path of greater resistance

At lunchtime, the raindrops were starting to find each other and think about congregating on windshields, and I thought about Chris, out west, half a world and a blizzard away. I read the news reports about the blizzard and remembered something I had forgotten from a few years ago.We were untold hours of driving into the trek from Fort Collins, Colorado to Park City, Utah, and somewhere in the alien landscape of Wyoming, somewhere between a random rest stop and some faceless mountain, I saw something I didn't understand: the familiar red-and-white stripe of a railroad crossing signal arm. It took me a moment for the incongruity of the sight to register on me, and we were well past it before I blurted out, "But there's no railroad track!"

I wish I could remember who explained it to me: Chris, who was driving, or Jake, stretched out in the back. "It's for snow," he—whoever he was—said. "If there's too much snow, they close I-80, because there's no place to pull over and no place to stay if you're stuck."

Such news was a revelation to a southern little hothouse flower like me. Highways could close?

It was something I'd never considered, never imagined, never dreamed, but the winds sweeping down the mountainside made a believer of me, picking up vicious force as they whipped through the valleys. Our rental car vibrated constantly, increasing in intensity as our speed increased, and it was no large stretch to picture those same winds turning deadly and visible with a load of snow.

Distances are deceptive in Wyoming, like a conjuror's trick; once you enter the state, everything is smaller and farther apart than you expect, and the mountains swarm ever bigger in comparison. The moderately-sized hill you think you'll get to in ten minutes takes an hour to grow into a mountain that fills your horizon, and the closer you get, the farther the towns shrink into the distance, until the 'distance to' signs change so slowly that the numbers might as well be going backward.

I thought of Brian's admonition to have an emergency supply kit in the car, just in case, and the jagged points and angles of his handwriting seemed oddly at home with the view from the passenger seat as we traversed what was, apparently, the sanest and easiest route through the mountain range. I shuddered to think of what a path of greater resistance might have been like.

I thought of I-80, closed for one of the more impressive blizzards seen in that state in several years, and counted myself glad for the mildness of my winter's trip, for never needing to stop at the winter oases of truck stops to take refuge from the storm.

"So how bad's the snow?" I asked, as the rain—simple, wet, unchallenging rain—flowed down my windshield on my commute home.

"We got about 23 inches of snow, and the drifts are up to my waist. I can see part of the windows of my car, but that's about it. There's a snowplow trying to go through the parking lot of my apartment complex, but he's not having much luck."

He mentioned that the usual highways were shut down and immediately I thought of the crossing arm, standing solitary sentry for I-80, and found myself grateful that what was on my windshield was only rain.

December 21, 2006