Midwesterners in an Arizona Blizzard

Driving Opinions

People really like to declare a city of drivers terrible. You’ve heard it, “People drive like [insert parts of speech here] around here.”

The metric always changes. And I guess I can see a sort of difference in New York City drivers versus Cincinnati drivers, but Nashville versus Cincinnati? St. Louis versus Houston? I’m lost there.

Despite my general reservations of categorizing a city’s drivers with scientific studies and many peer reviewed reports, I believe the presence of snow can really test a city or a desert.

Leaving the Grand Canyon

We were filled up with the immensity of a day in the Grand Canyon as we exhaustively played games at the AirBnB we had reserved in Williams, a small town just outside of the long road to the Grand Canyon.

The tiredness made its final push as we each made our own ways away from the table, to go into that sort of sleep one gets when they are in an AirBnB and are an adult, acclimating to a home invasion Goldilocks-like feeling. But we had to sleep. We had a busy day of hiking and shopping in Sedona, not to mention the driving that would take up at least three hours of our day to get back to my aunt’s house in Scottsdale.

At this point, we knew it would snow the next day. One of us, I think my cousin’s then fiancé, Greg, said that this could be a problem. Yes, it was cold, but snow in Sedona? We conceded the possibility. All the weather apps were showing impressive figures in the 4-7 inch range. But we guffawed at the actual outcome. The weather was barely right in places where it did snow, like our home of Ohio.

Our caravan consisted of two vehicles. My aunt’s Honda Pilot fit five people. Our other vehicle was a rental RV, an apparently very popular style of touristy camper with gaudy decals covering it. (Picture a pickup truck burdened with a living quarters helmet.) Including the people in the cab, the RV seated seven.

The RV was by far the least drivable. On our way to the Grand Canyon, we couldn’t get the thing much above 65 without the thing swaying and jerking wildly. The Pilot drove ahead us just by pure acceleration from zero.

In the morning, we checked the weather, which seemed to fair better. The snow would arrive in the afternoon, and we would be able to at least get some hiking in after a leisurely breakfast. We picked out in south of Sedona in a new-fangled looking place called Village of Oak Creek. So we cleaned out of the AirBnB and drove to a local coffee shop before trekking south to breakfast, about a 1.5 hour drive.

Sedona’s gigantic squat spires of orange rock put in mind vista shots of old Westerns. The vertical slashes of dulled orange to resoundingly bright orange speak of environments of old, immensity in simple terms. And with all the hubbub of human activity surrounding this beautiful landscape, it’s one of those places where you wonder if the locals are over it or if it’s just as amazing to live here as it looks.

It was when breakfast was at an end, us all arguing about where exactly to go for the day, that my step-sister realized she had left her purse at the coffee shop in Williams.

If we were to stick around Sedona and hike, the Honda Pilot would be more maneuverable if it was caught in weather. Plus, there was just more room in the RV. With my father, step-mother, and step-sister returning to Williams, the cousins and significant others jammed ourselves into the RV.

As we drove north to Sedona, we were still haggling about where to go. We decided to at least make a couple short trips to some landmarks. We drove through Sedona proper, heading northwest when the first flakes started to fall. According to our weather apps, flakes weren’t supposed to fall for another couple of hours. In fact, the snow on the road was white when I pointed out the turn off for the trailhead as we passed it, visibility already worsening.

My cousin took the opportunity to tell us, and most probably me, what we needed to do: we needed to turn around. It would be too dangerous for an RV out here. We didn’t know the terrain, and, sheesh, we were driving a rental.

We scanned the edges of the road for a place to reverse course and then our opportunity to turn around was forcefully presented to us.

As we rounded a bend, a man walked towards us, his SUV stopped on the opposing shoulder of the road. He crossed the road with the confidence of knowing his waving arms would most assuredly stop us. We slowed and Greg, our driver, rolled down the window.

“You don’t want to go that way,” said the man. “There is a huge pile-up down there, people just going down the hill, slipping and sliding, and hitting the people at the bottom. No one can stop.”

He helped us turn, snow now pouring down so much that a bunch was traveling its way through the driver’s side window. Before we ambled back the way we came, we thanked the man.

“I’m just going to stay here and save lives,” he said, like he had just vocalized his decision.

The Jam

We were in Arizona and, so far, enduring 10 minutes of snow. The facts were there, but the belief that this was anything other than a bit of snow was hard-pressed to seep through the RV. We would just drive south, get out of it. That would be that.

But the drivers around us were starting to make poor moves in this new driving environment, either going far too fast or far too slow. Some cars lost control of their backends, hastily correcting in jerky moves. No one was driving like you should in snow: Like you don’t trust the car for anything. The anxiety in the RV rose some degrees and there were questions asked with uncertain answers about the RV’s insurance policy.

To get from where we ate breakfast, we took 179, which splits right below Sedona. The road’s two sections wrap around onerous hilly features of land, dipping and weaving, to create a scenic corridor along vast landscapes of iconic wide, red sandstone crags and desert to connect Sedona to the Village of Oak Creek. I don’t think many of us noted the contours of the 179 on our first pass. We were too busy looking at the scenery.

About a mile out of Sedona, well into the southbound split of 179, traffic halted us. We had seen some skidding and sliding and general close calls, so we figured someone had a mild crash and was sorting it out. The Sedonans were not having a good day in this weather of the North. At least, that’s what we thought.

We hunkered down, passing my brother-in-law’s backup phone battery around to ensure we all had enough juice. Our phones had been in and out of signal the whole trip, prematurely draining batteries by frequently cycling through signals that came and went.

We joked around, took weird pictures. Took dark humored videos. Lamented the horribleness of our internet connections. My cousin, Adam, investigated local posts on SnapChat.

Soon, we saw people getting out of their cars, throwing snowballs at each other. Stretching their legs. And then eventually some curious individuals started walking up and down the side of the road to see what the holdup was.

One guy, who Greg deemed “Duct Tape Gloves,” went out beyond our sight and came back. Greg rolled down his window, and the man started gesturing up ahead, showing us gloves that were frugally or insanely duct taped.

“What’s going on up there?” asked Greg.

“People are trying to get up a hill and getting stuck. It’s pretty bad. I don’t know how you are going to get this camper up there.”

Greg did not hesitate with his assessment.

“We’ll get her up.”

We did not like Duct Tape Gloves. Perhaps he was speaking out of a kindness, so we would be careful or wouldn’t attempt the drive, but we took it is an affront to our driving abilities. We knew what to do with snow.

Perhaps it was boredom, but I could feel the primalness of such a moniker. Us versus Duct Tape Gloves. Greg had driven semi trucks at one time in his life. It was the reason why he elected to drive the RV in the first place. Duct Tape Gloves assumed we were just another tourist group, helpless in our unwieldy RV.

Duct Tape Gloves made another trip up the line of cars. On the way back, he made a point to talk to all the cars in the jam.

“I’m going to drive up the shoulder and try that hill out. Please don’t take offense.”

We took offense, of course. And after we had our share of japs and jabs while he drove his Jeep SUV up the shoulder, cutting the line, we never saw him again. So he must have made it through.

The boredom hit a point where I decided I wanted to see what Duct Tape Gloves was talking about. So I got my gear on, and some other family members joined in on the expedition.

It wasn’t long, walking up the side of the road, where we could see a group of people standing in front of what seemed like the last car, and then you could see the road below, winding in a distant arc, and realized that we were walking up to a dip in the road.

A couple people stood in front of the line of cars. One car started rolling forward, making the slow drop into the dip. You could sense the metaphor everyone was taking in: this was an unpredictable rollercoaster of a thing.

The car, a sedan of some sort, made it down to the valley and edged forward and forward across a bridge before the road winded back upward. I don’t remember what we were saying to those gathered at the top, but we were distracted when the car began to spin its wheels on that bridge, not even on its first angles of ascent.

It was a beat of a moment between us watching the car struggle and then running down the hill, six individuals taking in a snowy landscape, beautiful in its juxtaposition with the desert. I remember feeling the absence of that train of cars and people behind us, like we had just inherited a large space, an expanse of wild country, the desert dressed in snow.

“Drive very slow!” someone said as we all took positions behind the car.

I found myself on the left side of the car. We all yelled directions and pushed. My cousin, Adam, without any space on the back of the car to push, ran behind us, catching our feet when we slipped. I remember thinking, “Who would have thought of that?”

The two women in the car were bemused by all the snow. We got them going and then they spinning their tires. We restarted them several times, yelling directions. Finally, we pushed and followed them all the way to the top of the hill. Looking back, we could see the next attempt starting its way down, a smaller speck to us than I thought it would be.

The car gained speed and made it all the way past us and up the hill. No help needed. In the interim, we had picked up a couple people for our cadre but lost the initial makeup of our party who were close to next in line to go down the hill.

I remember a tall gangly hiker dude who had seen us walking down the line and thought, “I’d rather do something than not.” A man with a backpack decided to stop and help instead of walking home. He was farther down the traffic line and had just given up to leave his car on the shoulder and walk home. But, as he said, he would rather help people out than walk home.

Then a pickup truck tried and stalled. It was rear-wheel drive. The driver did not speak very much English, perhaps more distraught at being in the snow and not understanding Adam and hiker guy speaking adament broken Spanish and miming instructions. Backpack man sat in the bed of the truck while we pushed and pushed, the truck old and the exhaust mighty. Burnt gas swelled around me while I tried to dig my face into my coat to get away from it, wondering what kind of seconds I was shaving off my life to push a car up a hill for kindness and convenience.

Conversely, we pushed up a very nice looking Jeep—sleek as you never see Jeeps—that just couldn’t make it up the hill. I remember saying, “Engage your four wheel drive!”

“It should be on!” said the driver.

We could see plainly that only the first two wheels were engaging. The license plate was Californian. Yes, we are fly-over country, but we know some things.

My cousin’s voice must have been raw after all the shouting and advice he gave to each car, squeezing every bit of Spanish out of his brain. We cheered when a car made it and immediately walked back down the hill for the next car, talking about our travels and where we were from.

“Could you drive for us?” said a car of two women to my brother-in-law. He declined, fearing what would happen if he messed up. But after the two women made it down the hill, I saw backpack man negotiate through the window and get in to drive the car up the hill.

I remember a family whose children translated our instructions and dutifully got in the back of their huge rear-wheel drive truck, smiling at our efforts and waving out the window as they started making it on their own.

The goodbyes to our makeshift crew were short but with a tinge of great kindness I can’t describe. We never exchanged information; we just knew that this was it and that we were connected somehow. We would probably never see each other again.

Finally, it was our RV’s turn. We watched our huge and hunkering rental RV glide down the hill and over the bridge, smoothly riding up the incline and past us. We cheered for the underdog.

We unnecessarily ran the rest of the way up the hill, our final time. And in the RV, safely driving a short distance through the Village of Oak Creek, we each marveled at how sweaty and uncaring we were. Each of us excitedly chattering, and then lopping off to sleep, exhausted as we trundled to meet the Honda Pilot.

The Thing after the Story

This is such a simple story: a group of people helped about 12 cars get through a difficult and icy downhill, bridge, and uphill section of a road below Sedona, Arizona. A snippet of that afternoon. There were many more cars before and after.

And even Duct Tape Hands had said that there were people helping, pushing cars before us. The snow must have covered their tracks when we arrived.

But I know when we left, the pass was humming with activity: people helping out people they’d never see again.

How’s that for thinking of humans in a zombie apocalypse?