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March 24, 2005

The Blizzard of ’97

It started snowing immediately after we both woke up on Friday morning, October 24. It must have been about 10:00 am MDT. It was a serious snow. Big flakes and lots of them drifted steadily down, unimpeded by the mild wind. It was a good time to sit back, build a fire, and watch the snowstorm unfold outside the window against the background of the Rocky Mountain. There was only one problem. We didn’t have any firewood.

No big deal. It was only October. The Mayor of Denver had been on the news yesterday promising that the city could easily handle any snowstorm, including the dreaded spawn of El Niño. There would be no repeat of the fiasco of Christmas Blizzard of ‘82 that shut down the city of Denver and cost Mayor McNichols his job.

After feeding Slinky, I decided it was time for her to get her daily outdoor exercise, snowstorm or not. As it turned out, Slinky loved the snow. She just got so cold that she could hardly stand it. She bounded through the snow and cut rooster tails until she got alarmingly close to frostbite, at which time we hauled her back inside and dried her with a hair dryer.

At about 4:00, Michelle and I decided to drive up to Evergreen and look at the house we were attempting to purchase. We figured, “What better time to see how well the county plows the roads?? When we loaded up the 4 Runner with hats, gloves, jackets and blankets and headed up into the mountains, the snow had not begun to stick to the roads in Lakewood.

In Evergreen, the story was much different. Bridges were icing over, snow was beginning to accumulate, and the incompetent drivers were beginning to make themselves known. One lady careened out of control in front of us, performing perfect pirouettes with her $40,000 Suburban. Ouch.

We shifted into 4 Wheel Drive and pushed on, intent on making it through to the house we were eyeing. About 10 miles further, we reached the turnoff to Snyder Mountain road, a steep twisting dirt road that followed a very direct route up the face of the mountain. It was covered about 14? of snow, but it was apparent that it had been plowed at some point earlier in the day. Slowly, we made our way up the mountain in 4 Wheel High in 1st gear . When we got to Jack Pine Lane, the road that the house is on, we were somewhat dismayed. Not only had Jack Pine Lane not been plowed, but it had been walled-off with about 3 feet of snow and ice when the snowplow had cleared Snyder Mountain Road.

Undeterred, with some difficulty, I managed to get the 4 Runner turned sideways in the road, facing the wall of snow. We punched through and struggled through 24?-30? of snow as we made our way up Jack Pine Lane. We were able to make it up to the house, cursing the snowplows of Clear Creek County the entire way. Upon reaching our destination, we quickly turned around and headed back. Coming back down Snyder Mountain road was more like skiing than driving and once again, it was entirely a 1st gear affair.

We stopped in Evergreen for pizza and discussed our options. We realized that this house was no house for a rear-wheel drive car. Michelle’s Nissan 240 SX had to go. As we sat and enjoyed our pizza, we watched the snow continue to fall, blanketing turning even the barren El Pinal section of Evergreen into a picturesque scene.

By the time we left the restaurant, it was dark. When we got onto I-70 to head East back toward Denver, we were in for a rude awakening. I-70 was a parking lot. Nothing but tail lights and parked cars as far as one could see. No one was moving. It occurred to me that this was a bad time to be sitting around and a good time to be driving, so we quickly went back into 4 Wheel High and created a new lane by driving down the shoulder of I-70.

It is important to realize that Colorado is not a theme park. People die here in the winter. Lot of people die from lots of causes like hypothermia, carbon monoxide poisoning, and attacks by wild animals. There isn’t going to be a kindergarten teacher waiting at the bottom of the mountain handing out ribbons to the people who waited in line the longest. And the police are busy helping the emergency crews cutting Geo Metros out from underneath the 18-wheelers that ignored 61 “Snow Chains Required on ALL commercial vehicles? signs. Also, it is important to understand…the interstate was completely covered in snow and ice. You couldn’t find a line on the road without a flame-thrower. All things considered, the shoulder seemed like a very attractive option.

In my rear-view mirror, a stream of headlights fell in line. You could almost see the gears turning in their cellophane heads…“Hey…if he can do it…so can I!? And for the millionth time in their life, they played follow-the-leader. We came to an exit off the interstate, took it and immediately re-entered on the entrance lane. Then, it was back to the shoulder. Some people, anxiously anticipating the ribbon-bestowing kindergarten teacher at the bottom of the hill, moved far over into the shoulder as if to say “I’m not going anywhere, but you’re not getting around me.? This maneuver is to be expected from a Texan in a rear-wheel drive car. These are the same drivers that perfected the technique of driving in the passing lane for hundreds of miles at a time. What they didn’t realize is that the interstate shoulder is only marginally better than driving beside the interstate, which I did without hesitation to get around these basket cases.

Presently, Michelle said “I can see flashing lights. It looks like a wreck?. As we neared the scene of the crash, we were able to discern an 18-wheeler jack-knifed in the middle of the interstate. We exited from the interstate for the third time. This time, the exit ramp, which was moderately steep and covered in snow and ice, was blocked by about six or eight 18 wheelers, that had also ignored 78 “Snow Chains Required on ALL commercial vehicles? signs. They had given up all hope of climbing the exit ramp and resigned themselves to wait out the blizzard. We were forced to alternately squeeze between them where possible and zigzag around them where necessary. At that point, the interstate was completely empty driving into Denver.

No cars were heading West when we drove into town. I was surprised because, although I-70 was frozen solid and covered with snow, I had driven on it when it was much worse. I couldn’t imagine that it had been closed. At the bottom of the hill, we saw the same gridlock heading Westward, once again, backed up behind a jack-knifed 18 wheeler. Predictably, there were no police, no kindergarten teachers, and no snowplows to be found on the entire trip home.

We went to King Soopers (Krogers) to buy firewood, but they had already been hit. We stopped at the 7-11 and bought two stacks of firewood. Back at home, we built a fire, turned on the TV and watched the news of the blizzard unfold. Hundreds of motorists were stranded on I-70 in both directions. The flights were canceled at the airport and scores of motorists were stranded in their cars on Peña Boulevard leading to the airport.

It had been snowing all day and all evening and it wasn’t showing any signs of letting up.

The next morning, it was still snowing. The news crews had caught on that this was turning out to be one heck of a snowstorm and began to refer to it as the “October Blizzard?. The news crews were out surveying the situation and it wasn’t pretty. The snowplows became stuck in deep drifts of snow and had to be dug out with front-end loaders. I-70 was closed from Denver to Kansas. I-25 was closed from Wyoming to New Mexico. Hundreds of people were stranded in their cars on the interstates. The airport was closed for the first time in its 2-½ year history. Thousands of people were stranded at the airport. Dozens of people had spent the night trapped in their cars on Peña Boulevard, with still no hope in sight. The Alpine Search & Rescue meeting in Denver was canceled.

The governor of Colorado was in Washington, D.C. and the mayor was on TV, saying that everything was going as planned and everything was under control. That was all I needed to hear. I figured that not only were things NOT under control, the governor was out of the state and the mayor was out of his mind. I told Michelle I was going to try to drive to the 7-11 about a block from our home. I opened the garage door and backed through a 3 foot wall of snow in reverse in 4 Wheel High. A friend of mine had his 4WD Blazer stuck in the parking lot, but I pretended not to notice as I plowed though the snow toward the street. The streets were practically deserted. The only vehicles on the roads were trucks and jeeps. No plows, no police, no fire trucks, no ambulances. There was no point in waiting at the stoplight because (a) there was no traffic and (b) there were no cops. I drove straight for the 7-11, not even trying to determine where the curbs were, as I figured that it didn’t make much difference at that point. The parking lot was all covered in 2-3 feet of snow and ice and 6? of concrete isn’t going to make that much difference.

I bought their last 10 bundles of firewood, loaded them up, and headed back home. I figured there was no telling how long the blizzard would last but the firewood would definitely be gone quickly.

We kept a fire going for the entire day. All day, the snow continued to fall. The snow piled up on our deck until it was 20? deep. Periodically, I would take Slinky and throw her into the snow, at which point she would thrash and squirm as she sank out of site in the fluffy dry snow. However, she would always come bounding out fairly quickly, cold but happy.

At one point, I decided it would be a good idea to start the M37. I took two pictures of it before my camera froze up. Then, I cleared a 3-foot drift off of the hood and sprayed a good deal of engine-starter into the carb. It fired right up, but when I put it in 1st gear in 4 Wheel Low, all it did was sit facing uphill spinning. I pulled out the hand throttle and left it running in gear with the tires spinning and walked around it, surveying the situation. It definitely needs lockers in the differentials to give it TRUE 4WD.

I tried sledding down the street, but the snow was too deep for the runners to reach the ice. The snow was definitely more suited for a toboggan than it was for a sled.

Back inside, the talking heads on the news reported that governor was headed back to Colorado from D.C. via Salt Lake City to Grand Junction and west to Denver via I-70. (For some reason, I-70 west from Denver was not bad and Summit County only got about a foot of snow.) The talking heads also reported that the governor had called out the U.S. Army. Of course, what they meant to say was that he had declared a state of emergency, thereby circumventing the Posse Comitatus and mobilized the National Guard. The Guard drove up and down the interstates in their HumVees checking out each stuck vehicle to determine if anyone was trapped inside and offering them a ride to a shelter (but not offering to pull out their vehicles).

At the airport, panic was setting in. The airport was running out of food. People stood in lines for 30 minutes to an hour to buy M&M’s out of the vending machines. McDonalds ran out of food with hundreds of people in waiting in line. Finally, some people resorted to eating the airplane meals that are normally not forced onto passengers until 35,000 feet when the thin air clouds their judgement.

Fortunately, it stopped snowing on Saturday evening. On Sunday, the sun came out and did what our elected officials could only talk about…clear the roads.

Posted by Peenie Wallie on March 24, 2005 at 8:43 PM

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