America’s scariest tows

I know a lot of people who aren’t comfortable with towing a trailer.  My wife is among them.  I have stopped trying to convince them that they can tow, because I’m not sure if everyone really can.  Towing successfully takes a certain amount of skill, confidence, and perhaps natural ability.  Just as it is true that not everyone can drive a race car well, I think it may be true that not everyone is cut out to pull a trailer.

For me it has been an enjoyable challenge to learn the skills.  I actually like piloting my big trailer around, and things like backing up and maneuvering on narrow roads are sort of fun, most of the time.

So I was amused to see Forbes Magazine publish a list of “America’s Scariest Drives.”  There are eleven listed. In my opinion, several of them aren’t particularly scary except perhaps in the mind of a travel writer.  Not only have we driven many of them, we’ve towed our 30-foot Airstream down three of them (I-15 in Los Angeles, Rt 50 in Nevada, and coastal Rt 1 in California), and didn’t find the experiences particularly frightening.

Let me tell you, there are much scarier roads if you are towing a trailer.  Most of them are in Colorado, where steep mountain passes are almost unavoidable.  Imagine a 8% grade winding up to 10,000 feet for miles, while the thin air robs your engine of power and the temperature gauges on your transmission and engine slowly creep up toward the redline.  This is usually followed by a similar descent, shock-cooling the engine while the brakes heat up and begin to fade.

We’ve done several of these roads in Colorado, including the notorious Slumgullion Pass on Rt 149, but by far the worst one (psychologically) was Rt 550 between Durango and Silverton.  It includes three tough passes and miles of twisting roads atop terrifying precipices. You can’t help but think, “One slip and we’re going to fall a thousand feet.”  Often, there’s no guardrail.  We did it in the fog and a light rain, too.

Steeper than those is the Teton Pass between Jackson Hole WY and Victor ID.  It runs at 10% grade for five miles up and five miles down.  Climbing this hill with the trailer on a warm day was the only time we ever managed to overheat our engine, in three years of full-time towing. On the way down, you’d better have good trailer brakes.

For sheer heat, however, nothing beats Rt 190 from Death Valley to Owens Lake in the summer.  We drove it in late May once, and we were lucky that it was a slightly cooler-than-average day.  The road climbs 5000 feet, and ambient temperatures can easily exceed 110 degrees.  No matter how tough you think your turbodiesel truck is, this is a road to respect in the summertime.

Traffic terror is mostly found in the northeast.  Sure, I-15 in Los Angeles can be hairy, but it’s got nothing on I-95 in southern Connecticut during rush hour.  Imagine fifty miles of S-curving highway crammed with maniac commuters, riddled with potholes and steel plates, rife with exits and entrances, and about as smooth as a New York-style pizza.  You can’t go slower than traffic no matter how bad the road conditions, so expect to find things askew inside the trailer later, and keep your foot ready for a panic stop at all times.

Frankly, compared to any of those experiences, I would look forward  to a quiet uncrowded drive on Rt 50 in Nevada.  It’s a pleasure by comparison, and (honestly) it’s not nearly as lonely as the tourism folks would have you think.  And coastal Route 1 in California? Gorgeous and worth the effort.

I think I’m going to save the Forbes article for future trip planning.  Some of those “scary” roads look pretty interesting.  We bypassed the Moki Dugway on our September trip through Indian Country, but I’d like to give it a try.  What some people regard as scary might just be the highlight of the drive.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine