Guest Column2/12/09

Driving with mittens

Feb. 12, 2009

By John Colt

At first it’s just a sweater, then a sweater and a windbreaker, then a sweater and an insulated vest. Eventually, gloves and a hat become part of the mix. Finally, with the coat rack groaning under the weight of all our winter coats, gloves and hats sprinkled on the floor all around like some strange knitted fruit under a quilted nylon tree, we find our winter routine.

Then, suddenly, it’s time for: THE MITTENS. Fancy gloves or not, at some point, having each finger alone just isn’t good enough; you need to keep them cozy together. Not some red, wool, knitted-for-a-Christmas-present mittens, but MITTENS. Big rough sheepskin, or military surplus with an extra trigger finger. Blackened from loading the woodstove.

At -15 degrees last week, I went digging for THE MITTENS. My wife found me a pair (one of the reasons I love her) that cover half my forearm and look like lightweight boxing gloves. My hands are never cold wearing them. I can’t put my hand in my pocket, unlock the door, start the engine or make rude gestures to other drivers, but I can hold the steering wheel.

Years ago, before parenthood, my wife and I loved winter car rallies in Quebec and ice races at Lake Iroquois, Perkin’s Pier or other places where it was safe to drive on the water. Winter in northern Quebec is COLD, and so is ice racing, so you need MITTENS.

We took out the back seat, interior trim and all the insulation (brrr!) to make our car lighter. Then we put in a roll bar to make it heavy again. An old Swedish sedan, it had a gale force heater to keep the windshield clear, even if the cabin wouldn’t stay warm. Most importantly, it had controls with mitten clearance. The lights, fan and other switches were big knobs, and you could probably adjust the heater controls with your foot.

The Swedes knew back then, for the home market, they needed to leave room for MITTENS. There was boot room, too.

Once, at a forest race in Maine, following two tracks in a foot of snow on an unplowed logging road in the middle of the night going as fast as possible, I made a small mistake, resulting in what the British would call a “minor shunt.” So, instead of driving along the road, narrowly missing the trees on either side, suddenly we were driving through the woods, narrowly missing the trees on either side. All arms and elbows, pedaling like mad, steering around trees, finally sashaying back through the ditch to the so-called road, we raced on with only a bent antenna and an AWOL turn signal lever.

The moral of the above story is simple: In a car suited to northern climates, you can perform serious accident avoidance maneuvers, even while wearing MITTENS. Breaking off the turn signal stalk didn’t inhibit me a bit; maybe those smart Swedes designed it that way.

Flash forward 10 years. Lovely Japanese car, fun to drive, focus group optimized and cost engineered to a fine point. Control stalks conveniently placed.

It’s late at night, fresh snow, glittering moonlight. Four brand new studded tires from Clark’s Sunoco, and life is wonderful. A tricky bit coming up, better take off my MITTENS …

WARNING! This is a bad idea, especially if you drop them on the gearshift, or the handbrake. It takes time to remove MITTENS (even using your teeth), it’s hard to steer with one hand (on a tricky road) and you might look down at your hands at just the wrong time.

Did you know that fresh snow can flow right through the radiator, pack the engine compartment, stop the fan belt, alternator, water pump and make your dashboard light up like the warning panel at Three Mile Island? Without the engine stalling? Those Japanese car designers got something right, even without MITTEN clearance. The snow melted, the dashboard warnings went off, and we drove away just fine.

Maybe I should have left my MITTENS on. Maybe I should have let the car warm up and worn a pair of gloves. Above all, I learned again, NEVER LOOK DOWN. Thirty mph is 44 feet per second. The road is only 30 feet wide. When you reach for the gearshift and come up with a mitten, you might loose a second or two.

Fifteen years later it’s the 21st century. Put on your MITTENS, get in your car, try to drive. You had to take them off to get in and start the engine, but put them on again, grip the wheel at 10 and 2, and try to steer.

Did the wipers come on? Did you blow your horn? Did your turn signals start or the headlights come on? Perhaps your radio changed stations or the cruise control was activated? How many controls are mounted on stalks close to the steering wheel?

Try to turn on the heater. Flush mounted buttons? Ha! You probably hit them all and confused the on-board computer.

If none of the above happened, I bet your car is over 20 years old, or else you have wimpy mittens.

Now, imagine yourself trying to dodge a deer, jumping in front of you on a snowy road wearing your MITTENS. You that is, not the deer. If you see a deer with mittens on, you need to walk back to the party and get someone else to drive.

Right. Back to the jumping deer. The picture that comes to mind is not pretty. The best scenario is one where you miss the deer but end up with a lot of broken plastic control stalks scattered around the cabin. Another ends with the game warden tagging your freshly killed meat — if you’re lucky.

So stay warm. Wear your mittens, or even your MITTENS, but drive carefully. And if you notice an old grey station wagon with the horn blowing, wipers on and turn signals going, please, cut me a little slack, OK?


John Colt is a longtime Williston resident who now drives a 1987 Peugeot station wagon equipped with four studded tires from Clark’s and a big blob of epoxy holding on the turn signal lever.