Stupidity, Part 2

(For Part 1, see here.)

So I woke up In Socorro NM after the previous night’s harrowing near-miss with an empty fuel tank, and you’d better believe that before leaving Socorro I filled the tank up again (even from 7/8 full), just to be sure. Then I set off, heading west along U.S. 60.

The outside temperature in Socorro was about 25F (-4C for my Furrin Readers); cold, but I was in the southern United States, right? so I figured it would warm up as the day went on.

Wrong. As I crossed the Continental Divide (altitude about 5,000ft), the temperature was 0F (-18C) but the day was clear, with no snow falling or anything.

As I drove on, I was a little worried because with cold that extreme, a car’s parts can easily start to break — and I hadn’t seen another car (in either direction) for about half an hour. So I was a little nervous, even though all the gauges looked fine.

Then, about twenty minutes later… ice on the road.

At this point, the road was no longer the arrow-straight highway in the above picture: it had become twisty and hilly, and the shade thrown by the hills was preventing the ice from melting. I slowed down, gradually of course (I’ve driven on icy roads before), but even at 30mph, I felt the car slip occasionally — all-wheel drive doesn’t help on ice.

Now I was really worried. Had I gone off the road, and crashed into a roadside ditch (or worse, off the road into a valley) and the windshield had shattered, I would have been exposed to the elements — and at 0F, even with blankets and warm clothing, death from exposure can take only minutes — and with the paucity of traffic, there was no telling whether there’d be any chance of timely assistance.

As I’ve said, my phone had “bricked” (gone completely dead) the day before. I was, to all intents and purposes, completely alone and isolated. And the temperature fell still further, to -4F.

It was as nerve-wracking a drive as I’d ever made, and only when I was finally able to head north towards the interstate, along a straight road with lots of traffic, did my stress level start to subside.

And I never thought I’d ever say this, but I was glad when I finally got onto I-40 — ordinarily a terrible road to drive on — but on this occasion, something to be welcomed with open arms.

Two things: under such conditions, I’m never going to take a long road trip along back roads without either a companion or else an accompanying car. And if I do have to take such a trip alone, I’ll stick to the poxy interstate highways.

Dying under such circumstances is tragic. Dying unnecessarily is stupid. And I’m not a stupid man — at least, not in this regard, anymore.


  1. A friend who’s made this same trip solo (and similar ones thru the Dakotas) more than once, plugs an inverter into the now much-maligned cigar/ette lighter to obtain 110, which he feeds into an AT&T box ($20/mn), into which is plugged a standard (in his case) Panasonic phone. He says there are extremely few areas in the US where coverage fails.

    1. The cell phone is a very important road safety invention.

      Even if there is no coverage searchers can find your signal if they have some rough idea of where you are.

    2. In Part 1, Kim said he had no signal, not that the phone died. A hotspot wouldn’t help. You’d need a sat phone.

      One advantage the Interstate system has is pretty much all of it has cell coverage, even out west.

      1. I think that’s what this is; not at home now so I can’t look at the back of the box. We’re in a very poor cellphone reception area southeast of Portland, OR, but our AT&T box works better than the old landline used to.
        BTW: neither I nor any of my immediate/extended family works for AT&T or any of its spawn.

        1. There’s also a few companies who make sat trackers for hikers which are a whole lot less trouble.

  2. Used to take winter trips alone on two-lane blacktop in my Chevy Van when I was young. That’s the key. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I wouldn’t do it now because I do know. I marvel at my survival to this point sometimes.

  3. I do several such trips a year, and to date have never had an issue. The key to peace of mind is to bring the right tools. Rally car that’ll happily do 85 in a blizzard, on ice, in Arizona in the summer, etc. Spare everything, tools, and several means of communication.

    Two things I’m never without while doing remote long distance driving are a PLB and a VHF radio. While cell coverage is pretty good along even most remote highways in the country, stuff happens. Plan for it.

  4. covered a lot of miles in similar conditions before cell phones

    Cold is the worst

    But fixating on the bad things does not helpmuch

  5. IMNSHO these days–when a lot of us have cut or landline off, or who travel a lot–a person should *always* have a backup cellphone. Either one that takes the same SIM card, or have one with the cheapest plan you can find.

    I pay an extra 10 bucks a month for a “add on line”, and have a second cellphone that is good at things (GPS and maps) that my “primary” isn’t. It’s a Kyocera Duraforce Pro, and it will sync with the GPS sats when my Samsung won’t.

    Also, if you’re going to be on Eliot’s road less traveled, there is this

    I also like the Snugpack Poncho Liner as something to keep handy when venturing out into cold weather.

    Oh, and next time you forget your gloves at home, buy a 10 dollar pair at the gas station and leave them in the car. Every little bit helps.

  6. A travel plan is also a good thing. Tell someone else where you are going, how you plan to get there, when you expect to get there, and what to do if you don’t report back.

    1. Don’t forget a good description of your vehicle. Whenever I go on long solo trips I always email a rough itinerary to a couple of family members that includes my vehicle make, model, year, color and license plate number.

  7. A few years back, I had a January drive across a local ridge known for nasty weather. Late at night with temperatures in the -5 to 0 deg F range with winds ripping through at 20 – 40 mph for wind chills deep in the negative zone. 3 and 5 year old kids in the back…and the thermostat died. I spent the rest of the drive watching the temp gage swing wildly from dead cold to pegged hot as it stuck full open and full closed. Not a pleasant experience.

  8. I can understand your angst, but get a grip man! We here commute 70 miles a day in stuff far worse. In the past 30 days it has been blizzards, wind, ice and the low a couple of days hit -15F. I commute alone and at 7AM it is pitch black out. Granted there is a bit more traffic on my back roads and highway route but that is actually a greater danger, there are too many idiots who forget how to drive in winter from one day to the next and are a danger on the road almost up there with the deer that abound. Here is my in car list:
    Mylar reflective blanket
    Tool kit – complete enough to do a roadside upper engine dismantle
    Jumper cables
    Battery powered tire inflator
    Flashlights *more than one*
    A couple of granola bars usually about.
    A jug of coolant
    A quart of engine oil
    CASH in wallet as well as credit
    Cheap Chinese tarp, does wonders if you have to be on snow to change a tire or slide under the car, doubles as a windbreak.

    If it were longer trips would add first the aid kit and bottled water. All this fits in a fold down type fabric “box” in the boot up against the rear seat bulkhead. YMMV on selection but this is pretty standard up here. No tow strap but I do have one. And all this in an old TDI Jetta (only 204K miles) but with Brigestone Blizzak tires- fantastic on snow and ice.

  9. My definition of caution has changed a lot over the years. I did stuff when I was 25 that I’d never even consider at 65. I drove all over the northeastern US, often in the dead of winter, in old junkers that I wouldn’t even trust to the end of the driveway today. We laughed and called it an adventure when we dug ourselves out of snow drifts or did a couple of 360s on black ice. We dressed in warm clothes because most of the time our heaters didn’t work (I’m thinking my 1965 Corvair here) or the convertible top leaked water, snow, and lots of cold air (67 “Get Smart” Sunbeam Tiger). Even with these minor annoyances we managed to get where we were going almost all of the time and none of the disasters our over active imaginations could dream up ever happened.

    Today I like to think that I’m a little better prepared than I was 40 years ago, but I try to never let my fears over ride my desire to do things. If I go through life worrying about all of the things that might happen, I find that I can become so paralyzed by caution – or let’s admit it fear – that I’ll never leave the house because of all the dangers that might lurk out there. We rightly criticize our liberal friends for this attitude (“I don’t own a gun because it MIGHT go off and it MIGHT hurt somebody”) but we need to be very careful that we don’t adopt the same view of life.

  10. This reminds me of a passage in Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon. He decided to tour the country in a van, sticking to the back roads which are in blue on road maps. In southern Utah, he decided to cross from US 89 to I-15 through the Cedar Breaks on State Rte 14. There was a sign warning that the road “may be impassible in winter months”, but it was May. By the time he got to the crest (just under 10,000 feet), he was driving through a blizzard, and when he tried to pull off into a campground, the side road was blocked by a seven-foot drift.

    “A rule of the blue road: Be careful going in search of adventure – it’s ridiculously easy to find.”

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