Special Dispatch:|Terror in the Sierra

     (CN) — “You know they issued a winter storm warning for tomorrow, right?” Courthouse News’ new northern Nevada reporter asked me when we met in Churchill County, Nevada, for our final day of training.
     “I had no idea. Maybe I should leave tonight after all.” I answered, dreading the thought of training all day and then driving over three hours through the Sierra back to the Bay Area.
     “You should be fine. It’s not supposed to start until the afternoon anyway,” the reporter said. “But you should probably check the weather.”
           When I checked later that evening, the forecast said rain should start around 10 a.m. but that the temperature would hover around 40 degrees. Thinking I didn’t have to worry about snow, I headed off to watch playoff basketball and get some food and drink at The Depot — a cool new local watering hole and restaurant built on the site of the former train depot about a quarter mile from the arch in downtown Reno.
     The next morning, I woke up early (for me) to try to beat the rain. The wind howled and there were a couple foreboding dark clouds in the distance, but the only warning sign on Interstate 80 told of strong winds through the Sierra. Nary a mention of snow.
          As I started the ascent into the Sierra, the foreboding clouds became hidden behind the mountains and the scene was similar to that of the other dozen or so trips I’d made through the years.
     A light drizzle started when I reached Truckee, California. At an elevation of 5,817 feet, Truckee is the closest town of any size to Donner Pass (named after the poor-luck Donner clan of pioneer lore) at 7,057 feet.
     A few miles after Truckee I caught a glance at a sign indicating that in four miles there would be a chain check. But the sign said something about “trucks” and “minimum,” which led this optimistic and relatively inexperienced-in-the-Sierra driver to conclude that the California Highway Patrol would be checking that big rigs had their chains. After all, it was still only raining, and the thermometer on my dash said it was 37 degrees outside — a comfortable 5 degrees above the freezing point of water.
     By the time I approached the checkpoint, however, the rain had turned to a heavy sleet and the temperature had dropped to 34 degrees, but still no snow. I saw trucks pulled over. But then I saw cars too, with people standing outside putting on chains.
          I held out hope that putting on chains was optional for cars. My rental car didn’t come with them, and I wasn’t about to get them unless I had to. Plus, there was no exit between the sign and the checkpoint had I wanted to pull off the freeway.
     I pulled up to the checkpoint and the nice but stern CHP officer said, “Do you have chains on you?” I said no, and chuckled while adding that it was a rental car.
     “Well, you have to chain up. They can sell you some back in Truckee. Take that ramp there.”
     Back in Truckee, the gas station right off the freeway had sold out of the size of chains that I needed. But the attendant gave me directions to an auto parts store down the road, and based on a couple pictures I took from my smartphone at his direction, told me what size I needed — but not after he’d asked and I replied with my now-standard, “I have no idea, it’s a rental.”
     At the auto parts store they had the right size. The gentleman at the counter made sure to point out that the chains are nonrefundable “whether you use them or not.”
     I laughed and said, “Well, you can be assured I’ll be using them.”
     He also mentioned that “they must have just started the chain check because you’re only the second person they’ve turned back who has come in. I’m sure we’ll have a bunch more soon.”
          He also assured me that someone could help put on the chains and then take them off once I was through the snow.
     By the time I made it back to the checkpoint, the slush had turned into a fairly steady wet and heavy snow, though my thermometer still registered 34 degrees outside. I imagined a few hundred feet above it must be under 32 degrees or that other barometric and meteorological conditions I either never learned about or don’t remember and possibly wouldn’t understand anyway were causing it to snow though it’s not quite freezing at ground level.
     A very kind snow chain installer in a thick bright yellow jacket installed the chains for a fee of $30.
     I said, “I really thought I was going to get here early enough to make it through.”
     “Oh no,” he answered. He moved on to the next car, but not before looking to the sky, clutching the cash I’d just handed over to his chest, and thanking me for having cash. Which made me wonder if the folks who don’t have cash on them end up getting away without paying. It’s not like he had a credit card machine on him, after all. He earned his pay anyway, as far as I’m concerned.
           The rattle and roar of chained tires is quite intense. I put on Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” which I remember listening to during an intense ice storm in Maine when I was in high school, driving home from the late shift at the grocery store that was running on generators, the flourishes of the songs highlighted by exploding transformers, falling power lines and lightning strikes. Listening to it now seemed only appropriate.
     The going was slow for the next 20 miles or so through the increasingly intense storm. All the while the dashboard thermometer never fell below 34 degrees.
     Even though it was still snowing heavily I saw a sign indicating that the chain check would end in two miles. As I approached, I saw people removing chains from big rigs and cars on the side of the road — including the chain installers in the unmistakable yellow jackets.
     I pulled beyond the last car, only to realize that the closest yellow-jacketed worker was probably a half-mile away. Rather than walk through the snow and ask for assistance, I decided I would remove the chains myself. After all, I’m not that useless, am I?
     Though it only took five minutes, my hands were quite frozen by the end and my dress shirt was soaked with very wet snow. In my defense, it was the end of April and I’d switched the controller on the thermostat back home from heat to air conditioning a week before. I had even picked up my winter jacket while packing, checked the extended forecast for the Sierra and Reno — which said there was zero percent chance of any precipitation in the Sierra for the duration of my trip — and tossed the jacket aside.
     I peeled off the dress shirt, turned up the heat full blast and put one hand on the wheel while sticking the other directly in front of the heating vent, alternating hands while keeping plenty of distance between my car and those in front of me. I wish I could say the same for other drivers, some of whom seemed to think the Wild-West rules of freeway driving in dry California still applied.
           The road was still very snowy for another 10 miles or so, causing me to question the location of the chain removal sign. But what do I know? Growing up in Maine we had either four-wheel drive or snow tires, or both. I’d never driven a car with chains on it before.
     We also don’t have mountains like the Sierra, and even if we did practical Mainers would just drive around the mountains, or find a pass at a lower elevation. Then again, we never found gold in them there hills in Maine — just beautiful vistas, black flies, bears and mosquitoes.
     The snow slowly turned to a driving rain as the sharp descent began in earnest in Placer County. By the time I stopped for lunch at an In-N-Out in Davis, beyond Sacramento, the temperature was almost 60 degrees and there was no evidence on the car that I’d just driven through a snowstorm, save the unrolled chains that I’d tossed on the back seat after removing them.
     After finally arriving home, I mentioned my experience on a phone call with our office manager in Pasadena. He was surprised and noted that it was almost 85 degrees in Los Angeles.
     “I know!” I said. “It’s almost 70 here in Concord.”
     I jokingly offered to mail the chains back to the home office, since I don’t have any use for them and I figured they’re a business expense. I already carry chains in my own car, just in case, and they’re not the same size.
     He laughed and said that nobody in Southern California has any use for the chains. The reporter back in Reno told me to save them for the next garage sale.
     I’m thinking I must have a friend who has the same sized tires.
     I also decided that in the future, I’ll drive my own car on any trips through the Sierra. And will be sure to bring the winter jacket and gloves.
     Photos: Chris Marshall/CNS

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