Battling Snow Drifts

Residents in remote locales tackle weather events with pluck, self-reliance and a little bit of luck.

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by Clell Ballard
Our stranded car sat forlornly overnight beside the road. Heat from the engine caused some of the under-hood snow to melt and ice cycles resulted.

Some think modern life isolates us from bad weather, with the exception of major events like hurricanes and tornadoes. However, much of rural America, especially in the west, faces weather issues fairly often. Part of that has to do with the fact that there are often great distances between towns and cities.

Winters where we live, at an elevation of over 5,000 feet on the edge of the Sawtooth National Forest in southern Idaho, are usually major events. The ground is generally covered by at least 3 feet of snow for about four months every year. Extreme cold with sub-zero temperatures around the clock are common. Some winters are more severe than others. The winter of 1993-’94 was slightly worse than usual but certainly not a record breaker. In such conditions, it is common sense to stay home when it is not absolutely necessary to be out and about.

Medical and dental appointments are made here several months in advance. With no medical care of any kind in our little town, all such treatments take place south of here. All of southern Idaho is 2,000 feet lower in elevation than our location. To get there, travelers must cross a low mountain range at an elevation of 6,000 feet. Since the highway department keeps major roads plowed, such trips, even in winter, are not too difficult. That’s good, since the distance between our town and the next closest one includes 28 miles totally devoid of civilization. Ordinarily, we don’t pay much attention to that desolate, uninhabited territory. On one occasion, when we had dental appointments, weather conditions were poor and likely to deteriorate. What should we do?

Since it was so hard to get appointments for all four of us – my wife and me, plus sons Grant and Forrest – we decided we had better go. The thought was that at lower elevations, where they usually have little or no snow, things might be better. Our 1977 AMC Pacer was super dependable and had higher ground clearance and better traction than our newer car, so we decided to take it.

Navigating worsening snow drifts

During the couple of hours we were in town, the weather worsened. By the time we headed home, even the lower elevation countryside was starting to get snow. Most of our major storms come from the east and this time the east wind was blowing so hard that snowflakes were flying sideways. Heading north out of town, we were in flat land for about 8 miles before the road started to climb. Since the snow had just started accumulating at the lower altitude, our trip was unhindered for that distance and there was no traffic.

person standing between two vehicles parked on the side of the road in the snow

At 4 p.m., it was dark and foreboding as we traveled at about 30mph, trying to squint through the flying snow to stay on the road. All eyes strained to help the driver see where to go. Slowly, slowly we climbed higher. The snow along the road became deeper. With the whole road to ourselves, we could drive in the middle but strong east winds were starting to form drifts. Before long, we were driving on the wrong side of the road in order to avoid the drifts in our lane. Fortunately snow in our area is usually very dry. Drifts tend to be deep and dense but at least early on, they were not packed. We tried to avoid them when we could.

Eventually drifts – in places a foot deep – crossed the entire road but we were able to keep going. As long as we could maintain momentum, we could get through one and gain a little speed before we came to the next. Finally, we came to a place where the road was covered by drifts deeper than the low nose of the car. When we’d hit them there would a big “poof” that surrounded us. Near the top of one grade, it was “poof, poof, poof” and we slowly lost speed. The fact we made it over the top provided only momentary relief because the car started bucking as the engine lost power. We managed to go around a corner to the leeward side of a high hill before the engine quit.

Watching a bad situation get worse

The storm roared around us but we were in a little still area that was protected from the snow. I got out and opened the hood, hoping something could be done to get the engine running again but quickly saw there was no chance of that. Every time we’d hit a deep drift, snow was forced up into the engine compartment. It was completely full of snow with only a few mechanical items still visible. The packed snow had shorted out the electrical system and we were stranded.

Although the temperature was only in the lower 20s, which wasn’t too bad, being stranded in the middle of nowhere was not a pleasant situation. We had not seen a single vehicle since leaving town 20 miles earlier and it was a cinch that no one would be driving that road until the storm abated. I wondered how well we would fare during a night in a car with no heater. Like all local residents, we carried blankets in the car but I wasn’t certain we had enough for everyone.

Then, what should loom out of the storm and drive into our little wind-protected, storm-free area but a school bus! Since I was standing by the car, it stopped, the door opened and the driver asked if we needed help. Did we?!? It just so happened that a high school class had taken a field trip to the lower country. Since the weather earlier that day wasn’t too bad, they went ahead and just happened to be returning the same time we were and the large bus had no trouble with drifts. We were invited aboard and the four of us were comfy and warm the rest of the way home.

Retrieving the Pacer

Like many snow storms closer to spring, the one we had been in passed over that night with high winds and when morning came, the sun was out. Since the boys and I had to go to school (I was teaching at the time), plans were made to retrieve the car after school. By that time, the highway department would have plowed the road.

Fifteen-year-old son Grant and I drove our 1974 Jeep Quadra-Trac pickup about 18 miles to where our car was forlornly sitting at a little turn-out. We hooked a tow strap to its front and used some twine to secure it so the hook wouldn’t come loose.

We headed for home with Grant driving the pickup, towing me in the Pacer. Instructions were to go slowly – not more than 15mph. We went down a couple of inclines with me using the Pacer brakes to keep the line tight. I had to push really hard: Without the engine running, power brakes hardly work. We climbed up the back side of highest hill, crested the top and Grant carefully crept down the mile-long, 8-percent steep side. So far, so good!

road with barricades on either side

Pacer takes a licking and keeps on ticking

Four miles from home, we turned straight west toward our little town. By that late in the day, the snow on the road had melted some and the wind was now blowing from the west. In places, spots of bare pavement were showing, so Grant sped up to about 20-25mph. Slush on the road immediately sprayed up on the Pacer windshield, almost totally cutting off my vision.

Grant was cheerfully oblivious to my plight. All I could do was roll down the window and stick out my head to see lines on the road right down by the car. As you can probably guess, my face experienced the same thing the slush-covered windshield did. Try driving a car with power steering with no assist, keep on the road and try to wipe your glasses off at the same time. That 4-mile stretch was an experience I had never had before.

The good news was we made it home, stopped in front of the garage and the two of us were able to push the Pacer inside. We had returned to home base with a car completely packed with snow underneath and dirty road slush covering almost every exterior surface.

Since it was still February and daytime temperatures didn’t get very warm in our area, we knew it would be some time before the car would again be available again. We didn’t try to start it for several weeks but when a large puddle showed up underneath, it was obvious that it was drying out. When we did try, the Pacer fired up and ran like nothing had happened. FC

A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email at cballard@northrim.net.

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