One of Those Days

You know how every once a while. you have one of those days? Well, We had one of those days yesterday. Today, my wife posted a vague reference to part of it on Facebook, and now it seems like everyone I know wants to hear the story. It’s a long story, and rather than tell it over and over, I’ve opted to write it up for anyone who wants it. These are the events of yesterday – just one of those days.

We were on vacation in Tahoe to take my kids snowboarding for the first time. Before the trip, we were wondering whether there would be any snowboarding, as Tahoe had gotten very little snow this year, so it wasn’t looking good. Fortunately, the day after we arrived it started snowing…and it kept snowing for the next 4 days. We got 72″ of snow during that period. Unfortunately, that meant using the chains for my wife’s 2-wheel drive SUV, and as anyone who’s ever used chains can tell you, it’s a pain. Putting them on is a pain. Driving with them on when there’s no snow is a pain, since you can only go about 25 mph with them on. Taking them off is less of a pain, but it’s still kind of a pain. Naturally, you take them off when you’re in town, where it’s plowed and they’re not needed, or it takes forever to get anywhere, and everyone stuck behind you without chains is cursing your existence for holding them up at 25 mph. Over those four days, I swapped those chains on and off 6 times. And on the last day, I noticed something strange. The brake pedal in the truck was going almost to the floor, suddenly, which was really odd since I’d specifically checked the brake fluid level before leaving on the trip, and it had been fine. So I checked the brake reservoir and it was empty. Ut-Oh.

It turned out that Infiniti (aka Nissan), in their infinite wisdom, had routed the brake hoses so that they run pretty far out towards the outer rim of the wheel. Far enough out that if you have cable-style chains on your tires, and they’re not perfectly centered (and they never are), the cables can just sort of buzz saw against your brake lines. Which, of course, they had done. Now, I know something about brake lines. I’ve punctured them on racetracks, and I’ve rebuilt and assembled them before. OEM brake lines have 3 to 5 layers to them, being such critical and high-pressure pieces, and are extremely durable. Well, our rear right brake line’s outer rubber sheath was cut, the inner PTFE layer was compromised, and the braided sheath layer below the rubber was allowing the line to weep with each brake application. Not a lot, but enough. I refilled the reservoir and had my wife pump the brakes repeatedly while I watched the line. It lost about 8 drops of brake fluid per 40 or so pumps. The nearest source for a replacement line was the Nissan dealer was in Reno, but they didn’t have the brake line in stock. So without going into any details, because I certainly don’t want anyone to copy what I did, let’s just say I jury-rigged it it, pretty sure it would do well enough to get us home. After all, what could go wrong? It was just the brakes.

So, now it’s 9:30am, and with the brakes “fixed enough”, the kids and I drive off to go snowboarding. My wife doesn’t snowboard or ski, so she elects to stay home and clean up the house so we can leave for home that night. It’s the last day of our trip, and my eight-year old son and ten year-old daughter are starting to get the hang of snowboarding, with my daughter going off on her own for some runs while I focus on my son. Around noon, we’re all getting off the chair lift together, and my daughter turns to me to get some assistance exiting the chair, which totally catches me off-guard. Needless to say, she goes down, my son goes down, and about four feet beyond them, I go down. I’m watching the chair move towards them, and my daughter, being the taller one and sitting up straighter is about to get nailed in the back of the head. So, I stand up with my front foot attached to the snowboard and I grab her and pull her towards me. I slip and somehow I sort of flip over and now my knee is twisting 180 degrees in a way it is not supposed to twist, and I can feel that it’s super close to tearing something I really don’t want torn. It’s painful and extremely disconcerting, but I manage to flip over again and escape from it with just a not-quite-right twisted knee. Having just barely avoided disaster, I snowboard the rest of the day with visions of surgeries and crutches and what could have been floating through my head, and how lucky I was.

At the end of that run, my son decides he wants to take a break and play in the snow, so I tell him that’s fine, he can play in an area near the lodge where I’ll meet him in a little bit; I’m just going to go take a run with his sister. That run was pretty quick, so we decide to take a second run, but at the end of it, I can’t see my son as we exit the slope. I tell my daughter to go snowboard without me and I’m going to go find her brother. I go over to where he was supposed to be, and he isn’t there. I decide to hang out for a little while and see if he shows. About 5 minutes later, he comes running down the stairs, all excited and calling my name. We have a little snowball fight, and a minute later this guy in ski resort shirt walks up to me and says “Hi John! I’m Terry.”. And I’m thinking “Should I recognize this guy?”

It turns out that while I was on the hill with my daughter, my son had decided I’d been gone a little too long. He started calling out for Dad, and somebody noticed him there and asked if he was lost and brought him to the ski patrol. Ski patrol then invalided our tickets so the next time we tried to get on a chair we’d have to return to the lodge and thus be reunited with my son. A pretty ingenious use of data tracking, but the best part is how it was undone by the guy operating the ticket scanner at the lift. My daughter’s ticket flashed “invalid” on the bar code scanner, which should have led to her being sent to the ticket window, but instead the guy operating it just looked at the date on her ticket and said “That’s strange, but your date is good, so have fun!” and put her on the lift. You’ve gotta love how a sophisticated system can be rendered useless by a careless, if well-intentioned, operator.

In any case, after “losing” my son, we decide to call it a day. We’re supposed to drive home tonight to LA. Now, this is the day before we originally planned to drive home, but my wife figures it will be better for everyone to leave the night before and drive through the night, because then we’ll get a normal night’s sleep the following day before going back to school and work. I’m a little dubious about it, because I’m not thrilled about the idea of dealing with the cat-track at night and everything else that goes along with leaving the house, but I go along with her logic.

What you need to know about our family’s house up there is that we are on a little lake called Fallen Leaf Lake, not Tahoe itself. And this house is in the middle of a national forest, 3 miles down a road which is closed during winter. Only the eight houses on this lake that own their land have access to the closed road during winter. Because there are only eight houses serviced by this road in the winter, and the US forest service has decided this road is closed, the road is not plowed. So, what you have to do is drive 10 minutes from the nearest civilization, park your car at a snow park lot, walk around the gate through the snow to your snow cat, which is kind of like a tank without the exciting bits (It’s just a little treaded vehicle with four seats and a pickup bed), and drive the cat 3 miles at about 10 miles per hour through the forest to get to the house. And you have to do this in each direction every time you want to leave the house. I know that when you first hear about this, it might sound awesome and exotic or something, but in reality it’s just an enormous pain in the ass. It also probably explains why my kids are eight and 10 and this is their first time learning to snowboard; we almost never come up during the winter because it’s so much work getting in and out.

In order to leave the house to drive home the following has to happen: I make a trip in the cat from the house to the car with just me and most of the luggage. I then drive back through the forest, pick up the kids and whatever luggage is left, as well as the trash because it needs to be thrown away at our house down in LA, because, of course, there’s no trash service at the house at the lake, with the road closed and all. I then have to hook up a trailer to the truck, drive the cat onto the trailer, pull the trailer 4 miles down the highway, take the cat off the trailer, put the cat in the storage garage, then put the trailer into the garage, because the cat on the trailer is too high for the storage unit. Then I drive 550 miles home. All in all it’s like 10 hours of work. That’s not the kind of exotic vacation I’m generally looking for.

In any case, a couple of hours into this ordeal, at the end of the last trip through the forest in the cat, I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. My son hops out of the cat and says “Hey when did you take off the tracks?” I look down at the left side of the cat, and the tread is gone; just the three wheels that drive the tread remain. Damn! I tell my wife and the kids to hang tight, I’m going to drive back, find the tread, put it into the back of the cat and return with it. I’ll be gone for 30 minutes, max. The kids hop in the car with their mom and settle in to watch a movie while I drive back to find the missing trend.

Driving through the forest at night sounds great – you think about the nocturnal animals you might see, and the forest is beautiful, of course, in the moonlight. But the reality is you can’t even hear yourself think in the cat, so any animal within a mile is probably running full tilt to escape what must sound like Armageddon to them, as you tear through the woods at a brisk jogging pace. My personal quest proceeds like this: 1 mile down; no track. 1.5 miles down; no track.; 1.51 miles down; the cat backfires and kicks a bit… Ut-Oh. A hundred feet later; I’m out of gas. Damn! I have been checking the gas level on that cat every single day, but the four trips between the car and the house that night had burned it all up, and I hadn’t thought to check it again. Now it’s dark, 25°F and dropping, I’m a mile and a half from the house, a mile and a half from the car, and I’m dressed to drive home, not to play Nanook of the North. I’m standing next to the cat, in the snow, and I’ve got a decision to make.

I wander around a bit trying get cell reception, and call my wife. I tell her I ran out of gas, and I haven’t found the tread yet, so what I’m going to do is hike back to the house, get the other cat and some gas from the garage, drive back to the stricken cat, fill it up, hopefully find the tread on the way and put it in the back of the cat, and then turn around and get out of there. She’s concerned, and says she’s really uncomfortable with with me doing this, but I tell her those treads are expensive; I’ve got to find it, and I can’t just abandon the cat in the middle of the road in the middle of the forest. Besides, nothing’s going to happen. I should be back in an hour and a half, max. I lose the connection on the call, so I start walking.

It’s funny what goes through your mind when you’re hiking through the middle of a snowy forest at night in the dark, with the nearest person miles away. You start thinking about what could go wrong. Of course, I wasn’t worried about exposure or getting lost – I only had 1.5 miles on a road I knew to cover, after all. Bears never entered my mind, though we’ve had them in the house on three separate occasions; they’re almost certainly still hibernating…although it hasn’t been much of a winter… Mountain lion; that’s definitely the biggest issue. But let’s play the odds: what are the odds that I will run into a mountain lion in the next 1.5 miles of hiking? Pretty damn slim. But that doesn’t keep you from looking over your shoulder every once in a while and wondering, because they’re not exactly noisy in the snow. And I’m acutely aware of exactly how much noise I’m making with each step crunching the crust of snow and ice under foot. Naturally, I’m wearing just regular old shoes, because it’s a lot more comfortable to wear them to drive home then my snow boots. Kind of regretting that, actually. And then there’s the knee, which is working but not exactly great at this point…well, that doesn’t matter; if I ran into a mountain lion, I wouldn’t be outrunning it regardless, so no loss there. Still, it would be nice to have two good legs for THAT Mano-a-Mano. As I’m walking along, I’m also thinking about the earlier conversation with my wife.

“Let’s leave at night,” she says. “It’ll work out better for everyone,” she says. “Yeah”, I think, “Everyone but the dude hiking through the forest in the dark.”

Crunching along through the snow, I come to to top of a rise in the road, and the forest is laid out before me. I’ve got maybe half a mile to go, and it occurs to me I haven’t quite thought this whole thing through. If I go to the house, I’ve gotta get the cat and gas, pick up the tread, come back, fill the dead cat, move the tread between cats, drive the good cat back, repeat this hike in the opposite direction, get in the stuck cat and drive out. This is going to take a lot longer than I was thinking. As I’m considering this, standing on the top of that hill in the road, possibly even silhouetted by the moon, I hear a coyote cry. And then there’s at least eight of them howling, and what sounds like a dog going nuts in response. Listening to this, I’m thinking I grew up around coyotes, and I’m not quite sure these sound like the coyotes I’m used to hearing. So now I’m thinking about the re-introduction of wolves to Yellowstone, and the comment my Dad made the other day, about how you could ride through the forest from here to Wyoming – the forest goes that far. And the articles I’ve read about the wolves being very successful in Yellowstone, and how they’ve moved out from the park, and expanded their range, but no one knows exactly how far they’ve gone. And maybe it’s all in my head, but those howls sound different than what I’m used to, and they’re definitely close, and even if the odds are slim, I do not want to meet a pack of wolves in this forest tonight over a lost tread and an out-of-gas cat. Coyotes are one thing – they’ll almost never attack a man-sized animal, even in a large pack, but wolves are a whole other level. There’s a reason they were hunted to extinction most places in the world. Suddenly, retrieving the cat and the tread seem a lot less important.

Walking fast in my prints back the way I’ve just come, I’m examining the trees I’m passing in between looks over my shoulder. The good news about wolves, it it’s wolves, and if they find me, is they’re cautious. They take their time and encircle you, which is great, because they also can’t climb trees, but I sure as hell can. So, I’m watching the trees, always keeping the best close-by ladder in mind as I’m fast-walking through the forest, and watching over my shoulder for the point man to break out of the forest. After about 10 minutes of this I’m almost back to the meadow with the stricken cat, where I’m definitely going to pick up the shovel from the bed for the rest of this hike. Funny that I’d decided I didn’t feel like carrying it to the house earlier, but now I’m quite happy to carry it to the car. It’s then that I see headlights come out of the forest on the other side of the meadow. For a second, I’m blown away that my wife somehow managed to get her truck this far up the road, until I notice the searchlight on the truck. I don’t know if it’s a cop or a ranger, but he must be looking for me. I walk towards him and meet him in the meadow. It’s a South Lake Tahoe Deputy Sheriff. He rolls down his window and says “You John?” I reply “Yep”. He says “Your wife’s kind of worried about you.”

I tell the whole tale to the deputy and we debate whether or not his truck will make it the rest way to the house. We decide that it probably can’t because the snow and hills get deeper and steeper closer to the house, so we decided to drive back out to the car, and I’ll just decide what to do with the cat later. We actually have a really funny conversation about whether there are wolves in Tahoe or not, which apparently is up in the air. He tells me that people who ought to know what they’re talking about think wolves are there, but in his opinion they’re probably not. We also talk about search and rescue and how there is one deputy in the small South Lake Tahoe Sheriff’s Dept. whose sole job is search and rescue, which just goes to show how common an issue people lost in the forest is. Anyway, he was a really cool guy, and we had a fun conversation on the way back to the car.

It’s only then, when my kids run out of the car and hug me that I realize what they’ve been through, listening to their mom call 911 and everything. It hadn’t really occurred to me, I guess, because I was so focused on what I was doing, and avoiding being eaten and all. I also hadn’t really realized until then that she’d actually called 911 and reported me as “Lost”. I would be reminded of that a couple of days later when my son wrote up a report for school on what he did on vacation: “Day 4: My Dad got lost in the forest, and my Mom had to call 911 to save him.” Fantastic.

I call my father, to let him know what’s going on, and try to figure out a solution to the cat problem. Either I didn’t explain it very well, or he must have been asleep, because the conversation went like this:

“The cat’s WHERE?”
“By the meadow.”

5 minutes of conversation

“Wait, where’s the cat again?”
“By the meadow.”

5 more minutes of conversation…

“And where’s the cat?”
“It’s still in the meadow.”

I’m possibly exaggerating a bit, but that’s how it seemed. I suppose I can’t blame him, it was a pretty out-there story.

Finally, we come up with a plan. I’m to drive around the other side of the lake, drop the keys with a guy we know there, and fill him in on the situation, and hopefully he’ll retrieve the cat the next day and get the track back on. Free at last! I check the brakes in the truck again, top off the reservoir, which has lost a little fluid, and hit the road.

Since it’s after 10pm now, I manage to drive down the mountain using the gears to control our speed, and I only have to apply the brakes about 7 times in 3500 ft of descent. Pretty good! In Folsom we get more gas and brake fluid, and top it again. Then again in Buttonwillow. Then at the grapevine. I manage to negotiate rush hour traffic in LA and OC in 1st and 2nd gear, with minimal use of brakes. After 9.5 hours and uh…a lot of brake fluid, we make it home alive.

As we pull into our driveway, my son wakes up and says, “Dad, will you go jump on the trampoline with me?”

“Sorry, buddy, I’m taking a nap.”

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