I remember my first solo flight into a snow-filled ditch. I was 17 or so, driving a red ’83 Lynx (Mercury’s version of the Escort), headed to my high-school girlfriends house 20 minutes away. It had snowed in the morning, then warmed during the day to a slushy mess that froze into deep ruts in the evening. I could feel the car’s tires jumping sideways, trying to find a groove, as I drove — still, I was going too fast. Finally I caught the right rut, and it spun 180 degrees and then sideways into a snowbank.
I blinked, exhaled, and let my hands fall from the wheel. I thought a moment, then tried the accelerator to move the car forward. The tires spun. I tried reverse. Same.
I put the car in park, shoved open the door and stepped knee-deep into snow. No way I was getting out. Some Lynx.
I walked a short distance to a nearby farmhouse and asked if I could call my father. They obliged — probably even offered to pull me out, but I figured Dad would want the honor. He rumbled up 10 minutes later in Old Blue, a multicolor F-150 4×4, circa 1978, with a homemade plow on the front. He described what he figured happened, and was spot on, as usual. Then he hooked the pickup onto the Lynx with a yellow nylon tow strap and jerked the little car clear of the ditch.
“You want me to follow you home, or are you gonna follow me?” I asked.
“Aren’t you going to your girlfriend’s?” he replied.
“I just figured since the roads are bad and you had to…”
He cut me off: “The only way to learn to drive in it is to drive in it, so get going — but slow down!”
I’ve been off the road a few times since, all from driving too fast for conditions — but not in years, knock on wood. I’ve finally learned the age-old lesson of the tortoise and the hare: slow and steady wins the race.
Note that it’s “slow and steady” — not painfully slow. And not fast, like the foolish hare. Slow. And steady.
I raise this issue because each year in Minnesota, we commuters experience what I’ve come to call the First Snow Freak-Out. When the first snow sticks to the road, no matter how much or how little, how wet or how powdery, most of the driving population immediately divides into one of two camps:
- 85 percent go hypervigilant — these you can tell by their wide, scared-rabbit eyes peering past the wheel and into the snowy haze; by their clenched teeth and white knuckles … and by the fact that they aren’t moving.
- 10 percent go snow-leopard, roaring past the gridlocked masses, blazing their own trail around, over and through whatever is in their path, slinging road grime on on the windshields of the hapless herd, and laughing into their cell phones … until Mother Nature casually flicks them into the median.
The remaining 5 percent pass our 30-miles-in-2-hours-40-minutes commute by shifting our manual transmissions from first to second and back and improvising profanity laced lyrics to the Christmas carols on the radio (only the secular ones; the Christian songs afford the opportunity to weep).
Thirty miles in two hours and forty minutes. Because people couldn’t grasp the concept of a consistent 30 miles an hour. Three-quarters of an inch of snow on the pavement, and I saw cars snared in sumac, perpendicular to the roadway. I saw a semi facing the wrong way alongside the interstate. I saw two crumpled SUVs on the shoulder. And I saw miles and miles of brake lights.
And the truth is, it happened during the second snow, because the first came in October but didn’t last. Everyone forgot their autumn lessons, so December provided remediation, I guess.
Fortunately, this snow seems to be staying. That first evening was awful. The next day I worked from home, but the traffic reports were terrible. When I returned to work the following day, the roads were clear and dry, and stayed that way until yesterday. New snow in the morning, and traffic moved a consistent 15 to 20 miles an hour — too slow, perhaps, but at least steady.
Today, everyone was in sync. Congratulations, Minnesota — you survived the First Snow Freakout. Again.