And out come the tire chains!

So there I sat, in the driver’s seat, parked. Waiting. My pants were soaked from the thigh down from kneeling in slush, but they were starting to warm up and dry off, thanks to the truck’s heater. I stared at all the other trucks slowly rolling by, sort of enjoying the cling-cling-cling of the excess chain links spinning and whapping up against the trailers and the thud-thud-thud of them against the snow-packed road. It was a new experience for me. The chains part, anyway. I’ve had a flat tire before. This time is was during a snowstorm, right at the summit of Donner Pass (California). And chain restrictions were in effect… and I had wet pants. This whole situation was just uncomfortable.

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That's a pretty natural, honest expression on my face. Excitement and nervousness combined.

We finally had our first experience chaining our truck, and I can’t say I’m surprised that it was not a simple ride. Is there really a Grapa curse? I wonder sometimes.

I got up around my normal wake time of 1:30am. Adam said chain laws might be in effect at Donner Pass, which we were approaching. Now there’s a lot of thought processes that go on in situations like these. Normally we’d prefer to just shut down and wait for the chain restriction to be lifted. And usually the reason the chains are needed is because of crappy roads. But a series of things happened in just the right order in which neither of us even questioned it. We were going to chain and go.

First, Adam saw a “chains required” sign with yellow lights that flash when the chain law is in effect, but the top of the sign where the lights are was covered in snow, so he couldn’t see if they were on or not. The Caltrans website wasn’t very clear about whether chains were needed or where, and when I called 511 it said nothing about the situation. We were questioning whether or not we could just keep rolling.

We approached a chain-up area full of trucks, four-ways flashing, all squeezed in, parked in unorderly chaos, drivers walking around, chains laying out next to tires. We pulled over and another driver approached us asking why everyone was chaining because he didn’t see any signs that saying it was required yet. Neither did we, so we decided to keep going. Why go through with chaining tires unless we have to, right? Besides, it was kind of nuts in that spot.

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Chain-up area chaos.

A little further up the road there was a checkpoint and a stop sign. Caltrans was directing chained vehicles through and unchained vehicles to the exit to turn around. Well, this was it. If we turned around and found a safe place to park and wait, there was a 100% chance we wouldn’t be able to make our deliveries. At all. This is a problem with our run because our delivery day is a Friday and these places are closed for the weekend. If we couldn’t make it, would we be stuck in California until Monday when they reopen? Normally we would be totally cool with that, but my parents took time off of work to meet us in Appleton for a little Christmas get-together, and we were really hoping to get back to see them. We even had a pretty nice backhaul set up.

This all went through our minds in a flash, as well as knowing a fellow team from our company chained and went through this same spot a few weeks prior. And it wasn’t like we were in Wyoming where the road is crap for 150 miles straight – this would only be about 10 – 15 miles, then clear sailing. We were not parked in a safe place. If we sucked it up and chained, we could still make our deliveries. We didn’t really discuss it much. We both had the same thoughts and just decided to go on. So we went to work.

I donned my thick, tough Dickies winter bibs and jacket. We pulled out our set of chains and two sets of cables and splashed them down into the snow and slush. (Cables are lighter and easier to install than chains but are most likely a one- or two-time use only, as they wear out quickly.)

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Prepping chains. Wish I would've gotten a pic of the cables.

As we were laying the chains out to check for kinks, two Caltrans guys in full safety-green snowsuits with reflective striping came by asking us to pull up further to apply our chains, then stood over our setup and let us know our cables weren’t legal in California. Oh. Great. California requires trucks to carry four sets of chains, even when chain laws are not in effect.

We asked what our options were, and they said if we couldn’t get more chains we’d have to go back to Sparks, Nevada to purchase some just to drive through on a normal day. There was a dude up ahead that was selling chains out of the back of a small RV. He also charges to install them for you. What a job! Thankfully he still had some for sale, and thankfully we had $300 on us to pay for them. We threw the heavy bulk over our shoulders and walked back to our truck. We were going to have to learn this eventually. Why not now?

After pulling up a little further we got started. A driver next to me was just about to head out, but he gave me a few pointers before he left. I think he was able to tell I was a rookie chainer. I’m sure it was obvious!

Between what he told me, YouTube videos, and online written directions, I knew to drape them over the tire nice and centered. Make sure the dogpaws (a hook that connects the chain parts together) were facing out so they don’t rub on the tire. Tuck the remaining chain under the tires, then back over them. Hook the loose ends together and get them as tight as possible before locking in the cams (there are four cams on each chain and they turn and lock to tighten up the slack in the chain). We did all that, and I thought we had them as tight as we could get them. We even strapped two bungee cords across to hold them even tighter in place.

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Tough-lookin', hey!?

The whole process of moving, buying chains, and installing them took us two hours. We were cold and I was soaked from kneeling in the slushy snow so I could reach in behind the tires to connect the chain hooks. After wringing out my Thinsulate gloves, we got back in the truck, I stripped off my wet bibs, cranked some heat, and we rolled through the checkpoint with a wave from a Caltrans lady.

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Caltrans checkpoint

Now you’re supposed to stop and check the chains within a mile to retighten them once they get settled onto the tire after driving on them a bit, so I planned to stop at the summit rest area (which was closed due to being plowed in). About two minutes from the summit our central tire inflation (CTI) warning light came on. [Sidenote: Central Tire Inflation supplies air to the tires if one has a leak so it can stay inflated long enough to get it serviced. If the device is putting extra air into a tire because of a leak, the light illuminates on the trailer to let you know something is wrong.] I pulled over as close to the snowbank as I could to get off the road and walked back to check the tire. Air was hissing out of it. I thumped it with the hammer and a low THUD came back. It was definitely flat. And on top of it, our chain was gone. We lost a chain and I didn’t even feel it. That is an unsettling realization. I wondered if I would feel it if I lost one and now I know. With the way the chained tires clink and thud as you drive along on the road (max speed with chains is around 25mph), it was impossible to even notice.

That should be the end of our bad luck, but then our trailer ABS (anti-lock break system) warning light came on. We were lighting up all over the place! We finally gave up trying to figure out what to do with air steadily hissing out of our tire, our ABS light on, being new to the whole chain thing, and being stuck in a stressful spot that I didn’t even know whether a roadside truck would drive to or not. By this time it was 5am. We called our maintenence guru to help us out. He talked us through turning the CTI off, because the chain that came off must have severed the line that carries the air. We tried a few tricks to reset the ABS light, but it didn’t go off until about an hour later (but thankfully it did go out on its own – it’s illegal to drive with that ABS light illuminated and can result in a violation).

After about two hours waiting on the roadside, watching plows come within inches of our truck to plow around us, and seeing another driver get stuck in a snowbank behind me (a plow eventually plowed him out), our roadside service guy showed up. They did brave the weather and road conditions! Yay!

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More chaos. Trucks everywhere!

Another hour later, he had a new tire on us and even checked our chains for us. He recommended we tighten them a little more, so we spent yet another hour tightening the remaining three chains and applying a new one where the last one fell off.

It was only about seven miles down the road and were able to take the chains off. The road cleared up and I was able to cruise on like normal the rest of the way. We were super late for our deliveries, but our dispatch made some calls and they stayed to take us. I did have to sweet-talk some forklift drivers to remove three pallets to get to their nine pallets because we delivered out of order, but they were really nice and did it with only a little friendly harassment.

So there. Now we know how to chain. It actually feels like a bit of a weight is off our shoulders now because we know how, yet there’s still a lingering anxiety because just being in a situation where you need to chain is scary in itself. Sometimes this job is just hard. Physically and mentally. I was totally burned out by the end of my shift on Friday. So was Adam. He was up that whole time helping me instead of sleeping like he normally would be. But we did it, and I can’t help but feel a little pride in how we handled everything – even though it didn’t go exactly smooth. And maybe I’m feeling a little tougher, too – in a badass kind of way because now I can chain truck tires.


Tonight I love the scenery snow leaves behind because it’s so pretty it can literally make my stomach hurt with joy.

After the chains came off, it was light out and we got this:

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Yeah. It was achingly beautiful.

Thanks for reading and being a part of my journey!

With love,
Toots Magoots
(Robin Grapa)

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6 thoughts on “And out come the tire chains!

  1. Was that around Thanksgiving? We had a good sized storm in the Sierras right before the holiday. I drove to Oregon from Nevada in the remnants of the storm – in holiday traffic. Eek!! I got passed by a tractor trailer on packed snow on a two lane highway. I was doing 45 mph, which I thought was a prudent but not too slow speed. Very scary. Especially after seeing several cars and two tractor trailers in the ditch. Be careful out there!

  2. Pingback: What the heck are tire socks? Here’s a review. | So Many Miles

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