When I wrote about my gambling journey over Donner Summit last week, many of our readers from colder climes expressed puzzlement over the CHP's tire chain requirements on I-80 under not-very-snowy conditions. What's the deal here?
See, people from states where you get Jack London*-grade blizzards in, like, May don't give a shit about snow, ice, slush, avalanches, whatever- you just fire up the '79 Bonneville and go sliding down to the beer store, and if you get stuck, why, that's why you've got bags of sand, lumber, chlorine triflouride, blasting caps, or whatever the hell you crazy bastids in places like Fond du Lac or Brainerd keep in your trunks. You laugh at those soft Californians, with our total inability to handle driving on anything other than bone-dry asphalt- oh, I know you laugh; my parents lived in Minnesota for their first 30 years, and while they may have (finally) stopped talking like the characters in Fargo, they still display the native Midwesterner's innate disdain for drivers who can't A) control a rear-wheel-drive full-size sedan on a frictionless surface, B) can't jump-start a car by mashing an Old Style can between the bumpers and running a lamp cord between the positive battery terminals, and C) feel the need to roll up the windows when it's a comfortable 34 degrees outside. I hear about these things all the time. So for you Midwesterners (and New Englanders, and Scandinavians), here's your chance to feel superior to those of us who get to wear T-shirts to the junkyard in January (as I did yesterday).
We decided to head to Reno on a spur-of-the-moment whim. I knew my Civic had the proper coolant/water mix to prevent a frozen engine block and the gas tank was full, so off we went. Then, a few minutes after we hit the snowy part of the Sierra foothills, I emptied my windshield-washer reservoir. Well, the gas station will have washer fluid. In fact, they had hundreds of bottles of the blue stuff, and there was a long line of Californians queued up to buy them.
The parking lot outside was chock-a-block with drivers pouring the stuff. Yeah, plain water might work fine at the coast, but not here.
When it snows, the CHP will generally require tire chains until the plows can come through and the flakes stop falling. They set up a checkpoint, and if you've got a two-wheel-drive vehicle with no chains (or a 4WD vehicle without snow-rated tires), you're not going to be allowed to proceed. Most drivers avail themselves of the services of the "chain monkeys" (here's a pretty good article about them), who are authorized to install and remove chains.
It costs 30 bucks to get the chain monkeys to install the chains and 15 bucks to get them taken off. Not a bad deal, but I've got a better plan.
That's right, a small floor jack!
Once you've got the wheel off the ground, you put on gloves and snow pants, break out the pliers, and pop those chains right on. The process takes about 30 seconds per tire. The main thing is to never put any part of your body where the car might fall on it if the jack fails; a better idea would be to use jack stands.
You don't need the jack to get the chains off; just unhook them and move the car a couple of feet.
Since I have to drive among typical California drivers every day, I know exactly why the CHP requires chains in not-very-dangerous winter conditions: to slow down the idiots. You know, the same chuckleheads who drive 95 MPH in tule fog when you can't see past your hood ornament, or who ride your bumper while applying makeup and reading the newspaper during a torrential rainstorm. Having seen many incredibly stupid wrecks on I-80 and US 50 over the Sierras, I'm forced to agree with the CHP's decision here.
*Jack London was from Oakland and spent a large part of his childhood on the Island That Rust Forgot, but his year in the Klondike made a vivid impression on him.