Topsy-Turvy Mishaps – 13/01/08

It came out of the blue and just as we were finally beginning to enjoy
the drive. Without warning the rear wheels lost traction and shot
violently to one side.
Then our large, heavily-laden pick-up truck slewed onto the opposite
side of the road.
I counter-steered as gently as I could, trying to keep the front
wheels straight and, it seemed, for just an instant, that I might
possibly hold the beast.
But, like a fisherman struggling in vain to grip the slipperiest of
eels, I lost it again. We hit the kerb, hard, and the truck began to
It rolled violently: onto its roof, back onto its wheels and then on
to its roof again. The glass on my side shattered and I felt, or
perhaps saw, snow, and then sky, and then more snow.
As the world turned topsy-turvy, everything seemed so wrong: this was one of those things that is only supposed to happen to other people, like the death of someone close or being cheated by one that you love.
I had, like everyone, seen such things often enough: the crushed
metal, shattered glass, blown tyres and leaking fluids that are the
hallmarks of a high-speed car crash.
Last year, driving down from Alaska in May to return to our home in
British Columbia, I had even come across a lady who had just rolled
her car off the road and lay trapped inside.
The outside air temperature was dropping rapidly towards zero and she
was clad in little more than a T-shirt. With her body going into
shock, hypothermia was threatening to finish her off.
I pulled her out through the shattered windscreen, slowly, tenderly
even, ignoring her bloody hands, praying that she didn’t have a spinal
injury. The nearest ambulance was more than 90 minutes away.
We drove to Alaska last winter too but I hadn’t been keen on doing the
trip again. It was less the danger than the aching muscles and
monotony of a journey that, in winter, takes the best part of a week.
I considered myself, truth be told, a competent and seasoned driver
after more than 20 years experience in as many countries, without more
than the smallest of knocks to blemish my record.
I had even taken courses – one on combat driving paid for by the
newspaper I used to work for – another that concentrated on maintaining
control in icy conditions.
It seemed, in the end however, the only economical way to get Kristin,
myself, our two dogs and our belongings to Alaska in time for the
start of the spring semester was to take the 2,400 mile slog through
the north.
Ironically, some of the worst driving conditions we encountered were
close to home. The combination of heavy precipitation and a
temperature around freezing point makes for treacherous permutations.
Sometimes there is slush on top and snow underneath, sometimes water
on top and ice underneath.
When the temperature drops below minus 15 or 20, conditions usually
improve, the snow and ice become crunchy, squeaky, firmer and less
So as the sun climbed into the sky on the second day of our journey
and we reached the southern marches of the north (the part southerners
call the north and northerners call the south) the worst seemed to be
behind us.
I had been flipping between two- and four-wheel drive for an hour or
so – north American transmissions, for the most part, are not designed
to run in four-wheel-drive for long periods – but as we pulled out
onto a long, straight, rising hill just out of the small town of
Quesnel and saw clear tarmac ahead, I disengaged the power to the
front wheels and relaxed.
A few moments later we hit a sheet of black ice and began to slide.
In the event, we were nothing if not lucky. The opposite lane was
crowded that morning with heavy lorries heading south, as blithely
unaware of the build-up of ice as we were.
But at the moment we slid across the asphalt and spun violently over
the edge, the entire road was thankfully ours. We missed a large
signpost planted in the ground on concrete pillars by a few feet.
Later that day the driver of the tow-truck who had hauled our wrecked
pick-up off to his scrap yard enumerated the fate of the highway’s
dead and wounded on his small patch.
Kristin had a few cuts and bruises on her lower legs from bits and
pieces flying through the cab as we rolled, but I had escaped without
even a scratch.
Our two German Shepherds, Masha and Karu, who had been sitting quietly
in the back seat (no doggie seatbelts for them) were also unscathed.
When the paramedics had come and gone and the local police had their
statements, we blunted the memory of the crash with a good meal and
some fine local beer.
The adventure wasn’t quite over, though. Since we couldn’t go on, we
had to go back and that meant two days driving on ever-worsening roads
in a rented minivan equipped only with summer tyres.
The final eight hours of the trip back to the ranch I don’t think I
ever topped 30 miles an hour as signs on the highway flashed up
warnings of more black ice and heavy lorries, seemingly oblivious,
hurtled past us.
An hour or so later the radio reported three of them had collided a
few miles up the road. One of the drivers died.
Such are the perils of the British Columbia winter.
For all the snowy beauty and glorious glittering peaks, for all the
world-class skiing and idyllic wintry views, the water, ice and snow
are also agents of death and terrible injury.
As I write this I am happy to say that I am now safely ensconced in a
motel in Anchorage. Tomorrow I begin teaching. This time I came by
plane. Discretion, they say, is the better part of valour.