03 April 2010

A Reader's Guide to Rock Springs

In January of 2006, I was invited to present my educational research at a conference in the romantic Rock Springs. I had mixed feelings about this. For one thing, giving a presentation requires a modest amount of preparation on my part, and preparing a lecture makes me squirm like a five-year-old with a plate full of overcooked lima beans to eat before bed. But I thought it was a good way to make nice to my employer, so it was settled. I was going to Rock Springs, Wyoming. In January.

I packed up my 1997 Saturn and headed on my apprehensive way. The weather was fair in Greeley,Colorado, but I have long known that the weather in Wyoming can transport one into a different realm, a realm in which you really wonder whether or not you should have updated your will before leaving the house. "Does my husband know which cat food to buy if I'm not there?" "Do my parents know I love them?" These are the kinds of questions that often run through my mind as I approach Cheyenne.

The weather actually remained fair all the way to Laramie, where I managed the first mountain pass without incident. I was mentally high-fiving myself for my great luck when WHAMMO!--I ran into a thick wall of snow. Now, I've driven in my share of white-outs, but this was really the most dramatic loss of visibility I have ever suffered. I even lost sight of the big, heavily lit back end of the semi truck I had just been tailgating. I considered pulling over, but had no idea where to park. Instead, because I didn't feel I had a choice and because I am stubborn, I had to tap into a new set of senses to make my way through the blanket of white fuzz.

For two hours, I drove mainly by feel and sound, searching for the rumble strips they put in every few feet on the shoulder of the road. I knew it was wrong, but the vibrations were reassuringly familiar, and I figured it was the only proof I had that I was still on the road, albeit the area on which I was never meant to drive. Thankfully, the road almost never curved, but when it did, I could tell only by the fact that I had to turn the wheel to stay on the rumble strips. As you can imagine, I had to go something like 25 mph to pull this off. And for some illogical reason, I sat bolt upright in my seat, leaning forward and craning my neck over the steering wheel, as if somehow I'd be able to see through the solid mass of snow if only I wasn't so near-sighted. It was exhausting.

Miraculously, this weather all seemed to come to a rather sudden end just as I reached the outskirts of my destination. I was starting to wonder how I would know where to get off the highway, and there it was, the otherworldly clearing up ahead: Rock Springs, Wyoming. It is possible that no one in the history of the world has ever been, or will ever be, as happy to reach Rock Springs, Wyoming as I was that afternoon. I had originally planned to go straight to the conference upon my arrival, but after that drive, I decided the only thing to do was check in to my room, find the nearest liquor store, and drink heavily while enjoying VH-1 tributes to rich people and the 80s. This, I believe, is a more typical reaction upon reaching Rock Springs, Wyoming.

Rock Springs is located near some pretty important sources of oil, and many of my adopted neighbors at the EconoLodge I would call home were renting their rooms by the week, working in the oil fields all day in Rock Springs until whatever they did there was finished, then moving on, like nomads, to the next ecological nightmare. They were rough dudes, and I would be lying if I said I didn't feel a little awkward around them in the motel lobby, where they were sucking down the free coffee like it was their lifeblood.

But the morning I planned to drive home (I totally killed at my presentation--all 12 people clapped), I needed those rough dudes. It was -30 F. My car would not start. Logically, I knew that I just needed to wait until things warmed up a bit, but I was ready to get home, and I experienced a mild sense of panic at the thought of being stranded in Rock Springs for any portion of the day. I called the roadside assistance service that comes with my cell phone plan, but I couldn't make them understand where I was. So, not many people vacation here in Rock Springs, then?

I went into the lobby of the EconoLodge, chocked full of oil rig workers filling up on free breakfast before their grueling days, and I asked at the desk for help jumping my car. I stupidly had no cables, and apparently, neither did anyone who worked there. Ugh. I stood in the middle of the room in a daze, my slightly frozen brain struggling to make sense of the situation. Just then, a particularly gnarly looking gentleman approached me and said something. I couldn't really understand him, what with the mouthful of banana-walnut muffin, so our conversation was peppered with many "what?"s on my end.

Eventually I found myself bringing him and his friends to my car to look at the sad spectacle. Before I knew it they had pulled their truck around and gotten out industrial-size cables to attach to my engine. It took ten solid minutes for them to get my car started, by which time I had developed a full-body shake in the cold (they seemed completely unaffected by it), and I thanked them so profusely that I think I made them uncomfortable.

When my car, cranky and rather inconvenienced by the whole experience, finally started, I floored it and never looked back. That was the end of the weather-related incidents--although it was cold, and for many miles my car couldn't reach speeds higher than 35mph, there was no snow the entire day. I saw the scenery I had missed two days earlier, and it was flat and brown. I do not think I will attend another conference in Rock Springs in January. But I am now a big fan of the oil rig workers.