PonBon and LADude
By purchasing property up on the ridge, we doomed ourselves to decades of icy highway travel any time we ventured out during the winter, but more so in March and April, than earlier. The old saying on Bell Springs Road is, “You are more likely to have a white Easter, than to have a white Christmas.” I am certain that it can be explained more by barometric elements, and the way the trade winds shift and undulate over the arctic air masses, than what it was that we wished for. In the early years, we actually liked snow; then we got schooled.
In any case, I am the designated driver in the snow, or on the ice. Originally, when we first moved up here, I took that role, based on my experience in Korea, while in the service. My experience was extensive, but only on flat land, never in the mountains. By virtue of the fact that limited experience is superior to no experience, and I immediately began to gain experience, I have always been the ice man.
I have had my share of frightening moments, the only indication being that of my white knuckles, because it does not do to alert the powers that be, to anything that might resemble danger. She just doesn’t respond that well to tense situations. However, frightening does not compare to terrifying, especially when you throw in a careening big rig, attempting to thread a needle.
That graphic image is brought to you by just such a setting, as I was mentioning, late one March, while on our way home from school. We had left the house that morning, walking, at six on the dot, in the hope that we could get up to the top of the driveway, and chained up, by 6:30. Then we at least stood a chance of making it to town by a little after eight. We had never even bothered to sign up for the phone tree, to better be able to maintain contact with the grapevine, because by the time we would find out that school was indeed happening, it would be too late for us to leave home and arrive there in time.
Now it was after dark, and we were making our way up Rattlesnake Ridge, which peaks out at 1,953 feet of elevation, high enough to have been assaulted all day, with a steady influx of the white stuff. As we drove, the highway, which was routinely plowed throughout the day, was now imbued with ice, our headlights creating a dazzling array of diamonds, reflecting the light off of a billion ice crystals. We were not in any hurry, and with our four-wheel-drive Trooper, we were in no danger of getting stuck.
Unfortunately, others do not adhere to the slow is mo’ approach, and we were passed at one point in a vehicle with LA tags, a little sporty number, whose bearing clearly stated, “I do not have to be careful on ice, because I am not smart enough to recognize my own danger.” We see them all the time, and try to stay out of their way. I figured out in 1990, when I began going to town six days a week, (That has a familiar ring to it, “Six Days a Week”) that the twelve or so minutes that it took me to drive the eleven miles into town, could not be pared down enough, to warrant taking a chance with my safety, and that of my passengers.
The reason LADude should not have been tooling along at such an unsafe speed, is because he/she could not know with any degree of certainty, what lay before him/her. Maybe in LA, there are no impediments to smooth sailing, but up here, even in the most balmy of circumstances, we still have our dear deer, to keep us from getting too lead-footish, because doing so comes back to haunt us, and we end up doing the Merry-Go-Round [and round] on ice. Where Merry ends up, no one knows, least of all Merry. Sometimes she winds up in peculiar circumstances.
Thus it was that LADude came around that curve on Brushy Mountain, still with no outward signs of distress, until that is, he realized that there was an old, full sized, Pontiac Bonneville, a relic from a bygone era, stopped in front of him. PonBon had been traveling the same route as LADude, but with a lot less vigor, and had finally ground to a halt, almost in the center of the right-hand lane. As a matter of fact, the elderly driver had been approaching the whole snow/ice issue, with a considerable amount of caution. As the ice had built on the highway, PonBon had slowed down accordingly, getting increasingly alarmed at the queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. His caution controlled his actions, until such time as he found himself allowing the old dinosaur to slither to a halt.
He’d had nowhere to go on the right, except into the trees; the center of the highway, an unplowed lane of accrued snow, was not an option either. He’d found the center lane to be frightening because of the proximity of southbound traffic, none of which seemed to be functioning the way that one might have hoped.
LADude had no time to contemplate what had transpired, before he realized that unless he changed his course-immediately-he could not avoid plowing into PonBon. Therefore, instinctively, he flicked the steering wheel to the left, intending to correct, as he skirted danger. Unfortunately, his sporty little unit, skirted the Bonneville, but then set out to establish a few new paradigms, before LADude knew what was happening.
By the time the spinning sportster came to a rest, it was in the southbound lane, perpendicular to the highway, and completely blocking all through traffic. This was an unfortunate development for pretty much all concerned, because barreling down Brushy Mountain from the north, was a big rig. I have no idea what sort of company or industry, was represented by this truck, I only knew that it had lights outlining the entire width and length of it, and that length was prodigious.
I say “pretty much for all concerned,” because we were now included in those concerned, because if the big-rig were lucky enough to thread the needle, the slit available between the two vehicles, currently blocking egress and ingress, from both the northbound and southbound, It would then be heading pell-mell, right at us. We had swung around that same bend, a minute earlier to see the end results of the aforementioned difficulties, with then about two seconds to assess the situation.
Even had I been able to chart a course of action in my mind, that would have been all I could have done. There simply was no time. The pilot of the big-rig had not been speeding; he was chained up, and he appeared to be fully loaded down. The pilot was an ace. He had no more time than I to see, evaluate and act. His first impulse must have been, “Bail out time!” because there did not seem to be much alternative.
The lane in which he traveled, was blocked. The northbound lane was blocked, and the center divide lane was thickly padded with a reminder that he had chained up for a reason. I have never been at the wheel of a big-rig, so I will not pretend that I knew what he was thinking. I only know how he was acting, because those lights were brilliant, outlining every move.
He had far less time than I to assess; it was instinct all the way. He was coming down in our direction, and he was chained up, so he had control, as long as he did not have to hit those brakes too firmly. Jackknifing is always a possibility, so when you throw in snow/ice and neither lane open, you have limited options.
He began by steering to the left, so as to go into, and across the center divide, trusting in his weight and his chains to keep him under control. He then aimed back for the center, so that when he hit it, he would not only thread that needle between the two stationary vehicles, but avoid me on the way through, also. If he originally only swings into the center lane and then corrects, he comes out slamming into me. It was all unfolding in front of us, as we sat there immobilized by PonBon.
I have dissed on truckers because they made erratic maneuvers; I have maligned truckers, because they often seem to hog the road because they are bigger than us; and I have criticized them because they go too fast. But I have never said one mean thing about a trucker who put it all on the line, one snowy March night, leaving me, and my family, simply open-mouthed in astonishment. I have never gotten down on a nameless, faceless, masked hero, who thought fast, and acted quicker, to send me and mine, on our way. I never got to thank him either.