A Two Ton Toboggan

Winter is upon us in the great white north. As we watch the first snow falling outside, it reminds me of the seasonal driving challenges.  I was forced to line the driveway with those snowplow friendly reflectors the other day. It was below freezing and the driveway was slick with frost. I struggled a bit with my footing on the asphalt; a harbinger of the imminent thrill rides of the winter season.

Our driveway is 4/10 of a mile long. It starts elevated at the street level, continues with a serpentine down, a very long straight flat stretch through a pasture, a matching serpentine back up to the house, and is punctuated by a circle drive. The elevation from the street down to the pasture, and subsequently back up to the house, is probably 30 or 40 feet. Both of the serpentines are cut into the side of a hill on one side, and a steep drop on the opposite side. During the non-winter seasons, it is blast … the elevation drop on either end propelling you forward effortlessly, a freeway speed journey across the pasture, and a brake-friendly hill climb on the opposite end to slow you down. I must admit, I have topped 100 mph on a number of occasions. In the winter, however, it turns into a death defying, white knuckle Homer-esque odyssey.

A couple of years ago, Connor and I were leaving for school early one January morning. As we moved cautiously forward, we could clearly see the sheen of black ice on the drive. After living there for a decade, and having fallen prey to that driveway a few times, I was quite aware of how slick it could be. We inched carefully down the first portion of the hill, around the first curve (hugging the hill side), and lined up for the straight descent towards the pasture. Just as a roller-coaster slows to almost a complete stop before rocketing down the first drop, we barely were moving forward. My son, unaware of the hazards of winter driving, barely acknowledged my anxious inhalation and exclamation of how slippery it looked. We began our descent, bordered by two feet of powder snow on each side of the drive.

Within moments, the anti-lock brakes began complaining and stuttering. They tried in vain to slow a car that had become a two ton toboggan. Still at the top of the hill and picking up uncontrollable speed, I said, “Connor, we are in serious trouble.” With an inquisitive expression, he looked up from his book. I quickly demonstrated by rotating the steering wheel a rotation left, then right, then left … all without any effect whatsoever on the direction of the car. “What do we do now?”, he asked as we both fixed our gaze out the windshield to check on our progress. As our speed increased, the contour of the pavement, aided by gravity, slowly coaxed the car right. It was a crap shoot really. We were going to slide off left, or right … it didn’t really matter … but we were going to slide off. We weren’t really going very fast, so the sooner we slide off, likely the better.

About halfway down the hill, we gracefully left the pavement, creating a splendid rooster tail of powdered snow showers. The car came to rest, thankfully shy of a large field boulder and pine tree, apparently undamaged. We were probably on about a 20 degree downward angle, and listing to the passenger side. The car was nestled securely into the deep snow. As I rolled up the legs of my suit pants, I gave the command, “Abandon ship.” As I pushed snow out of the way and opened the driver’s door, feeling a bit like an astronaut must feel when they pull open the hatch after splash down, Connor looked out the window at the deep snow and said, “I am not going out there!” As both of my legs sunk into the deep icy cold, I replied, “Suit yourself, but I am guessing you will freeze and starve long before spring comes.” Amid the grunts and groans of pushing his door open, he exclaimed plaintively, “Dad, wait for me. I am coming!”

It took about a week for the snow to melt enough, and the drive to clear enough, to attempt to pull the car out. Thankfully, the overachieving engineers at Audi had created an ingenious little trap door on the back bumper, which when removed, allows you to screw a hefty eye-bolt directly into the frame. We dragged that two tons of car out of the snow, aided a bit by whatever traction it was getting, quite remarkably. I can’t help but wonder what adventures this winter will bring.

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