Last winter I drove the 45 miles from Cheyenne to Laramie (and back) about four days a week. This stretch includes I-80’s highest elevation: 8,640 feet above various shining seas.
I saw plenty of hairy conditions, but few days of really bad weather. Wind was the main consideration. It could sweep a few inches of new snow off the prairie and spread it across the interstate like a thick, slick layer of marzipan. Distinguishing between road and borrow ditch became full-time chore.
One day, however, I was made aware of the how quickly weather changes at high elevations. I left Cheyenne driving west amid dark clouds and modest winds, but no snow and dry roads. Good visibility, too. The wind turbines north of the interstate churned earnestly; antelope grazed in the shadow of pump jacks; all was well.
Then I noticed the traffic heading east towards Cheyenne was a lot heavier than the traffic going west. I shrugged it off. But I did note tiny crystals floating past my car. Then, in a short period of time, probably less than a minute, a blinding cloud of flakes assaulted my windshield.
Where the hell did this come from? I fretted. The wind turbines vanished from sight. I had, in fact, about 50 feet of visibility. I turned on my lights. Snow swirled crazily around my beams like a rising mayfly hatch.
A series of taillights, all crawling along, came hazily into view. This turned into brake lights, solid brake lights, all in a row. The highway department had closed the road and was turning people around.
I called one of my students at University of Wyoming, a mere 30 miles away, asking him to send an e-mail to his class mates that I would be unable to teach that day. “Oh, don’t worry,” he said. “We figured you wouldn’t make it. There’s six inches on the ground and it’s coming in sideways. We’ll see you on Friday.”