Driving in a Winter Wonderland Part 1

In the closing scene of It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey receives a Christmas card from his guardian angel Clarence. His daughter Zuzu hears a Christmassy sound and explains its significance. "Look, Daddy. Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings." This winter, someone had the brilliant idea to place a seasonally relevant spin on the sweet sentiment, turning it into a meme. Instead of referencing bells and angels, Zuzu warned us "Every time a snowflake flies, an idiot forgets how to drive." For the Inland Northwest, that statement is comical because it is true. Street crews in and around Spokane are frequently unprepared for the first major snow accumulation of the season. Drivers around the region undercompensate by driving slower than needed causing traffic hazards or they overcompensate driving faster than they should as if streets were clear and dry. The first winter storm often causes more accidents, spinouts, and cars sliding off the side of the road.

By any measure of logic, I should be one of those idiots who forgets how to drive after that initial snowfall. After all, I grew up in the Seattle suburbs. The whole Puget Sound region is known more for rain than as a winter wonderland. It does snow there. Occasionally. But "White Christmas" is not in their vocabulary. Municipal budgets do not plan for snowplows or sanding trucks. Seattleites tend to flock to grocery stores at the first forecast of snow to stock up on bottled water and canned goods in preparation for hibernation. They're worried that their infrastructure will collapse the moment snow hits the ground and no one wants to be stuck without food – forced to make the dangerous trek to KFC for dinner. Schools close with mere fractions of an inch accumulated because the steep hills are too hazardous for busses. Or traffic. Or anything other than sleds. Winter driving is not a native skill for those who come of age in the greater Seattle metropolitan area.

It was even worse in my home town. Marysville is in a warm meteorological shadow created by Camano and Whidbey Islands. There were many storms that blew through town dumping snow in Everett to the south, Arlington to the north, and Granite Falls to the east while those of us in Marysville were stuck with a cold drizzle of rain. My childhood was peppered with disappointment when the Marysville School District remained in session while every other district in Snohomish County shut down for a snow day. When it did snow in Marysville, it was like a Christmas miracle. Just not on Christmas Day.

The teenaged version of me rarely received the opportunity to drive in snow. But one winter, the impossible happened. When I woke up there was more than enough snow to cancel school. It was deep enough to paralyze the region. Overnight, several inches fell from our Pacific Northwest skies and I rejoiced. I ventured out into a whitewashed world of silence. It gave me a deep understanding of the carol's lyrics "All is calm, all is bright."

I waded out into the nearly knee-deep snow with intentions to build a snow fort and a snowman and spend my day playing in the fluffy white powder. But my dad had other plans.

He followed me out the door, handed me his keys, motioned for me to brush off the car and climb into the driver’s seat. I thought he wanted to drive down to the donut shop for breakfast or make a quick trip to get groceries. Both assumptions were incorrect. Instead, he directed me turn for turn on a scenic tour of the neighborhood.

We lived on a corner lot of a busy intersection. Both roads received plenty of through traffic, even in inclement weather conditions. By the time Dad and I went out for a drive, enough tires had compacted the snow down into ivory colored pavement. It was slick but not much of a challenge. Dad said he wanted me to learn how to drive in the snow, but after a few blocks I was convinced there was nothing to worry about. How hard could it be?

Then dad found what he was looking for. He directed me to turn onto a road that was still covered in virgin snow - untouched by Goodyear treads. The short street was only four blocks in length terminating in a T intersection at both ends. The only reason anyone would have to use that stretch of road is if they lived in one of the homes in between point A and point B. I was excited. How often does a teenager in the Seattle area get the privilege of being the first to drive through pure and undisturbed snow?

"Floor it. Get it up to 35 MPH," were my dad's instruction.
"But," I objected, "The speed limit is 25."
"Look around. Do you see any other traffic? Do you see a cop car setting up a speed trap?"
"Then speed up."

I pressed down on the accelerator and reached speeds that would earn me a ticket in drier conditions. Dad leaned over my shoulder to watch the speedometer rise. As soon as I reached the instructed speed, he gave me the next step in my lesson.

"Slam on the brakes." He said.

I was sure my dad had lost his marbles. I even expressed my concern for his sanity but he insisted. "Slam on the brakes." I complied. I thought I was going to die.

When the car finally came to a complete stop, pointing askew in a direction that I don't think it should have been facing, my dad smiled with glee.

"Remember that feeling?" he asked. After I nodded, he continued, "Don't ever forget it and do everything you can to avoid feeling it again."

His words sounded like the advice of a mad scientist after sending you into a lightning storm with a metal rod in your hands. However, it worked. In the last 20 years, I have never caused or even been in a snow related accident. Only once have I slid off the road and into a ditch. Only once did I attempt to perform a right-hand turn while my car continued to go straight. Both of those incidents were in the same winter, 16 years ago in Boise. Now with more than a dozen years in North Idaho where it snows aplenty, I consider myself a veteran winter driver.

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