A Most Peculiar Experience

December 7th, 2013

I enjoyed a most peculiar adventure yesterday. It began snowing for the first time this year, and the snow came down heavily. The weather reports had been warning that this was coming, so we were prepared. Kathy called me at 3:00 from the grocery store and asked what driving conditions were like at our house. I told her that the snow was navigable so far, but that she should hurry home before the snow piled up too deep. 

Kathy decided to make a stop at her office in town, then diddled around her office for half an hour. By the time she left her office it was 4:00 and the snow was piling up. She was just a few minutes too late: she made it halfway up the steepest part of the road home, then got stuck. Our neighbor Kristin was driving behind Kathy in her four-wheel drive Subaru and, when Kathy couldn’t get out, and they had no cellphone reception, Kristin decided to drive home and call me from there.

I got the message that Kathy was stuck about 4:20. By this time the snow was getting thick. There was no way that our other car, a van, could be of any use in the snow. But I did have the tractor, a 1954 Ferguson. I thought for just a few minutes before deciding that I had to go after Kathy with the tractor; perhaps it could tow her car out. 

I bundled up heavily and set out. This tractor makes a top speed about 10 mph and I had to slow down in many slippery places, so the 2 mile trip to the location of Kathy’s misfortune took at least 20 minutes. I arrived as twilight was setting in. Kristen had told me that Kathy was just a few hundred yards from the summit, but I couldn’t find her. It turns out that somebody had helped her put chains on her car, and she had gotten out and headed back to her office. She had promised me that she would be either on the way home or stuck, so when I didn’t find her, I just kept going downhill, looking for her. Finally, I reached a level area where she could not possibly have gotten stuck and realized that things were not going as planned. It was getting dark and there are no headlights or taillights on my tractor, so I reluctantly turned around and headed for home.

By the way, this is a country road. There are no streetlights, no sidewalks, and few houses. The area is forested.

The sides of the road were well-stocked with cars stuck in the ditches. Mailboxes had been knocked down. I helped one fellow who’d gotten stuck, pulling him out, but he didn’t know how to drive on ice and went right back into the ditch. This time the ice was so slick that I couldn’t get him out; in fact, I myself slipped on foot three times while disconnecting the tow chain. I have never seen ice on a road so glassy smooth.

I resumed my return, but every minute I wasted cost me: there were so many cars spinning their wheels that they had polished the ice to perfection, and nobody was getting traction. To make matters worse, the brakes on my ancient tractor had iced up and I had no brake capability at first; I nearly rear-ended one car. Later, after they warmed up, I got braking back.

One trick with a small tractor like mine is that I could switchback my way up the road, taking on the road at a shallower slope. Unfortunately, at one point in the middle of the road, the ice was so slick that the tractor began sliding sideways downhill. I slid a good thirty yards downhill before I got control back.

Then I realized that I had another advantage over the cars: I could drive in the ditch. The snow in the ditch hadn’t been packed down and polished into ice. So up the ditch I went, making excellent progress. Sometimes the wheel still on the road would lose traction, but then I had another special trick: independent brakes. There’s a brake for the left wheel and another brake for the right wheel. When one wheel started to slip, I braked it so that power would be transferred to the other wheel. This helped greatly: I was getting close to the summit again. 

But now a new obstacle arose: a car in the ditch ahead. I would have to venture out into the road, where I would surely slip. It was now quite dark and there were people all along the road, and the occasional four-wheel drive vehicle coming up the road every two minutes or so. With the poor light, I decided that my only hope was to cross the road to the opposite ditch at as level an angle as I could. It was a tricky maneuver, but I pulled it off successfully. 

An iron rule of ice driving is “never stop on a slope”. Once you’re stopped, it’s all but impossible to get traction again to start back up. So I plunged ahead up the ditch. Just 20 yards later, I saw another car, a Volvo, blocking the ditch in front of me; I’d have to cross the road a second time. I got halfway across the road before I lost all traction. I started sliding sideways down the road. This was much worse than the first time. The slope was steeper and I consequently picked up more speed. My only control was the direction of the front wheels; I worked them carefully to avoid disaster. I flew past a car with some fellows standing by it. Realizing how ridiculous my situation was, I simply called out, “See ya later!” Well, they thought sure that I was about to die. After all, on a tractor you have no seat belt, no protection, and your legs are tangled up in the foot controls. If you hit something frontally, you’re thrown into the steering wheel and off the front of the tractor. If you hit something sideways, well, you just get smooshed. 

Jumping off is seldom an option at the last second: your feet are so deeply ensconced on the floorboard that it takes one motion to get a foot up on the transmission and a second motion to jump, requiring at least two seconds. 

Despite all this, I did not feel the slightest fear or alarm. This is the peculiar part of this adventure: I was fully cognizant of the seriousness of my predicament, yet my heart wasn’t pumping, I wasn’t sweating, and I certainly felt no sense of panic. I just concentrated on the task of driving the tractor. In the back of my mind I knew that I might have to try to jump off if a collision looked inevitable, but I figured that I’d deal with that possibility when it arose. 

Well, after about 100 yards of downhill sideways sledding, I got the thing stopped. The guys whom I had passed by earlier were walking down towards me as fast as they could, slipping and sliding as they went. The first one reached me and breathlessly asked if I was OK. “Sure!” I answered, a bit confused at first. Didn’t I look OK? Then I realized that these fellows must have felt the emotions that I didn’t feel. Ah, well; I thanked them for their concern and resumed my efforts. However, the Volvo proved to be an insuperable obstacle, and I was unwilling to take another sled ride downhill. So I slowly, precisely backed the tractor downhill to a spot where it was far enough off the road to permit safe traffic flow.

There was nothing to do but walk home. There was of course no cell reception here, so I’d have to climb up to the summit to get in view of the cell tower. From there I called my friend Kristen who lives just a mile away and has a four-wheel drive Subaru. From her I learned what Kathy had done. Kristen agreed to come pick me up. So I started walking down the road; the further down I went, the shallower the slope and the easier her job would be. I got about halfway down before Kristen reached me. She took me home; Kathy spent the night at a friend’s house in the valley. 

The next morning some friends with a four-wheel drive truck brought Kathy home and took me back to the tractor. It started right up and I had no problem getting up the hill this time. Perhaps the road wasn’t as slick; perhaps in the daylight it was easier to precisely pilot the tractor. The road WAS slick enough that my friend with the four-wheel drive truck lost traction several times and had to resort to extreme measures to make it over the hill. 

I had absent-mindedly left the key in the tractor overnight. I wasn’t overly concerned. This is Oregon; people aren’t that way. Besides, anybody foolish enough to try to steal that tractor and get it out of there in the dark would probably have paid for his foolishness with his life.