Monday, November 19, 2012

Backtracking (A Bit)

Blogging friend Kate commented yesterday that she kind of cringed for poor Merritt and hoped nobody from there reads my blog. I will say that I am almost certain that nobody from Merritt does read my blog, but just in case they do I decided I needed to do some backtracking.

As I thought through my reasons for classifying Merritt as one of BC's armpits I realized something. Those reasons have absolutely nothing to do with the city itself. No, my opinion of Merritt has been entirely shaped by the fact it is the only city located along the Coquihalla, the major road from Kamloops to Vancouver. It is a road that goes over high mountain passes, is dangerous even when the road conditions are good (due to a deadly combination of transport trucks, inexperienced drivers, and speeding), and one that I have blogged about before.

If my experience in that blog post had been my only bad one on the Coquihalla I might not harbour such bad thoughts about that highway and, because in my mind the two are connected, the city of Merritt. However, there are three others to go along with it. I'll spare you a lengthy post and just tell you about one.

My worst ever winter driving experience happened about twelve years ago on what is called the Coquihalla Connector. This is a high mountain highway that connects Kelowna to Merritt, where it then joins the Coquihalla. It was one of my many trips with Alexandra from our home in the Kootenays to Children's Hospital in Vancouver. We were partway along the Connector when a huge blizzard hit. The snow was so thick it was impossible to see the road. Lest you think I am exaggerating, my friend Barb opened the passenger side door to see if she could make out where the road's edge was. An edge, I might add, that dropped off a steep embankment.

There was nothing. The whole world was white. I couldn't see the road. Barb couldn't see the edge of the road. There was no visible centreline. Just nothingness. We were like a plane in a fog bank, except we didn't have the ability to navigate using instruments. My first instinct was to stop. But there was a problem with that plan. Since the visibility was zero, there was no way a car, or worse, a transport truck, could see us stopped in the middle of the road even if I had my hazard lights flashing. In the end I moved forward at a snail's pace. My hope was if we started over an embankment I would be able to feel it in time to stop before we plunged completely over. It was the best I could do.

This went on for about ten minutes. Looking back on it I wonder if I even breathed during that time. I remember being more terrified than I had ever been in my life. Even writing about it all these years later makes my stomach feel icky. The thing that probably saved us is the fact both Barb and I are good in a crisis. I might, in fact will, fall completely apart after the fact, but in the moment I usually manage to keep a cool head. (In this case I literally had a cool head since I had opened my window and had my head stuck out as I crept along, hoping I might at least be able to hear an oncoming vehicle even if I couldn't see it.)

An hour later we arrived in Merritt, shaken but alive. We still had about three hours of the Coquihalla ahead of us, but the conditions the rest of the way were much better. Every once in awhile when Barb and I are talking this story comes up. I think the terror of that trip has left its mark on both of us. In my mind it began the association of Merritt with bad things, which is, of course, very silly. It isn't Merritt's fault that bad things happen on this highway.

Even more than that is has left me with a much healthier respect and fear of driving in winter than I might have otherwise had. The respect is a good thing, the fear not so much so. I try not to let it cripple me to the point I won't drive that highway from November to April, but to be honest I have to force myself to do so. It is also why I harass certain family members who think All Season tires are good enough for winter driving. They aren't. They are for all seasons except winter. So my heartfelt apologies to the citizens of Merritt. It really, truly isn't your fault and I need to stop blaming you.

At least I didn't have to worry about winter conditions this past weekend for the meat-up. A warm front has moved in, melting the snow on the mountain passes and in our backyard.


14 comments:

  1. That drive sounds absolutely terrifying.I'm glad you managed to reach your destination. In England when we have snow over here everything comes to a grinding halt.
    Sarah x

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    1. When we lived in Vancouver it was like England. Even an inch of snow put everyone into panic mode. But for most of Canada we have no choice. If we stayed home when it snowed we would never go anywhere all winter! :-)

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  2. A situation with no good options, you did a great job navigating through it. Was Alexandra distracted with a book or something else? I hope she wasn't clued in to the tension.

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    1. It's funny you should ask that. After I posted this I asked her if she remembered it and she did. She was scared, too, even though she was pretty young.

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  3. Your description made me sweat as I read it! That would be one of my worst nightmares. I've been in snow storms, but thankfully most have been close to home.

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    1. Even close to home a snow storm can be scary. I'm surprised you haven't been caught in at least one bad one on the Coquihalla.

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  4. Eek, that does sound scary! So glad all was well. And yes, poor Merritt ;)

    Recently I found myself driving along at 60 mph (UK norm) in the early dark on a perfectly ordinary English road, headlights on, another car coming towards me on his side of the road at 60 mph, headlights on ... and then indicator on? No hang on, the indicator just detached itself from the other car ... the indicator is attached to a third car without its headlights on (!) that is overtaking the oncoming car, a third car that is going to hit me head on. A car that only missed me because like you I have a cool head and was able to discern in a heartbeat that the worst that was likely to happen if I veered wildly for the verge was we'd get mud on the wheels (no trees to hit, no kerb to bounce off, thank goodness). That bleeping car missed us by a cm and just carried on it's way. My daughter was with me and actually said, how did we not just die?! The most dangerous thing out there is always other drivers!!

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    1. That's scary Anne! I'm glad you have good instincts in an emergency too. Not everyone does - I think it is something you are born with. Other drivers are a far worse threat than winter storms. Most of the time you can plan around a storm (not drive, pull off the road, etc.). There's no planning for a sudden bad move by another driver other than always being on your guard. Were you shaken up after it was all over?

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  5. Actually it happened a bit too quickly for the adrenaline to kick in, but my daughter, who of course couldn't know we had a skin-of-our-teeth escape route was really upset. And when I say he missed us by a cm I'm not exaggerating, it's only when I think about it afterwards that I feel very lucky indeed!

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    1. Alexandra has vivid memories of our time in the storm, too. I think a passenger's experience of a near miss is very different than the driver's.

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  6. Your snow storm story painfully reminded me of a snowy night MUCH LIKE YOURS! My hubby and I had gone to visit his Mom in Central Michigan and to get there we go thru NY, cross at Niagara FAlls and drive all the way thru Ontario and come into Michigan at Port Heron. We were heading back to NY and when we left her house there were these tiny little snow flakes now and then in the air.

    By the time we got into the middle of Ontario we were in the dark and totally engulfed in a blizzard! I rode with the window down and sometimes with the door open to try and find the road/yellowline trying to help my husband stay on the road...... and to add horrible to horrific....... I was 5 months pregnant and know I was stressing my poor baby Jessica ----- my heart was racing, every muscle in my body was tensed (and sore by the time we stopped for a hotel room)and I had to pee!!!! It's a joke now because Jessica HATES driving in any kind of snow...... and we say it's because of that trip.


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    1. Yes, this is exactly the kind of snow storm it was! Unless someone has experienced it for themselves it is hard to convey the terror of driving with doors and windows open desperately searching for the road.

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  7. I CAN drive in winter conditions and I HAVE to drive in winter conditions, but I'm like you and really dislike it. I've had too many horrific drives that if it is snowing even a little and I have to drive, I tense up and don't relax until the drive is over. I, too, had one just like this and unless you have driven in complete white-out conditions, I don't think you can even come close to knowing what it feels like. Of course, it's not Merritts fault. ;)

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    1. I tense up too, but the worst is tensing up ahead of the trip in anticipation of what it might be like. I find with all the trips down to my mom's in Spokane even when I try to time them around good weather I end up worrying the whole time I am down there about the drive home. And you are right. Unless you have personally experienced the terror of driving in a white-out it is impossible to know what that is like.

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