Chains of Love
The Donner Party, those westbound settlers who were looking for gold to pan and ended up as each other's dinner, was a contingent cut in half by the towering gateway that separates two areas that came to be Nevada and California. Donner Pass is named for the group that was 87 strong on the east side of the mountains in the summer of 1846, and only 48 when survivors emerged the next spring. A 7,840-foot mountain
can be cruel like that.
One hundred and sixty-one winters later, a college basketball reporter zoomed up that oversized hill, ears popping to the rhythm of a rock and roll song on the radio. He -- I mean I -- had rented a gold-colored Kia Rio at San Jose International Airport earlier that day, and after a three-hour stop at a UC-Davis game, took to the mountains. Late one clear and cold Thursday night in January of 2008, I pulled over at a mountainside rest area, kept the engine running for heat, and dreamed high country dreams.***
Nevada is part glitter and part gulch, and battle born for sure. Nevada is a grey Cutlass Siera, its bumper unlatched and dragging, sparking its way across a deserted highway. Nevada is a ranch sold out of its beef for the sixth straight year. Nevada is a college president in a floppy prospector's hat, and it's not making fun. Nevada is the most beautiful Wal-Mart you've ever seen, set off by a snow-covered mountain in repose.
Nevada is also a place with the most unsanitary, dirty, unsafe truck stops I've ever been. I have limits to what I'll undergo, so I pulled a Hotwire hotel for my long weekend in the Silver State. Because you can only pick the general proximity of a chosen lodging place, I was positioned a half-hour away from Reno, in Carson City.
I've been to Nevada plenty of times, but never to the state capital before. To me, Carson City was always the place where Senator Pat Geary was found with a dead teenage prostitute, an event that kept him from double-crossing the "Corlionn" family. The motel I was assigned was a humble little place, good enough for 26 dollars a night, and it had suitable free WiFi for me to do my job.
Across from the low-slung motel, though, was a glittering and gleaming casino-hotel, sparkling lights bouncing against the snowmelt-slicked street in the late afternoon haze. I walked in to check the place out several hours after I arrived, and it was like every shady casino in the state, security guards every 10 feet, windows blacked out. In the far corner, behind the penny slots there was a bank of television sets around the sportsbook operation.
Sports gambling is, of course, a very legal thing in Nevada. I walked over and checked the board out of curiosity -- it was a Friday, which meant a day off for me and a light night on the college hoops pages of the book. Friday night means Metro Atlantic night, and a line caught my eye... Fairfield -4 at Iona.
Later on that afternoon, I went to that beautiful Wal-Mart to pick up some supplies. While walking the aisles, it kept going through my mind... that's not right. Four points? On the road? Iona scores well at home, I thought. That's a bad line, it had to be.
An hour later, I stood in line at the post office, mailing a box full of media guides from my southern swing that I had to haul in my suitcase from Raleigh to San Jose. What were they thinking, it's still last year and Iona has a 2-28 record? The Gaels, good shooters, I thought as I affixed the "media mail" sticker to the box to save ten bucks on shipping. Fairfield's defense, suspect. Four points... it's not right.
And then I broke down. Once back at the motel, I raced across the street, and put an undisclosed amount of cash down on Iona with the points. I couldn't help it, I had to. I was betting on people I knew, against people I knew, and it felt the kind of wrong-right that is in equal measure thrilling and gutwrenchingly dirty.
By 7 p.m. Pacific time, I had my answer, and my winning ticket. Iona had shot the lights out and ripped apart the visiting Fairfield Stags, 67-52. I went across the street to collect, and the cashier behind the glass and iron bars laid out the bills slowly, one by one, underneath the bulletproof partition. My heart sank, my very soul was behind those bars. I felt like the clip photo in those NCAA posters in every single athletic office, the one with the guy hanging his head on the cover of a fake newspaper with the headline, "University Athlete Busted for Betting." That was me there, the sportswriter who had for a brief moment lost his innocence.
I had used my knowledge for evil.
And I knew exactly what to do next. I fed the bills into a slot machine, one at a time. It was a Sopranos
slot machine, and it had to be from Season 5 because getting three Steve Buscemis in a row earned you a bunch of credits. I rode the undulating wave that every slot player goes through -- down a bit, up a little, down a whole bunch, up just enough to get your hopes up, then bust. I gave my Iona blood money back to the Sopranos
, every cent of it. Over the course of the next ten minutes, it was all gone.***
On a Monday morning that broke to reveal an robin's egg sky, I set out again, back into California over Donner Pass. My business at the University of Nevada was finalized, and I was headed to Saint Mary's College -- a 240-mile journey. Bea, the voice on my GPS-enabled phone, hopefully put the estimated drive time at four hours and three minutes.
But once over the California-Nevada border, rising again into the higher elevations, the skies became purple and ominous. Near Floriston, an overhead sign flashed: "Chain Control 8 miles, Tune To 1360 AM."
The scratchy voice on the radio was talking about lesser passes, routes 87 and 267, and didn't mention Interstate 80 at all. I was nervous, because economy cars rented in San Jose don't come with tire chains. I looked around me, and there were Corrollas, Camrys, Rav-4's, old Tercels without chains on their tires. Maybe I could get away with relying on my years of New England driving, and make it over the pass without extra help.
But eight miles later, I found out what "chain control" really meant. As the snow fell thicker and heavier, there was an orange-jumpsuited Caltrans worker waving cars through and stopping others. I edged closer to the checkpoint, gripping the steering wheel, hoping I would be allowed to continue. I didn't have chains, I'd never used chains, I didn't know what I'd do if I were kept in Nevada. I had a flight back to Rhode Island scheduled the next day. Plus, I had to return that damned Kia Rio.
The gloved palm came up. I rolled down my window. "Pull off at the exit," the man said sternly. "You can put your chains on at the cutout past the ramp."
All my blood drained to my ankles as I drove off the highway. I, like the Donner Party, was stuck in the Sierras, trapped by circumstances beyond my control. Eventualities flashed in my mind -- I'd miss the game, I'd miss my flight back home, and the thousands of dollars in fees for the late rental car would bankrupt me. I'd have to live in Nevada, stuck forever at a dirty Reno truck stop. Or maybe I could work for a casino for a living, or give out advice to sports gamblers... you know, like a mid-major Jim Feist. If all else failed, I could stock shelves at that awe-inspiring Wal-Mart in Carson City.
Bea ended my panic, finding me an auto parts store there off the Truckee exit -- an Advance outlet. It was half a mile from I-80, and upon entering, I could tell that they had built quite a business on the backs of people like me. All the tire chains were prominently displayed out front, along with a helpful salesperson who would match up your vehicle to the right size.
The store was, all too conveniently, sold out of the economy version. Turns out that the cheapest available option for 14-inch tires was the "premium" package for $55, shiny brass that may or may not have served an actual purpose other than providing "bling" for a product that was designed to be used in dirty, slushy conditions.
Despite growing up on the East Coast, with no mountains, it turned out that one of the few things I'm naturally good at is putting chains on tires. Dig one end of the ladder-like lattices behind the front tires, spread them out behind, get in the car, go in reverse a few feet, get out, then fasten the ends. I admired the simple yet effective and efficient double-bind locking system. And I was somehow able to do it all without mussing up my Arrow shirt or my hair.
Clawing up a 7,000-foot peak in a Kia Rio equipped with tire chains is about as badass as you can get in an $12,000 car. It's like being in a really cheap army tank. It's a little odd when you get to the spots with no snow, because driving on bare pavement with chains over 30 m.p.h. produces a level of vibration that you can't believe.
That, however, is nothing compared to the metaphorical ass-buzz of the service available on each side of the mountain. For $30 (on) or $15 (off), men in yellow jumpsuits will attach and remove your chains. There are prominently placed signs that make it abundantly clear that these are not CalTrans employees, that they are operating on their own. If they aren't kicking back to the state in some way, $45 per five minutes of work is the best fence-scam since slot machines. Maybe if I had known about that before I put the chains on, maybe I would have been more likely and willing to stay there in Truckee, California, putting people's chains on their cars for a living.
But it was time to return home, after all. After the Saint Mary's game -- it took a total of eight hours to make Moraga -- and a night in a church parking lot near San Jose airport, I returned that battle-tested Kia Rio. As I sorted through the truck, I gazed at those shiny chains. I couldn't leave the chains behind, I paid $55 for them.
I texted my wife. "what size r the tires on the car?"
The reply came quickly. "14 i think."
"i got a present," went the return message.
At the Southwest ticket counter, I threw out enough media guides and papers to stay within the 25-lb. limit for baggage, stashing the pleather carrying case in my orange-wheeled suitcase. It wasn't enough, though, and I was socked with the $25 fee for excess baggage weight. I didn't mind, it was totally worth it.
Seven hours later, my wife picked me up from Providence airport and I showed her the expensive new auto accessory.
"These will be great for the next big snowstorm, don't you think?" I exclaimed. "Ever use chains before? No? It's such a badass feeling... like driving a tank! Imagine plowing through ! And look, they're gold!"
She paused for several seconds, her mouth twisted in a knot.
"Chains are illegal in Rhode Island," she finally said.