Off Beat: Weekend getaway turns into white-knuckle drive home

By: Penne Usher, Journal Staff Writer
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It's hard to believe with the sunny skies above us now, but just four days ago the Sierra was slammed by a severe winter storm that shut down Interstate 80. Unfortunately, I was one of the unlucky drivers headed back from Reno driving on a deserted interstate with zero visibility. I've driven in snowy conditions before, but nothing prepared me for the white-knuckle drive I experienced Sunday. A couple of friends and I had planned a girls weekend in the Biggest Little City in the World and were going to stick to our plans, storm or no storm. We had a blast, but all was quiet on the ride home. A few well-placed phone calls early Saturday morning provided enough solid information that I needed to get moving. The bulk of the snowfall was expected to hit overnight Saturday. Oops. The weather folks got that one wrong. We headed out from Reno around 9:30 a.m. Sunday morning and within moments were facing chain controls. Not a problem. Some of the news staff like to refer to the four-wheel drive Ford F-250 pickup I drive as the S.S. Usher. We were waived on through at the first checkpoint but stopped for about 45 minutes at the second chain check before being waived on through again. What were they thinking? Within a mile or so I could no longer see the road. Blowing snow blinded me. My windshield was freezing over. The windshield wipers were covered with so much ice that they became ineffective. I wasn't going to let a nasty Oh my God drive ruin what was a memorable weekend. As we made our way, with a top speed of 25 mph, toward Placer County I began to wonder why I hadn't seen another vehicle, let alone a snowplow. And shouldn't this flippin' road be closed? Turns out Caltrans officials closed both east and westbound Interstate 80 several times throughout the day. At 10:07 a.m. Sunday chain controls were in effect. At 10:17 traffic was held at Truckee because of a spinout and at 10:19 there was another spinout at Castle Peak, said Shelly Chernicki, spokeswoman for Caltrans District 3. For a while traffic was slow and go, but the interstate was open. By 4 p.m. traffic was at a dead stop in both directions because of two multiple-vehicle collisions, she said. And at the same time we had a jack-knifed semi truck at the Truckee interchange, Chernicki said. Caltrans resources were hopping from one traffic incident to another, while still trying to keep up with the ever-mounting snow levels. Typically, what they'll do is work past the accident to make the roadway good so when we do release traffic they have good conditions once they get past the snafu, Chernicki said. The snowy stretch of the interstate was closed once again by 4:45 p.m., not to reopen until 2 a.m. Monday. Chernicki had a bit of advice for not just this traveler, but anyone who decides they can out-drive a storm. Don't go, she said. You shouldn't have gone in the first place. And listen to the forecast. Conditions literally can change minute by minute. The Journal's Penne Usher can be reached at or post a comment on