A Jeep With No Jitters - Well, Not Many

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When my husband and I bought a cabin in the mountains of Colorado, we bought a used Jeep as well, the latter a necessity for getting up and down the primitive road to our summer retreat.

The road terrified me. Whenever I looked out the car window, my stomach plunged. The mountain vista I loved from our cabin made me dizzy from the road. A little too much gas, I theorized, and we'd sail right over the mountain. A slight miscalculation and we'd drop a wheel in one of the 18-inch-deep ruts that ran the length of the road.

I'd never handled a Jeep, so I was glad in the beginning to let my husband do the driving. But when he returned to work in the Midwest, leaving me in Colorado for the rest of the summer to host a round of family visits and enjoy the intermittent solitude of the writing life, I was forced to deal with the Jeep. I had to be able to drive the road myself.

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The day before he left, my husband explained the gears and showed me how to shift into four-wheel drive. Then we took to the road. I piloted the Jeep at the record-breaking speed of 5 m.p.h.; he calmly coached me past the treacherous rocks and sudden holes that made the trip an ordeal. I kept my eyes on the road ahead and prayed we wouldn't meet anyone coming the other way. An hour later, we were still alive.

Then I made a solo trip up and down the hill. It took me half an hour to cover half a mile. "You'll be driving like a pro in a week," my husband said when I finished. I didn't tell him my legs had been shaking the whole way or that the steering wheel had practically changed shape under my grip.

In the morning, I rode to the airport with him. He caught a plane to Indiana, and a few hours later, I met my mother's plane.

"I didn't know you'd bought a Jeep," she said.

I mumbled something about needing a recreational vehicle in the mountains. "Impossible roads, you know."

We had lunch at a pleasant restaurant in town, but I couldn't finish my meal. The last bites stuck in my throat.

WHEN we left the restaurant, Mother and I were 60 miles from the cabin. For the first 59 miles, no one could have guessed I was nervous. I pointed out landmarks and extolled the virtues of country living as if I had not a care in the world. Then, abruptly, I stopped the car, turned to my mother, and announced: "We have a quarter mile and 15 minutes to go. Hold on and don't say a word."

My mother is just about unflappable, but I was afraid of being distracted by conversation or startled by a sudden gasp when she saw the ruts that I would have to straddle as we progressed up the dirt road. I didn't want her to know what a novice I was.

I put the car into four-wheel drive.

Every word my husband had said echoed in my ears: "Turn to the left to avoid the hole that drops off the hill here. Straddle the rut. Turn right here to avoid that rock.

"Now get in position for the climb. Three ruts, so be careful that the left front wheel is up on that five-inch ledge. Power up - this is a steep incline. Make a sharp left at the top and stay on course even though you can't see over the hood.

"Now another turn to the right. The ruts zigzag here, so zigzag yourself. Watch out for that high rock in the middle of the road. Go slow."

By the time we reached the top, Mother was exhausted. I felt like I'd negotiated rush-hour traffic in Chicago.

My husband had said that within a week I'd be a pro, and he was right. My sister and her family came to visit a few days later, and with so much company, I had ample opportunity to practice my driving as we went out and about, sampling Colorado's recreational offerings.

The car stalled on the steepest part of the hill: no problem. Rain made the road slick: no problem. One afternoon, my 12-year-old nephew videotaped our descent, and I provided running commentary. I no longer shook when I drove the Jeep, and I could even carry on a conversation.

Now that I've mastered the twists, turns, rocks, and ruts along the road to our cabin, I think driving the Jeep is fun. Of course, the real test of whether I'm a pro comes when I venture up the road to the cabins beyond ours. From our front window I can see the road beyond us, a diagonal slash across the face of the mountain. It's a 500-foot rise to the top - and a straight drop down.

On second thought, maybe I'll let my husband drive.

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