Black Ice

Ron Karpinski 1999


A friend in Washington, D.C., sent me an E-mail message the other day.  In it, he mentioned how icy the roads were on his drive to the office that morning.  A car ahead of him, he said, kept sliding sideways on the slippery pavement.

I once owned a 1959 Corvette roadster with that very same problem.  It had a light fiberglass body and 365 growling horsepower under the hood.  Even on dry pavement, if you pressed too hard on the gas, the rear tires would spin.

In December 1968, I drove that car cross-country from New Jersey to California.  Climbing a steep mountain near Albuquerque, New Mexico, heavy snow began to fall.  The temperature dropped to three degrees below zero.

Today, that route is Interstate 40, but back then it was a two-lane asphalt highway.  Driving up the mountainside, snow covered the road and ditches on both sides, and visibility grew dim.  A truck stop loomed ahead, and I pulled in.

In the coffee shop, I spoke with a trucker who had just arrived from the other direction.  He said the road was fine and that he had encountered no problems at all. That satisfied me.  I hopped back in the car and drove on.

It did not cross my mind that a semi tractor trailer is many times heavier than a Corvette, giving it much better traction.  After cresting the mountain and starting down the western slope, the rear wheels suddenly lost their grip.  The car spun sideways, crossed the road, and smacked head-on into a deep snowdrift.

The impact left the car resting sideways in the road.  Worried about getting hit from oncoming traffic, I didn't bother checking for damage.  Alternating between first and reverse gears, I rocked the car back and forth.  On the third try, it broke free.  I backed out onto the road, aimed the nose downhill, and drove on.

More trouble lay ahead.  Once off the mountain and on flat land again, the long straight road gleamed with pure black ice, as far as the eye could see.  Black ice is a thin layer of hard glazed frost that can form atop asphalt.  When the light is right, you can see a glare in the surface; but, more often than not, you feel black ice in your steering wheel long before you see it on the road.

Driving from the western base of that mountain to Flagstaff, Arizona, a distance of three hundred miles, my top speed reached thirty miles per hour and no more.  Even after letting air out of the rear tires, if I drove any faster, the car went into a spin and landed in the sand off to the side of the road.

To make matters worse, the heater stopped working.  Sub-zero air forced through the radiator cooled the engine too much.  Luke warm water passed from the radiator through the heater hoses but could not warm them enough.

Bundling up did little good.  Ice cold air blew into the car through a stuck vent and cut right through my clothing.  A twenty-one-year old corporal in the army, I just wanted to get home for Christmas.  My wallet held a Union 76 credit card for gas but not enough cash for a motel room.

When my weary eyes could take no more, I left the road and pulled into a rest stop.  Leaning against my duffle bag propped in the passenger seat, I tried to nod off; but an hour later, I awoke to numbing cold, and my teeth chattered.

There would be no sleep on this trip.  I restarted the motor, put the car in gear, and let out on the clutch.  As the car lurched forward, a strange noise came from behind the instrument panel, and the speedometer stopped working.  In the short span of my fitful nap, the cable had frozen.  When the car began to move again, and the gears turned, the thin wire snapped.

I drove the rest of the night without stopping.  It took twenty hours to plod through the endless black ice.  East of Flagstaff, the road began to clear, and I nudged the speed up a bit and then a bit more.

A gas station came into view.  I pulled up to the pumps and cut the engine.  Crawling out of the cramped sports car, I stretched my arms and legs and yawned.  Then I walked around to view the front.

Two sets of double headlights peered out over a solid mass of ice.  It looked as though sleet had formed overnight and covered the entire front end.  I rested my foot where the corner of the chrome bumper ought to have been.

Thunk!  The whole front end of the car broke off and fell to the ground.  My jaw dropped with it.  I stood there, staring at the exposed front wheels, steel frame rails, two horn cones, and the bare radiator core.

What at first appeared to be the sleet-covered front end of the car was, in fact, a solid chunk of ice a foot thick.  The center grill section, two curved side bumpers, the license plate and frame, and the fiberglass roll pan were all missing.  Those pieces were apparently still embedded in that hillside outside of Albuquerque.  There would be no going back to retrieve them.

Other people can talk all they want about driving on ice; but a few slips and slides on a slick city street do not impress me.  I've seen the real thing.


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