Tom Ross: Don’t take those snow tires off just yet
March 28, 2004
Rabbit Ears Pass is a fickle friend. It is at its most deceitful in the spring. The Navajo never would have named it Rabbit Ears Pass in the first place. They would have called it Coyote Ears Pass — Coyote the Trickster.
Everyone who has lived in Steamboat Springs for a decade or so has a few choice stories to tell about coming over good old Rabbit Ears in a spring blizzard. Within the next month, half the residents of Steamboat will bail out of the Yampa Valley and leave mud season behind them. But as sure as the Indian Paintbrush will bloom in July, Rabbit Ears will exact a price in April from those who begin their getaway by driving to Denver International Airport to catch a flight bound for the beaches of Mexico. Tell me if you haven’t experienced this. You spend a week on the Yucatan — doesn’t matter if it’s Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, Akumal or Playa Del Carmen. The air is 82 degrees, the air is silky with humidity and if you don’t exactly have an honest-to-goodness tan going, you’ve at least got a controlled burn.
Regretfully, your week on the Mexican Riviera comes to an end, but you’re a savvy traveler and you know if you book a late flight out of Cancun, you can spend an extra morning on the sand. On a perfect Sunday afternoon you get on a jet and begin readjusting your brain to the fact that within 16 hours, you will be back at work at the salt mine. Just the same, you’re wearing your shorts and flip-flops on the flight home. After all, along with the change in latitude, you have adopted a change in attitude. The plane touches down at DIA at 1 a.m., the custom agents seem to be asleep, and it takes the shuttle driver from the motel on Tower Road about 45 minutes to show up. By the time you turn off Pena Boulevard onto I-70 west, it’s 2:15 a.m. and you’re on your second can of Red Bull. Luckily for you, the night is clear as you begin the long climb to the Eisenhower Tunnel. It’s cold and blustery when you stop for gas in Silverthorne, and you’re rethinking the sandals as you swipe your credit card in the machine. A few flurries spiral into the windshield near Green Mountain Reservoir, and you smile, thinking, “the best part of a vacation is, it makes you glad to come back home.”
Turning off Colorado Highway 9 onto U.S. Highway 40 in Kremmling, you feel reassured that the flurries have abated, and you begin the winding route along Muddy Creek through the familiar darkness.
About the time you begin to mount Muddy Pass, the weather goes straight to hell.
Giant snowflakes the size of silver-dollar pancakes stream through the beam of your headlights, doing their best to hypnotize you. You thank the Lord for the reflectors that line the highway — without them, you know you’d drive right into the ditch.
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You turn onto Rabbit Ears Pass, and things go from bad to worse. The visibility is getting worse, and large clumps of ice begin to form on the wiper, but only on the driver’s side. You would pull over and stop to slap the ice off the wiper blade, but you’re not sure where the edge of the road is. So you ask your spouse to hang onto the steering wheel while you climb halfway out the window to scrape at the ice with a hotel key card from the Las Brisas de los Camarones all-inclusive resort.
In your struggle to lean out the window, you accidentally stomp on the brakes and the SUV executes a perfect 360 before it continues beyond the turnoff to Dumont Lake — at least that’s where you think you are. It seems impossible, but the storm is thickening and you can no longer see the reflectors on the 8-foot-tall metal stakes at the side of the road. Now, tell me if you have ever done this, because I have, and I know of at least one other person who has resorted to this same desperate measure. You slow down to 3 miles per hour and you open the driver side door and look down to follow the faint tire tracks of the last poor devil to drive ahead of you. Except, for all you know, the tire track you are following is in the oncoming lane.
Suddenly, as if you were in a plane descending through cloud cover, you drop below the West Summit of Rabbit Ears and the lights of Hilton Gulch are spread out before you. A few more twists in the highway and there are the lights of the condos at the base of the ski area. Glancing over at your spouse, you casually notice she has chewed a hole in the straw that she purchased from a plywood booth outside the ruins of Tulum. Distressed at realizing how much anxiety the trip has caused her, you make a solemn promise.
“Honey, we will never go to Mexico in April again. The trip home is just too nerve-wracking. Next year, we’ll drive to Henderson, Nev., for spring break.”
Fortunately, I am advised that deciding to take another tropical vacation in April is a lot like having your second child. By the time you get around to it, the pain of the last time is forgotten.