Sunday, January 17, 2021

Creeping along


It was a snowy scene so beautiful you could have painted it on a tree ornament. You would have needed just three colors: white, silver, and diamond blue. 


But this scene was so precarious, no one would want it on a Christmas tree ornament. It was Christmas Eve and a snowstorm had moved in to the Great Smoky Mountains faster than expected. Big white flakes were swirling all around our car.  

Audrey, Grant and I were in my Buick on the mountain between Pigeon Forge and Townsend and we were stuck at a hairpin turn.  Four cars had spun out ahead of us and they were blocking our lane. They were  an indication that if we tried to negotiate this curve, we would not make it either.

Even if we were going to drive through this tricky curve, we would have to move into the lane for oncoming traffic since that was the only lane available. And if we got stuck there, then both lanes would be blocked.


We weren't in mortal danger. In the very worst case scenario we could give up and spend the night in our car on the side of the road. We had water and blankets and even a portable gas stove, which was Grant's Christmas present, wrapped with a bow in the trunk of the car. 


Still, I really wanted to make it through this hairpin turn and get back to our cabin in Townsend for Christmas Eve.  



Audrey and Grant and I took a moment to consider our options. None of them seemed very good. Should Grant get out and push the cars out of the snow and get them unstuck? Should we try to drive around them in the lane for oncoming traffic? Should we call for help? Should we give up and spend the night on the side of the road in our car? 


Calling for help seemed futile. There were dozens of cars stuck on the side of the road on this mountain pass. And if these tiny Tennessee towns were equipped with emergency vehicles, they would have been there by now. 


Inside the car it was quiet for a while. The windshield wipers scratched back and forth across a layer of ice on the windshield. The dashboard GPS screen glowed in the darkness, a spinning wheel that was picking up no signal. Even outside the car, the newly-fallen snow had created a layer of hush all around us.

"You know, I just remembered something," Audrey broke the silence. "All my friends say that if they could have one person with them in a crisis, they would want it to be me."


I nodded. She is good in a crisis.


"How about this?" she continued. "How about if I get out and walk up to the other side of this curve, and ask the cars from that direction to stop for a few minutes while you drive around the curve in their lane?"


I nodded slowly. It seemed like our best chance. We looked at the curve ahead of us. Maybe we could make it. But then I shook my head. I was afraid we would spin out like the four cars that were blocking our lane. 


But this was happening. Audrey got out of the car to tell the two cars in front of us about our plan and see if they wanted in on the action. We sort of knew them. They had gotten stuck on the ice on the last two curves and Grant had gotten out to help push them across. 


"They didn't say thank you," he said, rubbing his hands together as he got back into our car after getting them unstuck the first time. He seemed more surprised than annoyed. And then when they got stuck a second time, he got out to help them again. 


Audrey finished conferring with the cars in front of us. The first car, the white Lexus, had called for emergency services and was going to wait for help. The second car, the gunmetal grey Hyundai, wanted us to go first and he was going to follow in our tracks. This made me nervous because the gunmetal grey driver seemed to know more about snow driving than any of us. And he wanted me to go first.


Audrey went to go hold up the oncoming traffic.  I rolled down the window and called out to her. 


"Hey ... be careful!"


"Yeah," she said over her shoulder, as if she were walking into the gas station to get a cup of coffee.  


I watched her walk away and with each step, I saw a little less of her and a little more of the snow falling between us. Then she rounded the curve and disappeared altogether. I heard the click of a shutter, the sound of my anxiety taking a mental picture, in case this was the last time I ever saw her.  

"Hush," I said to my anxiety. It's going to be fine.


I gave her a few minutes to stop the oncoming cars, and then I held my breath as I began the slippery drive. My wheels were already spinning as I passed the gunmetal grey Hyundai. The driver leaned out of his passenger side window and yelled to me, "Don't give it so much gas! Just creep along."


I crept. I crept and I crept and I crept.


As we passed the first spun-out car we started fish-tailing. I took my foot off the brake and somehow a combination of gravity and inertia kept us on the road. 

I crept. 


I tried to find tire tracks from a car that had navigated this curve ahead of us. The snow was falling so fast though, all tracks were covered up. 


I prayed that the tread on my tires was good enough.  

I crept. We approached the second spun-out car. The curve of the hill was so steep that we started to slide towards it. "Lean to your left!" I yelled to Grant. I have no idea if that helped. Probably not. But we did manage to miss the spun-out car by an inch and we re-gained traction. 


We crept.  

The only sound was the crunch of the tires over ice and snow, and then, slowly we came around the bend at the top of the hill and I could see Audrey standing in the falling snow, holding her hand up in an authoritative traffic stop and just behind her, several cars waited. We had made it around the curve without spinning out, and for the first time in several minutes, I exhaled. Audrey hopped back into our car.


"And that" - she snapped her seat belt into the buckle - "is why people want me around in a crisis!" she exclaimed. We high-fived. We clapped. We yelled. 


And then we continued to creep because we still had a few miles to go before we got home.

That hairpin curve was the last dangerous curve on the mountain pass. For the remainder of our trip home the road remained thankfully flat and straight. 


We still had one final challenge though - it was the hill at the entrance to our campground. And ironically, after everything we had gone through on the mountain, we just couldn't ascend it.  So we abandoned our car on the side of the road just a few hundred yard away from our cabin and trudged the rest of the way through the snow. 

When we finally got back into our cabin we took off our wet clothes, made hot chocolate and reflected back on our trip across the mountain. A drive that should have taken 30 minutes had taken almost three hours.



It would be dramatic to say it was a miracle. But it really would have been bad to be stuck in the ice on that mountain on Christmas Eve, as the temperatures dropped to single digits and the snow continued to fall. It was so much better to get ourselves and our car across the mountain in one piece. 


I felt a special sense of gratitude.

For Audrey. She really is someone I want with me in a crisis. She is brave and bold and calm, and a wizard problem-solver.


And for Grant. I want him with me in a crisis too. He has a giant and strong body and an even bigger and stronger heart, and he will get out of the car as many times as he has to to push someone across the ice, even if they never say thank you. 

And this, I think, is a scene you would want on a Christmas ornament. A mom and her two young adult children, sitting around the fireplace in a mountain cabin, with snow falling softly outside and their car parked in a snowy embankment at the foot of the hill. 



This scene says that creeping along is enough. This scene says that even your very worst case scenario isn't that bad. It says that your best-case scenario is more likely than you think. It says you've already come through a lot and although you don't know exactly how much more lies ahead, this hairpin turn might be the last difficult one. It says that hot chocolate and a fire are closer than you realize, and your tread probably is good enough.

Creep along. 


Cory said...

I live your writing my friend. Thanks for this.

Melanie Gao said...

Thank you Cory!

Anonymous said...

Always enjoy your stories.

maya said...

loved this story, Melanie! Thank goodness for A & G!!

Melanie Gao said...

Thank you Anon and Maya. And yes, thank goodness for them!

Anonymous said...

Love this 💕 you capture the best in every person, experience and situation, I appreciate (and enjoy) your perspective!

Melanie Gao said...

Thank you for being here Anon. 😊