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SNOW CHAINS -- nightmare story

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My (not so) Funny Valentine

It is important to be able to put things in perspective and see the positive in whatever situation we find ourselves in. Sometimes that can be challenging, though.

Our Family Winter Week-End


Things have been hectic at work in the last months. My wife's schedule has also been frantic, between her physiology classes at the community college, her part-time church job, her soccer-mom taxi-driving (no soccer, but music lessons, diving and girl scouts) and her duties as co-leader of a girl-scout troop. Our daughter was beginning to get stressed out, too.

So when schools were closed both Friday and Monday for Presidents' day week-end, we decided to head up on the mountain to Sequoia National Park for a snow week-end. We were celebrating Valentine's day, which is also our wedding anniversary (11 years!) and the 10th birthday of our daughter Katherine: She had chosen to take a best friend on this trip instead of having a party for her classmates. So, expectations were high all around. We had booked a room at a motel right outside the park gate, where we had stayed before, and which had agreed to let us bring our beagle. Spirits were high as we spent Friday driving 350 miles to the park.

Trouble Begins


The first hint of trouble came on Saturday morning, 20 miles into the park, when road conditions made it obvious that this was the time to put the snow chains on our VW camper. As I lay down in the slush, it was obvious that I had not had these chains on before, and they would have benefitted from a bit of trimming. The last cross-chain was right where I needed to lock the hooks in. It took almost half an hour to get the chains on, and by then I was drenched in ice water, soaked through jacket, sweater, thermal top, shirt, and undershirt. I was not a happy camper when I settled back in the driver's seat, and the always unpleasant experience of driving on chains was very un-nerving. I really wanted to pull over and check the chains again, but there was no place to pull over. After 2 miles in 20 minutes, I decided I just HAD to stop in the middle of the room. As I opened the door, two things happened: A very bad burned smell hit me from outside ... and my wife's voice from the inside said "Did you drive with the brake on since the stop ?" Indeed I had, and as it turned out, I had burned up the clutch, which was now stuck frozen. Time to grab the cell-phone and call AAA - except the phone said "no service".

Within 20 minutes, however, we managed to flag down a snowplow, who sent a ranger patrol over. The ranger radioed his dispatcher who called a tow-truck, and took the four of us as well as the dog over to the snow play area to kill the three hours until the tow truck could get up to the park from Visalia, 40 miles away.

Tow Truck


At the appointed time, the ranger took us to meet the tow truck. For some reason, the driver had brought a friend, which meant that they could take only one person down the hill with the van. The rangers were upset that they were thus forced to be taxi drivers for the family, especially since they had explicitly mentioned the need to transport us all out of the park. But in the end they did the right thing and shuttled my wife and the kids out in relays between the 3 different patrol groups serving the 3 sections of the road at different altitudes. Meanwhile I climbed in the tow truck, with the dog riding in the back of the van until we got to the motel.

The drive down took forever, and just as it began to rain heavily, the lights on the tow truck began to flicker on and off: A bad light switch. The driver and his friend started worrying about getting pulled over by the highway patrol. Safety wise we seemed okay, since the van with its blinking lights on the truck bed behind us marked our position clearly.

The driver offered me the use of his cell phone as we rode down. His service plan had unlimited free week-end calls. So I started calling every car rental place in town, while we were driving down, using the phone book I had borrowed from our motel when I dropped the dog off. They were all just closing down. It started to settle in that I would have to spend the night in Visalia and try to get a car in the morning.

Finally, just before 6PM we dropped the van outside the VW garage, and the tow truck guys took me to a small motel nearby.



I tried to call my family right away, but the motel phone required a calling card, which I had left with my wife up on the hill, and there was no pen, so I decided to hike to the nearest shopping center to get food, a pen and a pre-paid calling card. With a bag of take-out Kentucky Fried Chicken I called the motel up on the hill. It took several tries. The storm had taken out a good fraction of the phone circuits, but I finally got through. Without a car, they were limited to the one restaurant right next to our motel. Unfortunately, this was an upscale place which had advertized a romantic Valentine's Day special, and was fully booked. Since most of our snack foods were in the van, the only thing they had to eat was a bag of granola, but our silverware was also in the van, so they were using the coffee stirrer sticks to eat it with. I felt guilty about my KFC.



In the morning, I hiked around town, visiting each rental place twice. The results were disappointing: The Enterprise franchise said every car on their lot was reserved, the two car dealerships were not opening, and the Hertz counter at the airport, 5 miles out of town was not answering the phone. At 10 O'clock there was still only the answering machine saying they were open from 8-5, and to call the 800-number for reservations. I finally decided to take a taxi out to the airport. And when I checked out of the motel, the friendly young man at the front desk called the 800-number and they said "no problem". By 11:30 I had wheels again. I stopped at K-mart to get snow chains, but they were in the 6th week of their going-out-of-business sale. But I found Pep Boys, and the guy at the parts counter looked up my tire size and sold me a set of cable chains. Drove up the hill, loaded up the family, headed for the park. Then had the worst possible disappointment when we discovered at the tire chain checkpoint that the chains did not fit - they were an inch too short. Indeed, the rental car's tire size was not among the 25 listed on the box. As we turned the car around, I felt very much in the doghouse: "Dad, you messed up - again!"

We headed back to Visalia to exchange the chains, eat dinner and go bowling. And actually had fun. Before heading back up the hill, we visited the van, to pick up a sled, some snack food, and some snow boots that had gotten left in it by mistake. We wanted to toss the keys into the office, but found no mail slot and had to hide them on the van itself. That was an unexpected stroke of luck.

Third Time is a Charm


Monday morning, we started the day by calling the VW repair place, and discovered they were not open. But by phoning around, we found another place 3 blocks over, who confirmed that they had a clutch repair kit in stock, and had time to work on it. "We'll get it towed over. Call us at 1:30 to confirm we can finish it today."

We had a good time at the park. The chains we finally had gotten were super-easy to put on, and they fit nicely. The snow was dry, the sun was shining, all of us had a great time, including the beagle, who was let off the leash and raced the sleds down the hill. We finally had our fill of snowplay and headed down the hill just in time to pick up the van at the garage's 5 PM closing time.

The Long Journey Home


The rest was easy: Just logistics. Drop off the rental car at the airport. Then drive back up to the motel to pick up all the stuff that didn't fit in the rental car. Eat dinner. Head home. It was 8:30 PM when we finished dinner and were ready to start the drive home: Nominally 6 hours. We called our friends, whose daughter we had "borrowed" and explained that we'd be coming in around 2 AM. They told us we should not expect to make it home that night, since all of Southern California was being hit by heavy rain. We assured them we'd stop if it turned grim, but for now we were hitting the road.

The only really bad stretch was going up the Tejon pass just south of Bakersfield when the heavy rain turned to wet snow, and we knew that if the temperature dropped just a couple of degrees, the road would be un-driveable. But by then, we would have to go back an hour to find a motel, so we just pushed through. (The next morning, we heard on the radio that an hour later, the highway patrol had closed to road and organized convoys with a snowplow in front and a police escort in the back.)

We made it home by 1:30, delived our friend to her parents and fell into a deep sleep. I was very tempted to skip work the next day.



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