Each year, when the first round of truly wintry weather arrives, I think back to a desert I decided to drive across years ago, during a sudden mountain snowstorm, and to how close I came to being stranded out there — just me, the snow-covered cactus and ocotillo, and thousands of copies of a newspaper I’d already read.
This happened in Texas. I worked for a newspaper in the Big Bend that was printed on a press several hours away, but there was a designated drop-off point only about an hour from the newspaper office. Our driver would pick up the papers there, bring them back, and then he and the rest of our circulation crew would distribute them.
One early January, late afternoon, a snowstorm sprang up unexpectedly and began dumping blankets of heavy snow on the region just before our driver was set to leave for his newspaper run. I couldn’t believe how much snow was falling, and how fast. On one hand, it was beautiful. I watched for a while. The spell was broken when I eventually stepped outside and sank to the tops of my socks in the powder that had already accumulated, realizing instantly what a mess the roads around us had to be.
Our driver, meanwhile — standing there, holding the keys to the newspaper’s van — looked as though he’d glimpsed a snow-swept, uncertain and perhaps bleak future for himself. He seemed like a nervous wreck.
Suspecting that they were about to become relevant … I began thinking back to my own experiences driving in similar conditions — which had been fairly successful. Prior to this, I’d worked for years at the foot of the Ozarks in north Arkansas, where it was common to drive not just on snow, but on sheets of ice at times. The newspaper company I worked for up there had a policy that prohibited missing work because of the weather. All of us got plenty of practice, and I’d come to think of myself as a fairly proficient inclement-weather motorist.
I looked outside, looked back at our driver, and said: Let me have the keys, I’ll go get them — be ready when I get back. And off I went into the snow.
Fast forward half an hour, and I was the one staring into a snow-swept, uncertain and perhaps bleak future — and I was the nervous wreck. I could barely see through the swirling snow and the ice accumulating on the van’s windshield, and so much snow had fallen that in places I couldn’t distinguish the road from the desert. I was basically driving by “feel” — at a snail’s pace — to try and stay on the pavement, worried that if I left the road, that would be that. My concern was reinforced as I crept past several cars that had indeed become stranded.
I began to worry that I’d overestimated my inclement-weather competence and was about to wind up stuck out there until the weather cleared or help arrived. But I slowed to a crawl, drove what seemed like an inch at a time, and controlled my momentum. Finally, I made it to the rendezvous and back. The rest of the evening was a cakewalk by comparison, and the papers eventually got out.
But the trip felt like a close call. I remember it now each time I’m about to venture out, by vehicle, in really treacherous weather.
There aren’t always options. “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” — that doesn’t apply only to postal carriers. People in many professions, including the news business, strive to take a similar approach.
But when it comes to the really bad stuff, I don’t blame people who have a choice for avoiding it when they can. You can become practiced at just about anything, sure, even driving on ice when necessary. But for every motorist, there’s a storm that has your number — and given Mother Nature’s unpredictability, you never know whether it’s the one you’re driving into.
John Dilmore is editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this column are those of the author.