With motel living costing us almost $300 per week plus a lot extra to eat out almost everyday, we knew we had to go back to Nebraska and get our camper sooner rather than later or else go broke. The mission was to leave Grand Junction on Sunday and get back on Tuesday with camper in tow so Jay could go back to work on Wednesday morning. He planned to work a half day on Sunday, check out of the motel late (1pm) so he could shower before hitting the road, drive as far as we could and then get a room for the night, get up super early so as to arrive in Fairbury by noonish on Monday, then take the camper to the RV Park in Beatrice, spend the remainder of the afternoon & evening visiting with friends, stay overnight in the camper, get up super early again and drive all the way back to Clifton, Colorado on Tuesday & check in to the RV Ranch for one month. THAT was our plan … but of course, it didn’t work out that way.
All in all the Mesa Inn wasn’t that bad of a place to stay. Yes, it was an older motel, but the staff were really nice and the cleaning staff were fabulous. They looked after us pretty well and it was a clean relatively cheap place to live for a couple of weeks. I felt mostly safe here on my own throughout the day. Most of the tenants are long-term, workers mostly, so it was usually pretty quiet all day & then around 5:30pm the guys would get home from work and the place would liven up. On our last night there, Jay didn’t sleep very well because some of the guys were partying outside their room until late. He called management and complained and they quieted down for about 20 minutes, then continued into the wee hours, so my husband was not a happy camper … and he was a little pissed that I was so tired I slept through the whole thing 🙂
One morning I heard yelling and screaming coming from the room directly across the pool from ours. A girl was throwing all her boyfriend’s stuff out of the room, yelling, “NOW! You’re going to do this to me NOW! In a fucking motel!” The maintenance guy was outside cleaning so he went up to see what was going on & settle things down. Later I overheard him talking to one of the maids. Apparently the girl’s boyfriend had told her he wasn’t going to work that day because he had quit and on top of that he had decided he wanted nothing more to do with her or her kids (though they had no kids with them). This couple was part of a larger group of people who were in several rooms, so the guy moved downstairs into a room with one of his buddy’s. The following day while his now ex-girlfriend was at work (apparently she works at one of the nearby restaurants) he asked the maid if she could open his former room for him so he could get some stuff he forgot. And to my surprise the maid let him in and then left and went on to clean other rooms. He couldn’t see me watching him. He went in, grabbed something, then poked his head out and looked all around to see if the coast was clear (it was) … then he ran out of there like a bat out of hell, downstairs, & into his new room … carrying about 8 bricks of weed wrapped in plastic! I was like, well no wonder he doesn’t need his job!
But other than these few little incidents our stay at the Mesa Inn was pretty uneventful …
So Sunday morning we got up at 5 with the intention that Jay would go to work until about noon while I packed up all our stuff and got ready to depart for Nebraska. But then I turned on the news … and the weather was not looking good for travel through the mountains. In fact, they were saying that if you planned to go up there, you should change your plans … jeeze, we should have taken that warning seriously! Instead I went on weather.com and checked the radar. It looked like light snow was going to start around 10am but the major storm wouldn’t move in until 11 or 12. It’s only a four hour drive from Grand Junction to Denver, so we thought we could beat the storm if Jay didn’t go to work and we left right then. We had pulled a similar move on the drive across country and it worked pretty well for us … but this time lady luck was definitely not on our side.
In retrospect I admit I completely misjudged and underestimated the situation. I mean, I grew up in snow. I’ve driven through tons of storms, blizzards so bad there were no tracks on the road, no cars, nothing but white … once my dad drove from Newcastle to home in Barnettville after picking me up at work and it was so bad out that we ended up going off the highway and detouring through the big truck wide spot on the opposite side of the road without even realizing we had done it until afterward. And through all those times I’ve never once been afraid that we wouldn’t get to where we were going or that we’d freeze to death on the side of the road. But there aren’t any mountains in the Miramichi. And there certainly aren’t any Rocky Mountains in New Brunswick. THAT changes everything! But I didn’t know that yet. I was naive enough to believe that even if we ran into a little snow, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. I was soooo wrong!
Jay went to the shop to let the welders in and give one of them the key to open up while he was away. I showered and started packing. Within a half hour of deciding that we were going to leave early and try to beat the weather we were on the road.
And here’s where it started to get a bit tricky, but still in my mind there was nothing to really be concerned about. Visibility was good. The roads were bare. The snow wasn’t heavy and wasn’t sticking. But we were still ascending. And as we approached Frisco we saw something we hadn’t seen before … the lights were flashing on the “chain up” sign. All throughout the mountains, every so many miles, there are signs warning truckers & other commercial vehicles that they need to stop at the next chain station and chain their tires. When the lights are flashing they have to do it or be fined. If the lights aren’t flashing they don’t need to put them on, but they do need to have them in their truck or else they can be fined. Commercial vehicles are required to carry chains in Colorado from September 1st through May 31st.
Our truck is a long bed with rear wheel drive, not the greatest to have in snow on a steep incline. So even though we weren’t required by law to have chains we stopped in Frisco and bought a set just in case. The clerk at the Napa store kinda sorta tried to talk us out of it. He made sure to tell us that we didn’t legally need them and we wouldn’t be able to return them. They cost $130, which we really don’t have to spend right now, but we quickly decided to be better safe than sorry even though neither of us really believed we’d need to use them on this trip, they might come in handy at some other time.
We stashed our new purchase, jumped back on the highway and within minutes we were stuck in a traffic jam.
We were moving, albeit slowly, when I took that last picture. We didn’t really know what the hold-up was, figured there was an accident or something up ahead, it would clear soon and we’d be on our merry way. I was still happily oblivious and naive about the whole snow situation in the mountains … even when one minute after I took that photo it would have been impossible to take another one because we could no longer see the line of traffic.
It all just seemed to happen so damn quick! One minute I’m taking pics of the traffic in the distance and the next minute I couldn’t see them anymore. When the white van with California plates in front of us suddenly turned his wheels and started backing up like he was trying to change lanes and get in behind the big truck beside him, Jay yelled, “What is this crazy mother fucker trying to do?!”
And then we started sliding backward and sideways too and I knew the guy in front of us hadn’t done anything on purpose, he was just trying to stay on the road, like Jay was trying to do now too.
I tweeted, “Chaining up need all ur pos thots” but what I really wanted to say was, “Holy Mother of God! We’re all going to die on this damn mountain!”
We were crossways on the highway, with vehicles passing us on both sides. It was -7C with a windchill of god only knows what, no visibility in blizzard conditions, when I had to get out of the truck wearing only sneakers and a light sweater, no jacket, and try to get the traffic to stop so Jay could back over to the side and chain our tires. And I was stopping the wrong cars, they were too close to us & he was worried he’d slide into them. So I had to let them go. Then other ones didn’t want to stop because they were afraid they’d lose their momentum and get stuck themselves. So they went by. And all the while I’m worried someone’s going to lose it and run over me by accident. But finally I got someone stopped far back enough so Jay could get over to the side.
When I got back in the truck I was shaking uncontrollably from being so cold (and worked up too probably). My teeth were chattering. I couldn’t feel my fingers or toes. Jay had no gloves so even though he had put on his heavy work coat that happened to be in his toolbox, he kept having to get back in and warm up because his hands were freezing and he couldn’t tighten up the chains or get them on right.
It took a long time just to get one tire chained, so rather than put the other one on, Jay thought he’d see if one was enough. What he didn’t tell me at the time was that it wasn’t on right and the whole time he expected it to fall off. I’m glad he didn’t tell me because I was worried enough as it was. By the time we were ready to try to go they had closed the highway behind us and all the backed up traffic that could still go had gone on ahead of us, leaving an obstacle course of cars sitting in various lanes with their 4-way flashers on. There was a state trooper walking from vehicle to vehicle checking whether they could move to the side or whether they were completely stuck. She was directing anyone who could keep going around the stalled cars. She waved us ahead and we were off at the speed of 10-15 mph, and even at that slow pace it didn’t take very long before we caught up to traffic.
What followed was 2-3 hours of hair raising terror as we slowly climbed the rest of the way to the top and then began the grueling long descent riding the guardrail alongside huge cliffs. The entire time Jay and I rarely spoke. I sat there, fists clenched, knees locked, bracing for some kind of impact with something, repeating over and over in my mind, “We are protected by the white light. The white light protects us. God’s white light surrounds and protects us …” I asked for positive thoughts on twitter again and felt strengthened somewhat when I got replies that people were sending them. I was so scared. The hair was raising on the back of my neck and my stomach was flip flopping the whole time.
We crawled by 4-wheel drive vehicles without chains, big trucks with chains, who couldn’t make it. My sister tweeted to ask me if we were going to stop and I replied that there was no place to stop. All the exits we passed were for places with no services. Our only option was to keep going. And I had to pee, had had to pee since before we chained up. I can hold my pee for a long time, but this was excruciating even for me, I thought my bladder would bust.
Then finally, Georgetown, an actual town with actual services. We pulled off the highway so I could pee and to assess our situation. State troopers were stationed at the off ramp though and they weren’t letting anyone stop. Apparently the town was full to capacity and closed to newcomers. They waved us through to the on-ramp. Jay pulled to the side and I ran down a ditch to a service station. It was packed like a trendy club on a Saturday night, the line-up to the ladies room stretched down the hallway and into the store. But I waited, very worried that I’d pee my pants before I got in. I have no idea how long it took to get in and out of there, but by the time I got back to the truck the snow had lessened and Jay had taken the chain off the tire. I was a little freaked out by this because I was just so worried and worked up by this time, but we got back on the highway and we could go along pretty good. Just like that the roads were wet but bare. Again, it was the weirdest thing. You exit and the off ramp is in complete blizzard. You enter and the on ramp is wet but otherwise bare. This experience gave me a whole new appreciation of weather conditions in the mountains, or should I say “an appreciation” because really I had no freaking clue before we did this.
In retrospect we know what happened up there, why traffic stopped in the first place which allowed the storm to move in on us. At the highest elevation there is the Eisenhower Tunnel. It’s a fairly long tunnel through the mountain and you cross the Continental Divide when you’re in it. When traffic stops in the tunnel for any reason, whether it’s an accident or weather, the DOT close the highway until the traffic in the tunnel clears out and then they “meter” traffic through the tunnel, meaning they only let so many vehicles in at a time, until there’s no danger of traffic stopping in the tunnel again. It’s a safety precaution. They’ve been doing it for 20 some years. Apparently they have studies showing that it works. Blah, blah, blah … all I know is that they metered traffic and as a result we got held back and caught in a storm we should have been able to beat 🙂
And then having fallen behind all those hours we ended up driving in snow, rain, and wintry mix all the way to the Nebraska border. But after the harrowing adventure in the mountains, this was really no big deal in comparison.
I have a few more pics from the mountains and Colorado that I’ll post in Part II before we head onto Nebraska.
(…to be continued…)