The desert was desolate and dusty orange, the sky was vast and powder blue, and the road was as wide open as our baby-expecting hearts.
We were on the final leg of a blissed-out, 3-day, 1,400-mile side trip to Utah while visiting family in Colorado. On the drive out to Utah a few days earlier, Greyson had been a champ to end all 21-month-old champs, only fussing for a minute or two out of 11 hours. But on this day, as the long journey back to Colorado wore on and the sun kept getting in Greyson’s eyes, our little backseat buddy grew road-weary and increasingly inconsolable. His books and trucks, usually endlessly comforting to him, lost all their placating qualities.
An hour after the sun had set, with unhappy wails still emerging from the car seat, we pulled over in the mountain town of Frisco to feed and hopefully console Greyson. He seemed to appreciate the respite. With only 75 miles left to drive, we were in the homestretch. Our heads would hit our respective pillows in a matter of two hours.
As we ascended to the final mountain pass on I-70 before Denver, flurries began to float down from the dark sky. We had known it might start snowing during the last hour of our drive, but with a combined 25 years of all-season Colorado driving between us we assumed that one hour in snowfall on a major, well-monitored interstate would be manageable.
An electronic highway sign listing time estimates to different locations was our first red flag. It indicated that we had 100 minutes to west Denver, rather than the hour we were expecting. So this tipped us off that the other side of the mountain might have a few tricks up its sleeve. Mild apprehension built up in my brain as we passed through the long, fluorescent-lit, 11,158-foot-high Eisenhower Tunnel.
Upon emerging from the tunnel, the snow began to fall with increasing urgency. The flakes grew bigger, and the spaces between them grew smaller. As we slowly descended toward Denver and the snowflakes quickly descended from the sky, I began to have the sense that we were racing the snowstorm down the mountain, trying to head it off at the pass before it gained strength. Snow and slush started accumulating on the road with unnerving speed. Greyson had thankfully just fallen asleep, so the car became eerily quiet as Danielle and I gradually realized that our situation was becoming increasingly precarious.
A mere 10 miles beyond the tunnel, enough snow had plastered itself on the as-yet-unplowed roads that all highway lines were buried, invisible beneath a layer of wet powder. The most viable course of action seemed to be to follow the tire tracks of the car in front of us, but to stay 50 yards behind it in case either of us started to skid. For a while we didn’t know if we were in the right lane, the left lane, or straddling the two. Visibility had deteriorated from moderately clear to a virtual white-out in a matter of less than 15 minutes. At one point we fish-tailed helplessly for a few seconds, then recovered. Danielle groaned under her breath. I cursed under my breath.
In our peripheral vision we saw numerous vehicles stopped along the shoulder, some of them parked at strange and unsettling angles, 4-ways flashing, while God only knows what desperate conversations transpired within. My fingers gripped the steering wheel so tightly that my palms grew creased and dark pink. We both sat at the edge of our seats, mostly silent, whispering at times, breathlessly strategizing, trying to reassure each other, trying to reassure ourselves. Greyson slept peacefully in the backseat, dreaming of Matchbox cars and plastic trucks, oblivious to it all.
I kept hoping against hope that we would pass through the storm, that if we just pressed on a little longer the blizzard’s fury might relent. But then we passed another electronic highway sign that read: “I-70 CLOSED IN 4 MILES.” I was unable to even process those words. How do you close an interstate? What happens to the people who are driving on it? Would there just suddenly be a barricade we can’t drive beyond? The ominous warning nearly struck me dumb. I wondered in desperation if there would even be an exit we could get off in the next 4 miles. My mind conjured vivid images of a night spent huddled together in the backseat of our rental car along an interstate shoulder, clutching our son to our chests, gradually getting buried. The stuff of fatherly nightmares.
I should clarify that exits, and towns, are at a minimum along this careening, high-alpine stretch of I-70. There is an exit every 5-7 miles. A town roughly every 10 miles. An actual town, with a motel? More like every 15 miles. So the odds of a motel existing in this 4-mile stretch before the interstate was closed seemed dauntingly low. It didn’t even occur to us to consult our phones since all 4 of our bulging eyes were fixed ahead, hyper-alert, gathering immediate data from the road in front of us.
I drove on in near silence, the color draining out of my face. One mile… heart racing… two miles… panic building… and then we saw it — “IDAHO SPRINGS / NEXT 3 EXITS.” A beacon of civilization in this white, wet wilderness. My hope resurfaced momentarily. In hushed voices, Danielle and I nervously discussed which exit to take. The obvious solution was to take the 1st one. Any port in a storm, right? But when we reached the exit, it looked desolate and distant from the town itself, and we worried about taking an off-ramp only to get stuck on even-snowier roads in a small, cramped town that probably wouldn’t have its plows out in full force yet.
So we pressed on toward the 2nd exit with every intention of availing ourselves of this escape route. Visions of warm motel beds danced in our heads. But as we approached the longed-for exit we could see that at least one tractor trailer appeared to be stuck at the end of the off-ramp, and possibly a car as well. (It was nearly impossible to confidently discern anything in the midst of the swirling, pelting flakes of snow.) So at the last second, with Danielle deferring to me on this one, I opted to stay on the interstate and press on to the 3rd and final Idaho Springs exit.
My panic returned in full force. There was no backup plan left. This was the final off-ramp before the interstate closed. We needed to get our precious little sleeping boy inside a motel room — or any room, for that matter — so that we could keep him safe and warm for the night. We needed this 3rd exit ramp to be passable, and we needed it to be clear of any stopped vehicles.
As we finally reached the exit — that harbor in a storm, that oasis in a desert of snow — our hopes and our hearts sank. Along both sides of the off-ramp, nearly a dozen tractor trailers and pickup trucks were parked, either stuck in the snow or stuck behind another truck that was stuck in the snow. At the end of our frayed wits, all I could think was to press forward, between the rows of towering trucks, trying to run the powder-strewn gauntlet with our compact rental car. As we navigated through the tractor trailers and got near the top of the ramp incline, there was just barely enough room for our car to carefully squeeze between the guard rail and the final snow-stuck truck, just before we would reach the road that could guide us safely into town. But I grinded to a halt just shy of the truck’s back bumper, our sad little car’s sad little tires giving up the fight and surrendering at last to the merciless, pile-driving snow.
I probably don’t have to explain to you how helpless and panicked I felt at this point. We were stuck on an off-ramp, in the dark, in a blizzard, with our sleeping, soon-to-be-very-confused baby boy in the backseat. Not to mention that we were stuck in a spot on that ramp that would prevent anyone else from exiting. I pictured some big, furious, amphetamine-addled trucker wanting to kill me for getting stuck and impeding his escape route from the interstate, just so that I could try to thread an impossible needle and do what a dozen heavy-duty tractor trailers had been unable to do.
Viewed from a distance, I suppose the scene was a darkly comic diorama — a dozen snow-logged vehicles stuck behind each other, pointed at skewed angles, with a hulking tractor trailer and our helpless little Chevy Cruze leading the way in a sad, absurd, unmoving parade of chaos and futility.
It was dark, it was cold, Greyson was about to wake up, everyone on the off-ramp was stuck, and the merciless snow was pummeling us all into submission.
[Concluded in In the Backseat, Part 2: Idaho Hope Springs Eternal…]