Truckers or skiers, take your pick
Any conversation about the West’s dangerous interstate highways might explore why more truckers don’t use I-90 or I-70, instead of Wyoming’s infamous I-80, which stretches across the southern part of the state.
Given Interstate 80’s high altitude and snow-prone disposition, plus forecasts that traffic will increase to over 14,000 vehicles a day, everyone should be concerned about the safety of this highway. Now, a Wyoming legislative panel is concerned and looking for ways to finance what are certain to be enormously expensive improvements.
Meanwhile, I-80 traffic boasts more than 60 percent truck-traffic, or 6,000 semi-trailer trucks a day, and thanks to its route through the mountains, you can drive it through snow almost any month of the year. It is also no secret that a certain number of the truckers next to you are probably high on drugs, behind schedule, and willing to take a few risks.
Other drivers to fear are flatlanders who have no idea how to handle Wyoming’s steep grades, high winds and black ice. Combine these amateur drivers with fast-moving trucks maneuvering through a ground blizzard, and you’ve got lots of fodder for nightmares. I’ve driven large vehicles for years and have a policy never to drive any vehicle but one with size when traveling I-80 in any season. You want as much iron wrapped around you as possible; those in a small car have little chance in a collision with these behemoths.
I have long thought there’s a cheaper solution -- Interstate 90, which drops into Wyoming at Sheridan and exits east of Gillette. This road is fun to drive, scenic, and compared to I-80, virtually truckless. But it’s out of the way for most California-to-Chicago traffic. Another is I-70, but despite living in the West for almost 40 years, a hurried trip last March was my first experience with this road west of Denver. It can boast of quintessentially Western hazards: runaway truck ramps, four tunnel systems, mountain passes higher than 11,000 feet, and thousands of skiers zinging along in tiny cars. What’s more: Roadways so narrow through canyons that they seem more like bridges. I-70 is nothing less than a scenic marvel, though you have to wonder how Colorado’s congressional delegation ever got the road built. There’s no doubt it cost billions. It is easy to understand why a trucker would avoid that road like the plague.
Our journey started on a Friday afternoon but soon halted in a traffic jam in downtown Denver, thanks to I-70 entrances and exits. This was certainly not the experience a trucker would get zipping through Rock Springs or Cheyenne on I-80. But in Denver, we crawled along at five miles per hour from I-225 in the eastern part of the city, until we headed up the hill toward Evergreen. Unpleasant is too kind a word to describe the experience as this stretch of highway sometimes gets 100,000 vehicles per day, dwarfing the numbers for I-80.
Although the forecast was for dry roads, it snowed and sleeted on us as we headed into the mountains. The highway took us past major ski areas like Breckenridge and Vail, and everybody but us probably knew not to be there on a Friday during spring break on one of the last weekends of ski season. It was a mess: mind-boggling, bumper-to-bumper traffic.
So while it is easy to complain about 8,000 semi-trailer trucks, it is just as easy to complain about 50,000 Subarus going in all directions while loaded down with skis, bicycles or both. Once we got past Vail, traffic diminished, and then we had the pleasure of driving through the amazing Glenwood Canyon. It resembles a highway on stilts, with one lane seeming to sit on top of another. A blizzard might make this highway a lot less than fun.
We spent the night in Grand Junction and then headed west across the Utah desert in good weather until I-70 ends, merging with I-15 about 60 miles north of Cedar City, Utah. I would love to travel that road again, but not in a hurry and never during ski season, and only when the weather is good. Otherwise, forget it; no wonder the truckers all head north to I-80.
Bill Sniffin is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a longtime journalist in Lander, Wyoming.