Like I Was Saying

Winter Driver’s Ed

Every year at this time, when the season changes, we often forget we live in Montana

Sliding into the on-ramp entering the U.S. 93 bypass, I wondered aloud if I was going to stop before careening off the road. Literally, aloud: “Stop? Stop?! Stop!” I did before hitting a snow bank. And then I leaned over to activate my four-wheel drive.

Why it wasn’t already engaged is a great question. But every year at this time, when the season changes, we often forget we live in Montana. The skills we have learned over the years — those used to help drive in treacherous conditions — are somehow forgotten. And we have to learn them all over again.

Winter came early this year, with snow falling the first week of November. It’s supposed to stick around and more is on the way. This is a blessing for those of us who love to play in the snow. At Whitefish Mountain Resort, the parking lot was full with skiers and snowboarders who hiked and skinned up the hill a full month before opening day.

Lookout Pass Ski Area, located on the Montana and Idaho border, opened nearly two weeks ago, on Nov. 4, the first resort to do so in the region. For some perspective, the official start of winter was still 47 days away when Lookout’s chairlifts began spinning.

Yes, winter came early this year, but even if it didn’t, I doubt many of us would be ready. Despite forecasts calling for winter weather, several of us waited until the roads were snow-covered before bringing our vehicles to the local tire shops. We were too late.

The shops were booked up, at least for a few days, so we had to wait a bit longer to change into our winter tires. This, of course, could have been avoided. We knew the snow was coming.

That first day the snow fell, the office police scanner crackled with reports of accidents across the valley. I witnessed the aftermath as I continued on U.S. 93. Drivers were stuck in the snow after sliding off the highway, waiting for a tow truck or a friend with a winch to pull them out. I puttered along, white knuckled, already spooked by my own close call with a snow bank. Then I arrived home only to wonder why I hadn’t bought a snow blower in the offseason.

Like the snow-tire procrastinators, I like to wait until the first big dump of the year before considering buying a snow blower. “What if it doesn’t snow that much this year?” is my reasoning. Then it does. But since they aren’t on sale anymore, I stick to shoveling.

I forget that I’ve lived through more than 16 years’ worth of Montana winters, seven in eastern Washington, three in Wyoming and one in North Dakota.

I forget that it’s been so cold that my car has died in my garage. That I’ve been stranded on Homestake Pass during on ice storm. And that I’ve been stuck in multiple snow banks only to have a Good Samaritan pull me out.

The Montana Department of Transportation has teamed up with Montana Highway Patrol and the National Weather Service of Missoula to get the word out on hazardous driving conditions. A video it posted on Facebook includes safety tips and images of cars sliding off our state’s roads. It’s been viewed more than 50,000 times. MDT has also launched a mobile app to check road conditions.

Both are worth a look before hitting the road for the upcoming holidays. Stay safe out there.