It was March 2002, a mere half year since that brilliant, terrible morning in New York City that changed our lives forever. The world, and especially the United States, remained in a state of anxiety and foreboding about the direction in which it was moving.
Security was tight, therefore, as we landed at San Francisco International Airport on a damp, dismal Tuesday afternoon. With an eleven hour flight and early check-in, we had been travelling already for eighteen hours. We were already regretting the decision to drive the 180 miles direct to South Lake Tahoe that evening for our holiday in Heavenly ski resort.
After dragging our heavy luggage from the arrivals hall to the car hire centre at the far side of the airport, we were informed that a large storm was approaching Tahoe, and advised that we should seriously consider upgrading to a 4×4 vehicle. Whilst subsequent experience has taught us that this is a regular ploy to extract a significant chunk out of our holiday spending budget before we have even left the terminal, this appeared a more plausible scenario on this occasion. However, we declined the upgrade but collected our obligatory snow chains before searching for our car.
We drove away from the airport at around 4pm, the beginning of the evening commute, just as the rain that had been threatening since our arrival set in. Experience had taught us that rain at this level meant snow at much higher elevations. How would we be able to attach the snow chains to the car? We had never done it before. And when would we know it was the right time to do so? Fortunately, at a small price (this is America after all), these decisions were made for us later in the journey.
The run to the Bay Bridge was frenetic, and, as the rain got heavier, so did the traffic. Our wipers were working overtime through the stretch of the I-80 from the Oakland end of the bridge past Emeryville, Albany, El Cerrito, Richmond, Vallejo, Bernicia, Fairfield, Vacaville, Dixon, Davis and all the way to Sacramento when we joined the US 50. Between Folsom and Placerville the incessant rain turned to sleet and then full-blown snow, obscuring the intermittent views of the Sierra Nevada mountains that we would customarily enjoy.
The road narrowed from a relatively straight freeway to a constantly twisting single lane, and the tyres struggled to cope with the ever-thickening snow. As quickly as they had created a groove it was covered over again, awaiting the next vehicle to attempt to carve through it. We had only, in terms of distance, a sixth of our journey left, but we feared that this would be the most challenging and potentially frightening part of the journey.
We passed a handful of “lookouts” with their signs warning of “snow removal equipment” and of snow chain installers at work. It was only, however, when we reached the distance marker denoting that South Lake Tahoe was twenty nine miles away, that we were brusquely hailed down by the abominable snowman who installed the chains efficiently if a little grumpily. We may have been another $20 light but a small measure of reassurance had been restored.
After all, it was “only” twenty nine miles wasn’t it? How bad could it be?
We’d negotiated steep mountain passes in the Alps before, hadn’t we? Of course we had, piece of cake then.
Oh, but hold on a minute, we’d been sat on a coach whilst an experienced native of the region took the wheel. Not so simple then.
Yes, but, once this was over, we had a hot meal and a stiff drink awaiting us on our arrival in South Lake Tahoe. And just think how exciting it will be to ski on all this fresh powder tomorrow morning.
British stiff upper lips notwithstanding, we both silently fought our fears.
The snow was now pounding against the windscreen, at least that is what we assumed was accounting for the only sound assaulting the silence high in the mountains. The intermittent cracks in the white darkness, were the headlights of oncoming trucks hurtling past in the opposite direction. The drivers had seen it all before.
Although we could hardly have been moving more slowly, no other vehicle passed us on the entire journey. There had been seven others at the lookout when our snow chains had been installed. Where could they have gone? There was no other road to take. Perhaps they had given up for the night – something we had not for one second contemplated, however bad it got, because that would have been even more dangerous. We had to press on – we may have been doing barely ten miles an hour at this point, but every rotation of those snow chained gripping tyres got us a little closer.
We may not have been able either to rationalise or articulate it in such terms at the time, but we had both adopted an, at least outwardly, calm, practical demeanour – Janet maintaining a steady, straight course, building fresh, deep grooves in the snow whilst I, as much by intuition than calculation, assessed our proximity to the side of the road, instructing her to make slight adjustments to the car’s position as necessary. Hearts skipped a beat every time I recommended a small movement to the middle of the narrow road just as a truck sped past, or what seemed, directly at, us!
The alternative was worse. The slightest twitch to the right would have had us plunging into the Eldorado National Forest. The sporadic fencing would not only have failed to prevent our fall, but also it was not visible as a guide to our proximity to the edge.
Height markers were barely decipherable on the hairpin bends, though we managed to make out Strawberry at 5,800 and Camp Sacramento at 6,500 feet respectively, providing comfort that we were closing in on the highest point of Echo Summit at 7,377 feet.
But our journey was not over. The snow chains had done their job so far, but now we were beginning our steep descent towards South Lake Tahoe. Would the brakes work? Would the chains grip the road sufficiently to prevent us running away? Again, these thoughts went simultaneously through our minds, though nothing was spoken other than the now customary “steer slightly towards the middle” and “keep straight” admonitions from the passenger seat.
Our unease was unwarranted. The chains performed impeccably as we descended smoothly towards our destination, braking at regular intervals. The final challenge was to negotiate the steep, twisting hill that drops down to the lake basin. Relief, even euphoria took hold as the “Y”, the intersection between South Lake Tahoe Boulevard and the continuation of I-50 up the western side of the lake came into view. Never had we been so grateful to see the welcoming neon of McDonald’s and Starbucks.
During the descent the snowfall had relented, and the home straight into Stateline was just wet. That final twenty nine miles had taken four hours to negotiate which meant that, by the time we had checked into the Embassy Suites resort, there was no hot food available. But after 25 hours travelling we were too weary to venture out, so decided to just have a drink before retiring.
Over a glass or two we spoke for the first time of our ordeal, and how composed and worried at the same time we had been. We resolved that we would make tomorrow our non-skiing day. As it happened, that decision was academic as the four feet of snow and high winds closed the resort anyway, allowing us to spend the day recovering and re-acclimatising ourselves to the area.
This was not to be the only harrowing experience of this particular holiday, though the week’s skiing went relatively smoothly after that. We have made the same drive six times since that night, but, sensibly, only during the day after a night’s rest in San Francisco. And the weather has, ironically, been fine on each occasion.
But there’s always the next time.