The rewards of winter driving

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Back in the days when my siblings’ and my skis were short enough that they could be placed sideways in the back of our wood-panelled Country Estate station wagon, there was a universally accepted child’s dream of the ultimate end to an outstanding ski weekend: being “snowed in.” In this regard, times haven’t changed much. An unexpected overnight in a cheesy motel with a 25-cent bed jiggler and a free ice machine down the hall is still a dream come true for children of all ages, but like my parents, I’d have to admit full surrender on the highway first—and defeat is just not in the skier’s driving rule book.

My backseat memories are all good: another dark night heading slowly into or out of ski country, snow driving at the windshield like silver knitting needles and blinking red brake lights ahead, thumping wipers streaking the fogged-up glass, the Irish setter panting behind me, my dad swatting at us to be quiet by using my mum’s hairbrush… Good times.

One of the more outstanding MacMillan road trips ensued when a car in the annual March Break tri-family sojourn to Quebec City broke down. As I recall, the dads bravely took the train home to get back to work and abandoned the women and children in the lobby of the Chateau Frontenac. The dregs remaining included: the station wagon, two mums, a pack of “light” cigarettes, eight kids and seating for six with an assortment of car toys that consisted of some rope, magic markers, Mrs. Detwyler’s wig—and an alternator that quit near Cornwall. Cell phones? DVD players? Seat belts? Yeah, right.

Within a few years of getting behind my own wheel and steering out into ski country, I had spent a night with farmers (no lonely daughter, however), helped push a friend’s car through the booth at the U.S. border so it could be jump started, and smuggled visaless Kiwis (the people) as well as oranges (the fruit) across said pre-9/11 border. I’ve dropped off and collected ski-injury friends at emergency rooms in several provinces and two states now, and in one surreal moment, spun around so many times on a four-lane divided highway that by the time we were out of the snowbank and moving again, we weren’t sure if we were driving with or against the traffic. (Thankfully a speed limit sign facing toward us confirmed our direction.)

I’m always agitated by weather forecasters who at the first sign of a flake scream: “The skies are falling! Don’t get in your car!” While so many skiers of all ages are screaming: “The skies are falling! Pack up the car, tomorrow’s a powder day!” I’m told skiers are exponentially more likely than the rest of Canadians to own winter tires, and are indeed better drivers in inclement weather. Yes, there are lots of tragic stories that result on winter road trips, but I don’t want to write about that today. I keep drifting back to road trips through storms in B.C. and Alberta, Quebec and Colorado, South America and Europe—and never while wearing ski boots. Or at least since I was 17, but never again.

With skis on the roof, friends and I have stopped for directions in taverns, police stations, ditches, hospitals and, one time, an all-night adult video parlour. But the best quote our family still regularly repeats when we’re driving in a storm was first heard at the native reserve where we sometimes make a detour for cheaper gas. Like winter driving, it’s repeated slowly, with trepidation: “Yip, ’sgonna git lot worse ’fore it gits any better.”

Iain MacMillan
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