Crash Course in Canyon Travel

Crash Course in Canyon Travel

Khai Johannes

By Khai Johannes \ February 15 2024

I was forced to enroll in the school of hard lessons in the heart of the season that just kept giving. That particular morning, The Bird had reported an 8” snowfall, which felt like the new norm. With the conditions being so consistent by this point, I’d become casual with my departure time to the canyon. This became my M.O. for two reasons: 1. sleeping in is awesome but mostly 2. I wanted to give UDot a chance to work their magic.

Like the elves in a cobbler's shop working through the night, UDot does all they can to have the canyon systems open as early as possible. With the amount of snow our 22–23 winter was providing, this was no small feat. Thanks to their efforts, most mornings I was uphill by 10 or 11 a.m. without any hiccups. Most mornings.

On this fateful day, as I reached the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon, the blinking lights on the traction law in effect when flashing sign told me I had a choice; chains or bus. While I’m incredibly thankful the bus is an option (and free for many pass holders) I pulled to the shoulder of the road and began the mundane process of securing chains to my meek sedan. 

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UDot had managed to remove the snow completely which meant every rotation of the tires shook the car enough to blip the Richter scale. My hands locked tight around the steering wheel and my jaw clenched in subtle frustration. I snaked up the road at a humble pace. I knew the powder that awaited me would reset my mood just as it had reset the surroundings.

In the freezing temperatures, the only thing that melted away was the tension in my body and the memory of the frustration the short drive had filled me with. Feeling weightless on blower snow has a way of affecting me physically and emotionally. A text message from a friend who cut out early was all the gravity I needed to bring me back to reality.

The roads are pretty slick, I’d head down sooner than later.

Like a wave crashing the shoreline and continuing to crawl further up the beach, the memory of the morning rushed into my mind. There were few turns on that final run. Speed wasn’t for the thrill, it was a necessity to beat out the storm.

In a practiced transition I stripped off my boots and tossed my board in the trunk… next to my tire chains. The lights on the traction sign weren’t flashing at that moment and with the vibration from the drive up still reverberating in my bone marrow, I foolishly thought I was swifter than nature. Not more than a fifth of the way down I locked eyes with tail lights that stared back at me in the haunting red hue.

How contextual life is. The pace up the canyon felt slow, but compared to the glacial pace we moved at on the way down, it seemed more like Formula 1. My grip this morning seemed tight, but now my hands were clamped hard enough, that the steering wheel would have turned to diamond if it were coal. It continued like that for an agonizing seven minutes with little distance covered. Then, like this morning, I was faced with another choice.

Our spaced-out caravan was nearing a corner. The car in front of the haunting tail lights slowed, so my haunting companions slowed, so I slowed. I pressed the brakes, and the twenty feet became fifteen…then ten. At five feet, the monkey's paw opened revealing my choices. I could: either rear-end the car in front of me at this snail's pace and attempt to deal with swapping insurance information on the sketchy shoulder of the slick highway, or I could purposely slide into the snowbank on the side of the road. 

The crash course began with a thud. 

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Lesson 1: Karma is real
“What goes around comes around” is what we’ve come to think karma is. What Buddhism actually teaches us is the idea of connection. We are connected to our previous actions and those actions have outcomes we have to deal with. I chose to attempt to outrun the snow and was now forced to stare at my naivete. 

Lesson 2: We are all connected
In addition to being connected to my previous actions, I was seeing firsthand how I was connected through the threads of karma to those around me. I take great pride in not inconveniencing others. I’m the guy who orders a burger, the server brings me a salad and I say nothing about it. Now, as I looked helplessly at the situation I’d put myself in, I watched as car after car moved slightly over the double yellow line to avoid my bumper on their own periling journey. All this while sporadic traffic continued moving uphill as well. 

Lesson 3: People are good
I’d turned my tires left and right, switched the gear from reverse to drive, and pumped and floored the gas. Just as I’d resigned all hope and assumed I’d have to make a call to a tow truck, orange headlights glowing optimistically appeared. Between the two headlights hung a wench which made the Jeep look like a labrador with its tongue out. The lights slowed, then parked and I would meet Doug. 

He hopped out of his Jeep and assessed the situation while simultaneously easing my anxious state. “You’re pretty stuck” he said to me while still looking at the hood-high snow. The way he said it carried no hints of judgment or condemnation, it was just a matter of fact.

It was only from the efforts of Doug that would I be relieved of my snowy capture. Without hesitation he first attempted to dig out my car using his skis, then he pushed while I gave it a little gas. Finally, he reluctantly (due to the position of the vehicle) connected the wench. The road was so slick and my car so stuck that at moments the Jeep was being pulled downward towards the underdog in this tug of war. What a fitting match, Doug and his Jeep, with their unrelenting fight to a mounting challenge.

The fight finally gave way to the wench and all four wheels were back on the pavement.

When I asked Doug what gave him the impulse to stop he simply replied, “Because you were stuck.” Another matter-of-fact reply, void of glory-seeking or a need for sainthood. 

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Lesson 4: People are mean
Through the entirety of the frustrating situation, Doug’s calm demeanor slipped only once. After the fourth or fifth time we were yelled at by passersby, he growled under his breath, “Why don’t you get out and help or just keep your window shut?” The tone of his voice made up for the simplicity of his words.

We heard a range of things being belted from cars inching by us. Everything from name calling (“idiot!”) to backhanded advice (“get a better vehicle”). I didn’t think anyone’s words could possibly make me feel worse about myself or my situation until someone decided to yell, “You don’t belong in the Canyon!”

While I know, I know, this was a reference to my vehicle not belonging in the canyon, I couldn’t help the sting from hurting beyond what I drive. I am a dark-skinned male who has occupied space in the snow community for 14 years. Feeling out of place is a rarity for me, and on the rare chance I do, my love for the mountains overrides any notions of not fitting in. What I felt at that moment was the feeling of letting my race down. My Mema, who lived through the Jim Crow era in Kentucky, always told me I had to be the best version of myself for other people of color. Because I could be shaping someone’s opinion of what a person of color is like.

There, on the roadside, stuck at no one’s fault but my own, I felt a weight on my shoulders that I hadn’t in years. I’d wondered how many drove by and would subconsciously associate people of color with an inability to be prepared or an inability to move through the mountains because of me.

Lesson 5: When you find what you love, you then find a way
So much of my life has been centered around the magic of winter. I’ve moved states for snow, emptied savings for storm cycles, and traded hemispheres to make turns. Snowboarding has given me fitness, confidence, meditative chairlifts, new friends and views from summits that no thesaurus could capture in words.

While my car may not belong in the canyons, I certainly do. Be it by bus, by gondola, with chains on or in a new vehicle, I will find a way up because that’s what you do when you love something. 

To learn more about safe driving in the canyons, check out our Winter Driving Tips. If winter driving just isn't your thing, learn more about riding the UTA Ski Bus!

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