Colorado Wily Winter


My Honda Civic perched on the bank of Colorado's Big Thompson River. Only a beanbag-sized boulder stood between my bumper and the frigid waters fifteen feet below. Staring downward at jutting rocks and frozen snowdrifts, I shivered as I pictured myself struggling to save myself. Then, I tried to wrap my head around what happened.

I was making my way up, what I called Bitch Hill, on the way to my apartment at the top of Moccasin Street. The steep roadway lay covered by a thick sheet of black ice, an invisible coating of iced water on a paved surface. Having just moved to Colorado from New Orleans, I was clueless, and, without doubt, I had not mastered the perils of driving in high country.

The locals gave advice mixed with a little chuckling, but nothing replaces experience and the right equipment. Tom, the owner of the Notch Top Cafe, grew up back East, steering on icy highways in the Appalachians. “Mountain roads can be treacherous during winter. You're gonna' need a special kinda' tire,” he said.

As we visited at the counter while the coffee brewed, the aroma of the java and pastries wafted through the shop and warmed my heart--and my toes. Once he placed a hot cup in front of me, I drew a long sip. After scrutinizing his sky blue eyes framed by short blond hair, I determined he wasn’t kidding. But, in this toasty atmosphere, nothing seemed dangerous.

"The tires have small metal spikes sticking out from the treads. Gives 'em more traction.”

Still skeptical, I peered at him from the corner of my eye. "Really?"

Tom shrugged and shook his head. "Not everybody gets 'em, but since you're not used to the conditions here, you'll probably need some."

My new friend had no clue I had slipped and slided on these high-desert roadways before but managed to stay on the pavement. Struck by the proverbial Rocky Mountain high, I took the incidents as they came.

Two weeks later, I skidded and ended up on the side of the main street leading into the center of town. After the ordeal, I stopped by the Notchtop for coffee and comfort. "Heard you didn't get those tires yet," Tom said. Word sure travels fast around here.

Persuaded to give his advice more gravity, I put a question to him, "Money is tight right now, with the move and all. What if I get only two?"

The young man shook his head, "Braking with two snows on your front end will slow the front down, but not the rear. Your car's gonna' spin out."

My eyes opened wider as I studied his face for any sign of a ruse. He stared back without flinching, and other customers nodded in agreement.

Since I arrived in Estes Park, a small mountain town above Boulder, I depended on credit cards. Money was coming from Tulane University for contract work. Another payment was due from New Orleans Public Schools for psychotherapy with at-risk students.

After eight years I had burnt out at the age of forty-five. So, I planned to land work in Colorado after a short, much-needed break. For now, though, I had to economize. The costly purchase put off again. I'll just be more careful.  

That's how I ended up at the edge of the Big Thompson. While climbing Bitch Hill, I slowed a tad too much and began sliding back-end first. At first, I giggled at my surreal circumstances. But, when the car spun around 180 degrees, and I slid down toward the river, front end first, I realized I had lost all control.

I held my breath and pleaded for my life. Don't know how long I sat trying to grasp the situation. If the stony beanbag had not been there, I'd be fighting for my life in the churning river and ice floes. My immediate reaction? Get out of the car. The sound of rushing water, cold wind in my face, and the smell of burning pinion firewood reminded me I lived in unfamiliar territory. It's time to buy the tires.  

The motor still churned. I put the car in reverse and pulled out of the snow pile. A blinding whirlwind kicked up while I headed for the parts store. Wincing through the spiraling flurries, I found the road and made the right turn into the parking lot. Did I make a serious mistake moving to this altitude?  

With a scrambled head, I approached the counter. The balding, middle-aged salesman greeted me. My hands shook in my pockets when I addressed him. "I need four snow studs." He stared over his broad, hefty spectacles but didn't respond. My eyes welled with tears, but I returned his gaze and repeated my order.

"How many do you want?"

"Tom at the Notch Top told me I'll need two on my front end and two to cover my rear." Another stare. Other customers stood still as icy sculptures. Must be curiosity about the new woman from an exotic city like The Big Easy.  

With my new purchases installed, I decided to stop by at Tom’s cafe. "Hey guys, I got myself four snow studs."

A few seconds of silence, then laughter. "What's wrong?”

“They’re called studded snows, not snow studs."

I flushed from my neck to my face, to the crown of my head, and I relived my recent visit to the car place. The sheepish grins, and the hesitation of the salesman.

Of course, the story made its way around the small town like the swirling winds swooping down from the Continental Divide. I said nothing and took it all in stride.

But, that night, as I snuggled in bed under piles of blankets, I fell asleep with visions of snow studs dancing in my head.