Panic, over the hill
We all tell stories about ourselves. I do, anyway. We need them to make sense of ourselves and the world. I do, anyway.
We have more than one story. Faced with a set of circumstances, we tell ourselves the most helpful story. I do, anyway.
We tell ourselves stories that define who we are or that define who we are not. I do, anyway.
And there are stories that we don’t tell about ourselves. And sometimes those stories are the truest one.
Sometimes I’m afraid, and my stories account for that fact. But my stories didn’t account for how often and how completely I’ve been paralyzed by fear. How could I tell that story when in the moment I didn’t feel any fear? Anxiety, yes, sometimes. But not fear. Until I realized that behind every episode of anxiety, indecisiveness, procrastination, distraction is an ocean of fear.
We leave Alameda
Coronavirus was spreading, facilities were closing down, and the kids got together and decided we had better return to safety while we still could travel.
We’d planned to spend another week in Alameda, then two weeks visiting friends in California, returning home via Los Angeles. Instead, we got in the car on the morning of March 15 and headed home.
I have vivid memories of parts of that day: full-color stills and occasional moving images. The first area in the place where we stayed—packing up—cleaning up—taking out the trash. It’s raining. Now it’s drizzling. Now raining again.
We head to Trader Joe’s for supplies and the last-ditch effort to find Bobbi’s lost hearing aid. I check at the desk, then go the Safeway across the street to see if someone might have found it in the parking lot and turned it in. No luck. We’re in no hurry to get out of town, which turns out to be a mistake. Or maybe not, since an exciting story is better than a boring one.
We drive across the bridge and up through Sacramento. We stop for gas. I remember squeezing just $8.00 into the tank because for $8.00, I get a free coffee. I drink it as we eat the Trader Joe’s lunches we bought.
We continue up into the mountains. I see a sign. There’s a police checkpoint ahead. Trucks need to show that they’ve got chains. It makes no sense to me. The temperature is about 40.
And then it’s below 40, headed toward freezing. In my mind’s eye, recalling the story, I can see snow accumulating on the side of the road. We climb higher. The snow starts getting on the roadbed itself. By the time we hit the Monta Vista service area, there’s more than an inch on the ground. We pull in and go to the toilets; There’s a line. The walls are green. I can see the bathroom that I used.
People are chaining up. They say you can’t continue without chains. I know nothing about chains. I asked the gal behind the counter what they cost, “Anywhere from $70 to $300, depending,” she says. I have no idea what chains will cost for my car. I don’t know how I’d get them on.
I just want to get out of there!
In retrospect, I’m in an utter panic. But I don’t realize that until later.
We start to drive back down the mountain. There are no motels until we go back nearly to Sacramento. I book a Best Western for $100.
Bobbi doesn’t want to turn back, and we argue. In retrospect, I’m in full flight mode, in a panic. I ask Bobbi for a Lorazepam to calm me down. It helps. I’m not only calmer but able to realize how terrified I had been.
Terrified about what? It made no real sense. It was nothing more than fear of the unknown. Or of making a mistake.
At the service area, someone had told me there was a place that sold chains further down, so I decided to check in there. When I see it from the road, I’m unable to get to the exit without doing something dangerous, so we go to the next exit, turn around and go back up.
The place is closed. Panic is rising again, but before it takes hold, I see that there’s a gas station next door that sells chains. I go in with a photo of my tire that shows the number. The guy looks in a book to figure out what size chains I need and walks me through the process. He’s about to ring up the sale when he tells me that I probably want an ant spreader. I have no idea what it is, but what the fuck. He knows, and I don’t, so I buy the chains and the spreader. We head back up the mountain.
The Lorazepam keeps me calm, and as we drive, I’m able to see my panic as paradigmatic. This is not an isolated incident. It’s what always happens when I’m faced with consequential unknowns. I freeze. Panic. I realize that this happens a lot.
It takes me more than a month to realize that when that feeling starts to rise, I need to call for help.
But right now, I’m not panicked. I’ve got a plan, and I’m going to follow it.
This time we stop at the Gold Run rest area. There’s plenty of snow on the ground, and the guy had said putting chains on is not that hard. As I’m scratching my head, a guy with an off-the-roader pulls in, and I ask him if he can help me.
He says he’s done this millions of times, and explains the theory and practice, and teaches me how to do it as I kneel and lie on plastic bags trying to avoid getting soaked. I g both of the chains partly on, but I can’t close the deal, so I decide to see if someone at the gas station up the road can put them on for me. This turns to be a wise decision.
We pack up and drive to the gas station, and I wander around before finding a woman and her son in rain gear who teach me two important things that the guy at the rest area didn’t. First: the chains on my car go on the front wheels, not the rear ones. And second, putting chains on a vehicle is easy if you know this one weird trick: you find someone who knows what the fuck they are doing, and you pay them $30.00 to put them on.
Now the chains are on, and we’re ready to go. We get to the top of the ramp to the Interstate and see there’s a long line of cars standing on the ramp. A guy walking up the ramp says his car’s been there for an hour. I ask Google for an alternate route, and it tells me to drive across the road where some other cars are going. We join the convoy.
It’s getting dark now. There are a dozen cars heading overland on unplowed roads filling with snow. There’s a cop car up front, and he’s keeping everyone’s speed moderated. We twist, and we turn and climb and coast and finally get to another highway entrance, past the jam. I ask that state trooper if we can go on, and he says we’re good, and so we go.
It’s dark. Snow is falling and blowing. I’m doing about twenty. Signs say keep it under 35, which is a joke because the few times my speed approaches 35, I feel as though the wheels are going to vibrate off.
We stop at another gas station some miles up the road, and I have to wait in line for twenty minutes to get in and pee. Snow is piling up, and a couple of times, I’m afraid I’ll get stuck getting back on the highway, but I make it.
Driving the highway would be terrifying if I was able to feel any emotion. My hands are frozen to the wheel, my eyes frozen on the road ahead. I can’t see the roadway. But both sides of the roads are demarked by 8-foot poles meant to stick out of snowdrifts and as long as I’m between the poles on the left and the poles on the right I’ve got to be on the road, right? Somewhere on the road.
Traffic moves slowly for the most part, but from time to time, someone with a car built for those conditions will go flying by at forty or more. I keep a steady pace.
All I see in memory is a blend of real scenes of the day. White road. Red taillights. Black poles. And me gripping the wheel.
We go on and on and on and on and on. It’s all the same. And finally, my GPS tells me we’ve made it to Truckee, a small town just beyond the Lake Tahoe region.
We get off the highway and drive into town to get gas and find a place to sleep. But it’s Friday night and snowing, and people who like this kind of shit have taken all the moderately priced rooms. We can get a place for $350, or we can press on toward Reno, another hour driving practically blind. Why not? We head for Reno.
So back on the road. But first, some adventures going around the Donner Pass Road and Truckee Way and into a rec center, and around a traffic circle and finally onto the Interstate once again.
More miles in the dark. And we finally make it Reno. We’re in a Best Western attached to a casino. We circle the building, find a place to unload, then a place to park, and we’re in for the night.
I learned something about myself that I was peripherally aware of but avoided facing. And after I finally faced it—for a moment on that day—it took six weeks, until today, for me to decide that I needed to face it and face it and face it until it no longer governed my behavior.
So I wrote this for you, Future Me. And for anyone else it happens to help.
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