When I think about the perils associated with winter travel, I think about my dad’s simple, but sound, advice: “Stay off the roads.”
Dad lived by this creed for more than 70 years in northwest Kansas. He’d seen his share of blowing and drifting snow. When he talked about western Kansas blizzards, the years of ’31 and ’57 come to mind.
The ’31 blizzard hit on April Fool’s Day and killed hundreds of cattle, Dad said. One of his neighbors lost 80 head of cattle in a pasture less than a mile west of the small community of Seguin in Sheridan County.
When I was a youngster, I experienced the blizzard of ’57. Snow drifted as high as the roof on my friend Vernon Rietcheck’s two-story home. We sledded down the drifts and played in the snow all day.
Our parents weren’t so lucky. There were roads to open and cattle to feed and water. Our homes were without electricity for five days.
My father and those hearty souls who lived on the High Plains learned from these storms. They learned to travel only when necessary — to feed, water and care for livestock.
They rarely traveled anywhere in their pickups without several pairs of gloves, a scoop shovel, a log chain as well as chains for the rear tires. Four-wheel drive vehicles in the ‘50s and ‘60s were uncommon in those days.
Dad always wore a cap with ear protection and carried a couple extra on the front seat of his pickup in the winter. The trunk of our car also had extras. He knew a person couldn’t last long outside in freezing weather with all your body heat escaping through the top of a bare head.
If we traveled anywhere during the winter months, the trunk of the family car was always packed with extra warm clothes, blankets, overalls, gloves, a flashlight, fresh batteries, chains and a shovel to clear the snow from in front or back of the tires.
Dad had been stuck in snow many times. He’d heard of, and known of a neighbor who was stranded and froze to death in one of the fierce northwest Kansas blizzards. Before every winter season began, and often throughout, he’d remind us of these stories.
My father always topped off his fuel tanks for winter travel as well. He believed a full tank provided extra weight on the rear wheels.
“Besides, it runs better on the top half (of the tank),” he always said.
Although Dad never carried sand bags in the back of his car or trucks, he did carry extra weight during the winter. He always lugged around tractor tire weights while some of his neighbors preferred sand and sprinkled the gritty stuff in front of their tires for extra traction in snow and ice.
If someone absolutely had to go out during a winter storm, Dad preached extra time and patience.
“If you’re frightened or overly concerned about weather conditions — don’t drive,” he’d always say. “Wait the storm out.”
Dad’s advice was sound then, and it’s sound today. Remember, it takes a while to find your “driving legs” each new winter season, he’d say.
Relax. Sit back in the seat. From time to time take deep breaths. Don’t grip the wheel until your knuckles turn white.
Try to anticipate what other drivers intend to do. At the same time, keep an eye on them as well.
Let them speed, spin, slip and slide. Allow at least twice as long to reach your destination. Concentrate on the road ahead, behind and on your right and left.
While driving during hazardous weather brings out the worst in some drivers, it also can bring out the best in others. Some welcome the chance to brave the elements. To drive safely under such conditions can provide a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment.
Drive safely and know your limitations. Remember, if you must take a chance that could result in an accident or worse, “Stay off the road.”
John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwest Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.