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Winter Highways in the SLV

Rare though it is, snow can come hard and fast in the San Luis Valley! Such a day it was, when yes, a snowstorm was pounding the mountain passes and the valley floor. Often the valley is in a 'donut hole' of dry air while the surrounding mountain ranges are smothered in clouds and the storms blanket the peaks, which is the general norm due to the physics of weather.

"How do people live in this place? There's nothing here," the woman proclaimed, in the convenience gas station in Fort Garland on US Highway 160. Her question was seemingly directed to no one except maybe her husband looking for munchies. I was on a C-E-S, a coffee elimination stop mid-morning on my way to San Luis and points south. I could sorta see her point, she being obviously passing through the San Luis Valley for the first time going somewhere for Christmas which was in three days.

Having driven the 25 miles from Alamosa to Fort Garland I had not seen any pavement in that distance, was in a caravan of cars heading east while numerous caravans of 6 to 10 cars and trucks were headed west. Admittedly, safe speed was between 35-45 miles per hour. By Blanca, I had already seen two cars, SUVs, off the road and in the ditch. A wrecker was already at one and a sheriff's deputy was on his way to the other. The weather created unsafe passing attempts because due to heavy snow and what I call death fog, dense white clouds along with the snow, visibility was under a quarter of a mile and there was not enough time to see the barely visible headlights, if drivers even had them on, of oncoming traffic. And with Highway 160 being a trucking route, no use trying to pass with 40 tons worth of truck coming at ya that you cannot see!

I had made my stop in Fort Garland, headed south on CO 159, drove past the historic fort and was thinking about what the soldiers would have been doing in the 1850s on a day like this. Feed the horses and stay hunkered down in their barracks, hopefully with plenty of firewood, a good book and maybe a deck of cards.

One pick-up truck passed me in quite a hurry as I was now pretty much alone headed toward San Luis. Still saw no pavement, but the road was snow packed, not icy, as there is a big difference, so safe speed was close to 50 mph. Visibility was low and vehicles coming north would appear as two ghostly eyes of headlights before becoming visible. I had music on, had an interesting view of a sea of snowcapped sage that disappeared into whitish gray nothingness, and I was not on a time schedule.

I saw emergency flashers up ahead and I came upon a slow moving van. I immediately recognized the plates as South Carolina. I knew why he was going only 15. He was out of his state and completely out of his element. He most likely had nothing that even closely resembled snow tires. As I passed him, I glanced over. The look on his face was asking himself, "What have I gotten myself into now? Who talked me into Colorado in wintertime?"

Next up in the distance was the strange glow of a bluish white light suspended in the air.

It took me several minutes to know that it was a snow plow as I could now see a sandy mix scattered on the road surface. Time to hang with the plow, get some road 'gription' with the sand, relax, sip more coffee and enjoy the snowy December day!

My plan had been to go snowshoeing on a trail above the town of San Luis and into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, but with visibility being almost nothing, I bagged the idea for another day when I could actually get views. Look for that blog in January! In the meantime, and I know everyone has seen them before, let's go over several winter driving tips.

Give up the attitude that CDOT (Colorado Dept. of Transportation) should keep the roads so clean that you should be able to drive the speed limit. Those snow plow drivers work hard and Mother Nature ultimately dictates road conditions. Doesn't make roads impassable, it simply requires humans to settle in to a safe speed. I have driven on glare ice on mountain passes where safe speed is 10 miles an hour. Why? Snow sometimes comes in right at dusk after the sun has been warming up the road during the day, the air is now below freezing, the snow hits the warm pavement, melts, and turns to ice. Even the snow plows have a tough time on an ice rink. Ice skating anyone?

Give up the attitude that if you have an SUV with snow tires and 4 wheel drive that you can drive however you want. Bad idea. I am a veteran of hundreds of thousands of miles of mountain highways in the west and the most common vehicle I have seen in wrecks, in ditches, or in rollovers are the classic SUV people who think their vehicle is designed for all road conditions at whatever speed they want to drive. One time, on a day I described above, I saw seven accidents in a twenty-five mile stretch. They were all SUVs and three were upside down. They all probably flunked high school science tests in the unit covering, friction, momentum, and acceleration. Don't be the 'strapped in astronaut' aimed at space when the person from the emergency vehicle arrives at the scene and comes crawling up to your window to see if you are okay. On that note, Happy New Year and safe driving!

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