Tuesday-Morning Moving: The 5 Travel Lessons Of A Winter Road

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Photo credit: Jon Flobrant via Unsplash.

By Kit Kiefer

I spent the last two days driving through the Snow Belt of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. If you haven’t, you should. It’s a different part of the world and a completely different way of doing things.

For instance, they plow the road between Ontonagon (gateway to the glorious Porcupine Mountains) and Houghton (home of Michigan Tech University), but they don’t plow it the way you’re accustomed to having roads plowed – assuming you live in a place where they A) have snow and B) plow the roads. In the U.P., roads aren’t plowed down to the blacktop but are scraped to hardpack, and the curves get a Sahara’s worth of sand. Supposedly snow-on-snow contact (plus sand) provides lots of traction; all I know is that there are hills in Houghton that I slid down backwards in ignominy, and I was pretty much maxed out on snow-on-snow traction (plus sand).

The lesson here is not safe winter driving; we’ve done that to death here and here. I had plenty of opportunity to ponder the lessons a winter road teaches as I was actively avoiding not killing my family. Among the chief ones are:

Be prepared. Before we left we packed the full roadside-emergency kit described in an earlier post. This was no mere formality; everything in that kit would have been employed if I had misread the rumble strips and kissed the snowbank. But that philosophy should guide your other travels, the ones that don’t involve driving by sound on a snowy road in the pre-dawn gloom. How prepared are you for a flight delay? A cancellation? Theft of most of your cash? A lost passport? Preparation is preparation, no matter where you’re headed – and even causal travelers should be prepared for mishaps.

Take your time. You have more of it than you know. The reason we were driving from Ontonagon to Houghton in the snow and dark is that we were staying with friends on the Lake Superior shore and meeting with admissions officers at Michigan Tech. As the snow began falling in earnest (what they call “flurries” in the U.P.) and the snowplows struggled to keep up I had my son contact the admissions office and tell them we didn’t know when we’d be able to make the meeting. “No problem,” they said. “Drive safe, and we’ll see you when you get here.” Many times when we’re traveling we think we have to be somewhere by a certain time, but it’s a self-imposed deadline. Rushing things that shouldn’t be rushed to get somewhere at a time that matters only to you isn’t the best travel strategy. Go at a reasonable speed for the conditions, look around a little, marvel at the way the snow frosts the trees, and accept the fact that you’ll get there when you get there.

It’s going to be all right. For about an hour I was driving by sound. The centerline rumble strip would tell me when I was drifting too far towards the middle, and the rumble strip on the shoulder would tell me when I was heading toward the ditch. I knew from studying the snowbanks that if I were to plow into one that I would land softly, and might even gently bounce off and back onto the road. I also could see there was sufficient traffic of sufficient size and strength (nothing smaller than a Subaru, and most equipped with winches), so if I did trail off into the woods I would be out in a jiffy. Fatalism is probably not the ideal attitude for driving through the U.P., but the knowledge that for the most part you’re going to live through this is incredibly comforting – and it has been through a lifetime of travels. Just stepping back for a second, breathing deeply and saying to yourself, “It’s going to be all right,” is one of the most powerful remedies we have for travel stress. All you have to do is believe it.

Have someone on your side. We didn’t have travel insurance for this particular trip, but we had people on both ends capable of helping us if we needed it, and we had enough cell-phone service to connect us to help. Having people on your side is the key component of knowing it’s going to be all right. For BHTP customers, it’s our 24/7 worldwide travel assistance – but it doesn’t always have to be that. Having friends at both ends can be enough.

When you don’t know where you’re going, drive between the trees. In the 1950s, my dad would pilot new cars from Detroit to Alaska. Sometimes he drove in winter, and sometimes the roads he took weren’t roads at all but logged-off clearings that were going to be roads someday. When I asked him how he made it, he said, “If you saw tire tracks veer off into the woods, you couldn’t stop, because you might get lost or stuck, too. You had to keep going. And if you couldn’t tell where the road was, you just steered between the trees.” You’re going to get lost somewhere along your way, and you’re going to run across people who are even more lost than you. You can’t always stop to help them; sometimes you just have to leave them to fend for themselves and steer between your trees. There is a way through. But you need to keep moving.

Author: Kit Kiefer

As content engineer for Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, I have one of the world's great jobs. Not only do I get to write about travel, but I get to edit the work of fantastically talented contributors from around the world. Plus I get all the maple syrup I can drink.