Winter Travel

I have just turned onto I-89 in Waterbury, grateful to finally be leaving route 100. I am almost half way home and the snow is getting worse. It is beautiful mind you. I imagine I am following a flatbed tractor trailer loaded with used feather pillows to be recycled, the tops of which were sheared off when the trailer ignored a “low clearance” underpass warning. I am transfixed by the wet heavy flakes coming at me through the headlight’s aura, like a cannonade of white down.

At 35 miles an hour I am outrunning the lights on my ’96 Ford F150 pickup, which are coated with road scum, the same dry road scum that creates a translucent windshield rash distorting much of the road’s visibility. The cracked rubber wipers have picked up enough ice on their upper half so they only wipe a small arc near the bottom of the windshield.. I crouch down and peer over the steering wheel to see the tail lights ahead. After a couple of desperate pumps, the windshield washer button on the tip of my directional lever elicits a random drizzle that helps somewhat by spotting the rash.

I am listening to a debate as to whether the War in Iraq has, in fact, become a “civil war.” The daily body count of Iraqi citizens at the Baghdad morgue has been averaging well over a hundred a day for the past few months and the civil order that the “coalition of the willing” has managed to impose cannot compare to the internecine slaughter we have triggered between Shia and Sunnis. I wonder is this a civil war yet?

I have just turned onto the Interstate ramp and ease into a line of slow moving traffic in the right lane. Vermonters let people in, a courteous artifact that has somehow survived the onslaught of “me first” behaviors. I am grateful.

From the line of lights, the right lane looks like an endless artery of steel corpuscles streaming back to White River Junction or perhaps Boston. I am one of them, moving relentlessly at 35 miles per hour… easy, although the temptation of the passing lane on my left is always there filled with wet heavy mush and laced with a few tire tracks.

I am pleased with myself. I had my snow tires mounted last week and am riding on 2-season-old studded Cooper Weathermasters. I forgot, however, to add the requisite sand bags in the back and remind myself to do that. Without them, I fishtail sometimes. I am transfixed by the red tail lights 40 feet ahead and the swirls of snow like HO gauge storms coming off their ski rack.

I turn my attention again to the radio and the news that our President is miffed that the British Press corps did not rise when he and Prime Minister Blair entered the press briefing and furthermore that the British journalists persisted in asking “follow up” questions, even as they ought to have known that our President does not allow them. I wonder if I would stand up. I was taught to be courteous, but also to maintain a healthy skepticism for royalist pretension. An Australian journalist commented that, in Australia, not only would they not stand up they wouldn’t even dress up for their prime minister. I have always admired Australians for their lack of pretense and their healthy response to self-infatuation.

I see lights in the left lane approaching. Someone is passing. It’s a Jeep Cherokee in one of those nondescript colors like harvest gold. There is a full complement of skis on the roof and a bevy of insouciant young people inside. They’re gone in a minute. An old pickup with a contractor’s rack and ladders roars by and then a Saturn, or something. Then it is dark again in the passing lane.

A UVM policeman pulled me over once when I was a student and said I was a “moving snow bank.” I was very late to my evening job and in a desperate hurry. It had snowed well over a foot. I cleared a porthole in my windshield through which to see the road, pulled out into the line of traffic on Pearl Street without removing the rest of the snow from my Bug. I was not formally charged with a moving offense as there didn’t seem to be an appropriate ordinance with which to charge me, but the officer stood over me making me remove enough snow to see the outlines of a vehicle and to ensure visibility through all of the windows. He chatted me up amiably while I brushed the snow off from the license plates and lighting fixtures with my bare hands and forearm. He then wished me well and I drove off.

Another car shoots by and I weigh the risks of following, but decide not to risk it. Besides the news will not be over until well after I get home and I am a news junky.

Several dissenters on the Decider’s “stay the course” Iraq policy, whom he has accused of “helping our enemies,” are for some reason trying to defend themselves on the radio. There is a bigger issue here, but the discussion has somehow gotten personal and my attention drifts back 50 years to when I was sitting on my grandmother’s couch, my spindly legs not yet touching the carpet. I was watching the McCarthy hearings on her black and white Sylvania TV set with some malaise, knowing only that people who were not on TV were being accused of something bad. Howdy Doody came on at 5 PM.

Further down the road in Bolton Flats in the median, I see what looks like a festive Hollywood movie premiere with spotlights shining up into the night sky. As I approach, I see the tire marks in the left lane widening, weaving and leaving the lane altogether. Passengers are emerging from a car that lies on its side pointing slightly up. Their lights pierce the night sky. No one seems hurt so I wave and chug on by.

On my right appears what looks like an oil refinery, but it turns out to be only a raised ranch with a manic array of Christmas lights blazing from every architectural element, bush and shrub, global warming in Bolton Flats.

Further down the road in the median is another set of lights askew, also festive. By the time I reach the Richmond exit, I have counted seven cars who have taken the “road less traveled.” The median strip is not routinely plowed, although it is mowed occasionally in summer and they did remove some of the beautiful rock outcroppings a decade ago, presumably to make travel there less dangerous.

Our short term memory evaporates like the spring snow melt. This has been the first and only winter snow storm to date. But, global warming aside, it will snow again. The snow will be slippery when it is new and relatively warm in spite of our 4-wheel drive cars that imbue us with a sense of mobile invincibility. They will still be useless in high speed snow and ice driving, but will remain helpful if we skid pulpwood logs across our lawn or offer to tow a student from New Jersey out of the median strip and back onto the road.

Each year, the first big snow is a lesson relentlessly relearned. On the radio, the President is reacting angrily to questions linking Viet Nam and Iraq. I stay in the right lane as my own exit is near.

Bill Schubart

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