An icy wind shoved my 60 pound frame swiftly down the ski run. Hours before they had closed down the mountain where we were vacationing with friends in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. A blizzard had swept in, spewing the mountain in a rabid, foamy-white snow. I had been struggling down the final run, losing my skis every four feet in the ever-deepening powder. My patient mother hid her growing anxiety and dug my right ski out of the depths one more time.
“Abby, we have to hurry. The mountain is closed and it’s getting dangerous. The roads are going to be bad by the time we are ready to leave.” I picked up the faint strain in her voice and willed my ski bindings to stay snug for the remainder of our descent.
Finally, we were in the car. Dad, Mom, my sister Jennifer and me. Our friends had wisely fled the mountain just a few hours ahead of us and were blissfully ignorant of our winter peril.
“The tunnel is closed,” Dad told Mom under his breath. His whispers did not escape my eavesdropping. I leaned forward and stuck my head between the two front seats. Daddy’s knuckles were white on the steering wheel. As white as the full six inches that I could see illuminated in the headlights. The car crept along, the speedometer needle not even bothering to rise from its idle position.
“Janis, I can’t see the side of the road. I can’t tell if I’m going to drive off the side of the mountain!” Mom pulled a candy cane striped stocking cap down over her ears, and put her ski goggles on. Bravely, she rolled her window down and hung her head outside.
A whoosh of snow spun into the car, speckling the seats and dashboard. “You’re doing great, Honey,” Mom encouraged. “Just hold it straight.”
“The tunnel is closed, J,” Dad said again, louder this time. “We can’t get through period. We have to find a warm, safe place to stop or we’ll freeze out here. And there is no way to turn around.”
Suddenly, a glow of tail lights parted the snow two feet ahead. Daddy carefully tapped the brakes and held the steering wheel tightly. The car slowed, shimmied and stopped. Not daring to stay still, lest we not be able to move again, Daddy urged the car forward.
It was a relief to know that we were not the only car being tossed in this virtual snow globe. If we could just keep our headlights in line with their tail lights then surely we could stay on the road.
We had left the mountain anticipating an hour’s drive to meet our friends at The Ramada Inn for the night, just outside the storm’s reach. Now, four hours later, our only friends were the strangers in the invisible car in front of us. The leading car suddenly angled right. “Where are they going?” Daddy wondered out loud in alarm.
“Maybe they know something we don’t,” Mom suggested. Then, as if to prove her right, the tiny tail lights disappeared and were replaced by the larger, luminous lights of windows. A lonely Dairy Queen seemed stranded on the side of the road.
“Thank God,” Mom breathed a prayer as Daddy allowed the car to safely slide off the road and into the nearly empty parking lot. “Open Twenty-Four Hours,” a sign in the window bragged.
The silhouettes of our road companions emerged from their now visible station wagon. Three people ducked their heads against the wind and scuttled inside; we were close behind.
We all shook the snow from our coats like dogs after a bath. Relief and exhaustion mingled on Daddy’s face taking the form of a silly grin. He shook hands with the other driver. We made small talk with the employees behind the counter as we ordered styrofoam cups of hot chocolate and coffee.
“It’s on the house tonight, guys,” the cashier said.
“Two in the morning. If the weather keeps up and they don’t open the tunnel, I doubt we’ll catch up with the rest of the group at the hotel.” Daddy sighed looking at his watch. I barely heard him. I tucked my feet up under me on the plastic booth and laid my head in Mom’s lap. Who cared when the tunnel opened. There were worse things than being stranded in an ice cream store.