Three-for-Three: A Memory-Piece

Winter driving in Oregon can be extremely dangerous. Every time we head up Dead Indian Memorial Road from Ashland to one of our favorite cross-country skiing trails, I’m reminded of the time when going up was considerably easier than descending—particularly since the decent in my trusty ol’ Ford was out of control.

On that March evening in Klamath Falls, it was cold, there was still some sunlight due to the clocks having “sprung forward,” and there wasn’t any snow in town. I needed to be in Ashland that evening due to a meeting the following morning, and opted for the faster route home on the Clover Creek bypass that drops one right into Ashland rather than into Medford, an additional 30 minutes away. A teacher in that evening’s workshop was also driving to Ashland and, lacking confidence to drive alone, requested to tag along caravan style. The 77 mile drive was uneventful the first 45 minutes, and just before the Dead Indian intersection, snow began falling. I was driving our ’91 Ford Explorer, featuring studded tires and four-wheel drive, so this caused me no concern. The snow continued to fall as we neared the summit, and keeping an eye on my traveling companion must have diverted my attention from the rapidly-changing road conditions. By the time we reached the “Buck Prairie” snow park area, the flakes were the size of potato chips and had begun to “stick.” Combined with slick icy pavement beneath the snow, driving conditions became particularly treacherous. Since I’d zoned out and failed to engage the 4-wheel mode, I was the proverbial “train wreck just waiting to happen.”

“Shit,” I probably muttered while futily attempting to rein-in my spinning car, studs and all.

Losing control on icy snow is never fun. Characteristically combined with audible moans, curses, or plaintive “Whoas!,” drivers are at the mercy of the snow gods since over-corrective steering just adds to the wild ride. With 4-wheel drive engaged, gently depressing the accelerator usually resumes control and, assuming you’re pointed in the right direction, you’re on your merry way. When maneuvering a real-wheel drive vehicle, however, you’re screwed. Unlike my companion, Laurie, driving a safe 30 yards behind me in a front-wheel Honda Civic, I zigged, then zagged, and finally ended unceremoniously in a 3’ ditch on the side of the road. To make matters worse, I was lying on my side, driver’s door down, and reams of recycled computer paper I was carrying was all over the place. Damn.

I suppose the good news is I wasn’t hurt and, considering we were only traveling about 30 miles-per-hour, I wasn’t far off the road. My car was perpendicular to the highway, however, and I recall the strange sensation of walking on the driver’s side windows over scattered paper to the rear door before making my escape. There was over 6” of snow on the ground by now, and more coming. Absolutely no tracks were visible and, after a brief consultation with Laurie, we decided to drive the reaming 20 miles to Ashland and deal with the wreck later. I was shocked when she handed me her keys, but what surprised us more was the sound of an approaching vehicle.

A couple of Klamath cowboys soon pulled up, beers in hand, and surveyed the situation. They were really friendly, and immediately set out to help right my Explorer. This was the necessary since the rear of the car was partly in the road and was a traffic hazard. They were driving a beat-up Datsun pickup, baldish wide tires on rusty metal rims, and apparently only a camper shell for extra weight to the rear-wheel rig. They offered us beers and took charge. Backing up to about 5’ from the undercarriage of the Ford, they produced a canvas tie-down and attached it to my rear axel. The other end of the 20’ strap was looped around their trailer hitch. With a merry “Watch out!,” they gunned their Datsun down hill and, as if my car was a water skier preparing for a shore start behind a ski boat, the canvas strapping want taut and my Ford flipped upright. Brilliant. Now to engage all the wheels and drive it out of the ditch.

They disconnected their little truck and, wide tires spinning as wildly as their expressions, returned to where we stood astonished. “Go on an’ give it a try, Buddy,” they encouraged. I did, but the starter no longer worked. I tried the emergency light since I was still sticking part-way into the road and again, no luck. We continued working on our beers and the second vehicle arrived; a huge 1-ton Ford dually with a driver almost as big.

This guy knew immediately what to do and in no time he’d pulled his truck’s little cousin out of the ditch and safely off the highway. Two-for-two. Without much more than a “Don’t mention it,” he drove off and there we were again; four of us standing around my headlight-illuminated car. It was still snowing heavily, we probably should have begun on our way, and yet I was really curious at how little structural damage appeared to have happened to the car. And the cowboys were into their second beers and had apparently nothing else more fun to do that night. About that time vehicle number 3 arrived heading in our direction—a non-descript red Chevy work truck.

Why the cowboys suddenly became excited, I didn’t know, and made no effort to regain control as they clearly were in charge. It turned out they knew the owner of the Chevy and, after a few words and the requisite accepting of a beer, he maneuvered his truck directly in front of my Ford and got out to meet us. A scene with the five of us standing around, sipping coldies and being friendly could have occurred in any tavern in town. But on top of a mountain pass, ankle deep in snow, and illuminated by the Datsun’s off-road spotlights was bizarre. After brief introductions, the cowboys giggled as our new friend reached into the back of his truck, pulled a lever and, magically, a towing rig slowly appeared from beneath the truck’s 8’ bed.

This guy was a “Repo-man” whose job was to sneak into driveways, pull his lever, and repossess vehicles for banks and lending institutions. The odds of him showing up are astronomical, and combined with the arrival of the other two vehicles, continues to amaze me. The cowboys, however, just laughed at my expression of gratitude and orchestrated the ensuing caravan down the short distance to Ashland. When we got to the garage, a handshake to the “repo” man and a 12-pack to the cowboys was perfect closure to a remarkable evening. I was 3-for-3 and still going strong when Laurie finally got me home.