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Originally published in March/ April, 2003 issue of SKI Magazine
Long before the invention of SUVs, air bags, ABS brakes and radial snow tires with studs, someone invented that archaic piece of unmanageable hardware called the tire chain. A good pair of chains used to cost about $10, and if you skied in the Sierras or Cascades they were indispensable. Even today if you drive up to ski in California, Oregon or Washington, you pass through climactic zones where the rain turns to slush and then to snow. When the storm is severe, the Highway Patrol won’t let you through without chains.
Some years ago, I was trying to sell a film to my friend Dick Kohnstamm at Oregon’s Timberline Lodge. I flew to Portland, arriving about midnight, just in time to get the last rental car, and started up toward Mt. Hood. At about 3,200 feet, freezing rain convinced me to stop. I spent the night in the small town of Rhododendron, in the No-tell Motel, where the sign out front said, “Morally clean, luggage required.”
Six inches of new snow covered my rental car the next morning. Rather than wallow in the mud at the chain-control station up the road, I decided to put my chains on in the motel parking lot. I laid the chains out on the ground behind the rear wheels and backed the car over them, just as I had done hundreds of times before. Then I wrestled the chains up over the tops of the tires, hooked everything up and was ready to roll.
The rest of the drive to Timberline was without incident. The lodge’s parking lot, however, had two-and-a-half feet of new snow. With my skid chains on tight, I had no problems. It was fun making first tracks in the parking lot. But when I came to a stop I found it was impossible to open the car door-the snow was that deep.
Because this was a sales trip, I was wearing a sport coat, slacks, necktie and loafers and carrying my briefcase. Unable to open the car door, I climbed out through the window and sank up to my knees. After loafer-packing the snow around the door, I managed to get it open. I grabbed my briefcase, rolled up the window and trudged toward the lodge.
Discussions about the film took a couple of hours, followed by a two-hour lunch. I said goodbye to Dick and headed for the parking lot. It had snowed another six inches. Ten minutes later, having scraped the windshield, I was ready to go. With these new skid chains, I figured I had all the traction I needed. But I couldn’t make the car move. I rolled down the window and discovered that my front wheels were spinning. That’s when I realized this was a front-wheel-drive rental car-and I had put the skid chains on the back wheels!
I sat there for a few minutes with the engine running and the heater on high while I tried to figure out how to get my chains moved to the front wheels without help. Through the fiercely blowing snow, I spotted a pickup truck with its engine running. I got out and staggered a couple of hundred yards through three feet of snow. I could see the driver of the pickup was a mountain person. He had a broom sticking up in the back of his truck and a shotgun and a trout rod nestled in a rack in the back window. He also had a long, full beard.
I knocked on his window. He rolled it down about an inch and said, “I been watchin’ ya. See you’re stuck.”
“Will you help me get unstuck?”
“Where ya from, fella?”
“Thought so.” Then he quickly rolled up his window.
I hollered above the howling wind, “Would 20 bucks get you to help me get my car unstuck?” I waited for what seemed like three hours until he slowly rolled his window. “Tell you what, mister. For two $20 bills, I’ll hitch a rope to your car and drag you out to the road. But only if you promise me one thing.”
“When you head down that highway, make sure you stay in California. Up here, we is skiers!”