Driving home from tourney is the ultimate test

John Gilbert

Driving home from tourney the ultimate test We were heading home to Duluth from Saint Paul after the Minnesota state high school hockey tournament, and it was nearing midnight as we hit Interstate 35, knowing full well that the never-ending snowstorm that engulfed the entire state of Minnesota would make our journey challenging.

It was more than challenging.

We realized the freezing drizzle that mixed with falling snow had made the freeway glazed, although there was little enough north-flowing traffic to keep the two lanes clear. We were driving our trusty and little-used Mini Cooper, a 2007 model that has aged well and never let us down.

Our older son, Jack, was riding with me and we were pretty sure I would get tired and turn the wheel over to him. Up ahead, my wife, Joan, was driving our 2019 Hyundai Kona, a superb compact SUV with a 1.6-liter turbo and all-wheel drive.

As the freeway grew more slippery in its unplowed posture, I settled on a 50 miles-per-houir maximum because the front-wheel-drive Mini was slithering a bit — slightly unstable at anything more than 50 but manageable at 50. We planned to drive in tandem, but we stayed in cell-phone contact as Joan left us behind.

At 50, we were frequently passed by large pickup trucks and large SUVs, which were all willing to drive in the left lane at speeds nearing the posted 70 mph. I remarked how reckless it was to drive that fast in those conditions, but they kept going by and disappearing over the horizon.

As we continued north, the snow got thicker and we slowed more, staying between 40-50. I’ve explained it before, that I find driving in awful conditions to be quite exhilarating. At the end of such a drive, you feel an enormous satisfaction from having made it, thanks to an adrenaline-high that keeps you focused and alert. Jack dozed off, and we kept going.

We had contacted our neighbor, Eric, because we didn’t know how bad the storm was back home in Lakewood. He said we’d had 6 to 8 inches of snow, and it was falling heavily, but also said he would check out our driveway with his giant 4WD Ford F-350, and plow us out about 10:30 p.m., before we arrived. So we didn’t worry, knowing that once we got home and crested our hill, we could zip into our driveway regardless of total snow depth.

As we passed Hinckley and continued northward, we depended on the sustenance of our annual pre-championship game dinner of a steak sandwich at Mancini’s on West Seventh, which stayed with us as we drove through 2 am and onward, in worsening conditions. As we neared the Barnum exit, we were pretty much in whiteout conditions.

Several times, the corrugated right border of the freeway chattered to alert us that I had ventured too far to the right. Another vehicle passé us, and I silently wished them well. By then, Jack had awakened from a brief, but well-earned nap, and I remarked that in my left side mirror another vehicle was about to pass us, so I stayed as wide to the right as I dared on the slick but snow-covered pavement.

Suddenly, I saw his headlights shining to the right, and I said, “He lost it!” Sure enough, his sedan spun completely around, and he somehow managed to bring it to a safe stop, facing south on the right shoulder of our northbound lane. He was lucky, because at that exact area, the drop-off to the right is a steep hill down to a frontage road and then a lake. If he hadn’t caught the spin, the vehicle could have been submerged.

I stopped, because nobody was coming, and I started to back up to see if we could make a phone call for them, but another car approaching stopped for the same purpose, so we resumed our trip.

Joan had stopped at one of the few plowed rest stops, near the Carlton exit, so we were quite close behind her as we came down Thompson Hill into Duluth. Ahead, we saw the flashing lights of three plow trucks, driving side-by-side-by-side, tending to the full width of the freeway through town.

When the freeway stretch ended at 26th Avenue East, I had passed Joan, intending to lead the way east on London Road. We patiently let the three plows do their thing, but at 26th, they all three veered to the left, turning back west on London Road, and leaving a ridge more than 2 feet high that was not reasonable to challenge.

We turned back west with them, and got to 21st Avenue East, where we drove up the hill to Superior Street, and turned east on the completely unplowed main artery. With no oncoming traffic, I maneuvered the Mini to the path of least resistance, zigging and zagging in and out of lanes.

We got to 60th Avenue East and noticed several pickup trucks plowing out the parking lot at a Super One grocery store, and I guessed right by heading south on 60th — which had been plowed — and found that the freeway also had been plowed so we could continue on the best surfaces we’d had for the previous four hours. The plan was to let Joan go ahead, because with AWD she could make it the two miles up our rural road, which surely hadn’t been plowed.

She made it with ease, turned in, and zipped into our driveway and into the warm security of our garage. We, on the other hand, found an impossible challenge. I built up as much momentum as possible as I got to the slight downhill slope, a mile from our driveway, and tried hard to maintain our speed up the mile-long incline ahead.

But the front end of the Mini was plowing unplowed snow, which flew up over the hood and gave us a complete whiteout to look into. Still, I kept up the speed as we climbed that final slope, but the Mini went slower and slower, and finally stopped in the deep snow.

I had no choice but to back down the hill to where it got level, and make another run at it. Trying it with traction-control off, and on, and with the gear selector in manual, where i could keep it in seconds or third, we tried again and again. I got within 50 feet of our driveway a couple of times, but couldn’t make it.

We repeated the futility six or eight times; each time I would used my open driver’s side window ant the side mirror for perspective, and Jack suggesting when I got too close to the right snowbank. Finally, I called Joan and told her I had a new plan.

It was about 4 a.m. by then, but I would back all the way down the hill to the freeway and drive back to the closed Super One, with its cleared parking lot, if Joan could bundle back up and drive back out and pick us up!

I backed all the way — 2 miles — and was about to back onto the deserted freeway when I stopped abruptly, having plunked right into the 2-foot snow pile left by plows clearing the freeway. We were helpless, unable to move forward or back.

After a half hour or so, I called AAA, those remarkable people who rescue folks who need roadside assistance. We needed it. When the national coordinator asked if we were in a safe position, I said, no that we were stuck in the middle of the road, about 20 feet from the freeway. She put a red flag on our case and assigned it immediately.

I must point out that our neighbors in Lakewood are the most unselfishly helpful folks around. A fellow we’d never met stopped to try and assist us with his Ram pickup, but there was no place to hook his tow strap. He stayed with us for our last few tries at climbing the unplowed roadway. When we sat, stuck, by the freeway, another fellow stopped by with a plow on his pickup.

I explained quickly what had happened, and he first plowed the pile of snow from the rear of our car, then he and Jack shoveled and pushed until we got the ability to go forward 6 inches, then back 6 inches. Finally, they shoveled enough with each thrust so I could go forward a couple of feet, then, with both of them pushing, I hammered it in reverse and burst through the final barrier and onto the deserted freeway.

As our neighbor started to leave, he said his name was Rick and I introduced ourselves to him. I said he was like a guardian angel, and he said no, he was just a neighbor. Turns out, he is the son of a fellow I knew when I was growing up in Lakewood 70 years ago. Small world. Small and helpful world.

We drove into Lakeside and pulled into the Super One parking lot. Joan drove out without a problem and drove down to meet us. She suggested we leave a note so we could leave the Mini parked in the restricted lot, but Jack noticed on the door the sign said it opened at 6 a.m. — and it was by then 6:09 a.m. Jack walked in and got permission to leave the Mini overnight, as we figured by morning, our road would be plowed and I could simply drive up the hill and into our driveway.

Our trip, which normally takes about 2.5 hours, had taken us more than 7 hours. And only when I trudged through the knee-deep snow and up the steps to our back door did I finally relax.

The new morning, as Joan pulled out to head for an appointment Monday morning, I noticed the mountain range of snow Eric and his F-350 had plowed. It was beautiful in the bright sun, and it is at least 10 feet high, towering over our 6-foot outdoor light and the Kona. The weekend snowfall measured from 12.5 to 16 inches along our ridge above Duluth, hiking our accumulation for the first half of March to 23 inches and our winter to 116.4 inches.

But it also occurred to me that after all the new vehicles I’ve test-driven in all kinds of weather over the years, how ironic it was that my ultimate driving experience came while we were driving our two family vehicles.