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WOSTER: To chain or not to chain

The last time I rode with anyone who used tire chains for traction on a snowy road, the driver was a former Associated Press colleague who lived and worked in Rapid City and who was taking Nancy and me up into the hills a ways to see the cabin he'd purchased.

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He called it his dream home, and it was a pretty little thing. Set off a logging trail somewhere in the vicinity of Pactola Reservoir, it had a bit of a meadow and a lot of forest around it. It lacked electricity at the time, I believe. It sure was quiet up there, and I briefly envied my friend his solitude. I envied him only briefly, because I wouldn't care to live that far out of things. (I like not being around people, all right. I just like not being around them from the comfort of a quiet house in the middle of town, not far from groceries and gasoline.)

Well, but this is more about tire chains and snow-covered roads. We set off from Rapid City in a rear-wheel-drive van. About halfway up the highway, Sheridan Lake Road, maybe, the back end of the van was dancing around like the Russian pairs figure skaters on a good night. My friend pulled to the shoulder, hauled out the tire chains and went through the not-insignificant chore of fitting them to the rear wheels. We pulled away from the shoulder onto the road and had nary a slip the rest of the way.

I mention that only because we've been having persistent, pesky snowfall this winter. Not many people use chains. I imagine a generation or two exists that doesn't have a clue what chains are or how a person would go about hooking them onto the drive wheels of a vehicle. And why would they? Everything sold these days -- I exaggerate, I know -- has four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive or at the very least front-wheel-drive. Who needs chains?

I remember batting around Chamberlain after school in a rear-wheel-drive Chevy. We'd talk sports and girls and such while slipping and sliding around the corners, never once considering that we probably should go home, park the Chevy and wait for the storm to end and the street crews to do their magic. We did not consider chains when we were cutting around the city.

To be honest, I wouldn't care to use the fool things again myself -- not ever, not anywhere. We did use them on the farm, on rare occasions. It was never much fun, because we usually didn't get them out until, like my friend in Rapid City, we were on the road and finding out how much we needed the extra traction. By then, quite often, we were in the middle of nowhere on snow-packed, rutted roads with snow blowing all around. Perhaps people exist who could mount a set of tire chains in those conditions without freezing half to death or getting sloppy wet from the snow. If such people existed years ago, no one told me. I had to crawl around in the snow, wiping my eyes clear, trying to keep my gloves on and still latch the connecting hooks. I wound up chilled, wet and tired, but able to plow through some pretty rugged stretches of road.

While I plowed through those rugged stretches of road, the clanking of the chains kept me company. When I hit a patch of relatively clear road, the noise from the chains was pretty impressive. The question always became: when is the right time to stop and take the chains off? Have I reached roads clear enough so I won't stop again in two miles? Can I just keep driving on them until I get to town? Why doesn't someone invent something better than this?

Well, then someone invented the studded snow tire, and I thought we'd seen the ultimate in Yankee ingenuity. We had a set for the town car. Studded tires worked pretty well, too, although my dad didn't much like them because they wore down the tires, he said. He'd sometimes swap them for regular snow tires when the drifts weren't deep.

That made me think the old Yankee ingenuity hadn't really gotten us too far from the Stone Age.