Travel on Thanksgiving: 7 Tips

Once upon a time, holiday driving was much safer. Over the river and through the woods, the horse knew the way to Grandmother’s house, led by the scent of sage and apples. In those days, nothing could go wrong. No one in the sleigh risked decapitation in a high-speed head-on collision, nor did the horse ever decide to gallop off the path and smack into a tree, snowbank, or bridge abutment, or go into a river. (This fact is worth remembering: Other drivers are not as smart as a horse, but you knew this already.) Since I probably can’t talk you out of traveling, let me suggest a few important things you need to know. 

First, read this cautionary tale, if you want to live:

James Kim was a San Francisco radio personality and technology analyst who made an ill-fated trip with his wife and two young daughters to Seattle for Thanksgiving. On November 25, 2006, they left Portland, Oregon, traveling south. Then, poof, they simply disappeared, somewhere on the road between Portland and San Francisco. What went wrong?

They had missed an exit. Instead of taking the next one and turning around, they found a secondary road on an old paper map, which took them into the Wild Rogue Wilderness. (Note the repetition of the word “wild.”) First mistake.

Their car was a Saab 9 2X, a fast sedan designed for paved roads. They had a cell phone, but no bars, and also no survival gear, no rations other than snacks, no water, no blankets, no shovel, no compass, no flashlight, and no winter clothing. Their only electric lantern was the car’s dome light. After all, they hadn’t planned for an impromptu camping trip. Mistakes 2-11.

Eventually the gas ran out and the car got cold. They removed and burned tires (12) to signal passing helicopters, like the ones that always fly overhead in Hollywood movies about stranded tourists, but none came.

On December 4, James hiked out on foot alone, wearing tennis shoes and summer clothes (13), through sixteen miles of snow, shedding clothes as he walked in the paradoxical undressing that often happens with last-stage hypothermia. His body was found later, one mile from help. In a letter to the Washington Post, his relatives publicly blamed the Bureau of Land Management for not blocking the road, local authorities who slogged out in search every day, and the FAA for not keeping media aircraft out of the area.  It was a wasted opportunity to warn other winter motorists.

My condolences for their loss, but exasperation supplies the temerity to differ. Here, the blame is clear: James Kim was arguably as smart as the leader of the Donner Party, let alone a horse. Each wrong decision led to the next, and the first one was made even before leaving home. There was no provision for contingencies that might (and did) occur.

Bad planning can crimp your holiday plans; zero planning for winter travel can kill you, with fatal results. As the driver, Mr. Kim had the responsibility to drive safely home. Instead, to save a few miles and hours, he threw the dice for his whole family, and lost. Bad map, bad choices, bad news.

It’s a sad story, because it didn’t have to happen. Sadder yet, it happens all too often. Saddest of all, you could be next. Plan accordingly.  “Just in case” is a wiser saying than “What could go wrong?” Religion is beyond the purview of this article, but God help you if anything does and you’re not ready.  If you get stuck in snow or involved in an accident or have car trouble, especially at night, you are no longer a motorist but a pedestrian, and ditto your passengers and pets.

Here are seven tips to ensure that you travel safe this holiday season.

1) Pack warm clothes, gloves, hats, coats, and extra socks. 

Tennis shoes are fine for air travel, but not winter driving. When you need a pillow, nothing else works as well, particularly inside a car. A blanket and sleeping bag take up almost no space; bring one per person. Add a deck of cards, because boredom can lead to bad ideas, or impulsive ones.

2) Take along water and finger-food, as well as a camping shovel, compass, and flashlight.

Make that two flashlights, one for back up. (I always carry three, sometimes four.) Hunger clouds your thinking and saps your optimism. You'll welcome a few cans of beans, sardines, fruit cocktail, mixed nuts, and a can opener for luck. Chemical hand-warmers are a brilliant invention and much cheaper than a frostbite treatment in an ICU. Alcohol in a flask is your call. It warms the spirit but increases the risk of hypothermia.

3) Tell an adult your planned route.

The voice of experience: Never tell a child or young teen, because you might as well tell the family dog. The route should be written down, preferably on a map, and left behind. Taking it with you on the trip defeats the purpose. If you decide to deviate from this, tell someone, any adult will do. Ask them to write down the time you called on their calendar.

4) Make sure your phone is fully charged before getting in the car. 

The only reason the Kims were found before spring thaw was that very weak cell signals were forwarded to mail, from which savvy tech-folk sussed out a reasonably small search area.

5) Keep your fuel tank full.

Stop and fill up when the needle hits the halfway mark. Heat is your friend.

6) Bring a first-aid kit, fire extinguisher, several lighters, road flares (also good for signaling aircraft), and basic tools such as pliers, electric tape, and a pocket knife. 

I don’t have to mention jack, handle, and spare tire, but I will anyway.

7) Your best survival equipment is always packed along: your brain.

The next best is your intuition: Listen to it. You’re not being paranoid, but well prepared. Happy trails.