This is how my family holiday ski vacation began.....
Wednesday at 4am I pulled myself from bed to be dropped off by my very groggy but sweet friend at the airport for a 6:40 am flight from LA to Denver. The previous evening my Mom had called, "Big storm moving in. Can you fly out tonight?" Oh sure, drop another $300-400 to make the change? More then what I paid for the ticket, nah, it'll be fine.
There was no indication at the LA airport that anything was amiss. Frontier is the most efficient airline for this route and I've never had a problem. All routine and we take off. Then, just a meer 120 miles out of Denver, we get the call. Airport's shut done, it is in deed a bad storm. We circle for 20 minutes and miraculously are allowed to land. We're one of the last plans on the ground before the big shut down would take place a few minutes later. Hey, I made it, I'm happy, skiing tomorrow - you bet.
After a short wait to deplane, I finally get to see what this weather is really like. Through the terminal windows, it's a complete white out, snow blowing sideways, they can't shovel fast enough to keep up, forget about de-icing the wings. The terminal is full of thousands of people looking a little stunned, standing in long lines to be rebooked. I am lucky to have arrived. The airport, the crowds waiting, it's oddly quiet.
The next three hours are spent waiting and looking for luggage. All the planes that were cancelled are now reguritating bags of every size, shape and color out onto the carousel for the stranded passengers. Finally, my bag arrives and my skis hand delivered, I'm good to go!
I've already told my mom not to pick me up, safest bet seems to be to take the bus. Little did I know that I'd spend the next 9 hours on it for a route that usually takes just 1. With just enough time to pull on my ski jacket but not my snow boots, I drag my luggage across three lanes of snow drift to barely make the AB Denver/Boulder bus which is closing it's doors. I get a seat and sit back and relax. The bus is packed, many people standing. At this point, fine the airport's closed but how bad can the roads really be? I'm pretty darn happy. My flight made it in, my luggage made it in, I caught the bus... I'm so close now I can taste it and I can't wait to hit the slopes tomorrow! Nice fresh powder.
Before we leave the airport, we're addressed by a man who was loading our bags. "We're an unscheduled AB bus into Boulder. We were in the classroom and got the call. The driver is student, I'm his instructor. We're going to take our time, get you to your destination and above all, be safe." A few of us look at each other brows raised, student driver? Great. But then we realize not such a big deal, the roads are jammed with cars, no one's moving more then a couple miles an hour and we can't see a thing.
We begin the long slow journey, normally just 45 minutes west toward Boulder. We begin to see that things are a little more serious then we imagined. Cars are littered along the side of the road, abandoned. A pile of mail bags. What, Santa lose his way? Are his reindeer feet up in the snow somewhere? Is Rudolph's nose blinking in a snow drift? After a few hours, I give up my seat to a man with a bum knee, my seat mate, Brad, an atmospheric student at NCAR does the same. We then meet Joe who gathers unemployment stats for the Federal government and Sven a juggler. We're near the front of the bus and begin talking. As we have a bit of time on our hands, Joe pulls out his photos from a walking trip he did of the Camino(?) or The Road to Santiago from the base of the Pyrenees in France 500 miles across the northern tip of Spain. A religious pilgrimage. A nice distraction for what? 15 minutes?
John, the bus instructor, gives us little updates. I-70 closed. I-36 closed. The Governor just declared a State of Emergency all this interspersed with jokes. John's easy, even attitude make the whole trip much more playful. We creep, I mean creep along with the flow of traffice. In fact, we're going so slowly that around 5:30 pm, 2 men on bicycles splitting the center lane - pass us! Spectators from nearby homes come out and pass out bottled water to stranded motorists. I consider strapping on my skis, had they been cross country I would have but downhill, no. And it's freezing out there! We still have at least 14 miles to go and the sun is down, no, I think I'll stay in the nice cozy bus.
Remarkably, my brother who commutes to downtown Denver on the bus is just a short distance behind me on a different bus, also trying to get home. We text each other.
"where are you at?" he asks
"I'm at Westminister."
"I'm behind you."
"should I get off and get on your bus?"
"NO! Stay where you are."
I'm also keeping in touch with the rest of my family via text or phone. Where are you? Where are you, is the question repeated over and over again, hour after hour. My cell is losing juice. I write down three numbers so when it dies I can still reach someone to hopefully fetch me from wherever I'm going to end up.
We try to make a couple scheduled bus stops for the passengers. At one, I gotta take a pee. John, let's me use the bus driver private bathroom so I only freeze my feet walking in the snow and not my ass dropping my pants. It's been 7 hours now. And finally, we can go no further on the highway. The police have shut it down. A Fox news van going in the opposite direction stops to take some video, John, hops out to find out what's happening. He reports back, 100's of cars are abandoned or stranded up ahead. The National Guard are coming in to pluck out the motorists who are stuck. We're forced off the highway and set about to take our chances on side streets. We now have 50 back seat bus drivers all with opinions on the best way to make it to Boulder. Luckily, John and his student drivers are nonpulsed at our silliness and able to take in pertainent information.
On the off ramp, a man is stranded and tries to wave us down, we can't stop. If we stop, we won't be able to get back up the slight hill ourselves and then we'll strand not only ourselves but all the vehicles behind us as we block the exit. We leave him. Turning left, we begin to snake our way through the quiet streets. We pass a park and ride with 6 abandoned busses. We don't stop. Remarkably, we continue on our way making our way around cars with their noses in the ditch, snow piled to the roofs. We reach a road where the way before us is clear but coming in the opposite direction 100's of cars are stranded, lights on, waiting, hoping to get by the stuck car, or a jack knifed truck or empty bus.
We're all hungry, tired, but so close now we can taste it. The juggler asks to be let off at an unscheduled stop. He disappears into the blowing snow, we wish him godspeed and continue on. We're still moving forward, eerily no cars heading our direction to Boulder. What route did all those others behind us take? Is there something we don't know about?
We make a decision to get back on the highway that we were forced off earlier. There's no officer at the entrance to the off ramp so we assume it must be clear now but we can't tell as we're at the base of a small hill, the last hurdle into town. We take the ramp, let a man off at the park and ride and move forward. There are a few cars ahead of us, another bus and then we see him, the cop car. He's turning people around, the highway still closed. Cars start passing us going in the opposite direction on the on ramp, a slightly eerie feeling. John, our senior driver, joke teller and above all else, the man who's going to get us home safely, takes over. Releaving Bill, one of the students, he gets behind the wheel, he's going to back the bus up the ramp.
But wait! The cop has decided to let us and the bus ahead of us take the freeway. But why, we were just told that there are 300 cars blocking the road. And he's going to let us through? Okay. The hill up into Boulder is empty on both sides. Where are these stranded vehicles. The bus in front of us disappears over the top and into the blowing snow, it's the last we'll see of it. Is that a good thing? Does that mean it's clear? Or are we going to come across it and be stuck ourselves? We don't know but continue on. To the top, slowly down the side, passing cop cars with flashing lights and then we see them. There are a hundred cars, a truck, a bus fully loaded with people blocking the highway.... but they're all on the other side going the opposite direction!! Are we going to make it? We're so close. I borrow a phone. Mom, can you pick me up at Table Mesa? Can you get through to there? Yes, she thinks they can.
Just a few more miles now. Myself, Joe, Brad, we hold our breath, don't want to hope too much that we'll actually be dropped off where we need to be? Incredible. Okay, it did come 9 hours after we got on the bus but incredible! There's a big snow drift blocking the bus ramp to the park and ride. "John, don't do it." I plead. We can walk the few hundred feet. But no, he plows through the drift smoothly, expertly, a man well trained, cool, daring. The snow is unbroken on the bus ramp, he glides us through and around a sharp corner and delicately stops at the 3 story structure. Almost home.
Outside the bus, John and the two student drivers help unload our bags. I give them a large bag of trail mix and a $20 to get a beer together when everything's calmed down. We hug. And then the bus drives off and disappears for it's next stop on it's journey, more passengers, more stories.
My Mom and Step-dad are waiting. We hug. We learn that my brothers bus is somewhere behind us, coming from a different direction so we wait. While we wait, Joe, my fellow passenger we're going to give a ride home to, and I take in the beauty. Snow weighs the bows of the trees down, everything is white, deep white. Quiet. Remarkable. Magical.
My brother arrives a little while later. We hop in the 4 Runner and slowly make our way home. Dropping off Joe first, then my brother then we make it to my Mom's house. I've been traveling for 17 hours but I'm safe, a little hungry but safe.
It's Thursday morning, the roads are still closed. The snow is pilled two+ feet around my parents house. I'm jonesing to ski some powder but there's no way to get there.
Ski report to follow.... when we can make it into the mountains. So close, and yet so far.