As Dangerous as Halsema

Sunday, January 10, 2010

i-Sagada Travel Photo1I lost count how many times I've traveled the Halsema highway that links Baguio City to Sagada. I do remember that I first started traveling this route in Grade 3, way back in 1984 when our whole family first spent our first Christmas and New Year in Baguio City with relatives in Loakan. During my high school and college days, I would travel through this highway at least 5 times a year when I would go home during the summer, semestral break and for the holidays.

The HALSEMA highway is a dangerous one - and on several occassions, it has been fatal to some travelers. I've lost an uncle - my mother's brother in an accident in the Halsema and some relatives as well. It is a route that features daunting curves. For several stretches, one side of the highway would be against a mountain side and for the other side, it would be a drop of several hundred feet. Still, I believe that the relatively few accidents in Halsema is a testament to the skill of Cordillera drivers.

It is fascinating watching the bus drivers navigate through the dangers during a trip. Now that I'm driving, I fully appreciate how they could guide the buses safely to their destinations - day in and day out. I remember how they seemingly handle the steering wheel with ease. These are big wheels - mind you, probably twice or more the circumference of your normal sedan steering wheel. And, unless they've upgraded, the buses do not use power steering.

I am reminded of the Halsema due to a recent a road trip. After midnight on January 2 this year, my family drove the 720+ miles from Maryland to our place in Illinois. We were supposed to leave January 2 evening, but due to the bad weather forecast for the weekend, I decided to pack-up and leave immediately. I was mostly concerned about ice on the highway in Pennsylvania and the lake effect snow in Indiana. As my wife did the packing and had no sleep, I was tasked to drive the first seven hours of the journey covering Maryland, Pennsylvania and into Ohio.

In Pennsylvania, the snow showers started for dozens of miles at a time. I was fine with it because the roads weren't slippery. I took extra caution though not driving the maximum speed, and always making sure that the vehicles ahead of me were traveling at normal speeds. I was on the lookout for vehicles that were slowing down as that would indicate trouble. We left Pennsylvania with no trouble except for the occasions when the snow was falling down hard.

As I drove into Ohio, the problems began. Snow was falling down hard and the highways were covered in an inch or so of snow. I couldn't see the yellow lines anymore and my only guide were the tire tracks ahead of me. It was around 5am so it was still very, very dark. I tried to use the fog lights of the minivan but it actually didn't help. It was actually worse since the lights were reflecting off the falling snow. I couldn't see any vehicles ahead, so I reduced my speed and I went slowly at 30-40mph. I was soon able to catch up with a group of vehicles that were traveling in a single file after around 30 minutes of driving on my own. Then and only then that I breathed a heavy sigh of relief. My wife who was awake enough to see the situation has been praying very hard.

Morning came and the rest of our travel in Ohio was great. Snow was present but the roads were being treated and the sunshine was a welcome sight. My wife took over the driving and after a brunch stop, I was able to sleep for an hour or so. I dreaded passing by Indiana, but I knew the situation was better because it was daytime.

My wife drove into Indiana before we switched. Visibility wasn't so good, and lake effect snow was falling down hard and made everything look gloomy. The snow scenes in this post were taken from Indiana. From the road, the scenes nearby looked very pretty - everything was covered in snow. My wife and I marveled at the irony... amidst all this beauty is the cold reality of danger. Indiana has the highest maximum speed at 70mph along our route and despite the very poor visibility, vehicles were wheezing by at such fast speeds. An accident at these speeds and with the traffic was bound to hurt a lot of people, and would most likely cause deaths as well. We drove for at least an hour in this condition.

For every dark stage in a journey, there is always the bright side. As we were nearing Chicago, the skies suddenly brightened. It was as if the lake effect snow was constrained to only a particular part of Indiana. One could actually pinpoint a border where it was snowing and a few meters ahead, the snow stopped and the sun was shining brightly. Ah, thank GOD for a safe journey. We're now in Chicago. The sight of the Chicago Skyline and the Sears towers are always a welcome for us after a long drive from Maryland.

We completed our trip all breaks included in 13 hours. Compare that to our record of 10 hours and 45 minutes during our recent Thanksgiving trip. The extra hours were mostly due to the meal break we had and the weather. But we got home safe and sound.

HAPPY, HAPPY NEW YEAR to all this blog's visitors. May it be a year of good health and joyful memories with your loved ones. And yes, stay safe during your trips.

Photo at the top and below: Road scenes from Indiana. Taken during morning hours, the sun wasn't shining and snow covered the trees and surroundings.
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Photo below: The Sears Tower is always a welcome sight after a long journey.
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Photo below: My boys pose by our very dirty and grime/snow/salt covered faithful minivan. I had to wait later in the week for another winter storm before giving it a good exterior car wash.
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