Every Christmas for the last few years, I have gone to my Aunt's house in the Sierra foothills near Lake Tahoe for a fun filled holiday that's rarely traditional and usually has some surprise up its sleeve.
This year, my cousins and brother were working at a ski resort up in the mountains on Christmas day. They are all serious snow boarders---not your posing brand-label snow bunny types. No, these guys and gals kick ass on powder.
Because so many of the kin folk were on the top of a mountain on Christmas, my Aunt decided to bring Christmas dinner to them. Wanting to see my bro and cousins, I decided to tag along with Liam in tow.
This was the second Christmas that Liam had come with me to my Aunt's house. At first, I was worried that he might be turned off by the relative insanity of the relatives, but he has embraced it. Besides, he wanted to spend time with me (awww), so he blocked out the drunken puke stories that usually followed the ‘oh you're Irish' remarks.
So it's Christmas Day. We had opened our presents on Christmas Eve. The presents for the bro and cousins had gone up the mountain with my other cousins who had left early to board. For the record, I had boarded once. It was a once in a lifetime thing. As my Aunt packed up the leftover turkey and sides, it started to rain.
When it's raining at the bottom of the mountain, there's a good chance that it's snowing on the top of the mountain.
The phone rang.
‘Oh my God, it's like totally snowing up here. I don't know if you guys should come up. I don't know.' One of my cousins said over the phone. She didn't know? I'm from Los Angeles. I definitely don't know. My Aunt was buying a case of Pepsi at Rite Aid for one of the guys. I told my cousin that my Aunt will call her back.
I turned to my Dad for advice. He had driven my brother up the mountain and had encountered snow coming back down. Even though Dad had spent twenty plus years in Cleveland winters, he found the drive through mountain snow to be traumatic.
‘Jen, you gotta remember, there's no street lights, okay, they are twisting two lane mountain roads. It took me a long time to get back.'
After my Aunt returned and spoke with a cousin who did know, she presented me with two potential scenarios. First, we could have to stop and turn around on the drive up there. Second, we could get snowed in at the top. If we get snowed in, we would be able to stay in a warm apartment with food, beer, and hot running water, then return in the morning. This would not be a hardship for me. I was game.
As we prepared to go, Tara, my cousin's wife, called my Aunt. She was planning to go up the mountain as well, so my Aunt agreed to meet her at Grover's Corner, a huge parking lot with a grocery store and gas pump.
As we started on our way, I thought about how Christmassy our undertaking seemed. It was the three wise women and Liam going up the mountain to feed the hungry ski resort staff. Or it could be a Norman Rockwell picture called ‘A Snowboarder's Christmas'.
The rain was full-on when my Aunt's car pulled next to Tara's four-wheel drive Subaru. We all rolled down our windows.
My Aunt is very smart. She knows the limits of things---especially her car and its relation to the weather, and she had to give in to the heavy snow fall. She wouldn't be able to see two of her kids on Christmas Day, but Tara could drive the Christmas dinner up the mountain.
In the back seat of the Subaru, Tara's daughter (age 3) and son (a big one year old) sat in their baby car seats. Because the sun was rapidly setting, they wouldn't get to play in the snow that day. They'd get to go to Grandma's house.
The kids switched cars, and Liam volunteered to go back with my Aunt and the kids. Tara and I set off with the Christmas dinner.
Cell phone reception on mountain roads goes in and out, so Tara called ahead to let the cousins know the plan. Then all the bars on the phone disappeared as the roads wound up and around.
At the 5000 feet elevation sign, I noticed a small layer of snow next to the road. Halfway to 6000 feet, the snow started coming down in big flakes.
The speed limit went down to 25mph as the Subaru's wheels rolled over a sheet of white snow. Two cars in front of us stopped in order to put chains on, but we didn't stop. Tara chatted nonstop as if we were in a café in Santa Monica and not trying to figure out where the road was in the snow.
At the ‘spur' at 7000 feet, an SUV pulling a trailer had jackknifed into a snow bank. The SUV looked fine except for the back corner which had been crushed by the trailer.
Tara asked one of the plow truck drivers if the road ahead was open. The driver looked down at us and said sure but to drive carefully.
We kept on. Tara pointed to a snow bank higher than the car and said that at least two inches of fresh powder had already come down. On the edge of the headlights, I could see the shadows of mountains and pine trees covered with snow. The air was fresh and cold.
We pulled into the ski resort. It was more a small town than a mountain getaway. We slid into the parking lot and unloaded Christmas dinner and a case of Pepsi.
My cousin had already put on a tri tip to cook, but they were all happy to see the turkey and stuffing and especially the Sees chocolate candies. There was Christmas happiness all around as beer was drunk and gifts were opened.
I speed-dialed Liam and told him we had made it fine. Then, the news came. Tara's daughter was sick. Just an hour and a half before during the car swap, the little girl had seemed fine. Now she had a fever and was coughing. The little girl's father, grandmother, aunt, great aunt, two great uncles, two family friends, and Liam were there, but we had to go back.
After more hugs and goodbyes, we went back to the car. After only forty-five minutes tops, there was already three inches of snow on the car. We joked about being back in twenty minutes if the road was closed, then we headed on our way.
Sure enough, a gate was down across the road we had just come up. Two cars sat waiting for the gate to open as if they were waiting at a train crossing for a train to pass, but there was no train. There was only a gate.
As she turned the car around, Tara explained that the road we were just on runs next to a high rock face. When a lot of snow gathers on the rock face, there is the danger of avalanche. Work crews can remove the snow in the daytime. We'd have to take the long way home.
The snow continued to fall. Tara and I continued to exchange life stories and belief systems. At one point, we were able to follow the plow truck as it scraped along the road. At one point, we could follow the guard rail to stay on the road. We dipped down into a valley onto slick black road, then up into snow and back down into blackness.
When we got to Myers, a small town on the California-Nevada border, we learned from a sign that the 50 was closed due to an accident. As fire trucks roared by, we stopped at a gas station for gas, red bull (for Tara), diet Dr. Pepper (for me), chedder crackers, and smokes. We could survive for days. At nearby pumps, tourists were buying chains for their Audis and Escalandes. Winter sports can be a bitch sometimes.
We lined up with the other cars while cell phoning our progress back to my Aunt's house. Apparently, Liam was deep in a card game. He hadn't gone back to the hotel. He had stuck it out with the family. Awwww.
The road opened to cars with chains or four wheel drive. Several guys in yellow rain suits installed chains for thirty bucks a car.
We moved up the line to a lady in a yellow rain suit. She noticed the snow on the hood of the Subaru. She asked where we had come from. She believed us when we told her. We had snow cred. She sent us on our way with ‘drive carefully'.
We crossed another mountain, up into snow, down into slick. It took us two solid hours to get back to my Aunt's house.
My cousins had taken the little girl home, so Tara put her son in a car seat and headed off to home. I saw Tara's daughter the next day before we drove back to Los Angeles. She was feeling much better and wanted to go up and play in the snow.