A few years ago, I thought I could combine a visiting writer job in Laramie with a television job covering the Legislature in Cheyenne. That meant driving often the 45-mile stretch of Interstate 80 between Cheyenne and Laramie, during the worst driving months of the year — January and February. I had greatly overestimated my own stamina, and greatly underestimated the work it is to teach undergraduates and graduate students how to write nonfiction.

Separated from my family, reading a daily book-worth of stories by students who apparently had nonfiction experiences on other planets, and spending much too much time with legislators who imagined the Hitching Post was the House of Lords, it became important to me to get back to the basement apartment I’d rented in Laramie, where I could sleep amidst a pile of books that I knew, and regain a tenuous tether to reality.

(WYDOT photo — click to enlarge)

So I left Cheyenne one February night in a snowstorm, driving the Toyota 4Runner I had at the time, hoping to get over Sherman Hill fairly quickly. The road reports were bad enough that not many other cars were out, but there were plenty of trucks, which had probably last tapped their brakes in Fargo. Wet snow in the afternoon was now a sheet of ice, and the drier, colder night snow was swirling in blinding eddies. Visibility was a few car lengths, when it wasn’t a scrim of impenetrable white-out.

Once you are underway on a stretch like that, there’s no turning back, and your elbows and hands lock so Super-glue solid that you probably couldn’t move the wheel more than an inch anyway. You can feel yourself afloat on the ice, and you don’t dare accelerate or brake – raising your headlight beams might be enough to send you spinning on the glass. An exit – what few there are – is out of the question, because the trucks behind in the blinding storm aren’t going to see you or slow down. Even changing lanes is out of the question – you will begin a graceful pirouette and end crumpled in the borrow, or orchestra, pit.

Find a lighthouse: I chose a silvery semi with one fairly bright tail light – the other was working, but faint, at least from my vantage – and paced myself behind it, just close enough to see, not so close that we would mate. I could not see side-markers or lines on the road or anything else, but that one red beacon kept me on course, blinking shut in the occasional gust of blizzard but then there again, the Cyclops eye in the cave. We were nowhere near the top of Sherman Hill – where the bust of Lincoln watches sadly (sad, I think, because I-80 was not routed more smartly along the more protected path of the old Lincoln Highway). I was too paralyzed even to unclench my fist from the steering wheel to drink some water.

(WYDOT webcam images — click to enlarge)

The pace of traffic slowed. And slowed. And the slower you go, the more aware you are that you have no purchase on the road at all. In moments of clarity, I could see that the traffic in front of us was thickening. Unconsciously, you lift your butt out of the seat, your legs now as tense as your arms, as if you were lightening the weight that might shift the rig off course. There were some whitening hulks in the shadows off the road – but there was no stopping to help. We crawled up this mountain at 15 mph – or 10 – no, now it was 5. And then we weren’t moving at all. I looked at the gas gauge – it could be a long night.

I realized suddenly there had been a book on tape playing – it was an hour into the story and I hadn’t heard a word. In the rear view mirror there were some faint haloes of light – other big trucks were on their way, unaware that there was a stationary 4Runner snugged up behind another big semi in the path. The snow was so irregular – and my eyes were so tired – that the apparent spaces around me kept shrinking and inflating. So I looked forward at the reassuring tail-light of the mother ship in front.

And it began moving, ever so slowly, toward me.

A hallucination was not out of the question.

But no. The ice was so slick, the wind was so strong, and the truck must have been carrying a load of down pillows – it was actually sliding back on me, in slow motion. A look in the rear-view mirror again: yes, trucks closing in behind. A look to the side: a fairly deep, dark borrow pit – and could I actually make my 4Runner move? I could not run from my vehicle in my slick-soled Legislature shoes. The sickening feeling in my stomach – well, you all know it.

And then, the anti-climax. The rough surface of the shoulder had been blown clear enough that when the sliding truck tires – moving both backward but also toward the slope toward the burrow pit – hit that gravelly surface, they found traction and stopped. I heard his brakes sigh – it could have been me. We sat there for an hour, though I never quite relaxed or took my eye off the light in front, watching for it to begin creeping toward me again. Eventually, the brakes sighed loudly and the vehicles around me began moving slowly, slowly toward Laramie. Later, I learned that at either end of the Sherman Hill section of I-80, the gates had been closed behind us that night.

I vowed, of course, never to drive again late at night in a Wyoming winter storm. But I’m down at the Legislature again, and…talk about unreality. So the world begins to slip and slide, and I want to get home…

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Published on March 1, 2011

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