Chains, Pains and Automobiles
This one goes out to all the Vermonters who shook their heads, had a good-natured chuckle at my expense, and then did what they could to help me, a Jersey-born Flatlander experiencing his first Vermont winter.
Thank you to the woman who let me use her cell phone because I had no service, and to the other woman who let me use her landline. Thanks to my neighbor, Richard, who answered his phone at ten o’clock at night, and to my other two neighbors, Mary and Roger, who both went to my house two days later to tell my wife I broke my wrist and would be running a bit late. This is dedicated to the snowplow driver on Route 100 and the guy sanding Post Office Hill. The guys at McLeod’s Spring and Chassis who taught me how to use snow chains, and their shop dog, Bear. Thanks to the doctor who reset my wrist, my snowboard instructor who put the chains back on my tires, and his roommate.
I know, that is a long list. Well, this is a long story. So, wipe the snow off of that “DON’T JERSEY VERMONT” bumper sticker, take off your sensible snow boots and waterproof gloves, grab a seat next to your woodstove, and enjoy.
It was the day after Christmas. That morning my kids were ripping open gifts at my father-in-law’s. Now they were eight hours into what should have been a six-and-a-half hour drive. Beside me in the front seat, my wife pressed her 102 degree head against the cold window for some relief. I white-knuckled the steering wheel and squinted into the wintry mix. No one was feeling merry.
Thankfully, we were almost there. Two miles up a dirt road sat the small house we had purchased two months ago. This was our first winter trip to the state we had come to love so much over the course of four summers. We had snowboarding lessons lined up for the whole family, had all bought “base layers” for the first time in our lives, and were ready for some snow. I use the term “ready” loosely.
I put on my blinker, hit the breaks for our final turn onto Maston Hill Road and watched as we slid right by. We had hit a storm that had turned the roads into a sheet of ice. In hindsight, I see that I should have just parked my car and started walking right then. But, I am stubborn and from a part of the country where roads are flat and front-wheel-drive means you are all set, all year. On balding regular season tires, I forged ahead and tried the next road that rose from the valley floor of Route 100 into the abutting mountains. The ice would be fine, I told myself, I just needed to break sooner this time. We only had two miles to go.
I did not get far before spinning out, front end pitching alarmingly toward the ravine to our right. I started inching back down in reverse. I slid backward, brakes fully locked and heart hammering. I got stuck sideways. I knocked on doors. I called 911. I squinted down the ravine to the right of the car. My son started bawling. I called my neighbor who told me to go to the local Inn. I drove there, but found no one. I waved down a snow plow, talked to a guy sanding the roads. Finally at ten o’clock I gave in, parked the car, and announced we were walking.
It took us just nearly an hour to walk the two miles up the hill that night. By the light of my iPhone I fought to keep the mood positive: Wow, this will be a great story for writer’s workshop, huh boys! Man, I never got to hike at night when I was a kid! I may have fooled the little one. My wife, fever churning away, was on a death march, eerily silent as I attempted to bring her in on the fun. Nighttime stroll, how romantic huh honey? I was unaccustomed to this role of family cheerleader as my wife shuffled along fighting the urge to simply lay down in the snow. A few hundred yards from the house, my youngest slipped on the ice and broke into the exhausted choking sobs of a little boy three hours beyond bedtime completing a forced march uphill, in the dark, in freezing rain.
As I fired up the woodstove, my wife collapsed onto the couch with the dog. My boys wiped snot with their hands. Merry Christmas.
Step one: Slide down hill to car.
Thought: Holy shit. I can’t believe we walked up this last night.
Step two: Buy chains for car.
Thought: This will be easy. Every store in Vermont probably sells snow chains; it’s like finding cheese, or good beer, or cows.
Steps three-twelve: Stop at gas station and ask for chains. Drive to auto parts store. Listen dejectedly as salesman explains they don’t sell chains. Call McLeods in Barre, VT, who does. Google Barre, Vermont. Suffer crushing defeat as salesman explains that he could never sell these chains for that kind of car. Call Walmart for “cables”. Drive to local hardware store. Call McLeods again and beg. Drive to Barre.
Thought: Fuck. I guess this is why everybody drives a Subaru.
Step thirteen: Swallow pride and walk into McLeods, the flatlander who can’t get his car up to his own house, and hope.
Thought: They seriously have a dog named Bear?
Step fourteen: Walk salesman out to car and stand awkwardly while he laughs a deep belly laugh for what feels like several minutes. Ask him if the chains can work. Listen as he replies, “Yeah, it can work.” Long pause. “It’s gonna suck though.”
Thought: We could always rent the house out for the winter.
Step fifteen: Listen very carefully as several of the guys working there kindly and patiently explain how to put on chains.
Thought: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. You have just saved my whole trip.
The snow was falling in huge, gentle, snow-globe flakes. Every now and then shafts of light were bursting through the clouds and illuminating Lincoln Mountain like God himself was trying to prove his existence. The air was crisp and so were my turns as I carved my way down the trail called “Easy Rider.” I had just graduated that day from the bunny slope and magic carpet to actual trails and a real ski lift. I was feeling it. This trip was turning around. When this lesson is over in five minutes, I thought, I am going to drive back, make my wife some hot tea and soup, grab the boys and head out for some epic sledding. I am going to turn this trip -
Then I caught my heel edge, and slammed every ounce of my body down onto my wrist.
When the doctor hung my hand from the ceiling, draped weights on my bicep, and tried to push the bones back into the general shape of a wrist for the second time, he chuckled. I had just explained that I had to get chains back on my tires to get up to my house. “You don’t have all-wheel drive?” he asked smiling. My instructor immediately offered to follow me back to my road and get the chains on.
On the drive home in one of the rare spots of cell coverage a message came through from Splinters Board Shop: my new board was in.
Nope. I don’t have all-wheel drive. I don’t have cell coverage up here, or a landline at my house. I don’t have a flashlight in my car, or a good transition from toe edge to heel edge. But, I hope to.
What I do have is a love for Vermont. I do have an admiration for people tackling life in a place that makes you work a bit. I have a love for cycling in Vermont because of the way Gap rides rip the air from my lungs and push me to limits I can’t access on the flat roads of Jersey. I have a longing to haul my wood with one good arm rather than tapping my thermostat. I have a need to spend as much time as possible outside exploring my new part-time home.
So, I am not going down like that. I am going to take a cue from the Vermonters around me. I’m going to wrap my hand in a hat and a plastic bag, tape it to my jacket with a few turns of hockey tape, and go sledding with my boys. We have just figured out how the plowed snow lets us bank that final turn and stay on track to the finish. I’m going to pick up that snowboard, wait for my arm to heal, and try again. I’m going to pour antifreeze in my toilets, add some emergency supplies to my car, and drive up any damn chance I get.
If you know of anyone selling a Subaru, give me a shout.