By on February 26, 2013
Photo courtesy of www.asphaltwa.com

Descent into the Columbia river gorge on I 90 during summer

A few miles East of Ellensburg, WA, on the long winding descent into the Columbia river gorge, the little car, too small to run smoothly in both sets of the deep ruts that the semi trucks had worn into the pavement of Interstate 90, rolled from groove it had been following on the left side of the lane and dropped abruptly into the groove on the right. The lateral movement of the car within the lane was not great, maybe a foot or two, and I accounted for the motion with a simple counter of the steering wheel as I speed steadily along through the dark winter night.

I had not owned the Geo Metro long, just a few weeks, and so far it had been a positive experience. It was a cheap, tinny little car and to be sure it was no power machine, but with my lead foot and the car’s slick 5 speed transmission it could be speedy enough. Even now it was moving along effortlessly above the posted speed limit.

Another corner approached, this one a wide sweeping right hander and I turned the car in as smoothly as possible. The car responded a little sluggishly and, again, rolled up out of the groove in which I had been running and jerked into the parallel rut. With a sudden jolt the back tires broke traction and rear of the car swung wide. Surprised at the car’s motion, I responded with an equally sudden counter steer. The back end of the car snapped back, but again failed to find the groove and went wide right. Again I corrected with the steering wheel and the car responded at once, snapping back again to the left even more violently and demanding even greater correction with the wheel.

Like a pendulum swinging back and forth, the car was fishtailing wildly now and the back and forth cycle was growing ever more violent with each change of direction. I took my right foot from the gas to cover the brake but held it over the pedal without pressing down, brakes wouldn’t help I knew, they were the last resort. The car pitched again to the right, now fully 90 degrees to the lane of travel and I knew the next swing back to the left would be the most violent yet. When the car swung left, I corrected naturally but to no effect. The front wheels finally broke traction and the front of the car swung around and entered a full spin. I knew it was a lost cause and hammered the brakes as I threw an arm across my girlfriend, still asleep in the passenger seat and fully unaware of what was about to happen.

Image courtesy of www.greencarreports.com

Geo Metro

I had purchased the little Metro for the same reasons that everyone purchases small, fuel efficient cars and safety was not at the top of my list. In the fall of 1995 I pretty much had it all, a decent job, a beautiful girlfriend and I was even making slow but steady process towards my college degree. I had graduated from community college and enrolled in a teaching certification program being offered in the evenings by Western Washington University through Seattle Central Community College.

Since I lived a good distance outside of Seattle, the Geo Metro fit the bill perfectly. Its tiny three cylinder engine would sip gas and save me money. Even better, the buy-in price for the base model with no options was ludicrously low. A test drive confirmed the car was exactly the no frills transportation I needed and soon the little car and I were cutting our way through the traffic to Seattle and back three rainy nights each week.

Sometime in January, my girlfriend who was a year behind me in Community College, announced that she was thinking about finishing her four year degree at Washington State University. WSU, however, was almost 300 miles away on the extreme eastern edge of the state and if we were going to stay together it was going to mean frequent road trips. Still, I supported her decision and when she said she wanted to take a trip to see the college I volunteered to take her.

Photo courtesy of Washington State DOT: http://www.wsdot.wa.gov

Trucks stopped for avalanche control

It was late when we rolled through Ellensburg but, with minimal traffic on the interstate, I pressed on in the hopes of getting just a little farther before stopping for the night. As we headed up, Ryegrass Summit, the last hump before the road dropped into a long, winding descent into the Columbia river gorge, I gradually wicked up the speed to around 70mph. The fact that there was black ice on the road never occurred to me.

The car was now fully out of control, spinning and pirouetting like figure skater as we slid across the ice. I fought for control, but it was a futile gesture and we were still doing around 50 MPH when we left the road. The right rear tire bit into the soft shoulder first and I heard the roar of pebbles as the car snapped violently around to the right. A fraction of a second later we were stopped, my headlights shining up through the branches of a leafless bush, their brightness lost in the starry sky overhead.

As adrenaline poured into my system, time slowed to a crawl and I took in the situation in an oddly calm and orderly way. The engine was silent but heater fan hummed steadily along and the radio still put forth its stream of tinny AM talk. My girlfriend sat beside me, silent but as wide awake and focused as I was. Thank God she was OK. We both were. Then I noticed that the airbag had not deployed.

I turned the ignition key and the engine scratched to life. I slipped the gearshift into reverse and noted the sound of crunching gravel as I backed the little car up a small slope onto the hard shoulder of the interstate. Leaving the engine running, I slipped the car into neutral, shot the parking brake and got out to assess the damage.

Outside, I could feel the isolation of the place. The canyon walls towered up on either side of me, the face of a cliff just two lanes away across the eastbound lanes of the interstate. On the far side of the canyon, perhaps a half mile away, the westbound lanes of the interstate worked their way up and out of the valley and between the two roadbeds flowed a small creek. Over the centuries, this creek had eroded away the surrounding rock walls, widening the canyon and creating a flat, sandy plain. That sand was our salvation.

A slow hissing sound drew my attention to Metro’s front tire. In the car’s final spin, some small pebbles had forced their way between the tire and the rim and their presence was enough to cause a slow leak. Otherwise, my car appeared to be absolutely unscathed.

Noting the twinkling of lights down the valley, I resumed my place behind the wheel and headed for civilization. As I ran up to a much more cautious 40 mph, I heard the rattle of pebbles being flung from the bead of the tire and I realized the leak was sealing itself. Slowly, we made our way to the closest town and, with no gas stations open, checked into a hotel.

Photo courtesy of www.goodfon.com

The desert at night

We continued our journey the next day without incident. Two days later, as we headed west through the gorge on the homeward leg of our journey, I strained to see the place where we had left the road. There were no tracks, but the place itself was obvious. A small single oasis of sand in a place where the slope flattened just enough to allow the small stream to slow and meander. A hundred feet in either direction there was nothing but steel guardrails and the hard, exposed rock of the canyon wall.

Somewhere, further up the slope during our eastbound descent, the rear wheels of my little Metro had broken loose and I had begun a struggle for control. I can’t say how far that we traveled during that fight, but by the time that physics had won we were in the only place for miles where we could have emerged unscathed. To this day, I can’t explain how that happened. Perhaps it was just incredible luck, I don’t know, but maybe, just maybe, it was the guiding hand of God. As a person of faith, I would like to think so.

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself

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39 Comments on “Slip Slidin’ Away: How I Crashed a Geo Metro and Lived to Tell the Tale...”


  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    I had a similar experience with another Geo product, the Tracker, the first year that was branded as a “Chevrolet”.

    Driving thru a mountain pass in the Sierra de Galeana, in northern Mexico. That pass is treacherous because the moisture-ridden winds from the Gulf of Mexico meet their first elevations.
    One may complain about the state of US highways, but secondary roads in Mexico can be both exceedingly beautiful and dangerous. Their rugged beauty hides their unexpected dangers. This particular two-narrow-lane road had a series of U-turn switchbacks, with a solid canyon wall on one side and a straight fall on the other. It goes without saying that crash barriers were notorious for their absence.

    Since the road was wet, I was driving slowly as I approached one of those switchbacks. Suddenly I realized with terror that an oncoming 3 ton truck would invade my lane. I attempted slowing down slightly along with a minor steering correction.
    Big mistake. The Tracker immediately spun out of control, and I entered the switchback doing a 360.
    I sincerely don’t know how the oncoming truck avoided hitting me. But when we finally stopped my vehicle was standing on that small gravel patch inside the “U”, a pair of steps away from a thousand foot drop.
    Thank God for the Tracker’s small wheelbase.
    I wasn’t very religious at the time, but definitively felt that the hand of something much larger than myself had spared me this one time.

  • avatar
    mike1dog

    My scariest crash was when I was driving an Alfa Romeo spider down a two lane country road in Mississippi. I was driving through a long right handed sweeper when I came upon a Chevy Suburban half in my lane. I reflexively jerked the steering wheel to the right, and since there was no shoulder at all, the car went into an instant spin when the right front wheel went off the pavement. Fortunately there wasn’t anyone behind me, although I had passed a truck towing a huge horse trailer just a couple of miles back.

  • avatar
    Beerboy12

    Those ruts in the road are extremely dangerous for any car. Probably the metro’s light weight was a benefit this time as the reduced momentum and low center of gravity allowed you to come to a stop faster and prevented a roll over.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    Actually, letting go of the steering wheel gets better results for the novice as the natural resistance on the tires keep them pointed straight ahead. The problem people have when counter steering, is they steer PAST straight ahead and over correct. This does bring the back end around FASTER than having the wheels point straight ahead, BUT that unwanted extra momentum is what throws the back end the other way to a greater degree than the first slide/oscillation.

    You want to straighten the cars out gradually and I realize it’s hard to tell where “straight ahead” is in a panic and people tend to go to full lock with the initial oscillation. When I say “straight ahead” I should say where you need to go, Like back in your lane or the exit in a turn.

    It’s not easy and it doesn’t come naturally, but why not practice???

    Also staying on the gas helps by keeping the weight where you need it and away from the front. Too much on the front and it acts like pendulum or pivots on the front.

    • 0 avatar

      True and oddly that’s what saved my life a little time back. On a 3 lane row, going up a hill, when over said hill all the traffic was stopped. In those tense moments like thomas described, time goes slower and out the corner of my eye I realized the central lane had some extra space ( I was in the left lane). As there was not ime to brake, I turned the car into that lane and as I did, the back broke loose. Realizing that, I took my foot off the accelerator, and made minute corrections to the steering wheel. The back went the other direction and I turned the steering wheel a few degrees the other direction. Once, twice, three times and the car settled down, I braked. Somehow, I had kept the car in the middle lane, there was enough space to control and then brake the car. I was lucky, but I do believe that the car (being small and having very goosd steering, a Fod Ka) made it possible.

  • avatar
    asapuntz

    Not sure if trucks or studded tires are more to blame for wheel ruts in that part of the world.

    I got my car into a less exciting version of this accident … the back end buried in a snow bank, but the car was quickly pulled free by a passing pickup with a tow chain.

    • 0 avatar
      fincar1

      Studded tires, definitely. A lot of our highways in the Pacific northwest are disfigured with stud ruts, but the increasing use of studless winter tires seems to be helping to some extent.

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    For those not familiar this is a miserable stretch of asphalt challenging for even somewhat competent vehicles. It is very steep, with a wild series of hard left and right turns as it dives down toward the Columbia River. The road is heavily rutted from the trucks that run up and down it and the speed limit is easily 10 MPH to high (and I drive with a heavy foot). When I drove a lumbering fullsize truck through there it was borderline terrifying. Four-cylinder cars, even relatively well powered ones will be running in low gear and high RPM to climb back out. After you cross the bridge on the Columbia the terror isn’t over, the road climbs up almost as steeply and starts with a near 90 degree turn to the left, followed by another S curve followed by a hard right, with a pull out at the Wild Horses Monument.

    If there was any strip of highway that needs re-engineering and replacement in Washington state – this is it.

  • avatar
    Tiddley_Wink

    Did the hand of God type out the two typos is the first friggin’ paragraph?

    “rolled from groove it had been following”
    “I accounted for… as I speed steadily”

  • avatar
    OldandSlow

    I had a 96 Metro with a 5 speed. Truthfully, I’d be afraid of even hitting a small traffic cone.

  • avatar
    dougjp

    So well written. Many thanks.

  • avatar

    Thomas great story. I had a similar story (see answer to Denver Mike ) above. In those times, I’m sure God helped you out like he did me. He spared me very possibly cause our baby was in the car. I have avoided that road ever since as there is always the kind of situation described above. Did you face this road again? In the Metro? How did you feel about the car after?

    Thanks.

    • 0 avatar

      I traded it off on a GMC 4×4 about a month later. To be honest, it was a stupid overreaction on my part and it helped set the stage for the financial calamity that changed my life in so many ways.

      In one of our earlier exchanges we talked about Japanese cars having souls, did you see the article I wrote about my 200SX? That was for you.

      • 0 avatar

        From Metro to GMC 4×4. Wow! That’s an overreaction too! You know which one I’d prefer *wink*

        About the 200SX I did read it, but not the day it came out. It came out on a very hectic day then even hectier days came and I put off reading it. Till the day before yesterday. As it was about a Japanese car I put it on my to-do list. My priorities might be screwed but I read the Ford and the muscle car stories the day they came out and enjoyed both immensely. If I had known!

        Don’t sweat it though. I haven’t read the Venza article for example. Why? Well it’s a Toyota and I frankly don’t care. When Derek comes on with an article about his granma’s Civic I usually take 3 or 4 days to read it…Somehow though, I read the pieces on driving in Japan (even watced the video, something I almost never do), and read the piece on Japanese cops. Maybe it was the pic? :)

        I’ll go back and read it again with extra care. I’ll also drop a line. You’ll see, when we write for TTAC often particular commenters come to mind. Most of the time their comments confirm our suspicions but sometimes they surprise us. Part of the fun for working at TTAC cause, as you know, the pay, ah the pay…

        Anyways, just wanted to say you are the most welcome addition to TTAC. Keep up the good work! I promise to read even the Japanese car articles!

      • 0 avatar

        There’s a new comment on the sx200!

        Oh, on my list of things I read for last are EV cars. Those come after Toyota and the German uber-trio. If you ever write about one, it could be days before I get around to reading it or i’ll skip it completely

  • avatar
    Piston Slap Yo Momma

    After a lifetime of sports cars I decided to put a 1st gen Insight in the stable. The switch from speed to efficiency was hard initially but the money in the bank is a nice dividend. One unexpected caveat are the low rolling resistance tires that follow every imperfection and even wander on the paint stripes. I’ve had grooves in the road shoot me out of my lane. I can’t install sporty tires as the increase in fuel consumption is more than 10% as the drag prevents the car from going into ‘lean burn’ mode. So I tolerate tires reminiscent in design to those on a Hot Wheels toy. That said, this iteration of the Geo Metro has always struck me as a beautiful and subtle design. If I could find a mint Suzuki Swift gti, the hot-hatch version of your Metro, I’d have a great compromise in sports and speed.

  • avatar
    Speed Spaniel

    I think it goes to show, when it’s “your time”, it’s “your time” and I’m glad it wasn’t yours. Something similar happened to me in the late 80s with my 87 CRSsi. A pick-up truck full of furniture was in front of me. A folded card table came loose and flew right at my windshield. I had no time to react yet in a micro-second it clicked in my mind that the table was coming through my windshield and it would be a messy decapitation. I don’t know how this happened, but at the last minute the table “airstreamed” parallel to the windshield and flew over over the minute Honda. I literally saw the bottom of the table fly up over me. Talk about the hand of God……

    • 0 avatar
      vaujot

      I’d say that was the hand of aerodynamics.

    • 0 avatar

      If I thought like you, that when your time’s up, it’s up, I would never have bothered to wear a bicycle helmet or a seatbelt. The helmet saved me on Sept 6, 1991 when a bump I somehow didn’t see wrenched the handlebars out of my hands and my helmet hit the pavement. I was unconscious probably for half a minute, and disoriented for about ten. I hope I’ll never need the services of the seat belt… but I have two friends who would probably have been killed last year without crash protection.

  • avatar

    An unusually well-written story. It was nice to be able to appreciate the western countryside while on tenterhooks about the outcome–even though I knew it would turn out alright.

    On the outcome, I don’t think one needs to invoke a deity for something that can be explained by statistics. But it’s certainly human nature to want to matter enough to get divine help.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Yep ;

    Well written indeed .

    Too bad some here are so insecure they can’t offer useful citisism .

    Please keep the good scribbles coming ! .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    brettc

    Riveting story! Glad the Metro kept you safe from the laws of physics. I almost owned an early 90s Chevy Sprint but ended up with an ’85 Jetta diesel instead.

    Sad that even in 1995 that road was that badly screwed up. I can only guess at how bad it is now. (What is this infrastructure re-building of which you speak?)

    • 0 avatar
      Aaron Whiteman

      While the ruts do exist, I-90 isn’t nearly as bad in this section as the author (and some other comments) have made it sound. I drive from Pullman to Seattle several times a year, traveling over this very stretch of road each time. It’s a perfectly fine, not particularly winding road that drops over 1600′ in 10 miles. You have to watch your speed, but unless you are on ice (as Mr Kreutzer discovered) or in dense fog, its a great road. The sharp left after crossing the river is nasty, but it’s well marked and you know it is coming.

      It was re-paved recently, but the studded tires are already doing their thing. WSDOT gets a lot of flack, but they are pretty keen on maintaining I-90.

      • 0 avatar

        Just for clarification, it is a fun road and easy to drive at decent speed, if it had been especially dangerous I wouldn’t have been kicking along at 70. I do believe I indicated the corners were wide sweeping turns as opposed to tight switchbacks. The slope, while not especially steep (not like the slope that runs up between Ellensburg and Yakima, anyhow) is long and by the time you get down towards the bottom, the cliffs are very much like I described. Over all, I feel like my description was pretty accurate.

        The real problem was my speed and the ice. I should have been smarter, quite honestly – I knew it was cold, but after coming down off the pass, it looked like smooth sailing. Truth is I should have stopped in Ellensburg for the night.

        • 0 avatar
          Aaron Whiteman

          Sorry Thomas. I was having a hard time choosing where to reply (either brettc here or to APaGttH above). I should have been more clear that it was APaGttH’s description to I-90 I was disagreeing with.

          As an aside, the Vantage Hill is not fun to climb in a malaise era MG. The old US-10 in the parallel canyon to the north is much better.

  • avatar
    sketch447

    Chilling and beautifully written.
    What I like about the author is that he seems to suffer for his cars, or through his cars.
    Nicely done………

  • avatar
    ttacgreg

    I found myself in the exact same circumstance of tail caming, out overcorrecting, and tail comes out further overcorrected further etc. After about six oscillations the car went three quarters of a turn and exited the road backwards. This is on a rainy smooth freeway. The traffic I was in totally backed off and allowed me the space to perform my unintentioal vehicular flailings. Unfortunately there happened to be an officer of the law back there in traffic. Needless to say he didn’t enjoy the show. I have been pulled over many many times in my 50 years of driving, and this was the only officer I’ve ever encountered who was visibly upset and yelled at me. The first words out of his mouth to me were an angry and emotional “what do you think you were doing?!?!?”. I calmly replied replied “obviously officer,going too fast” He began a second angry tirade and his colleague put his hand on his shoulder and told him to back off and calm down.
    That was one ticket I really couldn’t feel was unfairly written. Upon receipt of said ticket I put the car in gear and drove off.

  • avatar
    Boxer2500

    If you’re looking for a thrill, try driving this stretch of road in an aging VW Vanagon Westfalia. I remember not being able to get out of 2nd gear without losing speed on the uphill grade. 35 mph and 5000 rpm for 10+ miles in the truck lane while getting passed by loaded semis doing 55 and SUVs doing 80.

    • 0 avatar
      Truckducken

      Ah, the VW memories. As someone who learned to drive at the helm of a well-rusted VW Bus, I often wonder why those things were allowed on interstates. Seems like they should have been placed in a special registration category like some places have for golf carts…”blue highways only”? A 68 mph max speed back in the R&P days was a recipe for disaster. Maybe that’s why the engine was in the rear – because that’s where you were most likely to be hit! Be thankful you owned the modern and powerful Vanagon – unless you had the 48 hp diesel variant, in which case we have a lot in common.

  • avatar
    MadHungarian

    The only time I have been through the Columbia Gorge was in midsummer; I was headed from Seattle to Missoula. It’s not a place you want anything to go wrong at that time of year either. As I drove eastward into the high desert the outside temp readout on my Rent-a-Camry climbed to 107. There is an overlook area on the west side of the gorge and when I got out of the car, I realized that not only was the temperature 107, the relative humidity was about as close to zero as it can get and the wind was blowing at a 30-40 MPH clip. It felt like being inside a furnace, and that all the moisture in my body would be sucked out if I stayed outside for more than ten minutes. The terrain looks like Mars would look if you put water back in its old river channels.


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