“Chain up!” That’s what the large, electronic message board said at the side of the highway. My eighty-five-year-old mother and I were sitting in my little blue Prius at the base of Donner Pass west of Reno, Nevada. Outside our car, snow blew around a long line of semis parked with us along the highway shoulder. In the distance, dark silhouetted truckers scurried like giant ants throwing chains over their duals, anxious to be on their way.

“Mom, do you know anything about putting chains on tires?”

She looked at me horrified—and I shrugged. It was an old habit, asking mom for help. Back in Reno, I didn’t get any direction from the Les Schwab tire guy about how to do it. When I went to the store counter I noticed his name tag said, “Hunter.”

“I don’t know if we have any chains left, but I’ll check in the back. End of season you know,” Hunter commented.

“Are you sure you want to go over Donner tonight? Looks pretty bad out there,” he glanced out the big front windows at the swirling snow.

Yes we were going over Donner tonight. I thought about how excited mom and I both were to see my daughter and her granddaughter waiting for us on the other side of the mountain in our San Francisco hotel room. Besides, we were staying at the downtown Hyatt Regency in a room that the reservation clerk told me normally went for $923-a-night. Tonight they’d sell me that room at a steal—$250—since I was attending a two-day conference there. If nothing else, we’d brave the weather just to see whether our hotel beds were gold-plated.

“Hunter?” I smiled sweetly, “Would you mind . . . I mean could you put the chains on our tires?”

He was typing out my order and never looked up. “Um, you don’t want to put them on now. Wait until you get to the base of the mountain. They’re easy to hook up (my smile faded). Usually there’s a guy at the bottom of Donner you can pay thirty bucks to chain you up.”

In the car now, peering through the blowing snow, I wondered what we’d do if I couldn’t find the guy Hunter told us about. Then I saw him. He was covered head to foot in a fluorescent yellow snowsuit.

“Turn your tires to the left. FAR LEFT!” the chain-up guy shouted multiple times to me as I tried to hear him through my cracked window. “Now right. FAR RIGHT! (This was easy?—I don’t think so Hunter). Okay,” he tapped my hood, “You young ladies are good to go. Be careful up there! It’ll be dark by the time you get to the pass.”

Here’s what I learned about driving with chains on your tires: it’s like driving on marbles.

Even though chains are supposed to prevent sliding, driving at the top of Donner’s 7,000 foot pass still felt like skidding across ice cubes.

Mom chatted along as I gripped the steering wheel, our speed topping out at a formidable 25-miles-an-hour. Then a strange thing happened. Somewhere past Truckee the snow stopped and the night sky suddenly cleared.

“Oh,” mom gasped, “it’s so beautiful. Look! The moon’s out.”

The road was virtually empty except for our Prius and several dozen semi’s, but the landscape was fairy tale-like, flocked in snow under the pale moonlight. I felt a moment of awe and my fingers loosened on the steering wheel.
The descent on the other side was steep and quick and happily the snow soon turned to rain. I worked to keep our shackled tires to the recommended 35-miles-an-hour until I could bribe someone to take the chains off at a quickie-mart.

“Thanks for this adventure,” mom said smiling at me as we whizzed along the interstate now free of our chains. I realized then it really had been an adventure—and I was glad I could have one more of those with my mom.

6 thoughts on “Surviving Donner Pass

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