Mountain Road Hazards

If planning to get away to the mountains, don’t ruin your moment in the fresh piney air by getting yourself into a car accident. You might be leaving the lowland driving hazards of road construction and bumper-to-bumper vehicles, but you may encounter other threats.

For starters, the scenery: Let your passengers enjoy the rising peaks and road-cut exposure a thousand feet below to the carved-out valley. It’s a known fact that when you gaze in fascination at something off the road, you will tend to veer the vehicle in that same direction. “Orbs ahead, or you be dead,” as has never been said until just now, but it’s good, right? You don’t want to rely on a two-foot guard rail to keep your rig and your party from careening down a 45-degree slope. And in states such as mine, they expect a certain degree of skill, responsibility and budgetary savings and thus forego the guard rail much of the time. (As a related side note to hikers, there are no paved paths, handrails, or warning signs on the precipitous “Chicken Out Ridge” en route to the top of Idaho’s highest point, Borah Peak, on foot. A few individuals from the East Coast were flabbergasted and appalled by this when I was up there once and they turned back; I told them it’s been a tougher proposition ever since they removed the gondola ride.)

Secondly, rocks in the roadway. This can be a confusing matter due to signage. At times, you’ll see signs saying WATCH FOR FALLING ROCK. I do not recommend doing this, again because you’ll be looking in the wrong direction of your travel. You are very unlikely to seize such a moment of erosion live, and if you happened to be so lucky—unlucky, actually—I doubt you would be able to maneuver the vehicle around the tumbling scree or boulders. I think if one took this signage literally, they’d be apt to just gun it and get the heck through that section. But I don’t recommend that because the road is probably winding in such locations. The more accurate and appropriate warning signs say to watch for fallen rock, suggesting that one be aware of the higher probability of rock in the road, stay focused, and hit the brakes if necessary. I’m not sure why the signs don’t simply warn WATCH FOR ROCK IN ROADWAY or just ROCKS IN ROADWAY…who cares what the rocks are doing or did to get in the way.

Thirdly, what you are driving may be your own hazard. This doesn’t apply if you are just going up for the day or tenting it overnight, but if you are like many mountain-goers these days, you are driving or towing a well-stocked, spacious residence. Now, I don’t want to give you an excuse to upgrade to a beefy pickup that costs more than my first house, but if your Jayco Eagle is four times the length and twice the width of your Toyota Tundra…the physics are simply not sound. And if you aren’t going the travel-trailer route and are commandeering a motorhome, just remember that narrow, winding mountain roads were not originally cut for cornering a 45-foot American Coach. Besides, they are packing the campsites in tight these days and you’re going to back that thing into a lodgepole pine at your destination. If you have one of those remarkable not-as-huge Mercedes customized vans then you’re probably safe, but in that case you should have bought a nice Explorer instead and booked a week replete with fine dining at the upscale lodge.

Lastly, beware the Cervidae family of mountain residents. You probably want to see deer, elk, and moose on your foray to the wild, but you don’t want to encounter them on the pavement. Fortunately, when you see them on the highway, particularly at night with your headlights beaming into their eyes, deer tend to freeze, making them easier to avoid. (This is strange behavior, though, as friend of the family Josiah Mensing once pointed out—that a deer will freak out and bound away at the sound of a snapping twig, yet stare down a Freightliner roaring toward it with its horn blasting.) So, watch out for deer especially during the day, when they are less likely to appear but if so are more likely to be playing a game of Frogger. Also, it’s important not to be tied to those DEER and ELK warning signs, sometimes with flashing lights. Over time, these creatures have come to interpret these signs, with their silhouetted forms on them, as warnings to vacate the area. And as such, they are less likely to be a present hazard where the signs are placed. And if the sign says GAME CROSSING, they think it’s a trap (perhaps they are dyslexic) and will absolutely never go that way. So, in summary, if you haven’t seen any of those road signs and it’s daytime, then especially slow down and keep your eyes peeled.

So, I hope this has been helpful—a community service, perhaps. Note that this has been geared toward Western U.S. mountain travel. I have two brothers-in-law that frequently do mission work in the mountains of India, which are much different. There, one encounters all the congestion, construction, and madness of the city up high on precipitous switchbacks, unpaved, at speed, with no guardrails and actual falling rock. And the small matter of the road occasionally washing out into oblivion. If you venture to India for your getaway, Yak crossings are the least of your worries.

Copyright © 2022 Richard Berndt – All Rights Reserved.

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