Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Vaughn, New Mexico -A Long, Strange Trip Indeed
A lumbering snowplow had just passed us, headed south on US 285 with a long line of vehicles crawling behind it.
We should have turned back then but every chance to cross the snowed over median looked like a trap.
And in the descending darkness the windblown snow swept across the highway, obliterating the slim ribbon of pavement, replacing it with a sea of grey.
We kept crawling along in our little station wagon, the front wheel drive and new tires maintaining a firm grip.
The Suzuki’s mighty defroster hummed away while a new set of wiper blades kept the windshield clean.
It wasn’t the car I was worried about, it was the other drivers as we passed one forsaken vehicle after another, off the road, in the ditch or buried in the median.
Their emergency blinkers marked a path through the darkness and then the interior of our car began to fill with a blinding light.
A low-slung pickup sporting fat tires and bright fog lights was bearing down on us from behind.
I turned the hazard lights on and got as far over to the right as I dared.
The pickup rode up on my tail, its piercing lights flooding the interior and then they suddenly disappeared as the vehicle veered sharply off towards the median.
I looked in the rearview mirror and saw the truck askew of the roadway, its headlights rapidly fading in the darkness.
There was no stopping to help as it was all I could do to just keep rolling.
A chained up and opportunistic tow truck driver would be making the rounds and plenty of money off this stretch of road all night anyhow.
I thought then of my oldest brother, Eric, the one who taught me how to drive in the snow when we were growing up back east just north of Boston.
I learned then that just a slight tap of the brakes and a twist of the wheel would send us spinning out of control and howling with glee.
I guess the pickup driver behind me didn’t.
We tentatively motored on and were soon buoyed by the sight of a dim halo of lights far off in the distance above what had to be the town of Vaughn.
A remote railroad hub, the community of about 500 sits out on the lonely, windswept plains of New Mexico providing a haven for road weary truckers, isolated ranchers and, when the weather sours, stranded travelers.
Running due south across the state this two lane, separated highway functions as the state’s primary route for the shipment of low-level radioactive waste to an underground, desert, repository outside of the town of Carlsbad known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).
That’s where we were we had headed on Christmas day, my wife and I, to Carlsbad and “Christmas on the Pecos”.
It’s a southeast New Mexico tradition where homeowners on the Pecos River put up elaborate Christmas light displays for visitors to enjoy.
The weather had cleared and we made a visit to the Carlsbad Caverns that morning and were now heading back, much later than we planned.
The severe snow storm that had just ripped through our state was at our backs as we covered a couple of hundred miles of open road that sunny afternoon
Just two days earlier the same storm had dumped record amounts of snow on the plains and high desert towns of Vaughn, Roswell, Artesia and Carlsbad, bringing them a white Christmas.
The storm had stalled down there and we were forced to leave a day later than planned to give it time to clear out.
As I was packing the wagon to go I was thinking of the Texas family that had been trapped by the same storm days earlier on a rural northern New Mexico road as they tried to make their way to a ski resort.
The family spent two days buried under deep snow drifts snow in their GMC Yukon and almost suffocated to death.
They weighed heavily on my mind as I loaded up several sleeping bags, pillows, a couple of jugs of water, a small propane heater, a pint of whiskey, some trail bars and playing cards to our travel gear.
But as we rolled out of Carlsbad and crossed a hundred miles of cleared blacktop under sunny skies the day of our return I had no idea we were going to need them.
We skated into Vaughn that night atop a sheet of ice with the wind howling and the snow flying.
It was a surreal scene as we passed dozens of idling tractor trailer rigs crowded into a convenience store parking lot, the blowing snow illuminated by the lone street light and the big rigs belching smoke.
Up on a slight hill across the street the lights of a two story hotel and its adjacent 24-hour diner beckoned.
We pulled into the driveway only to encounter a deep snow drift and several abandoned vehicles blocking the way.
But there was an opening and we went for it, cresting the top of the drive with just enough momentum left to slide to a stop under a big pine tree.
We were parked off to the side of a circular driveway in front of the hotel, out of the way and on level ground.
“I think we’ll be staying here for the night,” I said to Wren who nodded in agreement.
But it turned out there wasn’t any room at the inn; they were booked solid with most of the rooms reserved for the railroad workers they catered to.
And none of the other motels in town we called had any vacancies either.
We had arrived too late, the little town and its limited number of hotel rooms was flooded with stranded travelers.
We talked to the driver of a shuttle van for the railroad crews in the parking lot about our options and she suggested if we wanted to chance it we’d better get going before the state police closed the highway.
We talked it over and agreed there was no way we were going to take a chance on making it another 150 miles under these conditions.
We were just going to have to suck it up and ride out the night in our car.
In the crowded diner we heard how the weather was fine that day until the sun set.
Then the melted snow on the roads froze up as the fierce plains winds kicked in, stirring up the snow and sending it adrift.
We wondered about the surly mood of the townspeople too and discovered they had been dealing with stranded travelers for days now and were now low on supplies and patience.
We went back out to the car and prepared to settle in for the night.
Wren wiggled into her bag, reclined her seat and was asleep in no time.
I sat sipping a beer and reading my novel.
The windows soon windows misted over from our breath and I was reduced to just listening to what was going on outside.
The shuttle van came and went every now and then, its lights barely visible through the fogged up window.
A front end loader arrived at one point to clear the lot, its back up beeper chiming while the engine roared with each scoop of the bucket.
I took a walk at one point passing the diner and noting the clock inside showed it was 3:30 in the morning.
It was eerily quiet now that the wind had died.
I looked down the hill at the convenience store parking lot and saw one of the last of the tractor trailers quietly leaving.
I would wait for the dawn, dropping off to sleep in the front seat, my feet warm in a pair of old sheepskin booties and a thick pair of wool socks, a sleeping bag draped over my head.
The sun rose with a vengeance, raising our hopes and dashing our fears.
He said the highway was a sheet of ice for about ten miles out of town and then turned to clear sailing all the way.
Wren used the prepaid, emergency cell phone we carried to notified work she was going to be late and we took off to cover the last hundred and fifty, uneventful, miles of our trip.
In retrospect we should have known as we headed south into Vaughn that Christmas day that this was going to be one of those trips.
As we had neared the town, the skies clouded over, the road became slick and we saw giant snow banks lining the shoulders.
Then we came across a heavily bundled person stoically riding a scooter down the lonesome highway, miles from anywhere, just putting along, little rings of smoke blowing out the tailpipe.
We just looked at each other and kept on going and by the time we’d passed through town the road and the skies soon cleared as did that eerie feeling.
Days later I would overhear my wife talking on the phone.
She was telling her sister that everyone should have to spend a night sleeping in their car during a snow storm in a lonely, little, town like Vaughn.
After all isn’t that what living in New Mexico is really all about?
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