As one whose snow-driving skills were finely honed while living in Alaska, I'm not particularly concerned when roads turn to ice rinks. You simply slow down, feather your brakes and avoid those intent on playing bumper cars.
So I was confident we would stay out of harm's way when the snowstorm hit on Dec. 6. I had gotten up in the predawn to write for a couple of hours, then later that morning took my wife to the hair salon she owns in Medford.
"Thanks for taking me today, sweetie," she said when I dropped her off. "I'd rather have you drive when it starts snowing. But be careful. This could be a bad storm."
"Hey, you are talking to an old snow dog who has yet to meet his match when it comes to snow," I replied.
Yes, those are words I will be eating for the remainder of my years.
I headed back to our Sterling Creek home a little more than half a dozen miles south of Jacksonville to resume writing a book I am determined to finish before summer. By mid-afternoon, a few dry flakes were beginning to drift down outside. The snowstorm had arrived.
Recalling Robert Service's immortal words that a promise made is a debt unpaid, I quit writing to fulfill my pledge to Maureen. I did my dreaded household chores, even doing the dishes and firing up the cursed, whiny vacuum cleaner. I took our two large dogs out for a romp just as it was getting dark.
That's when I noticed our little valley looked remarkably like the deep winter setting where Doctor Zhivago holed up in his epic Russian struggle. We were flocked.
I opted to drive our four-wheel-drive truck to pick up Maureen, since it was equipped with snow tires. I thought about throwing in the snow chains but figured it would be just a quick trip.
However, the unplowed road to Jacksonville proved a bit more challenging than anticipated. The pavement was frozen with powdered snow on top, creating slippery conditions reminiscent of the Far North. I had to inch along in four-wheel low, stopping periodically to turn around and take an alternative route to avoid traffic snarls. It took one hour and 45 minutes to make the 12-mile trip.
When Maureen climbed into the truck, I told her that both routes from Jacksonville to Sterling Creek Road were blocked by traffic jams. We headed out Poorman Creek Road, only to find its link to Sterling Creek Road also blocked.
"We can take Griffin Lane," I told her as I turned the truck around in the snow. "Guarantee you, no one will be on it to block our way."
"No one in their right mind will be on it," she countered. "That road is bad enough in the summer. Too steep. Too remote. Let's just wait until the other roads are cleared."
"It's not like we're going into the wilderness," I insisted. "We'll be home safe and sound in a half hour. Remember, you are talking to an old snow dog."
She protested a bit more but the thought of being home sooner than later tipped the scales in favor of trying Griffin Lane. Sadly, her usually steadfast common sense that serves as a firewall when I get an idiotic idea failed us that night.
Griffin Lane didn't seem too bad at first. But then we left the warm glow of lights from the rural houses, venturing beyond the point where the road was maintained. The incline was steeper, the snow deeper.
About halfway home — where the road makes an awkward hairpin turn on a steep grade — our forward motion stopped. We began sliding downhill.
For thrill seekers, it probably doesn't get much better than flying backwards down a mountain road at night. But I'm not partial to it. It was like the nightmare from which you are always relieved to wake, only there was no waking from this one.
"Brace yourself — we're going over," I yelled.
Unfortunately, I was right for the first time that night. We shot downhill in the darkness.
Where the road turned, the pickup continued straight, blithely ignoring my frantic efforts with the brakes and steering wheel. There was a free-falling sensation for a fleeting moment as we went over, followed by bouncing, horrible grating noises and a final violent thud. Our heads snapped back into our head rests. When we stopped, the headlights were shining into the tree branches above.
First, there was relief over the fact we were alive, that there were no missing body parts or broken bones. Of course, there was a brief fear that my wife's still-working fingers were about to close around my throat.
I grabbed the cellphone and called AAA Oregon. After determining that we were unhurt, the spokeswoman indicated they were only able to respond to dire emergencies because of the number of calls they were receiving statewide. I told her our situation wasn't quite dire. She couldn't promise a tow truck that night.
The gas tank was full but we didn't want to run the engine for warmth since we didn't know whether there was a gas leak. Besides, we didn't want to stay in the truck. We had no idea whether it would suddenly break away from its perch and plunge on down the mountain.
That's when I realized our heavy coats were back home in the car. There was a light rain jacket in the truck, a flashlight and my hiking stick. I had on a thin University of Oregon sweatshirt, a heavy leather vest, jeans and boots. Maureen was wearing a light sweater, slacks and sandals. She put on the vest and a pair of mittens she found in the vest pockets. I donned the rain jacket. It was like pulling on a sheet of ice.
We began walking back toward Medford. It was now close to 8 p.m. The temperature was in the high teens, possibly low 20s. Tops.
With Maureen lurching along in her sandals and me dragging my right leg, the result of having broken my neck some 40 years ago, we must have looked like a pair of ax murderers on the graveyard shift. We periodically slipped on the ice, landing hard on the concrete-like surface. We would help each other up, then trudge on.
We hiked slowly for about three hours, making any Marine Corps march I've ever made seem like a stroll in the park. Maureen never faltered, never whined, although the sweet lady may have muttered something about the world's biggest "—-hole." It was hard for me to hear, what with the rain jacket hood pulled over my head. But I had to agree. It was quite an ice hole.
Fortunately, the cavalry arrived in the form of our good friend John Decker and his son, Jesse, who had responded to our call. They picked us up near the intersection of Griffin Creek Road, nearly three miles from our truck. Being gentlemen of decorum, neither commented on my lamebrain decision to try to make it home via Griffin Lane that night.
We arrived back at Maureen's shop just before midnight where we spent a memorable night trying to sleep in reclining shampoo chairs. In the words of the great Patrick McManus, it was the finest of miseries.
Come daylight on Dec. 7, we were back on the phone, checking with AAA and local tow truck companies. Just before noon, a tow truck from Twedell's Towing in Medford arrived. When I warned crew members Ed and Phil that it would be a challenge, they cheerfully responded they had yet to be defeated by a vehicle over the side.
Yet they seemed favorably impressed when they saw our pickup truck some 30 feet down the embankment. They quickly determined they could extract the vehicle by using an ingenious method that involved anchoring their truck with a cable to the base of a large madrone farther up the mountain. In the towing business, it is apparently bad form to have your tow truck slide over the edge to crush the customer's vehicle below.
Using a winch, they carefully inched our pickup up the mountainside and onto the road. Amazingly, there was absolutely no damage from the crash. And Ed and Phil had extricated it with nary a scratch.
We arrived home in the pickup 23 hours after I had left. The pooches were happy to see us, in part because they were eager to race outside to relieve themselves after holding it all this time.
As for this old snow dog, he has learned one new trick when it comes to icy roads: don't go off the beaten path.
Paul Fattig is a freelance writer living outside Jacksonville. Reach him at email@example.com.