What you are about to read is based on a true story. And apologies in advance for its length.
I had a feeling that the other weekend wasn't going to go as planned. My wife, Sarah, had just left for ten days in Cambodia, so I was on full-time parenting duty. When I picked my daughters, Catie (age 10) and Gracie (age 8), up from school at lunchtime on Friday to head up to Sugar Bowl (in the Sierras of Northern California where they are on the ski team), it was pouring rain in Mill Valley (near San Francisco). And it was still pouring when we arrived at our cabin in Serene Lakes later that afternoon and well into the night.
Saturday didn't go much better. Catie's race at Alpine Meadows was postponed due to the weather. Plus, two lifts at Sugar Bowl were out of commission because of the rain, meaning that I spent most of the day standing in a lift line.
Part I: Going Deep
The next day was Gracie's race at Alpine and the morning started off well. We were up early, dressed, and out the door by 6:45 a.m., the girls in good spirits, and our trusted Aussie, Tule, was riding shotgun and ready to roll.
About five minutes later, my terrible, horrible, no good, very great day began. There's only one way out of Serene Lakes and, as we descended the hill near Soda Springs ski area, we saw several cars stopped and a pay loader in the street. The road out of Serene Lakes had flooded and was under an undetermined amount of water. We asked the driver of the pay loader if it was passable and he said, "You can take your chances." Two big pick-ups with a lot of ground clearance made it through just fine. I was driving our Toyota Highlander Hybrid which has pretty good ground clearance.
At that moment, I was faced with a very difficult decision. Should we go back to our house in the hope that the accumulated water would recede or do we take our chances and attempt to traverse the uncertain waters. My immediate thought was: there's no way my kid is going to miss her race! So, given that I am of the school that espouses the "go big or go home" philosophy of life (also known as, "it's better to make errors of commission than errors of omission"), I told my girls we were going for it. Though they were a bit scared, they started cheering us on. As we entered the flooded area, I knew I was entering that the gray area between heroic bravery (in the first-world, suburban sense) and impulsive folly. A friend of ours said after that wherever risk taking goes, stupidity is often only a step or two behind.
We were about half way through and things were looking good. Then the water seemed to get deeper, a lot deeper. As we continued to push through, the water was gushing over the hood of the car and we were shooting up rooster tails on both sides. At that point my biggest fear was that we were going to get stranded in the middle of the torrent. A second later, the warning lights on the dashboard lit up big time. Right then, I was slowly making the shift from hero to idiot. But the end was in sight and we slowly climbed out of the quagmire. I thought we were home free.
We were not home free.
We headed toward I-80 and, though the warning lights were still on, we were moving forward. I figured that the car just needed a few miles to drain the water and we would be fine. I was wrong. With the ramp to the interstate in sight, we were still moving, though more and more slowly. Within a half mile of entering I-80, I pulled to the shoulder as the car sputtered and died.
Part II: Saved by the Cell
Thankfully, our friends the Zemkes who were also going to the race, had a condo on the good side of the flood. I called Laura, explained the situation, and she and her daughter, Hannah, picked up my girls and took them to Alpine while I stayed with the lifeless car. I called AAA and, 1 ½ hours later, Albert, the AAA guy, pulled up in his flatbed tow truck. Being the optimist that I am and Albert telling me that he has a lot of experience towing Highlander Hybrids (didn't inspire confidence in my choice of SUVs, to be sure), I was hopeful that he could resuscitate my comatose car. But no, once again, the almighty winter gods were punishing me for my hubristic belief that I could exert dominion over their elements.
In any case, Albert pulled the car onto flatbed and off he, Tule, and I headed to Truckee. During the drive, during which Albert and I developed a deep, though short-lived, relationship, I considered my options. As it was Sunday, there were no auto repair shops open. An Enterprise rental car office was supposed to be open, but no one answered the phone. Four important problems came to mind as I pondered the situation I put myself in:
1. How was I going to get to Alpine to rejoin my girls and watch Gracie race?
2. How were we going to get home so my girls didn't miss school and I didn't miss work?
3. How was I going to get the car fixed and running again?
4. How was I going to pick up the car once it was road worthy again?
I had no solutions to any of these problems.
Part III: From Helpless to Hopeful
We arrived at the auto repair shop that would open Monday morning. I had hoped that, somehow, the car would fix itself and it would start right up after Albert lowered it to the ground (did I mention that I'm an eternal optimist?). Again, my hopes were dashed as the winter gods found pleasure in my suffering. I asked Albert if he could give me a ride into Truckee, but he said he had to respond to another distressed motorist in the opposite direction. I was feeling more than a bit overwhelmed, helpless, and alone at that moment. Then a text message exchange renewed my hope in the day. They were from Kate Krebhiel (nee Davenport), a former U.S. Ski Team athlete and the mother of three kids on the Sugar Bowl ski team whom I've known for years. They read:
KK: Heard your car got towed you ok? 9:14 AM
Me: OK. Still trying to figure out transport home. Do you have room for us? Laura might be able to take us home. Or I'm looking into renting a car. 9:29 AM
KK: I actually have two cars up here so it's your lucky day you can drive our Audi wagon home 9:30 AM
KK: Do you have AAA Premier? They offer 200 mile towing free... 9:32 AM
Me: No, just classic, only 5 miles. 😥 9:33 AM
KK: Well my car is yours. I have the key. It's in the SB garage 9:46 AM
Me: You mean I can drive it to MV? 9:51 AM
KK: Yes 9:51 AM
Me: Wow! 9:52 AM
I felt the weight of the day begin to lift as I now had solutions to problems #2-#4. I still had to solve problem #1, but, with renewed vigor, I was now a man with a plan and I was on the move.
I locked the car in the auto repair parking lot and left Tule there. Before you call the ASPCA with charges of animal cruelty against me, let me tell you that he loves hanging out in our car. At home, while I'm in my home office, he will spend the entire day in our car. When we go skiing, he would rather be in the car in the Sugar Bowl parking lot than be at our house in Serene Lakes.
I took a taxi to downtown Truckee and went into the local supermarket to warm up and strategize. I called AAA and upgraded my membership that includes the 200-mile free tow, so I could get the car home. The only caveat is that I had to wait 48 hours before the upgrade would go into effect, meaning I had to wait till Tuesday to have the car towed home.
Now I needed to find a solution to problem #1, getting to Alpine Meadows to be with my girls. Renting a car for a few hours seemed like a waste of money. I checked into taking a bus, but I couldn't figure out the bus schedule. So, I did something I hadn't done in more than 35 years: I walked to the side of the road to Alpine and stuck out my thumb. It took me longer than I expected to get my first ride given that I don't think I'm a particularly menacing-looking fellow, but, after three rides through bumper-to-bumper traffic (it was a powder day in Tahoe!), I arrived at Alpine tired, but relieved.
I rushed into the base lodge and was surprised to learn that my adventures had already reached near-mythic proportions among the Sugar Bowl parents. One of the moms told me that I could still catch Gracie's first run if I hurried. After all I had been through that morning (and it was still only 11 am), I was near tears watching her ski the course. When Gracie came through the finish line, she had a big smile on her face and when she saw me, that smile exploded. A long hug and a big kiss ensued. Catie, who had watched Gracie's run the side of the course, came down and, with more hugs and kisses, our reunion was complete.
The middle part of the day was relatively uneventful with a lot of storytelling about my adventures, hand shaking from the dads for my gutsiness, and comforting hugging and hard looks from the moms questioning my judgment, followed by a successful second run for Gracie.
Part IV: Heading Home...Very Slowly At First
Laura had continued her immense generosity of spirit by agreeing to drive us back to our car to pick up Tule and then to Kate's car in the Sugar Bowl garage. With the race completed, we rushed to get on the road only to experience more bumper-to-bumper traffic and a 1:40 hour drive to Truckee (usually takes 20 mins.). My girls and Hannah passed the time happily listening to a Harry Potter audiobook and making origami boxes. I kept checking Waze for traffic updates (did I mention that I have a bit of a masochistic streak in me?).
We picked up Tule (just another day in the car for him) and headed up to Sugar Bowl. When we passed Soda Springs Road at around 5 pm, there were a bunch of cars and a TV news crew. We learned that the road had only opened 30 minutes earlier, having stranded many people including a number of Sugar Bowl ski team families with kids who missed the race.
We packed up Kate's car and spent the next 3 ½ hours on the surprisingly uneventful drive home. Catie and Gracie played happily part of the way, fought bitterly for seat space part of the way, and slept peacefully part of the way, while Tule gnawing contentedly on a bone he found under one of the seats. We arrived home around 9:15 pm and my girls went straight to bed in their long johns. I emptied the car, fed Tule, cleared my desk, and dropped off to sleep, happy and relieved that my horrible, terrible, no good, very great day was over.
Part V: Some Bad News and Some Good News
My car was towed 187 miles to the local Toyota dealership two days later and I anxiously awaited word from their service department about the extent of the damage that my decision had incurred. I felt that the cost of getting the Highlander fixed would weigh heavily in whether my decision was intrepid or foolhardy.
I received a call from the Toyota dealer and the news was not good. Being the optimist that I am, I truly believed that the repair would be relatively minor. I was wrong again as I shook my fist at the winter gods who would not let me off easy for my impudence. The engine was completely water logged and would need to be rebuilt. I was absolutely dumbstruck when I heard the price for replacing an engine with a used one (I'm even too embarrassed to share it with you). Suffice it to say, if you're not familiar with auto repairs, it is known as a 'big-ticket item.' Gosh, aren't cars supposed to be built to take a pounding? Perhaps so, but apparently not a drowning.
But there were two pieces of good news that substantially eased my pain. First, our insurance company is going to pick up the cost of the repair minus our deductible. Second, the replacement engine has only 13,000 miles on it (our old one had 75,000), so, instead of this experience being our Highlander's death knell, it actually gave it a new lease on life.
Part VI: The Price You Pay
Of course, the ultimate cost of this self-induced fiasco was a concern of mine. Here's a breakdown (pun intended):
AAA: $20 (unsolicited tip for Albert)
AAA upgrade: $97
Insurance deductible: $1000
Given the potential costs that could have been incurred, I feel pretty fortunate that this was all it will cost us. Though certainly not chump change, the total cost makes having made my decision a bit more palatable.
Part VII: Reflections
It's easy to look in the rearview mirror and pass judgment on a decision that has been made when the consequences are known. In retrospect, was it a good decision? Clearly not. Would I do it again? Of course not. Do I feel embarrassed by my decision? A little, but I also feel a bit of pride (however immature or macho) for taking my shot for my children in an uncertain situation. The consequences may have been somewhat costly in terms of dollars, but the experience was full of life lessons about decision making, risk taking, staying calm under stress, and the importance of community for my daughters and for myself. And I'm not so embarrassed that I'm unwilling to share my story with others who may judge me kindly or harshly.
Do I regret my decision? If my feelings are based solely on the cost of my decision, I have big regrets, to be sure. At the same time, again in retrospect, if I consider the totality of the experience, I'm not so sure. The fact is that no one was hurt, the car will be repaired, we can manage the financial hit, and life will go on. And we now have a great story to tell people.
But we don't live life in retrospect. If we could look into the future and know how our decisions will turn out, life would be easy...and quite uninteresting. I made a decision, I took a risk. It didn't work out the way I had hoped, though without dire consequences. I'm human. I sometimes make poor decisions; I can live with that. Plus, my girls are safe and happy. I am back to work. My wife is home. And our Highlander will be back in our garage soon, with a rebuilt engine, ready for another trip to Tahoe.
Time to get on with life (and a darned good one, at that).
Finally, as I have chronicled over the last five years (here and here), I have decidedly mixed feelings about whether I want Catie and Gracie to become ski racers, like any sport, a major commitment. Well, on that day, in the stressed and weary state I was in, I decided with absolute certainty that I didn't want them to get into ski racing if we were going to endure days like this. I also thought of the early morning drives to races, the more frequent trips to the mountains, the opportunity costs of being a ski racing family, the tough choices on how we would commit our time, energy, and money, and the divergent race schedules requiring our family to be separated often. The scales tipped heavily toward just being a skiing family.
Then, as we drove home, I began to relax and settle down. Catie and Gracie started recounting the excitement of the day. They couldn't wait to tell their class at school about the craziness. I began to focus on the good things that came from the day. The girls were confronted with a pretty challenging experience, yet responded to the drama with a few tears, but mostly with resilience and good cheer. With my wife away, I was alone in a very difficult situation (only myself to blame, of course), yet I stayed positive and calm throughout the day. I actually felt just a little bit heroic for being able to untangle myself from the spider's web I caught myself in. And I was a pretty darned good dad to Catie and Gracie through it all, to boot.
So, I decided that I would set aside my rather impulsive decision about my girls' future in ski racing and table it for another time.
My daughter, Catie, exhausted, but smiling, summed it up nicely when I was tucking her into bed back at our home in Mill Valley with the difficult day behind us: "Daddy, we had a very great day today!" Yes, my dear, we did. Sweet dreams...