Killer commutes in the rural West

 

Every day a clot of drivers moving at high speed takes on the Gallatin Canyon between Bozeman and Big Sky, Mont. It is the second-busiest commuting corridor in the state, and the most dangerous. Between 5,500 and 7,500 drivers navigate the perilous gantlet of highway 191 on a daily basis, on their way to work at construction sites, to Yellowstone National Park, to the ski resort or back and forth to school. For these thousands of drivers and their passengers, it may be the most dangerous thing they ever do, and yet they take it on routinely enough that it becomes mundane.

For all of us, unless we live in an active war zone, driving is statistically chancier than anything else in our lives. We may fixate on terrorists and nasty encounters with bears or mountain lions, but for true fear and loathing, nothing trumps time behind the wheel. And in my neighborhood, no roadway trumps 191 through the Gallatin Canyon.

Driving conditions there are a mortal confluence of bad weather, a narrow, winding roadway, antsy motorists, concentrations of wandering wildlife and semi-trailer truck traffic. Locals aptly refer to it as the Luge Run. Since 1996 there have been 21 deaths and 374 injuries along this one stretch of road, and counting. White crosses bloom on every curve. In a recent, and typical, three-year period there were 367 reported collisions between vehicles and wildlife. Who knows how many more went unreported?

Temperatures in the canyon can vacillate 50 degrees between night and day, so that deadly ice patches linger on shaded curves. Ninety inches of snow fall over a normal winter, with winter extending into June. Whiteout blizzards, glare ice and fog are standard fare. Elk, moose, deer, bighorn sheep, mountain lion, coyote, bear, and the occasional wolf cross the highway.

The pavement closely parallels the curves of the river. Guardrails are sporadic. When motorists lose control, it’s about a 50-50 proposition whether they’ll end up in the icy, rapid-filled drink. Just to complicate matters, truckers succumb to the temptation of this highway shortcut, so that on an average day, several hundred semis traverse the canyon, hurtling along with their gargantuan inertia, and far too often becoming involved in horrific accidents. Add to this the construction boom in Big Sky, and you get a daily rush hour of pickup trucks, skiers, truckers and miscellaneous travelers, most of them in a hurry, but some meandering along and sightseeing. Drivers pass on blind curves, tailgate and generally proceed as if this old stage road were an interstate.

Highway 191 is a regular topic of legislative conversation, with “Something must be done” a constant refrain. Fact is, however, that given the circumstances, only so much can be done. You can mess with speed limits, add pullouts and encourage enforcement, but as long as people in these numbers, and under these circumstances, travel regularly up and down the canyon, it will remain a form of highway roulette. As everyone knows, if you play roulette long enough, you’re certain to lose.

I’d like to think that my neighborhood highway nightmare is an anomaly, a Montana-based vortex of tragedy. Not so. Every state in the West has its version of the same syndrome. Different circumstances, same result. Consider these notably-gnarly highway commutes from around the region:

*Highway 22 between Driggs, Idaho and Jackson Hole, Wyo., over 8,429-foot Teton Pass, regularly driven by service-sector workers who can’t afford Jackson’s real estate prices. Overnight survival gear is standard equipment. Avalanches are frequent.

*California’s highway 17 between Santa Cruz and Silicon Valley. The mountainous stretch is only 20 miles long, but the “rush” can last three hours. Locals refer to it as Valley Surprise in honor of all the motorists who end up in the median.

*Colorado’s high-elevation commute on highway 550 between Durango and Silverton. In 47 miles you cross both Molas (10,910 feet) and Coal Bank (10,640 feet) passes. Nice views, but at what price?

*For high-volume intensity, there’s Oregon’s “Terwilliger Curves,” a portion of I-5 south of Portland featuring jostling triple-trailer trucks, poorly banked curves and frequent deluges of rain that kick surf up over windshields.

*Finally, though I could list even more Western commutes you’d rather avoid, there’s one from the Far North -- the section of Seward Highway between Anchorage and Girdwood, renowned for avalanche intensity. Storms have been known to let loose as many as a dozen slides along a 40-mile stretch. This sometimes closes the road for a week, and the only way out for trapped motorists? A helicoper.

Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a writer in Bozeman, Montana.
High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...
  • EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Position Description: The Education Director is the primary leader of Colorado Canyons Association's (CCA) education programs for students and adults on the land and rivers...
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...