Tuesday, February 10, 2015

I did something stupid and wrote this so you won't...

So... I'm kneeling in about six inches of snow, next to the passenger side tire of my distressed station wagon. Despite the fact that it possesses winter tires, it is still 2-wheel drive and doesn't have the traction to roll, not slide, down the curvy, snowy, descending road that, had I been driving up the hill, takes you to where the annual World Igloo Building Championships are being held in the mountains near Hiroshima. I am alone with my 12- and 8-year-olds and snow is falling pretty steadily.

I'm out here because of this ad in the Preview:

Looks like fun, right? Even the web site looks like fun.

This trip was not fun.

And here is why...

As I mentioned earlier, on the afternoon of Feb. 8, I am kneeling in 6-inch deep snow. I am kneeling in the snow in an attempt - for the second time - to put Japanese snow chains on my tires. I already tried this once before, about 5 miles back, when I was attempting to go up the snowy mountain. All was well without chains until the last leg of the trip, where it gets snowier and steeper. My car couldn't get traction and ended up being a large pile of metal stuck in the snow with three very worried Americans inside, much better prepared vehicles full of Japanese carefully driving around us. After some issues there, I gave up and started heading back down the mountain... only to discover the snowstorm had gotten much worse in half an hour, and where I easily had traction before, I now did not.

I am not often ill prepared. I am usually just the right amount of prepared for excursions in a foreign country where I do not speak the language. But, I found myself incredibly ill prepared and feeling very stupid. This is not a common sensation for me, so I want to do what I can to help others avoid the sensation. While you can't fix stupid, many people simply do stupid things. This was my stupid thing for the month of February. I'd like to help you avoid doing the same stupid thing, so here are some lessons that I learned that I would like to pass on to you:

1) Do not trust Weather Underground website when it comes to Japanese weather.

This website was good in Florida, but it seems to miss the mark for the mountains of Hiroshima, Japan. It said 0% chance of precipitation the night before I head out on my journey. I pretty much had a blizzard on my hands by the time 1:30 p.m. rolled around the next day. Instead of American-based weather sites, use this: The Japan Meteorological Agency web site. I'm sure the JMA makes mistakes occasionally, but 0% precipitation prediction 14 hours before a blizzard hits is a huge margin of error.

I believed the WU web site because Iwakuni was cloudy that morning, but no rain... yet. It sprinkled about a half hour in to our trip, but stopped.

2) Review tips for driving in the snow every year.

If nothing else, just review this: 5 common mistakes you should avoid while driving in snow.

3) Practice putting snow chains on

I made fun of my husband and six men for taking 20 minutes to put snow chains on my tires when we went Sledabrating on MLK day a few weeks ago. Oops. Shouldn't have done that. Kharma was a bitch. In my defense, here are the chains:

And here are the instructions:

I went to college in Flagstaff, AZ, and my father made sure I knew how to put chains on my Ford Ranger. Lay them out, drive over them, attached them at the top and add a bungee cord. Done. Yeah... so apparently there is a hierarchy of chains in Japan. The more expensive they get, the easier they are to put on. The ones I have are about $80. If we had splurged and gotten the $125 ones, the installation process is easier, I have been told by those who have such chains. Good to know. Thanks, Japanese snow chain manufacturers for sticking it to the little people. And cheap Americans.

Regardless of the style you have, do the smart thing and practice with them on a beautiful fall day. It will make it way easier to put them on with it's below freezing, there is a blizzard and your kids are panicking inside a stranded vehicle.

4) Know when to give up.

The first time I figured out I needed chains was on the ride up to Osorakan Snow Park, where the igloos were supposed to be. All was well until the last leg, like I mentioned, and then my car just stopped moving forward and started smelling like... burnt rubber. I threw it in park, hit the emergency brake and emergency flashers, and got out to get the chains. I realized about three minutes later I was at a loss. These chains were like nothing I had seen before. I checked my phone... no service. Awesome. I made the executive decision to give up the dream of seeing igloos and turn back around. Unfortunately, the only direction I could go was backwards, and there were cars coming both up and down the road occasionally. I put the car in reverse and backed down the road, on the opposite side of the road. At least then I would be going the same direction of any traffic coming down the hill. My 12-year-old is, fortunately, a very observant child, and noticed that there was a place along the narrow road where you could pull over, about 100 yards behind me. I backed all the way down, dodging vehicles and scraping a snowbank with my rearview mirror. That was the only reason I was glad the snow was so thick. I scraped the snowbank and not the stone wall. I backed in to the pull out, quickly switched gears, hoping I did not get stuck on the relatively flat surface. Fortunately, luck was with me and we headed - frontwards - down the mountain.

While I am doing all of this, the 8-year-old is camped out in the back seat, the pile of coats thrown over his head. He couldn't bear to watch. And it was only going to get worse.

I thought I was being smart in heading back down the hill, but the snow was now falling heavier and I'm heading downhill. At this point, a lot of other vehicles were giving up the ghost and heading back down the hill, igloos be damned. I had to be careful not to follow too closely... but close enough so I could stay in their fresh tire tracks to maximize my traction. This became impossible on a decline about two kilometers before the roads cleared up (I realized this later, of course). I felt my car slipping, and, while I knew not to slam on my brakes, I wasn't able to slow my car enough to keep it backed away a comfortable distance from the vehicle in front of me. I didn't think to put it in neutral to keep the car from pulling forward (the spouse reminded me of this trick I had forgotten after I had gotten safely home). I pulled to the side of the wider road and was able to get the car stopped. I attempted to put the chains on... for reals this time. There was no other option that I could see.

And now we are at the place I described at the beginning of this blog: on my knees in the snow next to my tire.

The 12-year-old was actually quite calm under pressure, sitting in the car with the window rolled down (I made the kids stay in the car... I figured if we were going to get rear-ended and one of us was knocked over the guardrail and in to the icy stream about 50 feet below, it was going to be me, not them), describing the pictures to me as I attempted to attach the chains to my tires.

Of course, I have no pictures of this. I was too busy starting to panic. No matter how hard I tried to follow the drawings, my chains would not stay on. I kept waiting to get rear-ended by an out-of-control tour bus (yes they were on the mountain, too). The snow was getting worse and I was kicking myself for being so unprepared and so... adventurous. If I had just been born a homebody this never would have happened!

5) Phone a friend (if you have service)

I remembered that another family I knew was heading to the igloos, too, and I checked my phone... I had service! I called her... a wee bit panicked. Her husband was with her, and after sending her a map of my location, since I can't "pin" worth a damn:

... she turned around to start heading my way. I'm the blue dot. My friend and her family were still a half an hour away, with worsening weather conditions. Not good. But at least help was on its way. I definitely wasn't going to call the spouse. He would just freak out and it would take him at least 2 hours to get to me.

6) Pay attention to your surroundings.

As I sat there and waited for my rescuers, the traffic heading back down the hill got steadier. A lot of people were leaving, including five tour buses. I looked at the road and realized that all these vehicles were digging through the snow and I could see blacktop. This might be my chance to get off this rock. I handed the phone to the 12-year-old and told him to text my friend what I was planning to do. I took the brake off, put the car in to drive and pulled out on to the road. And, of course the text wouldn't go through to let my friend know what I was attempting to do... no service.

I had the traction I needed to get down the hill with no more fanfare. My son managed to call my friend so that she could abort the attempt to rescue me and continue on her way to the igloo building... she had a husband with her who knew how to put chains on the car. But, in hindsight, that didn't help her, either. The storm turned in to whiteout conditions and they broke a chain on one of their tires. They turned around, too... no igloos for them, either.

This was the road shortly after I headed back down for the last time. It was much worse than this.

7) Don't expect the Japanese to help

While, in my experience, the Japanese people have been very kind and helpful in most situations, this apparently ends when snow is involved. Not that I blame them. It's cold and wet... and what is that stupid American thinking? So, don't think anyone is going to stop for you. You're on your own.

But we made it home safely, with only one of my fingernails being a casualty.

We did stop to use the bathroom once we were below the snowy roads. And, of course, we stopped at the Miyajima rest stop for lunch (at 3 p.m.) and Starbucks. There were snow flurries, which had not been there when we left at 11 a.m.

But to add insult to injury, the highway alert signs started showing snowmen right before we exited the highway for home. Snowmen are warnings for snowy conditions. Gee, thanks. Where were those on the way up?

So, let my experience be a lesson to you. Next year I am going to do all of the above. I'm also taking the spouse with me and making sure there is zero percent precipitation on every weather web site I can find.

Added 4/5/15: My Japanese friend, Chie, said that Japanese people rarely put their chains on their cars themselves. They usually stop at the last gas station before the snow hits and have the employees there put them on for a "small fee." I am not sure how small the fee is, but whatever it is, it is probably worth it.


Vader's Mom said...

I would have been at a loss too - Sorry you didn't make it, but yet again you come out with a wonderful story!!

Jessica Guthrie said...

Right?! I at least lived to tell the tale. But so did my kids... I can only imagine what their teachers think of me!