One of the paradoxes of driving on concrete in search of powder is that what you search for is not a thing you wish to encounter any sooner than necessary. A snowy road may mean a day spent laying down fresh tracks on the mountain, but it also brings the risk of not getting there — soon or ever. Every drive has its dangers — even those not rooted in mountains and deep snow — dangers often hidden beneath a veneer of familiarity. Maybe your trek takes you to your local hill with little more vertical drop than a playground slide. Perhaps it crosses sun-soaked fruit fields in California en route to some snow or consists of sliding on ice in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. Together, these travels often fade into a fabric of monotony, leaving in their wake little more than themes around which memories with rounded edges cling. Yet, some events may crystallize into something more — the time you picked up the hitchhiker who didn’t kill you, the time your truck pulled a rodeo and landed perfectly in a streambed or the time you took a friend riding for the first time. Whether your road time is in pursuit of manicured booters in a terrain park or a trailhead cloaked in powder and begging for a bootpack, you share a common language with anyone who has ever headed down the road in search of a little snow.
Who hasn’t laughed uneasily while driving down the road listening to weather forecasts that warn that travel should be reserved for emergencies? Any Midwesterner who has made the pilgrimage to Summit County in a snowstorm — and for that matter anyone who has put in interstate time in the middle of winter — can attest to the otherworldliness of a freeway right after a storm. There are plenty of jackknifed tractor trailers and upended cars to remind you of the fragility of steel and glass and your own mortality. Roadside ditches and medians are littered with half-buried cars, often flagged with orange tape to announce that people are no longer inside. Growing up in Iowa, every few years, you would hear of an old timer who had been missing for weeks only to be discovered by hunters peacefully frozen in a car far from the road from which it slid. The roadside aftermath of a storm also creates strange tasks for the mind, begging answers to questions like: How did that truck get there or what was that driver thinking? Once on Interstate 80, I saw a boat blanketed with snow and upright in a median, twenty feet from an overpass abutment. No tracks, no trailers and no trucks were in sight. It was a strangely peaceful scene, as though a family had decided to moor their craft to the overpass and step out of the bow to picnic and make snow angels.
If you slip away into the backcountry a fair amount, your avy shovel probably bears more scars from digging your truck out than buried bodies. In a single weekend, I broke in a shovel in Silverton by first sliding off the edge of a county road, later submerging my car in a snowbank on the horseshoe turn that leads back into town and then digging out some travelers beached on a scenic overlook on Molas Pass. I’ll always shudder when I think of how I feverishly dug my Jeep out on that horseshoe turn. I had just begun shoveling when headlights illuminated the ice-covered road and two vehicles began sliding in my direction. As I scrambled off my knees to jump out of the way, I envisioned my body with a hundred broken bones and pinned in a pileup of sheet metal. Needless to say, the vehicles made it through the turn and I took note of the new tires I needed to purchase.
Perhaps you have held a strange and tense form of communion with thousands of other drivers who have inched forward for hours, attempting to descend into Denver or Salt Lake. Perhaps you have slammed on your brakes only to be passed by your board as you realize you failed to secure your roof rack. Perhaps you have bagged a buck with your bumper and windshield, emptying your pocket of the money earmarked for lift tickets. Perhaps you have attempted to steer your car while leaning out the window to wipe down the windshield and study exit signs in order to acquire washer fluid. Perhaps you pulled your first 900 not in a terrain park, but on a two-lane highway. Perhaps you have had to surrender your dignity and give up shoveling to call a tow truck. Perhaps a great day on the mountain has been marred by red and blue lights flashing in your rearview mirror.
Yet, time on the road is not inherently an exercise in disappointment, defying death or perfecting one-finger salutes. It is just as likely to be a comforting routine. For three years, I dedicated nearly every weekend to driving from western New Mexico to Flagstaff, Arizona, to ride Snowbowl and the adjacent backcountry. I caught countless sunsets framed by the Painted Desert and the San Francisco Peaks. I miss those days. I also miss the smaller details that helped forge my memories: letting my mind drift while watching the chutes of the San Francisco Peaks fade away in my mirrors, pondering the ways in which my weekly four-hundred-mile pursuit of snow threatened the very thing I was seeking, questioning how much longer petrified wood and “real Indian jewelry” could be sold to tourists from wooden tepees out of place in the desert, and stopping at the same desolate exit each Sunday to piss on an access road partially obscured from the interstate.
All routines, however, begin as something new. For those who have spent some time hitchhiking in order to ride lines along roadways, each ride back to the summit can quickly become faceless. Although I have forgotten many of the rides I have thumbed, the first ride remains. As I leaned against a tailgate, wedged between a pile of skis and boards, I remember noting how much colder negative-five feels in the back of a truck kicking up snow at forty miles an hour and developing a strong desire to find something to hold onto in preparation for the tailgate rattling lose. I also remember the smiles shared with a good friend and a handful of strangers in the cramped bed of that truck as it careened up Loveland Pass. I remember thinking I have to do this again.
As meaningful as each day on the mountain can be, much of its beauty is owed to the minutiae that is so easily overlooked: the conversations on the chairlift, the free meals of ketchup and crackers in the cafeteria, the sunburn you claimed would be impossible to acquire on a partly cloudy day or the pristine kits toppled like dominoes when a four-year-old snags a board with his pint-sized skis. This is equally true for the concrete pilgrimage that leads to snow. Memories surface from the suicide concoction of gas station hot chocolate flavors, the smiles shared with new friends, the spring waterfalls that flank the road, the rare glimpse of the Northern Lights or the innovative uses of duct tape pioneered by travelers on America’s roadways. Sometimes the miles spent staring through an ice-caked and cracked windshield emerge as the story and it is the riding that fades away and is forgotten.
Michael Sudmeier is a writer based in Jackson, WY. He can be reached at michaelsudmeier.com.