The Saratoga Sun -

Black ice and other Wyoming driving wonderments


Driving in Wyoming is a mystical and beautiful experience …

… most of the time.

Wyoming scenery is beautiful in summer, explosively colorful in fall, serene in winter and refreshing in spring. These visual attributes can make a long drive seem much shorter.

There are, however, other factors that can come into play that can make even short trips a long and living hell.

WIND: The first, and most nearly omnipresent, of these miseries is the wind. While wind-farmers can always boast a bumper crop, the most dramatic way to measure wind velocity is to count how many eighteen wheelers have been blown over along the interstate. I personally tallied seven semis overturned one especially blustery fall day.

SNOW: A likely ingredient in the fall/winter/spring driving mix is snow. When I was a kid I was part of the huge crowd to see Star Wars debut in the theater. As I sat enraptured in the front row, I was blown away by the effect of the Millenium Falcon going into hyperspace (the one where the stars come rushing at you).

Little did I know that years later I would be terrified by the same effect.

You may be familiar with the one I’m talking about.

You know, driving headlong into a whiteout as the snowflakes scream into your headlighted field of vision.

If you focus on the snow, it looks pretty cool. If you are actually trying to see where you are going, not so much.

ICE: With snow comes snowpack. With snowpack comes ice. With ice comes a huge loss of traction. You can also measure this loss of grip by counting how many cars and trucks have gone off road. The easiest solutions to this are to either A) not drive, or B) SLOW THE HELL DOWN!

BLACK ICE: Another especially dangerous ice-related predicament is black ice. Basically black ice is ice that you cannot detect on the roadway. You think you are seeing dry pavement and the next thing you know you are standing by your vehicle in a ditch. Once again, and I cannot stress this enough, if conditions are cold enough to be icy just slow down. People think four-wheel drive will save them while driving in “conditions” and it is true that four-wheel drive aids in keeping forward traction. What folks forget is that four-wheel drive does NOT mean four-wheel stop. The best way to be able to come to a halt on slippery roads is to not be going fast in the first place.

OTHER TRAFFIC: I don’t know how many times I have heard the phrase “It’s not me that I am worried about. It’s the other guy.”. You just know that if everyone says that then odds are eventually you will be talking to “the other guy”. Sometimes the “other guy” is even you or me. Stuff happens.

A dilemma that can be created by other drivers occurs when there is loose and blowing snow. Another vehicle (semis in particular) passes you throwing large amounts of snow into the air and putting you into your own personal whiteout. This can effectively blind you for minutes in already bad driving conditions. While there are plenty of courteous and safe truck drivers out there, some don’t seem to think their heavy semis can slip off the road and drive like they have a huge shipment of transplant organs they have to get to a distant hospital yesterday. These drivers may never find themselves jackknifed in the middle of the highway, but they do cause inadvertent distress for others on the road.

In really miserable weather though, sometimes following a reasonably-paced truck whose lights you can at least see most of the time can be a beacon of salvation on a trip.

WILDLIFE: Animals, either singly or in packs, cross the road. I have had to lock it up on the interstate to avoid hitting the largest elk I have ever seen. The four of us in the car stared with saucer eyes as I got stopped about 20 feet short of this colossus who looked at us in annoyance then slowly ambled on his way. I have ended up at a sudden halt smack in the middle of an elk herd on the Snowy Range, amazed that I had not touched any of them as they looked in at the strange beings suddenly in their midst. I have narrowly avoided antelope that watched me until I was close, then, in a panic, decided that in my path was the place to be. I have come over hills to find deer standing directly in the center of the road. Fortunately, I have thus far managed not to hit any of these larger animals, but if you live in Wyoming you know lots of people who have played “smack-a-critter” to varying results. I have hit smaller animals like rabbits, prairie dogs and birds. I don’t enjoy hurting small souls but usually these critters are performing some sort of death run that ends beneath my wheels. The birds are normally hit in spring when the only unfrozen water available is on the road where cars have melted it through friction. These avians get their sips and fly up in flocks when they see a car coming. Sometimes they are too slow or don’t fly out of the roadway. As disturbing as these occurrences are, you cannot let these things distract you on bad roads if you want to get to your destination in one piece.

FOG: There are places around the state that get impenetrable fog on a fairly regular basis. About the only thing you can do about that is to drive slow and put your flashers on. As a matter of fact, don’t be afraid to put your flashers on anytime you feel the need to slow down.

RAIN: Ha! Got you. It never rains in the west. When it does happen to spit a little, the worst that generally happens is that your windshield wipers smear the dust (now mud) across your windshield.

COMBOS: Singly, any one of the conditions listed can ruin your day. It gets worse though. These elements combine. Wind can blow you off an icy road. Elk can jump out in front of you during a whiteout or all of these conditions can coincide.

Living in Wyoming you frequently hear about road conditions from friends, neighbors, and even complete strangers who have been on the road. We research road conditions online and try to determine if the trip is even really necessary in the first place. The smarter among us prepare for emergencies by carrying flares, survival equipment and the like.

I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Wyoming road crews do an admirable job of making travel across our fair state as safe as possible and that our highway patrol officers often go to great lengths to aid those in need along the way. Thanks to all those folks.

I hope that I have given you something to consider in your travels and sincerely pray that all your holiday excursions are safe and successful.


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