My late grandmother could put more elegance to language than anyone I’ve ever known. She could also eviscerate an adversary and shred their arguments into fine little pieces suitable for slicing tomatoes, but that’s another story entirely. There was one phrase in particular that seemed almost musical in its graceful refinement. She always employed it when praying for our family when we were about to make a long trip, kindly asking The Almighty to extend us, “traveling mercies.”
This delightfully antiquated and genteel turn of expression occurred to me last Saturday when I had a close call on the highway. Traveling south of Erie, Pennsylvania, I first ran smack into the “lake effect” snow machine. What had started as a few stray flakes in the wind, as if someone in the vehicle in front of me had a dandruff problem, suddenly became a wall of white, with snowflakes as large as quarters quickly piling onto the windshield. There’s a way to handle that, and I’ll get to it in a moment — but first, the event:
Continuing down I-71 toward Columbus, Ohio, the snow was sporadic and mostly uneventful, though northbound truckers were alerting us to a bridge about an hour north of Columbus that was completely frozen over. “A solid sheet of ice,” one driver said, and as we approached it we could see the result. One SUV was in the ditch in the median, a state trooper parked nearby. Another vehicle had run off the other side of the highway, with a tow truck and another state trooper in attendance. On the far side of the bridge was another vehicle that spun off into the woods, with yet another state trooper there. Those were all on the northbound side. On the southbound side, where I was headed, one vehicle had spun into the railing of the bridge, with a state trooper in attendance and an ambulance pulling up to it. Another vehicle had spun off the highway, with another ambulance pulling up as well. It usually requires a parade to produce this many blinking lights.
Having already downshifted to 8th gear (about 30 mph), I wanted to ease across the thing without applying any brakes or throttle, with minimum steering, just letting quiet inertia bring me to my goal … sort of like the RNC’s theory of winning elections. And with about as much success. The rear end of the tractor lost traction and began sliding to my left, as if out from under me. As I found in the military, good training pays off. I engaged the clutch immediately while applying no brake or throttle. Simultaneously, a sort of tunnel vision occurred as I found a fixed object in front of me and gently steered toward that object.
There was minimal response to my steering, so I figured I was pretty much without traction. I didn’t check the mirrors to see where the trailer was because I didn’t want to take my eyes off of that point of reference toward which I was steering. Besides, if the trailer passed me up, there wasn’t a helluva lot I could do about it, and to take my eyes off the reference point would only make things worse. My fear was that anyone alongside of me was now in mortal danger, and there was that car and ambulance on the right-side rail.
Fortunately, as events seemed about to spin out of control, I reached the end of the bridge, which brought dry pavement. The truck righted itself quickly and the trailer wasn’t so far out of kilter that it didn’t fall in line too. I found a nice truck stop and, over a hot meal, meditated on, A) the fact that the laws of physics respect no one, and B) the humility that accompanied my suspicion that some person or persons had prayed for “traveling mercies” for me that day.
I would be eternally thankful on Thanksgiving, if I could pass along a few items as you embark on your holiday travels, and so with your kind indulgence:
* A warmer windshield is a great antidote to snow accumulation that could block your field of vision. I turn up the heat, put the thing on “Defrost,” and then turn my sun-visors almost straight down, angling them more toward my lap. This helps trap the hot air from the defrost against the windshield a bit longer, which in turn will not only melt the snow quicker, but will lessen ice build-up on the wiper blades themselves, making them more effective.
* Watch your side mirror brackets from time to time. If there’s ice build-up on them (from road spray of other vehicles), chances are the roads are starting to freeze. Greater still is the possibility that bridges will be icy.
* Highway exits and entrances are often more icy than the highway surface itself, meaning that getting on or off the highway could be particularly tricky.
* In foggy condition, it’s best not to drive faster than your field of vision, meaning that if you can only see 20 yards in front of you it’s best to drive at a speed that will allow you to stop within 20 yards. If it’s simultaneously foggy and icy, I can recommend several places that serve good coffee. Find one please. In fact, I’m writing this piece tonight precisely because I had to shut down early due to fog/ice/mountains.
* If you lose traction, as noted above, find a fixed point in front of you (tree line, overhead sign, guardian angel, etc) and steer toward that point. Don’t use brakes or gas as that will only make a spin out more likely.
* If you find yourself in icy conditions, allow extra space between you and everyone else. Don’t travel in the pack, because their mistake will become your emergency. For that matter, that’s a good rule of thumb in good conditions as well.
* I have almost a million miles under my belt in a big rig. The laws of physics remain singularly unimpressed with my accomplishment. No matter how many times you’ve driven that stretch of highway, immunity will not be forthcoming. When it comes to driving, you’re only as good as what you are doing in the present tense.
* Give big trucks even more room than usual when driving in winter conditions.
* Give RVs as much space as you should give big trucks.
* Watch other vehicles and try and deduce the worst possible thing they could do at any given time. It’s a fun way to occupy the mind and a great deal of the time they will do it … and you’ll be ready.
* In a major traffic jam, the lane that moves fastest is often the lane that is closed further ahead. Best bet is to select the lane with the highest number of big trucks.
* It’s a good idea to carry a few extra items during the winter. Blankets and some food and water are nice to have. Kitty litter is great for gaining a little traction should your vehicle get stuck on ice. A flashlight is a must, and a hammer helps should you need to actually break up the ice around your tires before throwing down the kitty litter. For that matter, a car charger for your cell phone isn’t a bad idea either.
* If you don’t feel safe in inclement weather or road conditions, find a place to stop. Bad driving conditions will cause you to fatigue quicker than usual, slowing your reaction time behind the wheel. Grandma’s house will still be there the next day. My biggest fear on Saturday was that this behemoth I drive might hurt someone, and there’s no freight in the world worth doing that. The same basic principle applies in your travels as well.
* If you have a smartphone, WeatherBug is a great app. I use it constantly. There are many wonderful apps out there, and they will give weather alerts on your current location, and many include detailed weather radar so you can see what you are driving into. Likewise, there are many great apps that detail what motels, restaurants, etc., are in your immediate vicinity should you find that you need to pull over.
* To this great and extended family of mine on Ricochet, Happy Thanksgiving! May “traveling mercies” be yours now and always.