Road rules

Last week, the greatest fear of thousands of Southwestern Coloradoans was borne out by one unlucky group from Montrose. No, this has nothing to do with hot oil wrestling. This has to do with that latent fear lingering in the back of all our minds. That nagging, ever-present "What if?" that keeps our eyes glued to the yellow line, hands gripped to the steering wheel and foot on the gas at excruciatingly slow speeds. That's right: they took the plunge off Red Mountain Pass.

Details were sketchy as to what exactly it was that lured them into the great abyss - faulty brakes, bald tires, a spilled box of Junior Mints. Or perhaps the driver just caved to the pressure of that little voice beckoning him to stray just a little too close to the edge. Don't get me wrong - I'm not accusing him of purposely acting out his own private scene from "Thelma and Louise." But, let's be honest. It's only human nature to want to go where you're not supposed to. How else do you explain long lines at McDonald's drive-thrus and Las Vegas? I call it the "tractor beam effect," a phenomenon whereby one becomes so obsessed with the object he or she is trying to avoid that he or she is literally sucked right into it. It happens all the time - like when trying to avoid that crateresque pothole or annoying ex. Take my first foray into big water kayaking. I had it so drilled into my head that all I had to do for 17 miles was miss one giganto, boat-sucking, flesh-pulverizing hole that when I actually came face to face with it, I found myself paralyzed, partially with fear, partially with awe. Instead of averting my eyes and paddling like hell in the opposite direction, I floated calmly into the belly of the beast, mesmerized by the sheer thought of meeting my maker. Like Jonah into the whale, I was swallowed whole. Fortunately, I was spit out into the current and not the recircing eddy of bloated cattle carcass fame.

Much in the same way, the six souls from Montrose emerged from their 400-foot free fall. OK, one was reported to have been carried out on a stretcher. But the fact is, they all survived - in a mini van no less. Hell, they even had time to discuss the fall on the way down, maybe even dig up a few of those Junior Mints.

Of course, it boggles the mind to think about this, causing any sane, rational human to deduce that these people were a) very lucky and b) in the good graces of their creator. But I can't help but think of that tiny minority out there. You know, the ones who think it's perfectly acceptable to break the land-speed record on a twisty mountain road and tailgate so close that you're blinded for days afterward. Just give 'em four-wheel drive and a high clearance, and they're invincible. These are the ones who will hear this story and arrive at a completely different conclusion all together, namely that a) "if a mini van can survive the plunge, then just imagine what my indestructable SUV can do," and b) "With four-wheel drive, I can go a lot faster."

Those of us who have ever had the displeasure of sitting helplessly behind the wheel of a large 4WD while it careens sideways down an icy highway or through a stop light knows, this is pure fallacy. Sure, it may help you churn up that 45-degree driveway in winter, but meet up with a sheet of black ice going 65, and you better start saying your prayers. Some of us have had this burned into our heads at a young age. Seems my father knew the false sense of security a little 4WD could bring and that a little could go a long way. For years, I was instructed to never, ever, under any circumstance, touch that little, mysterious gear box in our Chevy Blazer that said "4 High" and "4 Low" lest the transmission fall out. And it worked. For years, I labored under the delusion that touching the lever would somehow cause my engine to fall from its blocks and come crashing through the underside of my car. Although I now know better, to this day, I cringe ever so slightly whenever I have to lock it in.

Of course, in the other camp are those who come from the more is better philosophy. Somewhere in their minds, four-wheel drive is construed as being twice as good as two-wheel drive, which therefore must mean they can drive twice as fast. Those signs telling the speed limit, those are for two wheelers, therefore, four-wheelers can double that limit. If you think I'm exaggerating, then perhaps you should have been with me last weekend on a treacherous drive to Telluride. After being tailgated by such a person for a solid 20 minutes, we pulled over in the burg of Rico to let him pass (OK, I didn't know for sure that it was a him because it was dark, but come on). So anyway, in an apparent show of SUV-induced machismo, he revved his engine as he screamed past, going no less than 60 down the small town's main thoroughfare. And that's when he completely and utterly lost it. The car started fishtailing and spinning wildly on the icy street, like a 2,000-pound top spiraling out of control. We watched from the sidelines for an uncomfortably long time until a series of gross over-corrections was finally stopped by a 15-foot snowbank. Fortunately, the vehicle remained upright and hadn't landed half a block down, where it would have put a serious cramp in happy hour at the local watering hole.

After taking a few moments to collect themselves, and possibly check their undergarments, the SUV pointed in the right direction and resumed its trek north. Although glad not to have witnessed "Faces of Death," we shared a smug laugh as the cactus plates disappeared into the night - albeit at a more prudent pace. And we heaved a small sigh of relief knowing that was at least one down, with only several thousand more to go.

- Missy Votel


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