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.
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