This Side Up

It pays to stay in the groove

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I know this section of road. I should after having traveled it for more than 70 years at all times of the year.

It’s changed over the decades. Shoulders have been widened. The signage is much improved, although I miss the Burma Shave signs and their catchy messages. Many of the same houses and barns still stand in what seems to be a state of petrified disrepair. There are some new neighbors to this highway that goes west from Albany across the hills looking down on the Mohawk Valley. There’s a huge Wal-Mart distribution center outside Sharon Springs that lights up the night sky with scores of tractor trailers; Dollar General stores have sprouted at a few intersections and there’s a Hannaford supermarket outside of Esperance that Carol loves stopping at whenever we’re headed up that way.

But really not much has changed. Once you get off Route 88 and turn onto Route 20, you leave the traffic and you settle into a rhythm of climbing hills where on a clear day you can see the blue outline of Vermont mountains. Occasionally you’ll pass a tractor hauling a wagon laden with bales of hay and you’ll surely see lots of cows and cornfields.

It was just as we expected Friday afternoon, only with heavy drops splattering the windshield, this was not a day for farmers to be cutting hay or harvesting corn. It’s been so wet that many fields have gone uncut, the corn standing tall, brown and windblown.

Then, as we climbed, the rain turned to snow. It didn’t stick except in the fields and rooftops.

This was not a good omen. If it was sticking at Sloansville, little more than an intersection with a traffic light, it was certain to be worse ahead. The snow was not only sticking but picked up.

We drove in silence in trepidation of the deteriorating conditions. The wipers slapped and the tires squished in the mounting slush.

This is early November, too soon for a serious snowstorm. The dashboard thermometer read 36 degrees. This shouldn’t even be snow, or so we thought.

But just the sight of snow is chilling. I cranked up the heat. Carol turned on our seat warmers.

Outside of Carlisle – another village with an intersection and a few houses – the pavement turned white with the exception of a pair of tire tracks from a vehicle we couldn’t see in the white blanket surrounding us. I followed those tracks, hoping the driver ahead was still on the road.

We felt the car beginning to fishtail.

“Stay in the tracks,” Carol said frantically. I took my foot off the accelerator, and tapping brakes. I shouldn’t have touched them. The car wiggled and swerved back on course. We were doing all of 25 MPH, but the road was now descending into a long curve with a drop off to our right and a turnoff to Cherry Valley at the bottom of the hill. It’s a section that even during the best of weather is unnerving.

I sensed Carol stiffening. We share the same feeling for this section of Route 20, although it can be beautiful with its wooded hills.

The car jumped out of the tracks and then slapped back into them with an unsettling rocking. We were gaining speed, maybe 50. Weird thoughts came to mind. I wondered if there was cell phone coverage and if I had gloves and whether Ollie, who was in the backseat, had to pee although he had gone when we stopped at Hannaford.

I took the car out of drive and slipped it into gear mode. The reading on the dash indicated 6. I slipped it into 5. There was hardly any change. Then I reduced it to 4 and heard the motor race as it worked to slow the car. By the time I got it into 3 we were doing 25 again.

The visibility improved. A plow passed us going the opposite direction. The dark form of the vehicle ahead, which wasn’t that far away, emerged from the white out.

The following day we heard that a couple of tractor-trailer trucks had gone off the road at Cherry Valley. We could have passed them and never known. But then, thankfully, we weren’t following their tracks. We never caught up to our leader, and I can only wonder is someone was following us. Sometimes it pays to stay in the groove. It did this time.

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