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A snowy adventure

POSTED January 4, 2011 10:06 p.m.

As a lifelong Central Valley resident, when the meteorologist mentions “inclement weather,” my mind immediately turns to fog.

We don’t really have hail here. Heavy rains seldom occur. And snow? That’s something I never stop to consider in my daily life.

This New Year’s Eve weekend, though, I became more familiar with snow than I ever wanted to.I traveled south last weekend, on a somber journey to my girlfriend’s father’s funeral in Barstow.

If you’ve never heard of Barstow, it’s a desert town, smack-dab in the middle of the Mojave. If the name vaguely rings a bell, you’ve probably stopped there for gasoline on your way to Las Vegas.

My girlfriend’s pet rats and I left Turlock around 7 p.m. Wednesday for what was expected to be an approximately five hour journey. My girlfriend, already in Barstow, called ahead to make sure I checked the road conditions with CalTrans.

Now, I should stop right here and mention that my girlfriend is quite a clever woman (she is, after all, reading this column). But I couldn’t help but chuckle as I humored her, reading that the road through the desert was, indeed, open with no restrictions.

I hopped into my car and hit the road, blazing through the Central Valley at speeds that would have made a hare blush. Just after Bakersfield I saw the sign for Highway 58 and pulled off, heading east toward Tehachapi.

Ah, Tehachapi. Sweet, sweet Tehachapi.

Shortly after turning onto 58, the road began climbing. My car – laden with newfangled, relatively useless technology – suddenly binged at me. It seemed that I’d triggered a function I’d never known about, a “cold weather warning” function, replete with an animated snowflake on my dashboard.

Silly me. Thinking that driving from the Valley to the desert would be a warm journey.As the climb continued and the temperatures dropped, I started to notice a fine, gravelly surface to atop the asphalt. Having been to snowy areas at least, oh, perhaps three times before, I realized quickly that it had snowed here at some point and salt and gravel had been laid down to increase traction.

I kept driving, at a slightly more tortoise-like pace, when a blizzard decided it would be a good time to show up.

The highway was almost instantly covered with an inch of snow, though traction was still quite good, considering. Right about then, I reached the first exit for Tehachapi. A California Highway Patrol officer had blocked the road with his car and laid down flares, forcing the traffic to exit into Tehachapi.

I started sweating, despite the frost. I was en route to a funeral, remember, scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday. It’s not the sort of thing one reschedules due to snow.

A second CHP officer directed the stream of cars down a main road, along what appeared to be a detour. I assumed perhaps the CHP had elected not to plow within Tehachapi city limits, due to an accident or some such, and intended to have us rejoin 58 on the other side of town.As I spent an hour crawling through town, what I previously thought to be a blizzard quickly proved itself to have been a set of mild flurries as an actual, white-out blizzard swept into Tehachapi. Wind howled around my windows and snowflakes swirled in mini-tornados as I struggled to see past the taillights of a Nissan Pathfinder quite literally performing its job.Still calm, rational, and entirely deluded, I thought I’d check the highway status on CalTrans’ Web site via my smartphone. “No traffic restrictions are reported for this area,” the site claimed, bringing a hopeful smile to my lips.

Eventually, I reached the highway entrance at the far side of town. The road was entirely closed – in both directions.

I carefully steered my way into a nearby truck stop to ask when the road would reopen. The clerk told me that based on what he’d heard – from those who’d had accidents on the snowy road – 58 wasn’t set to reopen until 9 a.m., at the earliest. But who knew, he said. If the storm kept up, it could stay closed for days.

I was stuck in Tehachapi for the night, at least. I called my wise girlfriend to let her know what was happening – thankfully avoiding a scolding for laughing about her earlier road condition concerns — and then heard a light, almost inaudible squeaking sound.

It was then I remembered that I was transporting my girlfriend’s two pet rats – Cocoa and Marshmellow – to visit her for the weekend.

Now, rats are relatively hearty creatures. But I didn’t want to chance leaving these little buggers in the car all night, for fear my girlfriend would soon have ratsicles.

So I set out to find a hotel room, driving through six-inch snow drifts in my compact car to enter a La Quinta Inn and Suites parking lot barely visible through the driving snow, despite being set back just a few hundred feet from the main street. As I waited in line to inquire about a room, I called every other hotel in town. No dice. This was my – and the rats – only chance.

Upon reaching the front of the line, the proprietor told me I was in luck – they had one room left. An “Executive Suite” for $150 per night.

To say the room was a bit above my pay grade would be an understatement. But I bit, knowing I had little choice with the rats.

Upon opening the door to my “suite” I was greeted with a small room containing a broken clock, a broken microwave, a smelly couch, a sink with a hole in the basin, and a generally underwhelming experience which I’d price at approximately $59 per night on any night when a blizzard was not storming outside. I should be thankful my room was one of the few whose keycards was working – most needed the front desk to let them in and out every time, and that would not have worked with the rats.

Ah, yes, the rats. I went out into the driving snow, grabbed the sleeping bag in my car to wrap their oversized cages, and slipped my way across the icy ground in a ridiculous performance worthy of a Cirque du Soleil show. Upon reaching the building I did my best James Bond impression and – much to my amazement, considering – successfully snuck the rats into my room.

As I fell asleep in my overpriced “suite,” CalTrans’s Web site still stated the 58 was open. I laughed.

I awoke early, hoping to make it to Barstow by 2 p.m. despite the snow.

The view that greeted me was amazing. Breathtaking, in fact.

The still-rising sun glinted off the mountain slopes coated with fresh snow. Trees and bushes sprouted from sheets of white. Roofs and automobiles looked as though someone had loosed a celestial flour shaker on them.

And, thankfully, the roads had reopened, allowing me to make it to Barstow with an hour to spare before the funeral.

Mercifully, I thought I was through with snow. But the snow was not through with me.On New Year’s Day, it began snowing in Barstow – the desert, mind you. I had no idea that it snowed in deserts.

On Sunday morning, during a quick trip to Barstow’s outlet mall, what appeared to be chunks of glass covered the ground. I made a snide comment about how dangerous Barstow must be with all these windows getting smashed.

“That’s rock salt, to deal with the ice and snow,” my brilliant girlfriend said with a ‘are you really that stupid’ look on her face.

Later Sunday, when I was set to leave for Turlock, CalTrans’s Web site – actually updated, for once – calmly informed me that both Highway 58 and the Grapevine were closed due to snow. Once again, I was stranded by the snow. It wasn’t until late Monday afternoon that the pass reopened and I made my way back to Turlock.

All this adventure gave me a lot of time to think about the foreign subject of snow.Here in the Valley, we’re lucky. Maybe we’re naive, even. I know I certainly am.

Vehicular travel is something we take for granted. Fog, our greatest enemy, is easily bested for a careful, well-versed local.

But there’s a whole other world out there. A dangerous, cold, slippery world where cars are not allowed to tread.

I’m glad it doesn’t snow here. I’m glad that, when we want to go somewhere, we can just go. We aren’t confined by something entirely out of our control.

But I have to say I did enjoy the adventure. I feel like I, with the aid of my trusty rats, bested a foe. We accomplished something by making it there on time.

That morning, when I opened the blinds of my “suite” to see a sunny sky atop a snowy landscape, it wasn’t just beautiful. It was a symbol of my resiliency, my ability to triumph over adverse weather.

That snow-covered view through my window was incredible. I just hope I never see it again.

To contact Alex Cantatore, throw a snowball at him, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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