ANN BAILEY: Winter driving affirms respect for the power of Mother NatureMany things in life get easier with practice. For example, tasks such as giving our horses shots, mastering how to use my cell phone and writing stories have become much less daunting after doing them for a while. But there are a few things that I still dread, regardless of how much experience I have doing them. One of them is winter driving.
Many things in life get easier with practice. For example, tasks such as giving our horses shots, mastering how to use my cell phone and writing stories have become much less daunting after doing them for a while.
But there are a few things that I still dread, regardless of how much experience I have doing them. One of them is winter driving.
Though this is my 17th winter of commuting from our farm near Larimore, N.D., to work at my job at the Herald in Grand Forks, I still have feelings of trepidation on mornings when I wake up and it is snowing and the wind is blowing. I know that, at the worst, the snow and wind will combine to make visibility poor, pile up drifts on the gravel roads and cause the highways to become slick. At the best, I’ll have to deal with one of those conditions.
For me, driving on the highway when the visibility is poor is the scariest. I’m not as fearful when I’m navigating the gravel roads because I can inch along as slow as I want and it’s unlikely anyone will pass me. Actually, it’s unlikely I’ll see another car on the road. The traffic on the road that runs by our house is so minimal that it’s cause for comment if my family or I see an unfamiliar car drive by.
It’s a different story, though, on U.S. Highway 2, which is well-traveled, especially during my morning and evening commute times. Crawling along isn’t a good plan because it’s pretty likely a less cautious driver either will rear-end my car or fly by me and leave behind a thick “snow fog” that creates white-out conditions. I try to maintain a moderate speed and keep distance between the cars ahead of me and the cars behind, so if I do have to slow down until I can get my whereabouts, I won’t hit or be hit by another car.
Another unnerving situation when it comes to highway winter driving is slick roads. This year highway driving has been especially challenging because the wind is constantly blowing and sifting snow across the roadway. I use the same strategy driving on slippery roads as I do in driving with poor visibility and try to maintain a respectful distance between me and my fellow drivers.
I hope it doesn’t make me seem like a vengeful person, but I have to confess that I have a feeling of satisfaction if later, on down the highway, I see one of the cars that raced by me in the ditch. My gut reaction is to merrily wave at the drivers who are outside of their cars, knee-deep in snow as they assess their situations. However, I suppress my initial uncharitable response and keep both hands on the wheel.
Another driving test I’ve faced more times this month than I have some entire winters, is driving on gravel roads that have multiple drifts. The poor road conditions aren’t the fault of the county road maintenance crews, but the result of constant snowfall and wind that makes it nearly impossible to keep the roads clear. For example, on a recent windy day my family and I were at my mom’s shoveling snow and saw the plow come by. When we drove home a few minutes later, we couldn’t even tell the plow had been over the road.
Plowing through the drifts, as anyone who has experience driving on gravel roads knows, requires a balanced attack. You have to drive fast enough so you don’t get stuck, but you don’t want to go too fast and hit a hard drift that will cause damage to your car. Again, I try to take a middle ground and go fast enough so I won’t be shoveling my way out of a drift and slow enough so I don’t create work for the repair shop.
Navigating the roads also can result in some thrills. The other day, my children got a kick out of bucking through the drifts on the way to school. They laughed as the car went up, then down as we plowed through a particularly long series of drifts. The biggest drift of them all was immediately in front of the railroad tracks we cross, so I was glad to see that there was no train in sight. I gave the car a little more gas just before I hit the drift and we made it through without getting stuck, but just barely.
My next big challenge occurred a half mile farther as I approached the highway. I could see there was a big drift at the stop sign on our road and there were cars traveling by on the highway, so I stopped well before the highway and waited until the cars passed and then made a run for it. I made it through that drift, too, and heaved a big sigh of relief when I reached the solid ground of pavement that had been plowed.
The upside of winter driving is that making it through the drifts, like successfully navigating through snow fog and staying on the highway when it’s icy, gives me a sense of accomplishment.
The challenges that the weather creates also is a constant reminder of the power of Mother Nature. It’s a power I respect and when weather conditions are unsafe for travel, I stay home. When it comes to battling the weather, especially, I believe that discretion is the better part of valor.