Mustangs, Southern Snowstorms, and the Patron Saint of Bad Decisions

Hell hath no fury like a stick axle in a snowstorm.

byZach Bowman| PUBLISHED Jan 27, 2016 6:40 PM
Mustangs, Southern Snowstorms, and the Patron Saint of Bad Decisions

It was raining when we left Knoxville. We punched up I-40, cutting through pre-dawn darkness in a 2012 Ford Mustang GT, rolling on summer rubber. That bastard weatherman was confident the storm would be rapturous or nothing to write home about, an end-times blizzard or a couple of melting flakes, and that it’d wait until the evening commute to get serious. We figured we had plenty of time to pop across the mountain and shuck down to Anderson, South Carolina, to buy a Land Cruiser. Get home in time for some donuts in the church parking lot and beers by the fire.

Nadeem had been on the hunt for the better part of five months. He needed something sufficient for winter bashing, dog hauling, and suburban living. What started as casual Craigslist cruising for 4Runners devolved into an outright obsession with Toyota’s last true bruiser, the Land Cruiser. When we found a clean, low-mile J100 from the sunny shores of Boca Raton, he immediately burned a PTO day. I volunteered to ride shotgun.

“If we can get up to about 40 degrees, the Mustang will be fine,” he said. “Below that, these tires get a little dicey.”

The temperature gauge glowed a questionable 34.

I-40 between Knoxville to Asheville is one of those great stretches that never fully dominated the land it courses over. The mountainsides aren’t exactly stable, and it only takes one decent landslide or winter storm to close the pass down for a few days. Then you’re stuck hopping an extra hundred miles north or south to get through the sticks.

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We expected some flurries in the mountains, maybe some ice. What we found was two inches of slush and snow on an unplowed road. Traffic dropped to a single lane, our Mustang third in a long convoy behind one brave semi. By the time we realized we were in trouble, the exits were impassible. We were stuck pushing forward, hoping the weather would slack once we were on the other side of the mountain and down into the valley outside Asheville. If Nadeem was worried, he wasn’t showing it. If anything, he was confident.

“We have the advantage of the most advanced live axle in the world.”

We didn’t make it ten miles into North Carolina before stuffing the nose in a snow bank.

Our intrepid semi slowed within earshot of the top of a meager hill, forcing a downshift. The Mustang took that as cue to kick sideways and point its snout toward the deep stuff in the left lane. It came to rest within a foot of the center jersey barrier. Serves us right.

There are a handful of inviolable rules for surviving winter weather in the south, and we’d broken every last one of them. The first: Stay put. Snow and ice never lasts more than a couple of days down here, where apocalyptic precipitation is inevitably followed by a sunny 50-degree day. There’s nothing in this world or the next worth getting out and playing bumper tag with the rash of idiots that run the roads once snow starts flying in Dixie.

When traffic finally cleared, Nadeem backed the car out of the bank and onto the clear tracks, where the faintest application of clutch and fuel sent the car sidestepping. The second rule? If you have to be out in the stupidity, take a vehicle with the proper shoes. Snow tires. Chains. Whatever it takes to put power to the ground.

Nothing for it. I got out to push. The third rule: Make sure you have proper shoes. If you’re out playing in this mess, you’re going to push, wrangle tow straps, or hike your happy ass out a ditch. I own a beautiful old pair of insulated Danners with a new pair of bright-red Kevlar laces. I was not wearing them.

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There’s something eerie about putting your toes where they’re not supposed to go. Traffic could be moving 20 mph or 95, but you feel just how bad an idea it is from the second your soles touch tarmac. In winter, it’s quiet, too. No pounding rush of tires past or barking jake brakes. Just the damp silence that snow brings wherever it goes. And, slick as it was, and I wasn’t so much as pushing the car as holding on to the damn thing to keep from falling. Traffic poured by in a slow and steady stream. Those with the ability to pull us out were in no mood to do so; I called a tow company and explained our situation, trying to sound helpless and moneyed.

“Honey, we can’t even get out of our driveway it’s so bad.”

I called a buddy in Knoxville, Kevan, the proud owner of a new-to-him Tacoma with a rear locker and a minty-fresh set of BFG KO2 tires at all four corners.

“Who’s idea was it to take the Mustang?”

Now we were hosed. Properly hosed. In trouble. Marooned, less than an hour from my doorstep. My Cummins was sitting in the driveway, fully capable of pulling this wretched car to Maine and back on its roof, but getting it to us meant asking my irrationally accommodating wife to drop what she was doing, find a sitter for our one-year-old daughter, then brave the frozen hellscape before us.

Goddamn it.

The Mustang idled contentedly. I picked up my phone, scrolled to my wife’s name, and hovered over the call button.

Goddamn it.

Then, I shit you not, an angel appeared. The angel of mercy. The patron saint of dumbasses riding astride the most magnificent Caterpillar grader you’ve ever seen, its massive wheels shod in chains that must’ve weighed more than the next ten cars on the road. He backed right up to the bumper of the Mustang and hopped out.

“I can pull you boys to the top of the hill, but I’m not responsible for any damage to your vehicle.”

Here’s a little-known fact about the 2012 Ford Mustang GT: There’s not a single suitable place to pull on the car on the front end. Not a one. This struck me as a massive oversight for a vehicle that, statistically, spends most of its time ass-first off in a field or gravel trap or median. So when our savior produced massive, rusty tow chain, I found a sturdyish looking crossmember and hitched to the grader.

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“You want to drive?” Nadeem asked. Dude had no more bandwidth to give. Until today, this car hadn’t so much as seen a grain of salt, and here we were chaining its nose to a piece of construction equipment. I slid into the driver’s seat, and Nadeem motioned our hero forward, slowly taking up the slack in the chain. And, just like that, we were to the top of the hill.

I would have paid this man any figure for his kindness, but he brushed off our cash.

“There’s an exit in two miles,” he said, “but there’s nothing there.”

“How bad is it the rest of the way down?” I asked.

“You need to make it another 10 miles before there’s anywhere decent to stop. If you keep moving, don’t stop, you’ll be alright.”

Goddamn it.

Easier this time, once we were moving. First, second, third. Lumbering along at 30, just fast enough to keep our momentum and keep from catching anyone in front of us. We passed the first exit, then the second, both blocked with tall piles of snow that would just as soon rip the Mustang’s front valance off as look at us. Fine. We’d push on. The weather was bound to turn, soon, right? The snow would slack. We’d see clear pavement again.

Or not. The closer we got to Asheville, the worse it got. There were no more tracks in the snow. Just hard-packed ice below our tires. The Mustang chimed a sweet-sounding diddy, then spit “SERVICE ADVANCETRAC” out across the gauge cluster. The car had taken it upon itself to disable both stability control and traction control.

Goddamn it.

More impassible exits, more snow. Then some ice for good measure. It was like trying to drive across a highway paved with buttered linoleum. The medians and ditches filled with jack-knifed semis and overzealous passenger cars. I drove with fingertips and toes, desperate to keep away from any drastic input.

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Nadeem kept an eye on the map, watching the storm and trying to divine which route would take us to better weather. Nothing looked good. We were travelling with the storm, just behind a band of nasty snow and ice. We made it to I-26 and pushed south. Somehow, the roads got worse. There were no more lanes. The counties down here weren’t equipped to deal with this kind of weather.

We wound up in another caravan behind another lumbering semi. And, sure enough, it too came to a near stop as the road rose to crest a hill. Visions of our previous shit show flashed through my head. Desperate, I signaled for the left lane. Those behind us were already on to my game and darted around us. The gap was closing. Third gear to second. No one letting us over. Then, like the grater before, a miracle: Kevan and his Tacoma.

Turned out he’d left Knoxville shortly after I’d called, popped across the mountain and made up the gap on us like it was nothing. He flashed his lights, I popped over without coming to a stop, and we trundled on.

It took six hours to get within sweating distance of Columbia, and the roads weren’t getting any better. At this rate, we’d never going to make Anderson before the car lot closed. And the Mustang was all everywhere. Kicking sideways, big, wide yaws that had me driving through the side glass. The margins got narrower, the road’s camber and the car’s momentum conspiring to do devilish things to the car’s glossy black paint.

The impact was coming. No arguing with it. Brother, I was working. Doing anything and everything to lessen the blow. I tried not to look at the guardrail, tried not to let my eyes tell the car to get cozy with galvanized steel. We were so close to straight, but still carrying too much momentum, and the foot or so of deep snow before the guard rail wasn’t enough to stop the smash. We came to a stop perfectly parallel with the guardrail, so close I couldn’t turn lock-to-lock without the wheel catching.

I’d scratched the side mirror.

Kevan pulled in front, threw a strap around the passenger A-arm and pulled us the rest of the way to the closest exit. We left the car in a Bi-Lo parking lot, certain that continuing on would be the fastest way to a totaled Mustang. We piled in the Tacoma and hauled off for Anderson.

The roads never got better. The snow just gave way to a legitimate ice storm. By the time the papers were signed and the tanks were full, the sun was falling. I-40 was closed, and we were left to make a decision: joust with the ice-fearing goons in Atlanta or brave the snow in the mountains of north Georgia. We chose the latter, plowing through virgin powder and flakes the size of well-fluffed birds. No better weather to buy a Land Cruiser.

We hit Knoxville 18 hours after we left, nothing but drizzle falling from the sky.