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Avs Travel Diary: Rental cars and traffic jams

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Tahoe traffic

Peanut butter & Jelly. 

Bonnie and Clyde.

The Colorado Avalanche and outdoor-game traffic jams.

…Some things just go together, for better or for worse.

For the second time in as many seasons, I was lucky enough to participate in the aggravating gridlock of stop-and-go traffic, en route to covering an Avs outdoor game. Instead of I-25 North, or North Gate Blvd. leaving the U.S. Air Force Academy, the culprit this time was U.S. Route 50 — more commonly known by the locals as the El Dorado Freeway, a scenic highway that runs from Sacramento, California to South Lake Tahoe.

I was so damn close too. Just 25 miles away from the large lake known as “Big Blue,” suddenly the two-lane El Dorado byway came to a sudden halt. As I opened up the GPS on my phone, I saw it read two hours, 11 minutes…to cover 25 miles. I violently rub my eyes in disbelief. Thinking I was going to arrive at the Edgewood Golf Resort with plenty of time spare, suddenly, according to the GPS, I would be lucky if I made it there by the end of the first period.

*Cue record scratch, freeze frame* You’re probably wondering how I got here…

Let’s start back at the San Francisco airport, where I last left you all in the first chapter of my travel diary.

Where were we…

It’s roughly 4:30 a.m. and finally I decide it’s time to get up from my half-moon banquette I tried to slumber in at the abandoned food court at Terminal 1. Spoiler alert: I wasn’t able to catch any shut-eye. 

Anyway, due to a clerical error — which was, admittedly, a lack of time-zone converting on my end when I was booking my rental car — my plan was to head to the off-airport Fox Rent-a-Car center right when they opened at 5 a.m. and beg them to give me a car two hours earlier than I had originally reserved it. Had I stuck with the original 7 a.m. pick-up time, I realized the four-and-a-half hour drive would’ve been cutting it very close to the Noon Pacific Time puck drop. 

After washing my face, brushing my teeth and putting on more presentable clothes than the airport chique I was sporting (sweats and a hoodie are my go-to for comfortable airportware, by the way), I took the shuttle to Fox and arrived at 5:15 in the a.m.

After explained the situation — told him where I was going, what I was doing, trying to seem far more important than I actually am — the not-so-nice rental car attendant informed me that I wouldn’t be able to make it to Lake Tahoe in the current Economy rental I had reserved, which he informs me is an adorable little Toyota Yaris.

What do you mean I won’t make it? I ask, in a snarky, I-haven’t-slept-in-24-hours kind of way.

At this point, the Fox salesman informs me of California’s strict tire chain enforcement as you near Tahoe on Interstate-80. And given Tahoe had just gotten two fresh inches of snow overnight, the pass had some snowpack and was at a “Level 2” something or other, so he assured me these Draconian chain laws will most certainly be in effect. It’s either chains on your two-wheel drive—which we can’t allow on our cars—or four-wheel-drive vehicles, those are the only ones that will be permitted up there. They’ll ask everyone else to turn around. 

I’m not buying it. You mean to tell me they’ll just force people to turn around? On the highway? How?There’s no way, I say in an increasingly patronizing and I-now-haven’t-slept-in-over-25-hours kind of way. 

At this point, he takes the opportunity to offer me a “sweet deal” and rent me out a brand new 4-wheel-drive Jeep Wrangler with only 2,400 miles on it that he promises will get me to Tahoe…all for the low, low price of $150 extra on top of what I already prepaid for the Economy car. 

Now, I’m pissed. I know this game. 

He sees me, an innocent-enough-looking 25-year-old kid, and makes up some bullshit law about California chain enforcements to upsell me on a more expensive car with shitty gas mileage.

Bonus Voucher!

I’m mad. At this point, I’ve already wasted 15 precious minutes of drive-time debating tires and engine cylinders with this guy.

Now, he gives me an ultimatum: take the Jeep now, or wait until the originally-reserved time of 7 a.m. for the Economy I pre-paid for. That bastard. He knows I’m in a rush. He has all the leverage now. I have to take the damn Jeep.

Not happy in the slightest, I talk him down to only $100 extra, sign the paperwork and take my cherry-red Wrangler and head toward I-80 East. As I cross the Bay Bridge, I look to my left and see the Golden Gate. I pull out my phone GPS to see how my time is looking. Estimated Arrival: 11:05 a.m, it reads. All things considered — and unexpected financial incurrences aside — I’m making perfect time.

The interstate — and my jeep — cuts through Napa Valley in time for sunrise over the vineyards. It’s beautiful. By mid-morning, I’m curving around Sacramento and heading for the Sierra Nevada. As I enter the mountain range and cruise though small Podunk mountain towns, snow flurries begin to dust my windshield, setting an idyllic vibe for an outdoor hockey game. I’m starting to feel feeling much better and more awake, as my second medium extra-shot americano of the morning courses through veins. I’m content.

 

Now that I’ve had time to cool down, I feel bad for the way I reacted and treated Mr. Fox Rent-a-Car salesman. Sleep deprivation and time constraints (I despise being late) turn me into the worst version of myself. And as it turns out, as I get deeper into the mountains and the snow accumulates, these chain/four-wheel drive rules turn out to be very legitimate. The closer you get to Tahoe, there are a lot of places on the side of the road to buy chains, or pull-over stations to strap your chains on, and some policing of these rules were clearly in place too. He was right; I was wrong. Sorry, friend. It was a good call on the Jeep upgrade.

There was a decent amount of snow on the ground, enough that a Toyota Yaris likely wouldn’t have made it, or would’ve had a hell of a time trying to traverse the pass. The more I thought about it, the more I was glad I was in a Jeep, despite its highway gas mileage being half of what a Yaris’ would’ve been.

The Jeep was decidedly worth the $100 investment. I’m feeling good — and powerful — in my tank of a Jeep Wrangler, taking in the gorgeous views through the El Dorado freeway; my Spotify playlists are hitting all the right vibes through the bluetooth speakers. Life is good. 

And then as I turn a bend, rounding home, I see the sea of seemingly-never-ending red brake lights. I mutter an audible “f#%k me” and pull out my phone GPS…25 miles to go. Two hours, 11 minutes. Estimated Time of Arrival: 12:46 p.m. At this point, I just laugh. I deserve this — it’s the universe’s retribution at the venom I hissed at that poor Fox employee earlier that morning.

Tahoe traffic 

I take the opportunity to roll the window down, take in the cold, fresh mountain air, enjoy the natural beauty of the Sierra Nevada and crank my “Good Vibes” playlist up a couple of more notches. I accept that there’s nothing I can do here, and there’s an odd calm that washes over me.

Perhaps it was delirium from lack of sleep, or the americanos, but I wasn’t mad at the whole traffic situation. The vibes were still riding strong. I was just happy to be here. Very few get this opportunity, I thought to myself, and thanks to the loyal CHN subscribership, this trip is possible. There are worst situations to be in. Live and let die. 

And after just a couple of hours in standstill, the snow-darkened grey skies overhead began to clear, as did the bumper-to-bumper of El Dorado, much quicker than the GPS had originally anticipated.

Off in the distance, I could now see Lake Tahoe in all her massive beauty, nestled in a snow-covered valley of the Sierra Nevada. I make the final descent down the canyon. By the time I pulled into the parking lot of Harrah’s hotel and casino, which is homebase for the NHL and media this weekend, I take a look at my clock.

11:05 a.m. Perfect timing.


As always, any Colorado Hockey Now subscribers who want to chip in to the Avalanche Travel Tip Jar, we won’t stop you. 95 cents of every dollar goes to fund travel to Avs games, and 5 cents goes to donations to the Thornton Food Bank. Link here

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A graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder, Scott has so far spent the early parts of his young career covering Colorado hockey — from the Avalanche to the Colorado Eagles to the DU Pioneers. His work can be found across sites such as NHL.com, TheAHL.com and SB Nation, among others. Scott currently resides in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Denver, where he works as a Marketing Executive when he's not writing.

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[…] hope you found colleague Scott MacDonald’s travel journal – 36 hours from Denver to Tahoe and back, with the longest NHL game in history in between – as […]

[…] hope you found colleague Scott MacDonald’s travel journal – 36 hours from Denver to Tahoe and back, with the longest NHL game in history in between – as […]

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