My windshield wipers began to freeze, so I stopped at a gas station in Ely (it rhymes with “freely”), Nevada, to wipe them off, but it was so cold all I got was a bunch of streaks that ruined my view. After leaving the station, I headed down a mountain with more twists and turns than a roller coaster, hoping to hit Vegas within three hours. After five minutes of distance between my car and Ely, I was totally alone and the snow had caused the visibility out of my windows to shrink to nearly zero.
Without the ability to see, I missed a left-leaning turn that took me away from the side of the mountain and toward the mountain itself. My steering wheel didn’t work and my car skidded like the time I played broomball and couldn’t stop on the ice with my sneakers.
As a native Angeleno, it was hard for me to remember whether or not I was supposed to brake or not brake when driving in snowy/icy/rainy weather. Now I know: Don’t brake. I pulled the steering wheel right, but my Corolla continued left, sending me headfirst into a four-foot pile of white winter goodness at 50 miles an hour.
Having never driven in this amount of snow before, I didn’t know what to do, so I tried to drive my way out. Exhaust leaped from my tailpipe, but there was no movement. I shut off the radio and hoped to cash in one of those 100-mile tows promised by AAA, but my phone had others plans.
“Searching for service,” it read.
Five long minutes passed before I saw the headlights of another vehicle. I jumped into the passenger’s seat, threw open the door and flailed my arms. Where I come from, we don’t stop for people in need, but this wasn’t California. A guy pulled up in his mini-van with two kids in the back. I pleaded for help, but he said he didn’t have any chains. I told him about not having cell phone service and he gave me a look that suggested he already knew that. His solution was to call the highway patrol once he got into an area where his phone would work. That area was ten miles away. He asked how much gas I had and luckily, I was full. He told me to stay in the car with the heater on. So I did.
I like to think of myself as a smooth brother, but I was way out of my element. I began to shake, partially from the 25-degree weather and partially from the fact that I was fucked.
Time has this funny way of moving in super slow motion and a rapid-fire pace when the shit hits the fan. It could have been five minutes, it could have been twenty. All I knew was it felt like a motherfucking eternity before another vehicle stopped.
A figure emerged from the darkness and, thinking I was about to be killed, I heard the song from “Deliverance.” But I was wrong. It was two teenagers asking if I was ok. A minute later a man well into his senior citizen discounts at movie theaters pulled up and offered help.
“There’s a shovel and chains in the back if you pull ‘em out,” he said. Before I could get to his truck, one of the teenagers jumped in and got to work. I explained to everyone that I was from LA and was completely useless when it came to all things snow. No one seemed to mind.
The kid scooped like there was a million dollars hidden somewhere underneath, looking for a spot to hook the old man’s chain to. Then another guy in a truck rolled up. He was rocking a cowboy hat, scarf, thick moustache and even thicker Western accent. Right away he introduced himself to everyone and used his first and last name as he shook hands. He took one look at the other teenager and said hi as if he knew the kid. Because he did. Something about him knowing the kid’s parents. I crashed in fucking Mayberry.
I didn’t want to seem ungrateful, but I had to get back in the car to warm myself because after three minutes in snow wearing winos, white socks, Dickies and a stretched long underwear top from the Gap, my toes went numb and my face felt like it was being poked with millions of tiny needles. From inside my car, I watched as these four men dug snow and hooked the chain. After it was attached, I got out so I wouldn’t seem like a jerk.
Once I explained that I was headed to Vegas, they suggested heading back to Ely and taking the other route because it was quicker. Wanting my nightmare to be over, I asked if they thought that was a good idea and they all said it was. Each assured me the weather would be better on the other road and I told them I would think about it.
The old man got in his truck and gassed it. Like a dentist with a wisdom tooth, my car rocked back and forth before popping out. I rolled down my window, thanked everyone for all their efforts, flipped a U and followed the cowboy to Ely. On the way back, not only did the snow stop, but two plows came marching down the hill. I had a good mind to follow them, but I had already battled this road and lost. I wasn’t in the mood for round two.
I pulled into a gas station with a restaurant called Taco Time inside. Near the front door were three people eating – two men and a woman each with skin more leathery than the next. The loudest guy had long graying greasy slicked back hair and was dropping f bombs like nothing. I ordered a veggie burrito and somewhere between me walking in and my ordering, the dude went into a full-voiced rant about wanting to fight the other guy. A minute earlier, these three wastoids were laughing about the sort of shit that only spaced out freaks could laugh at and the next, they were fighting. And there I was, four feet away, hoping they didn’t turn their backwoods rage toward me.
The burrito at Taco Time was by far the worst I’d ever had, but the food served its purpose as I got enough clarity to decide to stay the night in this town, even though it was only 7:30 and my destination was a few hours away.
I got in my car and before I could turn on the ignition, a knock came through my foggy driver’s side window. I jumped in my seat because there was no reason for anyone to do that. I opened the door and there stood the cowboy.
My new friend told me that he stopped at the store after seeing me pull into the station. He explained that he was headed down the other highway and suggested I follow him. At this stage, I wasn’t so sure, so I asked him if that was a good idea considering I just crashed my car because I couldn’t drive in this mess. He told me that I had one summit to go, which would be no longer than thirty miles. He swore up and down that the weather would be different. Like an idiot, I believed him.
Before we left, the cowboy instructed me to stay close behind and watch his lights. He lived somewhere down this pitch black road and knew exactly where he was headed. All I had to do was follow. Unlike my previous venture, this highway was comprised of a slow-moving caravan of about ten cars, which caused me relief to know that if I crashed again, at least there would be people around to help me instantly.
Three minutes in, I knew leaving Ely was a mistake because the road was worse than the one I crashed on. It had not been plowed in hours, which meant I was riding my chain-less tires on nothing but snow. My wipers hadn’t worked for at least an hour and were clearing only a tiny section at the bottom of my windshield. To compensate, I hunched over and drove with two hands on the wheel like my 90-year-old grandma. The defrost was on full blast, but all that did was create an unnerving buzzing noise throughout my vehicle.
I wanted to pull over, but it was so dark I couldn’t tell where that would be safe. The headlights of cars behind me meant I couldn’t stop. I was stuck with no way out. For assurance, I kept telling myself that my cowboy friend would get me through this.
Ten minutes in, the cowboy decided to pass a slow-moving mini-van. This was the single most dangerous moment of my entire twenty-nine years of existence and this guy was passing on the left with no regard for oncoming traffic that no one could see until it was too late.
With cowboy gone, I opted to throw on my brights for more visibility. All that did was show me the snow, not the road. A second later, I turned them back off.
Eventually the caravan made a left turn. My tires skidded and I nearly ran into a big rig on the other side of the road. To my right was an area where a few truckers had pulled over to sleep. Here is where I learned a valuable lesson about vehicular travel: If truckers – professional drivers – aren’t willing to carry on in apocalyptic-esque weather, neither should I.
Twenty minutes after we made the left, the mini-van with the bicycles on top decided it didn’t want to be first in the caravan anymore, so it pulled over, leaving me with no one to follow. One time, when I was about 12 years old, this car pulled up to me and my friends and pointed a gun at us. It could have been fake, but it was scary as shit nonetheless. This moment was more frightening than that.
Each time a car passed in the opposite direction, a large splash of snow, water and dirt covered my windshield, meaning what little visibility I had was gone for about five seconds. Maybe I was being dramatic, but I honestly thought I was going to die and cursed myself for not getting a room in Ely. I’ve been burned badly many times in Nevada, but those usually had to do with getting drunk and handing over way too much cash to a stripper milking me for her baby’s diaper money. I would have given anything to be in that position.
I was scared and wanted out of the situation in any way that wasn’t death. Then, like a lake in the middle of a desert, there were lights to my left. Whatever it was, that was where I was stopping with the intent of sleeping in my car. The closer I got, I saw the lights were a gas station and a motel. In literally the middle of nowhere, a ray of sunshine beamed through the darkest, most overcast day of all time.
The finish line was near. I slowed my car from the twenty-five miles an hour I was driving in hopes of making the left turn into the parking lot. But without chains, that wasn’t happening. I missed the turn and panicked. Not stopping was the equivalent of driving the rest of the three-plus hours to Vegas and there was no fucking way I was doing that. So I did what made perfect sense at the time: I hooked a left into a football field – sized patch of snow just off to the right of the driveway. I wasn’t thinking this at the time, but once I got stuck it became clear what sort of mistake I made. There was a separate entrance for the gas station about ten yards ahead that I could have made, but I had to intentionally drive into a patch of snow.
I got stuck and gunned it hoping to move to the driveway. No dice. For the second time in about an hour, my car was immobile thanks to snow. This time was intentional, but I was still very concerned.
At least I’m off the road, I told myself.
I threw on my gloves and beanie and hoofed it about two hundred yards to the motel’s entrance. Walking through three feet of snow made my feet numb within a matter of seconds. Still, I pressed forward. Behind the counter was a 70-year-old woman wearing a gray shirt with a USA flag on it. Before I could finish asking for help with my car, she said, “Oh, are you the guy who just drove into the snow? I watched you do that and wondered what you were doing.” If I wasn’t so shaken by the night’s events, the usual piss and vinegar that spews from my mouth would have made for a great comeback, but tonight was not the night for vitriol conversation.
The woman was much more concerned with small talk regarding where I lived in California and how she spent thirty years of her life there than she was with my car being three feet away from passing automobiles on the road. I kept veering the conversation back to my vehicle, but she wouldn’t budge. I gave up hope and figured my Corolla was fucked, but I wasn’t, so not all was lost.
Finally she called over to the gas station to inquire about whether or not they could help. They couldn’t. Then she told me how she thought the gas station shouldn’t have women working at night, totally unaware of the hypocrisy dribbling from her peabrain. She dug through the phone book, but each tow driver she saw listed came with a “Nope, he ain’t gonna help you.”
A man entered asking about room rates and I thought he was crazy to even debate whether or not he should stay. This place could have been $500 a night and I was going to pony up. She told him it was $56 and he headed out the door. I ran after him and asked if he would help me. His face said no, but his mouth said yes, which was good enough for me. Like a smart person, he changed his shoes and put on three coats. While he was doing this, I went back inside to fill out paperwork.
He came to get me and we walked to my car. He asked where I was coming from and I told him Ely. He and his wife and four young kids were going in that direction and he wanted to know what it was like. In no uncertain terms, I told him that was not a bright idea and basically begged him to stay. But all he could talk about was how he’d done that drive before and how it couldn’t have been that bad. I took a mental note not to pick up a morning paper for fear of the headline “Man Who Wouldn’t Fork Over $50 for a Motel Room Kills Family.”
Like the twist we all see coming in a bad Hollywood flick, the cowboy pulled into the driveway as this stranger and I walked to my car. Somehow he saw my idiotic maneuver and decided to help me for the third time that night. I got behind the wheel and hit reverse while the two men pushed. Nada. We tried again. Still nada. Like before, another truck pulled up and a man got out. He didn’t have a shovel, but did have a large stick that he used to scoop out the snow from under my tires. These three men picked up my car from the hood and got me out of the snow, but not before the cowboy fell face first, which in hindsight, was really funny. My car moved, but I wasn’t out yet, so we gave it another shot. I had to wait until I saw no headlights on either side of the road because I wasn’t taking any chances. This time the men got me out with relative ease and the cowboy stayed upright. Slowly I flipped a U-turn and drove into the parking lot, but not before I rolled down my window and thanked the three men. I told the cowboy I would never forget him and I meant it.
I went back inside the lobby to finish paperwork. Through the reflection of the glass door, I saw a major grin that suggested a weight of epic proportions had been lifted.
I was alive.
My car was in one piece.
And I was out of the snow.
It was a pain in the ass getting my stuff out from the trunk and my feet were beyond numb, but it didn’t matter. I set the car alarm and it went crazy, turning itself off after I locked it. It did this three times and I gave up. There was nothing of any value in there and anyone who wanted to steal my ride had to endure what I had just gotten out of. Had someone decided to do such a thing, I would have wished them luck.
I undressed and left major chunks of snow in the room. For a second I tried cleaning it, but I was too tired to care. I washed my hands and face, watched Jeopardy on the Game Show Network for five minutes, flipped off the TV and went to bed.
The mattress was hard, the sheets were tucked too tight, the hot water was lukewarm at best and the heater didn’t work. But I didn’t care because an uncomfortable night’s sleep was a small price to pay for not dying in the middle of Nevada.
RYAN RITCHIE is a 30-year-old who lives in Long Beach, but Lomita is never far from his heart. He enjoys sleeping, napping and dozing off. If you have been paying attention, you would already know that he’s been published in Vegetarian Times, High Times, OC Weekly, BlackBook and LA Weekly. He also likes vegan food and thinks you should buy him some the next time you see him.