This week was drifting snow, zero visibility and a bit of déjà vu: The military swept in to make a rescue after a blizzard left more than 300 people trapped in their vehicles on Highway 402 east of Sarnia, Ont. I was glad they were all okay, but it made me remember the winter drives that could have been my last.
After a lifetime of high-risk activities that have included everything from motorcycle racing to hang gliding, I’ve realized that highway driving can be just as dangerous if you pick the wrong day. This is the story of three drives I should never have made.
Christmas Eve, 1983: An epic blizzard had unleashed itself on Nova Scotia, and police were telling everyone to stay off the road, but I was caught up in a secret mission. I was about to propose to my girlfriend, and it was time for one of the final stages: driving from Halifax to the Annapolis Valley.
Her family thought I was insane, but they had no idea what I was up to. The time and place of the proposal were sacred to me: it had to be Christmas morning, and it had to be on a special, windswept hill at my grandparents’ farm.
Considering what was about to take place, I looked at the blizzard as an inconvenience. In my pocket was a diamond ring that had cost me my life’s savings, along with the money for my last semester of university. My girlfriend was from a family that took commitment seriously – if she accepted my proposal, I knew we’d be married until the day we died.
I’d spent the past two weeks buffing the ring and constructing a customized case that was lined with velvet and decorated with paper cats, my girlfriend’s favourite animal. I’d gone to the church her family had attended for three generations and had the ring blessed by her minister in a secret ceremony. Now I pictured her standing in the field where I would propose, with sunlight refracting through the diamond as she lifted the top of the box.
But first the drive: 110 kilometres of white hell in a 1979 Chevy Nova. The ride to the edge of town was a test unto itself, and the highway was worse. The headlights were useless, firing into a solid curtain of falling snow. The highway disappeared into the landscape – I aimed down the middle. We were alone on the road – the Nova was like an Apollo space capsule, carrying my girlfriend and me through a lost white universe.
She asked me if I could handle the conditions. I said yes, but wasn’t really sure. We were past the point of no return. Snow brushed against the bottom of the car. Cell phones hadn’t been invented yet. We were on our own.
My dad had spent years teaching me the tricks of winter driving. Momentum was key – if I slowed down, the snow would trap us. I gripped the steering wheel lightly to keep the front tires from plowing, and tried to stay as straight as possible, so the back wheels would pass through the track created by the fronts, reducing resistance.
But the drifts were getting deeper. Ahead of us was one that looked like the killer wave in The Perfect Storm. I edged up the speed, hoping to punch through. Now the drift was here, its crest rising above the Nova’s hood. We hit it in an explosion of white, and the Nova twisted and slowed, like a plane hitting the arrestor net on an aircraft carrier. I felt the snow clutching at the Nova like quicksand. Then we were through, but barely moving. I worked the throttle, straining for speed and life.
We arrived at my family’s farm at midnight, using our last bit of momentum to surf a drift that blocked the driveway. The one-hour drive from Halifax had taken nearly four. My dad gave me a questioning look. “You got lucky,” he said.
I nodded, humbled. My father was an incredibly talented driver who had tried to pass along his skills, but I had just ignored one of his most important lessons – knowing when to quit. I knew he was right, but I’d been obsessed with my proposal mission.
It was one of those times.
A date with death row
Ten years later, it was one of those times again. I was at a Washington State jail where they had just hung a convicted rapist whose appeals had run out. Now I was scheduled to fly to Deer Lodge, 700 kilometres away, to interview a Canadian waiting on death row at the Montana State Prison.
But there was bad news from the office. My editor was facing a budget crunch, so I’d have to return to Toronto and do the interview by phone. I told him I’d drive to Montana.
“Your choice,” he replied.
I tried to rent a four-wheel drive vehicle, but there were none left – it was March, and the Storm of the Century was walloping North America. The only vehicle on the lot was a Nissan Maxima sedan. It would have to do. I headed into the Rockies, climbing toward the Continental Divide. The Maxima skated on the snow, and I fought for traction, like a gecko trying to stick to a sheet of glass.
This was serious. I was in the middle of nowhere, on a solo mission that was an extended, far more dangerous version of the one I’d taken 10 years earlier to propose to my wife. Every mile was an accomplishment. I came upon a snowplow truck and inserted myself behind it, driving in its cleared wake. Then the snowplow turned off the road. I was on my own again, like an earthbound Charles Lindbergh.
Around 2 a.m. I got stuck, wedged into a drift that left the Maxima beached. I waded through snow into the woods and probed until I found a big stick. After two hours of digging, I cleared enough snow to move a few inches, and I rocked the Maxima back and forth until it was free. I stripped off my jacket and dried it with the car’s heater.
I arrived at death row the next morning, worn out but happy to be alive. I’d used every trick my dad ever taught me. The warden was stunned. “How did you get here?” he asked. “Snowmobile?”
The Maine mission
In 2007, I made another winter drive that took me to the edge. This time I was with my wife. Now her mom had died, and we had to drive her car from Halifax to Toronto. A blizzard had hit eastern North America. Friends urged us to load the car on the train. But I wanted to do a story in Moncton and spend two days with my wife. So the drive was on.
We bought new snow tires, installed fresh wiper blades, and loaded a survival kit in the trunk. This time, we had a cell phone, which would give us an extra option if things got really bad. And they did. We arrived in Moncton late at night in snow so heavy that we couldn’t see road signs. Visibility straight ahead was about two car lengths, but my new BlackBerry saved us: I fired up the GPS application and asked it to find a hotel. We followed the directions on the little glowing screen and pulled into the portico of a Radisson. I kissed the BlackBerry.
The next day was worse. We headed down the Airline Route through Maine, a secondary road that we’ve driven for the past two-and-a-half decades on summer vacations. But this time was different. There was no other traffic, and we surfed through snow that reached to our Honda’s belly pan. A Ski-Doo passed us and turned into the woods, its lights fading. The reception bars on my Blackberry winked out, one by one. We were on our own, just as we had been back in 1983, as we headed toward the Annapolis Valley.
My wife asked me the same question that she had back then – could I handle it? This time I said yes and meant it. But I knew that I could push my luck only so often. We made it to Toronto two days later, still on high alert after more than 2,000 kilometres of ice, snow and white outs.
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