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When whiteouts seem like forever

Essay by David Feela

Mountain Life – February 2003 – Colorado Central Magazine

SOMETIMES IT CAN’T BE HELPED, that long drive across the West, rolling the odometer like a slot machine that promises to pay off with just one more spin. The gas gauge hovers around “half” and it looks like you’ll get there without stopping again in the middle of who knows where. Home is all you think of, the familiar walls, the mattress that remembers the curve of your hip.

So you settle in, determined to take it fast. The sign at the side of the road says 60 miles to home and you think, glancing at the speedometer, that at 60 mph, it’s just an hour before you get there, the place where you belong.

Though the weather report promised snow before the end of the day, the road has been easy, the sky, a little soft but certainly tolerable. Nothing left but to turn off the cruise control and find a new line on the speedometer. A few snowflakes begin flickering against the windshield, but you expected that. And it’s simple stuff, 60 miles and 60 minutes. In an hour it will all be over.

Two songs into your favorite tape, the snowflakes start to stick. You flip the wipers to “intermittent” and sit up a little. You’ll have to adjust. The snow is starting to accumulate like static on a TV screen, but it will pass, you know it, it always does. The next signpost announces 50 miles to where you’ll be laying your head on the pillow. You check the speedometer and notice you’ve been forced to drop down to 50 mph. You think, looking at your wristwatch, so what! In an hour this will be finished. One hour and you’ll be warming your insides, not caring what the outside does.

The tape is finished. Through the windshield, if you let your pupils stay fixed to that point where the flakes converge, it’s a little like being hypnotized. Time itself appears to gather at the vortex of your vision. The whole sky seems to spin yet you feel motionless. The mile marker you just passed indicates 35 miles and you’ll be inside the city limits where the streets are plowed. If you slow down just a little you’ll not only be safe, but you’ll be home. The speedometer reads 35 mph. Just one thin hour and you’ll be there if nothing happens, and what could happen? You’ve got it under control.

When the snow turns to sleet, driven like rock salt from a shotgun, you’re wishing you were stuck behind the semi you recklessly passed 25 miles back. Those taillights burning red like the devil’s own eyes would be a welcome sight. Visibility is so poor not even the glow from the town you know must be out there in front of you appears.

IT’S AS IF every familiar touchstone has been obliterated, the landscape altered so that it exists in no place but your memory. You roll the window down so you can brush away a chunk of ice that’s stuck to the wiper blade. It’s impossible to stop the car because you’ll never get moving again; it’s that slick. Your fingers are numb from trying to knock the ice loose, so you decide to navigate by watching the side of the road through a rolled down passenger window. The heater fan screams, hot air competing with the rush of cold.

Then a beacon of hope shines against your headlights: a metal sign assures you 10 miles is all that’s left. Thank goodness, just 10. Daring the two fates of accident and death, you take your eyes off the road for a frightening moment to see how fast you’re traveling. At first it doesn’t seem possible, so you check again. It’s gotten this bad: 10 mph! Simple math tells you you’re still an hour from the safety of your home.

It occurs to you that at this rate you may never reach home. Some arch├Žologist will find your remains centuries from now after they’ve been deposited by this circumstantial glacier a few yards from the spot that would have been your doorstep. You will be labeled “chronoman.” Crowds of onlookers will file past what they believe to be an elaborate steel coffin, gawking at the strange burial ritual of a vanished civilization. You will be another King Tut, set out for display. Your exhibit will tour the earth, fascinate children’s imaginations and inspire commuters as they set out for the stars.

David Feela is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado ( He is a freelance writer in Cortez, Colorado.