December 21-22, 2012
The Mayans supposedly predicted the end of the world on December 21, 2012. The world may not have ended, but it sure felt like it. It had been nearly forty-eight hours since the snow had stopped falling, and I had only ventured outside once to take in the carnage. A huge tree branch had fallen in the front yard; many other trees and power lines were down in the neighborhood. Many people were busy shoveling their sidewalks and driveways, and the streets were still covered with snow and ice. That much was expected, but I figured at least the freeways would be clear for our upcoming trip to California.
Gokul picked me up a few hours into the night, and we threw a ton of climbing gear into the back of his Outback wagon. We picked up Zoey from the bus station, and were on our way. The car seemed full, yet we knew we'd have to squeeze in a fourth person for the long drive home. While filling up the gas tank on our way out of town, a lady begged us to jump-start her car. It took a good ten minutes to get her engine to turn over, during which time she made it clear to us that her battery had been going dead for the last few months and she had never bothered to replace it. We were hoping for some serious road karma after our good Samaritanism.
Gokul drove the first few hours through Wisconsin and northeastern Iowa. Ice covered the right lane most of the way, but the left lane remained clear and we were able to drive at sixty-five for the most part. I took over after Dubuque in light traffic and stole many glances at the waxing gibbous moon while listening to a book where the author explained how much trouble NASA went through to put a flag on the moon. Every now and then I passed a car in the ditch, which was always a ghostly snow-covered sight.
As we approached De Moines, the road got significantly worse. Ice was packed onto both lanes and I slowed to about thirty MPH. The frequency of cars in the ditch went from one every five miles or so, to one per mile, to ten per mile. Eventually it was impossible not to see at least one car off the road at any given time. Semis, too – they were jack-knifed in the emergency lane, on their side in the median, and one trailer even looked like it had exploded. I had never seen such carnage and was terrified of becoming part of it – with so many other cars in the ditch, it would take days for us to get out. Traffic was light at 3:00 AM, but soon cars got bunched together and there was always that brave/stupid soul who would attempt to pass everyone on the really icy lane. The rest of us kept our hazards on and tried to stay on the road.
It took over two hours to get outside the city limits and I needed a mental break. My fingers were sore from gripping the steering wheel so hard. Later we would read the reports of seven-hour traffic jam delays around De Moines during the worst of the storm. I didn't keep track of how many cars I had seen in the ditch, but I'm sure it was at least 400. Plus 30 semis. I was surprised any cars were still running by the end of it. We had fallen several hours behind schedule, but were glad to get out unscathed. Gokul took the wheel back and soon was able to drive the speed limit, but there were still occasional patches of ice in the road. He was always prepared for the slippery parts, though, because there was always a car in the ditch as a warning signal to slow down.
We spent most of our daylight hours driving through Nebraska, the state that never seems to end. But finally we were in Colorado and decided to stop in Boulder a couple hours before sunset. There wasn't enough time left for the climb Gokul wanted to attempt, so we settled for a walk to the top of Sugarloaf Mounatin, which was 9633 feet high and gave us a great view of the Front Range of the Rockies and got our blood moving in anticipation of things to come.
I took over after we got through Denver and was rewarded for the previous night's white-knuckle experience with a drive through the Rockies past towns like Breckenridge and Vail. There were some steep uphill and downhill grades, and I was amused by a sign urging drivers who had lost their brakes not to exit the freeway at the bottom of the hill. That seemed like obvious advice, but there wouldn't be a sign if someone hadn't already done it. It was my first time above 10,000 feet in nearly five years, so it felt great to be in the mountains, if only for a bit.
Our plan was to camp near Moab, Utah and spend the next day climbing, but that didn't work out. It was after midnight by the time we go there, and it was only twelve degrees outside, much colder than the forecast had predicted. It wouldn't get warm enough for us to climb the next day, so we'd have to settle for some more hiking followed by an overnight drive to California. The decision to skip Moab was easy in that context, so we pressed on and drove through the rest of Utah, a tiny corner of Arizona, and Nevada. After barely seeing anything for hours, I was amazed when Gokul woke me up and I saw the shimmering lights of Las Vegas from miles away. You never get to see towns for twenty minutes before reaching them on Wisconsin's freeways, so this was a mind-blowing experience, and a signal that our drive out west was nearly complete.