Il neige!!!

I found out tonight that it really is better to stop at the bottom of the mountain to put your chains on your tires if it is snowing. And, naturally, I found that out the hard (code for: pigheaded) way. I had plenty of time to think about this while I was sitting in my car on the side of our road waiting for Bill, rather than decorating Kaitlyn’s birthday cake as I’d planned.

            When I left the house at about 4:20 to get Kaitlyn from school, the day’s snowfall had amounted to little more than a dusting just in some spots on the grass. Nothing was sticking to the roads. I drove her down off the mountain and dropped her off at Cubbies. I went to look for a new ski jacket (especially after discovering in the morning snow that the coat I brought with us is not water proof). When I went into the store it was raining. When I left the store at 7:15 it was snowing. Uh-oh. I’m not on the mountain. And it is snowing.

        It’s ok, I think. I have snow tires. Four of ’em! And chains in the trunk. I’m fine!

        The trip up the one road to Uriage, the town at the base of our mountain (although it isn’t really at the very base) was a slow one. No one was driving fast. It was hard as heck to see because the snow was coming right at the car in big huge flakes. Massive ones. The only thing lighting the road was headlights. I tried not to get too far behind the car I was following, because his tail lights helped. It also helped that some days I make that drive 4 times (two down, two up) and know the road pretty well.

        Then, around the circle in Uriage and up to our town. The snow had started to collect on the road. Traffic going the other direction had slowed or stopped as people tried to maneuver a corner that apparently was icy under the snow. I went the entire way up the hill in 2nd gear. I don’t know if that’s good or bad for the car, and I really didn’t care. Besides, the car in front of me was so slow that I nearly had to down-shift.

        As I passed the town pool, I noticed a couple of people stopping there, probably to put chains on their tires.

            Then I noticed the main road from the pool to our side road was lined with cars parked for the night. I don’t know where the people who own those cars live; but clearly they’d decided that this was better than driving the rest of the way.

            Rounding the corner to make the drive up our road, there were more cars just stopped. A clump of them were at the base of our road, where it is only one lane. Are they stopping people from driving up there? No, two cars were coming down and the guy going up had to back out. Ok. Still, when that little tango cleared, the other cars in front of me didn’t all take off up the road like I thought they would. One guy seemed to be putting chains on his tires. Should I? I have no idea how. Bill showed me once and finished by saying something to the effect of “You’ll never be able to manage that. It’s hard.” If I get out here, maybe one of these nice French people will take pity on me and help….

            Then a little, dinky Twingo or Cleo went up our road. (Twingo and Cleo are car models. They are small, under powered and seemingly always driven by someone afraid to see if the gears above third are merely decorative notations on the stick shift.) Dang it, if a Twingo/Cleo can get up our hill then I can. I didn’t notice any chains on the tires, although it is admittedly hard to get a good look at the front tires of the car in front of you. Doesn’t matter… what does matter is that I followed him. And I immediately knew I’d made a mistake.

            If you’ve never driven up our road, imagine a windy, twisty, mostly single lane road with a 20% grade (Ok, I’m completely guessing on that grade part) In the dark. Covered with snow. And, even with my four snow tires, slippery.

            As you reach the top of the first intense part of the climb, there’s a pull off. I think it’s meant for drivers who are coming down to pull over and get out of the way of drivers coming up. One car was already parked there. Then my inspiration, Monsieur Twingo/Cleo pulled over there, too! An orange flashing light appeared in my rear-view window: the snow plow! Yea! They plow our incline! I scooted over just far enough for the plow to get by, which in France is quite acceptable. You only have to move just enough for the other driver to get by without scraping your car; being close enough to touch is ok. I thought, once that plow goes by, I have a far better leader than Mme Twingo/Cleo. I can be behind the guy getting the snow off the road!

            In first gear, with the anti-slip system doing its best to help me not crash my car (at least I was past the part with the steep drop off) and it’s bright yellow exclamation point lighting my dash all the way, I slipped and slid along behind the plow. I could see that his blade was moving snow, but that was not road directly underneath my tires. We reached another decision point. The plow turned off my road and headed up an even higher side street, leaving a little wall of snow between me and the darkness ahead.

            That point also provided the last place I knew I could pull over at all and be out of the road. So I did. Barely. I did what I could not to be too much in the way of a gated driveway. I stopped and I did the only thing I knew to do. I called Bill. He had just picked up Kaitlyn and was headed home. He was 30 minutes away on a night with no bad weather. Perfect. Did I mention I’d decided not to stop and get fuel on the way home? So there I am, a third of the way up our street, to the side of the road in a car with a quarter tank left in it. (Bill says two things about having a diesel car. First, a quarter tank will last far longer than a quarter tank in a gasoline car, so not to fret when it gets to that mark. And, second, if you do ever run out of gas… it’s a nightmare. You cannot just go put more in it, you have to take it to the dealer and have it primed or something like that and it sounds expensive and time consuming and lecture inducing) I warned Bill to put on his chains on his way to rescue me. I didn’t tell him about my fuel situation. I could have always turned off the car and tried to stay warm by putting my new ski jacket on over my old winter coat.

            Once I realized what a long wait I had in front of me, I figured that I’m a smart enough person to figure out how to put some silly chains on my tires. I’d watched Bill. And they came with instructions, that’s how he’d figured it out the first time! So I got out, opened the hatch, took out the yellow safety vest, gloves and chains. The vest is, I think, a lovely addition to any already unpleasant situation. I did put it on, since it seemed wise. Then I opened the box that holds the chains. HHHHHMMMM…. ok. The directions say to take out the chain and hold it up with two hands to make sure it isn’t tangled. Yup, yup, got that done. Next, place the yellow thingie behind the wheel. The yellow thingie. Nothing on my chain seemed to match the sketch in the directions. (Why do directions always have sketches? Why can’t any company spend the little bit extra to have actual pictures?) And there’s more than one yellow thingie. I thought I was fairly sure which was the right one when I remembered Bill telling me on the phone “Chains that are put on incorrectly can cause a lot of damage to your car.” So I closed the hatch and got back in the car. Then I noticed I hadn’t put on my blinkers. Done. Probably should have done that before getting out of the car. Note to self for next time.

            I watched my neighbors making their ways home. Some had chains on their cars. Even the Audi wagon had chains and don’t they have some fancy all wheel drive? What was I thinking trying to drive up our street? I saw one couple walking carrying a couple of grocery bags with them. One fellow ran down the street with a flashlight (note to self: get flashlight for car). Two men walked down carrying a set of chains to rescue a car left on the main road; the older guy had a flashlight on a band around his forehead. (note to self: not that kind of flashlight)

            After a while of marveling at how busy our never busy street seemed, a man walked up to my car. Honestly, I thought he was one of the Cat ISE’s. I don’t know why I thought that because we are the only ones on our street and it is not a street you would just wander up to see if someone was in trouble. I guess I thought maybe Bill relayed the story of my troubles while still at Cubbies and a wife called her husband and he came up to check on me. It all made sense in the moment. I got out of the car only to be greeted with a “Bonjour.” Great. Not anyone I know. Duh. “Vous voulez entrer ici?” My small ability to speak French iced over. “Oh, non. Je voulez…” didn’t matter what I said after that. I mis-conjugated the verb and he knew I was a lost cause. “You live up there?” I was mad at myself for saying something so stupid when I know how to say “I want blah blah blah,” but I was kind of glad he spoke English. I told him that I was waiting for my husband. He said he was just coming up to get his chains and go back down for his car. He opened the big fancy gate leading to his driveway and disappeared. Any time I’ve caught a glimpse of the houses behind that gate, I’ve been impressed. The one house I can sort of see from the road as I’m passing has a giant wall of windows… all glass… that has to have an incredible view. Dang! He should have invited me in! Drat, drat, drat. It took a while, then he came out, this time in jeans and this time carrying his chains instead of his briefcase. Should I jump out and ask him to help me? Nah, maybe if he gets back before Bill arrives and he cannot get his BMW around me.

            That created a new dilemma. Do I call Bill and warn him that the guy could be coming back and I could be blocking his way in? That question at least gave me something new to ponder rather than “why did I drive up here?”

            In the meantime, I also watched a second plow come up the road and keep on going toward our house. Now I had to decide: do I try to make it on a freshly cleared road? No. If I failed, I wouldn’t be able to get out of the way. That would frustrate a neighbor and likely infuriate the plow driver. It took him a long time to go all the way up and back down. Ten or fifteen minutes. When he got back to my perch, he carefully cleared away the little wall of snow created by the previous plow driver. He pushed the snow off the road and when he went to back up, his wheels spun on the road. Oh my god, the snow plow is stuck! And I considered driving up there! Ok, he wasn’t really stuck. But his wheels did spin. He went back and forth carefully removing the little snow wall then headed up the side road. Eventually, the flashing orange light disappeared in the distance.

            Bill got there before the guy who probably thinks I’m a total idiot (cannot drive or speak) returned, and before the snow plow got back. Bill walked over, looked at my car and said “you really can’t get out of that spot?” uh, hello. Yes! I really cannot. He told me he would drive my car and I would drive his. He wasn’t going to bother with the chains. Me first.

            Driving up the road in a car with chains on the tires was, well, easy. Like ordinary driving. Only I couldn’t see a darn thing. Why were the headlights from my car casting such a huge shadow on the road? Bill had turned his headlights off. I pulled and pushed and tried to turn every knob sticking out of his steering column. None affected the lights. My only choice was to stop so I could examine the dash. Only I stopped on a hill (well, the whole freakin’ road is a hill, so of COURSE I stopped on a hill) and Bill panicked behind me. But we both got started going again ok. Mr Smarty drove my car all the way up our road without chains on the tires. And when he got out he actually said I could have done that. No, if I could have done that I would have, rather than sitting in the car in the dark waiting!

            He pulled in the garage and put the chains on my tires in case I want to go out tomorrow. He thinks I might want to go up to Chamrousse. Not a chance. Not even with chains. Je ne veux pas conduire vers le haut de la montagne dans la neige.

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