It was 12 p.m. and I regrettably commented to Luke, “Man I wish we could’ve gone snowboarding today.” He raised an eyebrow and responded “Who says we can’t?” Our mutual friend Dustin called us earlier, raving about the freshly fallen snow, saying it was one of the best boarding days of the season. Real snow at Mountain High, the local resort that normally pumped the fake stuff, was a big deal. It was one of those gloomy winter days that made it hard to distinguish when the sun was up or down. “Freshly fallen snow” was a nice way of stating it’s a fucking blizzard up on the mountain. Not acknowledging this, we grabbed our boards and headed east on the 118 freeway to Pearblossom Highway.
Considering we might be driving up a windy, snowbound, icy mountain, we borrowed a friends set of tire chains. He drove a full size Ford F150 truck, I was driving a 91 Toyota Corolla. No one did the math. We stopped at Charlie Browns, a half way point that served everything from tri-tip sandwiches to banana splits. We finished our lunch and started back on the road around 2 o’ clock. I’m not sure if it was running through his mind, but the fact that the sun in California on a January day sets at about 4:45 was racing through mine.
We turned right on Largo Vista where the green sign with white letters reading “Mtn High” directed us. We drove steadfast up the straight away leading towards a snowy peak resembling the matterhorn. The windows were shut and my radio scanned unsuccessfully for stations. As a test, Luke rolled down his window to check the temperature. A brisk wind entered the car and chilled the air, defeating the efforts my heater had been making for the past two hours. He quickly rolled it up and we continued.
The sky grew darker and darker with each turn. All around us was what you might call a “winter wonderland”. To me, it looked like we’d soon be sharing the same fate as the Donner party. Every car heading down had chains. The first two I thought must be overly cautious. After seven or eight went by, I knew we had a problem.
“Accelerate, get some speed, and drive through it.” Luke instructed, referring to the dark patch of ice. To the left was a family engaged in a snowball fight. They must have given up on skiing and pulled over to have a little fun. I envied their disposition and wished Luke and I could join them for a few jolly rounds of snowball throwing and angel making. Instead we pressed on and coasted through the black ice, making our way up several slow turning cliff sides, each more treacherous than the next. Luke persisted that I keep on the gas to maintain our momentum. Going around a blind left turn less than a mile from the resort, my steering wheel and wheels stopped cooperating with each other. My dads Toyota Corolla graciously spun up the hill. We stopped when we hit an embankment.
My car had turned itself sideways and lied horizontally in the middle of a two lane road. We sat quietly, not sure of what to do. “Looks like we’re gonna have to use those chaaains!” Luke said as he stepped out the door and fell flat on his back. “A bit slippery?” I asked. He carefully got up, holding on to the side of the car for balance. I checked the backseat before I went out, hoping to find a pair of gloves or boots or a beanie that wasn’t packed in the trunk. No luck. I opened my door and was greeted by a rush of cold air that pierced through my sweatshirt and jeans. I held on to the side and let myself slide down to the trunk. My hands were stiff and numb and I fumbled to get the keys out of my pocket.
“Hah-ha-have you ever pa-pah-put on chains before?” I asked Luke, my voice trembling.
“No. Have you” . . .
. . ” No.”
He reached back and pulled them out. He examined them as the metal jingled and clamored in the wind. “Alright.” He said confidently. “It’s simple. We just lay these out straight behind the back wheels, reverse over them, and connect them here.” he explained, pointing to an open link at the end.
After much effort trying to lay the chains behind the car while keeping ourselves from sliding down the icy road, we finally had them in place. “Ok, now get in the car and back it up about a foot or two.” he ordered. I got inside and placed the key in the ignition. I put my foot on the brake pedal and released it cautiously. The car slid uncontrollably down ten feet. “Oooook thats good, now stop . . no STOP! . . you went to far! . . waaaayyy to far Brian!”
Trial two. Chains in place again. “Easy this time, go very slow” he condescendingly instructed. I inched down until I saw a thumbs up in the rear view mirror. We tried connecting the chains. Feeling like my fingers were going to fall off from frost bite, I moved quickly. Luke stood outside while I turned the engine on and put it in drive. I accelerated on the gas and heard clamoring of metal, followed by the sound of tires spinning in place. I looked at Luke who was now shaking his head in despair. For the first time, it seemed like he didn’t know what to do.
“They’re way too big” he admitted. I got out of the car to see what happened. “There’s no way they’re gonna stay on.”
I looked over the cliffside we were stuck on. It was an endless sea of snow covered pine trees fading into fog. The sky was filled with dark grey clouds that looked like they were waiting for the perfect moment to hit us with a hail storm. Just on the horizon was a tiny spot of an orangish red where the sun was trying to peek it’s way through. We had about an hour until complete darkness.
When all hope was lost, we heard the crunching sound of a car making its way down the road. It was a Ranger. “Thank God!” I thought, “We’re saved!” Imagine the luck! The first car we come across just happens to be a Ranger!” We walked toward the jeep waving our arms, trying not to slip. They slowed down and shouted over the wind “You guys better move your car out of the road! You’re gonna get yourselves killed!”
We looked at each other in shock as they slowly drove away. It was almost dark and people would surely start coming down the mountain. We slid the car as far from the road as possible, then decided one of us should stand at the top of the turn and warn motorist to slow down. Luke manned the lookout station while I waved my cell phone in the air, trying to find a spot where I could get service and call AAA. A black SUV came down the hill first. They must not have been expecting to see a teenager standing in the middle of the road flailing his arms, because they slammed on the breaks and started sliding and spinning down the hill. They stopped when they hit my car.
Now there were three of us trying to get service and two people at the look out station. Another car shortly followed. A white truck with no chains that did the exact same thing as the SUV. Our party was quickly growing. “Nobody brought chains?” Where were all those people I saw before?” I wondered. Pretty soon a young lady in a blue tercel joined us to make it a four car pile up. Luke left his station at the top to come down and check things out. There were plenty of others up there now.
I looked down the road and turned to Luke. “Hey umm . . . what if we . . ” I looked back again. “What if we just backed the car down the road and out of the ice?” I proposed. He looked at the same strip of pavement my eyes were focused on. “Hmm and then what?” he asked. “Well then we umm . . you know . . turn around and go home.” he slowly shook his head in agreement.
I got in and let go of the break while Luke gave a small push. Everyone in the now three car pile up watched me coast about 15 feet down where ice no longer covered the road. Luke hoped in the car, I made three point turn, and we drove down the mountain leaving everyone else behind.