There are a few simple rules to safe winter driving. Take your time. Slow, easy inputs on the wheel and pedals. Look farther ahead than normal. And a quick PSA to those in southern California delighting in the early-season snow currently blanketing the mountains: for the love of God, do not build a snowman on your car and drive around like that’s a sane thing to do. And while you're at it, don't try and take the season home with you by throwing snow boulders on your roof rack.
Lest you think this is a joke, observe the photos above and below, taken on the famed Angeles Crest Highway outside Los Angeles on Sunday. The winter storm that just smacked the southeast with an icy fist started its transcontinental trek last week by dumping over a foot of snow on the high peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains, less than an hour from downtown LA. The snow is still up there, visible for fifty miles, a beacon of festive seasonality in a hot, dry land.
I certainly wasn't the only one who drove up the Crest this weekend to catch a glimpse of winter. But at times, it felt like I was the only one not participating in the strange, dangerously idiotic, regional ritual of carting around a snowman on your car like a massive hood ornament or Mitt Romney’s dog. The realization came slowly. Winding my way up through the warmer, lower-elevation curves, I saw a couple cars coming back down with chunks of snow resting against the base of the windshield. Silly Californians don't know to clean off their cars, I smirked.
Anyone who's lived where it snows regularly in the winter knows how important it is to do so (plus, it's illegal to not do so in many places). A sheet of frozen snow becomes a dangerous projectile when it flies off a moving vehicle at speed, let alone a few unsecured ice boulders. But I can understand how someone with little experience in life below 32 degrees might not think about that.
What I didn't expect was people purposefully piling snow on their clean cars. Any thought of it being somehow accidental was eliminated minutes later when I passed another car with a two-foot-tall intact snowman sitting on the windshield cowl. Three body segments, stick arms, pebbles for eyes, the whole Frosty bit. I couldn't believe my eyes at first, briefly concluding I had hallucinated the two-second encounter. Then I saw another one.
That was just the beginning. The closer I got to the snow line, the more cars I saw trundling back down toward civilization with one, two, sometimes a whole family of snow people on the hood or roof. There were at least 20 of them. A few larger SUVs bore full-size snowmen on their roofs. My eyes bugged out of my head; I wanted to pull across the road, block traffic, walk up to the nearest offender, and shout What are you thinking??
What struck me most was how exceedingly normal this seemed to everyone. The sheer number of people who independently decided that this was a Thing To Do indicates that somewhere, somehow Californians got the idea that building a snowman on your car and going for a drive is a fun winter activity the whole family can enjoy. I can't believe we have to correct the record like this, but it's not. Stop it. You're better than this, California.
The snow eventually revealed itself as the road climbed further up the mountain of madness, along with the source of the snowman scourge. Nearly every pullout contained at least one stopped car with its driver hard at work stacking snow on the hood or roof to join the demented parade. Even better, I saw several people try to take the season home for Christmas by filling their roof racks or windshield cowls with piles of ice chunks.
I pulled over to absorb what I was seeing. And I couldn't have picked a perfect spot—a few dozen yards away across the road, a happy family crowded around their Infiniti QX56 as good ol' Dad built a classic snowman on the roof. Backlit with golden hour skies and framed with towering pines, the scene was oddly beautiful and sweet. It could have been a Rockwell painting, if Rockwell dabbled in postmodern absurdity in the information deficit age.
After a few minutes, the father put the finishing touches on snowman while the kids heaped more ice chunks on the windshield. Everyone piled back in the family SUV and then they were off. The father smiled at me as he passed, as if to say, Isn't this a nice day? Not for anyone unlucky enough to be behind you when the head comes off.
Winter is here, even if the calendar says we're still more than a week out from the official start of the season. There will be many more bad choices to pick apart on the internet before spring rolls around, but it'll be hard to top the image of an oblivious Californian building a snowman on his car and driving away, confident that he's embodying the true spirit of the season. So close, man. So close.