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A cautionary tale: Why you should ALWAYS look at the map beforehand (preferably with elevation)

I had intended to write an entry today about the annual Quaker Oatmeal Festival held in Lafayette, Colorado. I imagined posting images of the world’s largest topping bar and telling you everything I learned about acupressure at the health fair. However, it was not to be. I was unable to attend the Oatmeal Festival due to unforeseen circumstances, namely THE SUPER SCARY MOUNTAIN PASS OF DOOM.

Look! Mountains! Who knew?

My brother, Jim, and I landed in Denver Friday night as the sun was setting, picked up our rental SUV and headed out for Breckenridge, Colorado, where we would be staying for 3 nights. Breckenridge is 80 miles west of downtown Denver and the oatmeal festival is about 20 miles north of downtown Denver. That meant there was a whole lot of driving to be done that evening, the next morning, and directly after the festival. In retrospect, I should have more carefully examined the itinerary and requested that we stay in Denver the first night. However, I’ve been suffering from constant chronic pain lately, and I’m lucky to be able to plan my lunch for the day, so I did not do this and did not realize this problem until we were driving into the mountains…after dark…in the snow.

Which is where the snow weasels live. (So I hear.)

Not really following the road, just following the tail lights in front of us...perhaps off a cliff

As we headed past steep drop-offs, the cars in front of us started to kick up snow and salt. Jim turned on the windshield wipers to discover the driver’s side wiper was operating more like a snow smear-er. He squirted the glass with washer fluid, which had been replaced with paint and further obstructed his view. This was for the best because he could not read the signs that said “Avalanche Area” and “Falling Rocks – 2 miles.” Nor could he start tensing all the muscles in his neck and send a chronic headache into overdrive by reading the signs that said, “It is unlawful for commercial vehicles to pass this point without chains” and “7% grade for the next 8 miles.”

It was all downhill from there, literally.

As we proceeded through the mountain pass at a terrifying 20 mph, we were confused by the speed limit signs reading “65 mph.” My only comfort was that there were several other cars on the road with us, so if we went careening off the edge, one of them would probably call 911. I started to regret not getting the insurance at the rental car agency.

Some poor sap putting chains on his tires on the side of the road

I looked up as we passed mile marker 265. We were headed for exit 203 at Frisco, over 60 miles away. We proceeded through the mountain pass, my brother hunched over the steering wheel to see through the clear spots on the windshield.

“Wow, I’ve never seen a semi truck being loaded onto a tow truck,” I said as I looked out the side window.

“What?” he asked.

“Nothing. We’ll be fine,” I told him.

“My foot is numb,” he told me. “I’ve been riding the brake forever.”

“We’ll be fine,” I chanted. “Just fine. I know we’ll be fine.” If his eyes hadn’t been glued to the road he would have glared at me.

“What do those purple signs say?” He asked. I glanced at the circular sign he was referring too. “Adopt a highway. In memory of John Smith.”

“I bet he died out here.”

“Don’t be silly. No one ever dies out here,” I lied.

I bet the tow trucks get a lot of business out here

We saw a slimy Motel 6 after 40 miles and considered stopping for the night. However, we didn’t want to sleep on top of the covers. Finally, we got to exit 203.

“Yes! We’re here,” my brother rejoiced.

“And now it’s only 10 miles south to Breckenridge!” I told him.

There was silence.

“Sorry, I didn’t have the heart to tell you earlier.”

This was not even the scariest sign we saw

We continued south, into the cold, desolate tundra and through a roundabout. My brother unclenched his teeth for a moment to ask, “Why the hell do they have roundabouts out here?”

“Because you don’t ever want to stop in this snow,” I replied.

“Oh. That actually makes sense,” he agreed as we maintained out momentum around the circle.

We sojourned onwards, into the quaint little town of Breckenridge, nestled between the scary mountains of death.

“This had better be the quaintest town in America,” I mumbled. We passed a steak and rib joint and my brother said, “We are sooooo having steak tonight. Where do we turn?”

I looked at the map and replied, “We turn right at S. Park Avenue.” Jim erupted in giddy laughter. “Ha! South Park Avenue.” I looked at him, wondering if delirium had finally set in. Then I got it. “Oh! Ha! South Park! Like the TV show!” And then I started laughing. And Jim was laughing. And we were both laughing far harder than the joke deserved. We giggled uncontrollably as we rolled slowly down the street, happy for a momentary release from the stress of the past hour and a half.

Finally, we found our hotel, figured out how to access the underground parking garage and collapsed in our room.

“Do you have ibuprofen? I have a horrible stress headache,” my brother asked.

“No, but I think there is aspirin in the vending machine.” I said.

“In Indiana, if you slip off the road, at worst you flip your car over or run into a retention pond. If we’d slipped off the road here – game over.”

“I know,” I said. “I had no idea it would be so bad.” I paused for a moment. “Screw the oatmeal festival,” I said. “I love oatmeal, but it’s just not worth risking my life for.”

“That’s fine with me,” Jim said.

So, that is why I blew off the Quaker Oatmeal Festival. I called and made my apologies and sent further regrets via email. I offered to cover the event in some other way, but the organizers and the PR lady said that wasn’t necessary and were very polite and understanding about my non-attendance. However, I’m fairly certain I won’t be invited to any more oatmeal-related events in the future. That’s understandable since they went to a lot of trouble to send me out there to attend the festival.

I feel very badly for not being able to attend and have spent many hours feeling guilty and stressed about how events played out, wishing I’d had the foresight to ask to stay in Denver or request a driver to the festival. However, I handled the situation as best as I was able and I do not regret my decision. If that puts me on the Quaker Oatmeal shit list for the rest of my life, so be it. I would rather be alive and hated than dead. I am also certain that whenever I pass Larry, the Quaker Oats man, on a cylinder of oatmeal in the grocery store, I will see his accusing glare and shiver slightly with fear at the memory of that awful journey.

I love the informal yet foreboding tone of this sign

The drive back to Denver on Monday morning was both better and worse. Better because it was daylight and we could see. Worse because we could only see 20 feet. It was snowing and the wind was gusting. At least this time we knew what to expect, but the daylight made it easier to see the motorists stranded on the side of the road and to read even more scary signs like, “Don’t be fooled! 4 more miles of steep grade and sharp turns ahead” and “Emergency truck ramp” and “If your brakes fail, stay on I-70, do not exit.” I was fully expecting to see a sign that read, “Do not enter unless your last will and testament is in order.”

Truckers are smart. Don't underestimate them.

We drove on for miles with the defrost turned up so high all the other windows were fogged up. We wiped off the moisture with our hats. Finally we reached Denver, where the highways were plowed and the snow had stopped reigning down and we squealed with joy. We saw the truckers lined up on the side of the road, waiting for the snow to stop before entering the mountains, and hailed them for their wisdom. After we arrived in Indianapolis, we got back on I-70 to drive home, only this time we could see the pavement. We turned on the radio.

“A snow advisory is in effect…” I held my breath. “We’re expecting 1-2 inches in the metro area tomorrow.”

We erupted in laughter. “1-2 inches of snow. OH MY GOD!” Jim said. “How will we cope?”

Then we turned the radio off and drove home at 65mph.

Chocolate & Vicodin: My Quest for Relief from the Headache that Wouldn't Go Away
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40 Comments

Laura • January 14, 2009 at 8:13 am

Wow, I’m just really glad you’re okay! I’m from upstate New York, so we’ve gotten some nasty storms, but most of the places I go don’t have crazy mountains to contend with.

I have a question for you about South Beach – basically I woke up this morning with the flu, and am trying to figure out what to eat that won’t make me throw up OR break the diet. Or maybe I should just eat toast for one day? I’m just reluctant because I’m still in the two week induction so I feel like I’d have to start over if I cheated now. Did you ever get sick on it?

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Amy • January 14, 2009 at 8:24 am

Dude, whenever there’s snow here there are trailer trucks parked up and down our hill (and the next hill, and the next one). There are more bored truckers in my neighborhood on a snow day than there are neighbors. Meanwhile, me and my maxima drive right by. Maybe I’d be more worried if I had more wheels. Anyway, it’s a skill to drive in the snow and keep your calm, good work.

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Deb • January 14, 2009 at 8:40 am

Wow. You just described my worst nightmare — driving in the dark on slippery, curving roads. So glad you made it. I bet you would have even blown off a chocolate festival under those conditions! Ha ha. Have a good day. Feel well.

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Helen • January 14, 2009 at 9:34 am

I wish I could put the little emoticon with the bug eyes here because that’s how I feel right now.

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Lana • January 14, 2009 at 9:56 am

Being a Coloradoan myself, I must say that you’ve passed our initiation right. You and your brother did admirably–the key is not to panic, and to just keep moving. At least they didn’t close the road on you–I’ve had them close it behind me…and then close it in front of me. Nothing to do but sit and wait it out with the truckers.

But I must say, winter and skiing = snow and mountain roads. Please come back and visit us in the summer when the mountains are a wonderful retreat from the hotness of summer on the plains.

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Ellen G. • January 14, 2009 at 10:01 am

It’s not funny, but traveling to Indianapolis as much as I do, it’s hysterical to think about 2 people from the flatlands NOT realizing that there are elevations and driving into a moutain pass in a snowstorm.

Glad you are ok!

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ann • January 14, 2009 at 10:02 am

I-70 is the most terrifying highway in the winter. I have family that lives on each end of it. I’ve sworn off driving it except in the summer months. even in may it can be dicey sometimes.

glad you made it out alive!

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Alexia • January 14, 2009 at 10:07 am

I’m surprised you don’t have a pic of the “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here” sign. ;-)

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psychsarah • January 14, 2009 at 10:14 am

Kudos on making it through that tenuous situation! I was on the edge of my seat throughout the post, then I realized that if anything truly terrible happened, you wouldn’t be blogging! Silly me. I’ve driven through some pretty nasty weather in my day (I used to live in Northwestern Ontario-about 6 hours North of Minneapolis- where the highways are scary even in good weather) but I must tip my hat to your bravery and nerves of steel! I also love oatmeal, but it certainly isn’t worth risking your neck over!

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Sheila • January 14, 2009 at 10:34 am

Congratulations on experiencing the real Colorado, not the Disneyland version! But please, please come back. We love you more than ever, even if the oatmeal people don’t!

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Shelley • January 14, 2009 at 10:36 am

Holy moly! I.could.never. Well done, PQ!

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JJ • January 14, 2009 at 10:40 am

I agree with Lana! Spring and early summer are the most beautiful times here iin Colorado with no scary mountain passes, although you and your brother did excellent.

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L • January 14, 2009 at 10:54 am

It’s their own fault for holding a festival in the mountains in the middle of winter. I was getting tense just reading this, I’m sure larry understands.

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Beth Moore • January 14, 2009 at 11:33 am

Aww, I’m a Colorado native and am sorry that you got to see the worst Colorado has to offer. It has been quite a winter in the mountains this year! Glad you made it out alive, and I agree with the other posters, please do come in the summertime when you can enjoy the splendor of the mountains without fear. (Except for the lightening and fire danger….but still….)

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debby • January 14, 2009 at 11:34 am

O. M. G. My head hurts just thinking about that drive. And I wonder that the quaker oats people who arranged for you to get out there didn’t think to arrange for you to stay in Denver or the town where they were having their festival? You shouldn’t feel guilty that they were guilty of poor planning!

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Anne (Happy Fun Pants) • January 14, 2009 at 12:31 pm

I have lived in Denver for almost 6 years and I STILL don’t drive at night to the mountains in the wintertime. BECAUSE IT FREAKS ME OUT. However, there are other people who drive like crazy on those twists and turns in the dark and while it’s snowing and do fine. I’m just glad I’m not in their car. Because I would have to have a plastic cover on my seat for the continuous peeing that would be going on. Those who think that she might be making up the signs, please know she is not. They have plenty that start out with “Don’t be fooled” – it’s like the Ghosts of Truckers past are warning of the death trap you are currently driving through.

And the weather on Monday morning SUCKED for all of us in Denver metro – it’s like we weren’t prepared for the 7 inches that fell Sunday night. So I’m glad that you got to Denver after the sun had come out. Because at 7 AM we were pretty much in blizzard situations.

Anyway, I’m glad you got back safe and sound and didn’t have altitude sickness on your trip. Because that can cause one mother of a headache – and you really didn’t need any more of that crap.

Thanks for the laugh though!

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DonnaLynn • January 14, 2009 at 12:43 pm

Ug. Living in Hawaii I frequently miss having seasons. With your other post I found myself mourning the fact that it looks like we’re not getting stationed in Colorado after all when he comes back. Now, I’m not mourning it nearly as much.

If you ever have to go through that again, might I suggest a CB?

I had to drive through blowing snow in Wyoming in a very small car with my kids, and that CB came in handy. Truckers surrounded us and made the drive much easier. I’ll always be thankful for their kindness. When I first heard on the radio, “Blowing snow”, I thought to myself, “Big deal, I’ve driven through worse.” No, I hadn’t. And it *was* a big deal.

Good job making it through there.

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Andrew is getting fit • January 14, 2009 at 1:01 pm

That sounds really scary actually.

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Courtney • January 14, 2009 at 1:05 pm

That looks like a normal weekend for the Colorado skiers ;) I live in Colorado Springs, and often take 1-70. At least you didn’t end up in a traffic jam in the snow! I’ve had that happen, when it took me 6 hours to go what usually takes 30 min! But yes, come back! In the summer, I bike up those mountain passes and its wonderful!

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deanna • January 14, 2009 at 1:29 pm

Holy Shit Batman! What an adventure, glad you survived, and I agree no amount of oatmeal is worth your life…screw that little man on the container!

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kellie • January 14, 2009 at 2:17 pm

I think it’s insane that they scheduled the event there in JANUARY. Hello!? That’s crazy. I’m sure you weren’t the only very frustrated person. Why not wait until spring? Or summer…or fall? Why do it in the one time of year that involves risking your life?

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victoria • January 14, 2009 at 2:36 pm

Oh god, there is nothing more terrifying than driving in the mountains, in heavy snow, terrified for your life. You DID have chains on, right?

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Stacy • January 14, 2009 at 2:46 pm

Glad you came out to Colorado, but sorry about the roads! Another Colorado Springs resident here (Hello, other Colorado People!), and they’re all telling the truth – driving through the mountains in the summer is much better.

More importantly, though, how did you like skiing?

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cranberry • January 14, 2009 at 3:02 pm

Oh, is the Quaker Oats guy named Larry? LOL Thanks, I didn’t know that.

Sorry you had to miss the oatfest, but I don’t blame you- what a nightmare!

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Lyssa Ireland Thomas • January 14, 2009 at 3:16 pm

Yup, I’ve done that trip to Breckenridge in the winter and almost crapped my trousers. You were smart to forego the Oatmeal Fest.

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MizFit • January 14, 2009 at 4:02 pm

wow.

who knew Id be glad not to win?

(ok I didnt enter but whatevs….)

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AquaMarine • January 14, 2009 at 5:24 pm

Don’t feel too bad. They really shouldn’t have planned an Oatmeal Festival in Colorado in JANUARY!!!!! It’s like having a festival in Florida in August in the KEYS! Can you say “Hello hurricane conveyor belt?”

Glad you made it back home safely!

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Melody • January 14, 2009 at 6:15 pm

I’m so glad you made it safely home, but sorry you missed the shindig. You shouldn’t feel bad at all. The Quaker people should be happy that you didn’t make it. I mean, you are, after all, a supreme oatmeal concoction creator and, if your car was lying in some gully covered with snow, your skill would be lost to the world!

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liz • January 14, 2009 at 6:19 pm

First of all thanks for enlighting me to the URL thing…I know I’m giving away how computer illiterate I am..but oh well.

Your oredeal sounds so scary! I had something similar happen when my husband and I took our girls sking one year. It was 5 years ago and I’ still not over it!

Glad you are survived…I need this website!

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liz • January 14, 2009 at 6:31 pm

by the way, I can spell…I just saw that …

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GP • January 14, 2009 at 7:22 pm

yikes.. i feel your pain.. when we were making the “commute” from caif to montana while our inn was being built… we had adventures like that too.. the ol’ vulcan death grip on the steering wheel :)

stay safe

gp in mt.

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Sara • January 14, 2009 at 7:45 pm

I can’t believe you wouldn’t turn around and brave another wrestling match with imminent death for the promise of nearly unlimited oatmeal toppings.

You seriously need to reevaluate your priorities.

;)

I loathe driving in the snow and ice, and it sometimes gives me palpitations on the flattest plains of Nebraska. Shouldn’t you and your brother at least get an “I survived the scary drive” t-shirt or something?

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biff_wellington • January 15, 2009 at 1:46 am

so…I’m glad you are back safe, it can be scary driving on the roads. But, I have a question just because I’m curious. So did the oat festival send you on this trip? Or was it a trip you had arranged already and then decided not to attend festival?

Did they make the arrangements? Cause breckenridge is a ways out there, especially if the festival was half the distance…the strange arrangements are confusing me, but its late, so it may just be my feeble mind.

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K • January 15, 2009 at 6:23 am

I bet the oatmeal festival wouldn’t have made as good a post!

Seriously, this is a story to tell your children, should you have any. I don’t blame you for deciding not to drive in the snowy wastes. This summer I was a passenger in a car over mountain roads when it was merely raining, and that was nervewracking enough!

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Julia • January 15, 2009 at 7:40 am

I’m not understanding why if the big Oatmeal festival was only a half hour drive from Denver, you guys were heading in a complete opposite direction? Did the organization set you up there?

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Chelsea • January 15, 2009 at 5:34 pm

that’s what it looks like when you drive across the mtns in the winter, silly!

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Julie • January 15, 2009 at 6:51 pm

Wow that looks stressful!

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John's Weight Loss Blog • January 15, 2009 at 9:49 pm

I’ve done that run at night in freezing rain with my whole family in a minivan. Lost at least a year of my life.

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PurpleGirl • January 17, 2009 at 5:05 am

Oh, I-70. It’s the most fun you can have with your pants on. :)

Just an FYI for the people wondering why it was scheduled for winter in Colorado–we have more than mountains here. :) It’s been a very mild winter down here on the plains, and we actually get most of our snow from March through May. PQ was heading in the opposite direction of the festival, up to a ski resort town; if she’d stuck to the plains she wouldn’t have had the joy of experiencing I-70′s soul-chilling terror. :)

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Laura Brandon • January 19, 2009 at 6:59 pm

with all due respect, how could you plan to drive from denver into breckenridge, and not realize there would be mountains? hello, they’re the rocky’s! although i guess i can’t fault you too much, you are from the midwest.

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Jennette Fulda tells stories to the Internet about her life as a smartass, writer, weight-loss inspiration, chronic headache sufferer, and overall nice person (who is silently judging you). She does this at JenFul now, but you can still have fun perusing her past here.

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