown.
I learned that Problem Management skills serve you well in many situations.
I learned that Donner pass in the snow is no fun.
I learned a fuel pump will cost you $1000.
I learned that no matter how bad things are, they can get worse, and if you keep your head they will get better.
I learned there are genuinely good people in the world: my Good Samaritan, but also the Shriners who never charge for any of the care in their hospitals.

I’m grateful for those people.

My daughter had several follow up visits over the ensuing months. We fly now.

(This is the second of a two part series on how Problem Resolution Management helped me get my daughter to California through car breakdowns, and blinding snow. Yesterday I related the kindness of strangers.)

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.

Follow him on
Twitter (@rodneymbliss)
Facebook (www.facebook.com/rbliss)
LinkedIn (www.LinkedIn.com/in/rbliss)
or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

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