I barely saw the brake lights ahead of me go bright red before I started sliding sideways at 40 mph down the ice-covered highway.
For the past couple of years, I’ve had my own secret escape from the complexity — and sometimes drudgery — of the Thanksgiving holiday.
I simply pack up the SCM Defender 90 turbo diesel and head to Timberline Lodge.
Just 62 miles away from Portland at the 6,000-foot level of Mount Hood, Timberline opened in 1937. It stands as a monument to the craftsman and artisans who built it in the midst of the Great Depression.
My grandfather, a woodworker himself, brought me to Timberline when I was 8 years old. I recall the trip in his 1956 Mercury Montclair, in bright yellow with black bumble-bee accents.
He loved that car, and I recall how much he enjoyed driving up the coast from San Francisco to Oregon.
Freeways were rare then, and we spent most of the time on two-lane roads. We stayed at non-chain motels. So long as there was a pool, I was happy.
My 11-year-old son Bradley had never been to Timberline, so I made reservations for us to have dinner there and spend two nights.
I asked if he would rather take the D90 or the Suburban, and he didn’t hesitate an instant before saying, “The Defender of course!”
Our D90 is quite scruffy, with dents in every panel. It’s a total bitsa that we brought over from England where it had participated in off-road competitions, including the Warn Challenge.
Over the period of a few years, Doug Shipman of Ship’s Mechanicals went though it and made it mechanically top-notch. At the same time, he made me promise never to take the dents out, or paint it — or do any of the other things I typically do to my cars.
He installed an onboard ARB compressor and rear locker, along with a Super Winch. It has a lift kit and a variety of suspension enhancements. Bradley’s favorite accessory it the rear-mounted ladder that lets him clamber onto the roof rack.
Preparation for the trip was simple. Check the tire pressures, refill the reservoir for the leaking power steering pump (it’s $1,000 to replace it and power steering fluid is cheap), and make sure we had the right recovery gear in the back.
Bradley was delighted with the lodge. We got a foot of new snow the first night, and for a kid, what could be better than throwing snowballs at your dad?
The dinner was excellent, as it should have been for the price. The rooms are on the small side — but in keeping with the authentic nature of the lodge. We even managed to brave the driving snowfall and plop ourselves into the hot tub. The snow banks came right to the edge of of the bubbling, steaming water.
After two days of bitter cold, the turbo-diesel fired up immediately for the trip home to Portland. We had installed a radiator muff, and closed it off completely. After awhile, the temperature gauge would begin to move and the cabin became tolerable. That said, wearing ski bibs, a jacket and ski gloves was a good idea.
The snow was hard-packed, and I locked the center differential for a little more traction. I left the tires — BF Goodrich Mud-Terrain 235/85 16 — at 34 pounds of pressure. If I had been worried about traction, I would have dropped them to 20 lbs or less.
We came through Government Camp on Highway 26, and ahead of me I saw the parking area for Lost Lake. Suddenly there were cars sliding in all directions. The highway has a sweeping, off-camber right turn. The sun hits it directly, and causes the snow to melt. And then it refreezes into ice. Slick, treacherous ice.
I saw the melee, immediately shifted into neutral and started pumping on the brakes (a human-directed form of anti-lock braking). The rear of the D90 started to come around. I put it into 3rd gear, steered into the skid and managed to get myself pointed down the hill.
While I was glad Bradley and I had four-point belts on, I was relieved I didn’t test them.
As I looked at the spinning and sliding cars, it appeared that if I moved to the left and got a couple of tires onto fresh snow, I had a chance of shooting through the chicane of rotating cars and coming out on the other side.
I was only going about 40 mph, but 40 mph has never seemed so fast when I knew that the slightest over-correction could start me careening towards a guardrail.
With inches to spare we got through. Bradley said, “Dad, did you mean to be sliding just then?”
How do you answer that one?
The rest of the trip was uneventful, and we were home in Portland before noon.
As I reflected on my close call, I thought about how primitive the D90 is, with no anti-lock, no traction control, no panel of “off-road condition” switches to tell the computer how to manage the suspension and brakes.
However, in the end I’m not sure all of the nanny-aids in the world would have made a difference. Ice is ice and when you start to slide, all you can do is nudge your rig in the right direction, try not to do anything stupid to make things worse, and hang on.