The elevation was increasing as the snow continued to fall. The freeway slowed as we approached the chain restriction check point.
We pulled off to the side of the expanded shoulder, a parking lot of slush and semi-trucks. A small army of men in fluorescent-orange and -yellow snowsuits with vests reading “Chain Installer” moved about, diving into the slush and stretching odd assortments and varieties of metal over the wet, slippery tires of sedans and mini-SUVs.
I dread tire chains. I dread putting them on and I dread driving with them on, not so much because of the speed restriction (which is annoying) or the constant hum and vibration (which is annoying) but because they represent the risk of driving in unknown conditions: the roads are terrible; put metal spikes in your tires and maybe you won’t drive off the cliff.
I rolled down my window to ask one of the jumpsuit soldiers where I should pull in to install my chains.
Doin’ it yourself?
Then I don’t care. Over there, out of the way.
Oh. Of course. Jumpsuit guy is there to make some cash, not to help out of the goodness of his heart or some great initiative funded by my tax dollars.
I pull over next to my friend whose white SUV still carries what looks to be a foot of snow packed on the roof of his car.
From the backseat: their car needs a haircut!
The SUV doesn’t need chains, but my friend knows I’m dreading this and he offers to help before we head over the mountain pass back home.
As I step out of my car into the slush, I’m grateful to not be alone amidst the hazard lights, fluorescent jumpsuits, and stench of idling eighteen-wheelers.
When’s the last time you did this?
A long time ago.
We each take a side, unrolling my cheap bought-them-on-the-internet-for-twenty-dollars-on-sale-used-once-and-returned tire chains, which are not so much chains as they are small little discs of metal attached to a thin wire that may or may not fit around my tire.
I am not convinced these will actually help in snow and ice, but that is not why I bought them. I bought them to get me past chain restriction checkpoints. I am confident they will do the trick.
A fluorescent jumpsuit: You sure you have the right size?
I am sure of very little at this point, and I perceive the sneer and constant eye of the jumpsuit footmen, ready to take a short stack of cash in exchange for my dignity.
For a moment I consider it. At least it would be finished quickly.
But I remember my three-year old, who is straining in the car seat to get a view of his dada putting chains on the tires so our little silver hatchback (the “adventure car”) can brave the mountain pass.
In his imagination, which is only thinly separated from reality, this is just another part of our hero’s quest. This is a great adventure and, while he is told to stay in the car, I am his proxy, preparing our car to slay the dragon.
I cannot abdicate my duties and, while I am not sure what is at stake here, I sense it involves a curious and potentially volatile mix of honor, pride, ego and self-respect, so I squat down near the tire and try to figure out how to put these damnably-frustrating contraptions on.
I recall the conversation I had in the front seat ten minutes prior, in anticipation of this side-of-the-road ordeal.
I wish I had gloves.
You have some right there. Won’t those keep you warm?
No, I don’t care about being warm. I just need to be able to grip and use my fingers.
Oh. That makes sense.
I unroll the chains by the driver’s-side tire as my fearless friend does the same on the opposite side.
They go on the front tires, right?
For a moment, I slip out of my body and survey the scene from above. I have this odd realization that I am a grown up. A man. A husband. A dad. I am terrified and thrilled at the responsibility and weight of this.
I slip back into reality as both my friend and I fumble around on our respective sides, occasionally peeking over to see how the other is doing. I call him over to my side, to see if together we can tightly fasten this twisted necklace of metal to my tires. My hand slices across a sharp edge on these high-economy-low-functionality tire chains of mine. A patch of red instantly paints across my slushy hand and drips onto the slushy roadside below.
My interior monologue grows increasingly loud and deprecatory.
You look like an idiot.
You have no idea what you’re doing.
Those guys are laughing at you.
Why didn’t you buy decent chains?
Why are you trying to drive your Prius across a mountain during a blizzard?
Don’t you know you’re going to drive your family off a cliff?
I have to back up the car a few inches so we can attach the chains, and I hop into the car.
From the backseat: Dada! Are our chains ready to go?
Not yet son.
From the frontseat: Oh, I see why gloves would be nice.
We finish up my tire and move across the front of the car to the other side.
My friend kneels down, pulling the chain taught so we can fasten it and finish the job.
I notice the blood on his hand.
You too? I’m glad it wasn’t just me. I’m sorry about this.
It’s okay. I’m actually not sure if it’s my blood or yours.