Fillmore Hill as Metaphor

“Trust me,” I said as I looked at my wife. She was skeptical, I could tell. “It’s a four-wheel drive car.” I brushed the snowflakes off of my arm as we started up the hill. They had come in when I had rolled down the window to listen to a man who was frantically trying to keep us from continuing up Fillmore Hill. Of course, Kim was worried. She had grown up in California. But I’m mountain folk. I’ve been driving in snow in Colorado since I was 15. Besides, I had a brand new four-wheel drive Subaru. Case closed.

“See,” I said as we crested the hill, “no problem.”

“We still have to get down,” she answered as she clutched the entry handle tighter.

She was right. Everyone in Colorado Springs knows that the Fillmore Street hill is a two-edged sword. And we were now facing the steepest part. But I wasn’t worried. There had been much more snow at our home in Woodland Park, a foot or more. Two inches of snow was nothing for our brand new four-wheel drive Subaru. We started down the hill towards I-25. Once I got a clearer view of the hill, I could see why the man had tried to stop us. There were dozens of cars that had wrecked trying to go down and a dozen more stuck trying to get up. The snow wasn’t the problem. The sheet ice under it was. If there was a place to turn back, I would have. But the die was cast.

Slowly, in low gear and foot on the brake, we descended. I maneuvered our three-week-old car past one wreck after another until we were only 100 yards from the bottom. But right in front of us were a Lincoln and a Cadillac that had gotten tangled up and were blocking both lanes. The drivers were out of their cars, slipping and sliding, trying to stop their vehicles from sliding further down the hill. I was at a dead stop, and I knew I couldn’t get past them. I considered my options. It was then that physics reared its ugly head. The heat from air in the tires melted just enough snow to create a thin layer of water, thus reducing the frictional coefficient so that gravity started to pull my car downhill. Slowly at first, then faster on the 10% grade, my Subaru started sliding toward the carnage even though I hadn’t taken my foot off of the brake pedal. I tried pumping the brakes, I tried steering. It was no use. We slid into the Cadillac, crunching the front driver’s side fender. All three cars slid further down the hill. I got out and promptly fell down. Kim got out and duck walked over to the Waffle House.

I got my car stopped and surveyed the damage. It wasn’t too bad. The left-front fender was slightly damaged. The accident hadn’t even broken the headlight lens. I walked over to talk to Kim, falling twice more on the way. I got to the curb and heard wild honking. I looked up the hill. A large tow truck was sliding towards me. The driver was turning the steering wheel in every direction to no avail. I scooted across the sidewalk. The tow truck ricocheted off of the curb and smashed into my Subaru, pushing it back into the Cadillac. My car bounced off of the Cadillac and slid into the Lincoln, where the tow truck slammed into it again. My three-week-old car, my first new car, now had damage to every surface except the roof. If it had been an older car, the insurance would have totaled it out. As it was, we owned the car for another four years.

I don’t think I ever said “Trust me” to my wife again. Or if I did, she reminded me of our ice skating adventure on Fillmore Hill. And even though the car got fixed, whenever it rained, snowed, or we got the car washed, water dripped down onto my pants leg. Only on me, never on her. Fillmore Hill taught me a valuable physics and driving lesson. Four-wheel drive does not mean four-wheel stop.

There’s something about Fillmore Hill that seems tied to my destiny. Part of it is just the fact that it’s a hill. Hills are like smaller mountains to train us for life. A small struggle to prepare for bigger ones. My youngest son even referred to the Front Range as footmountains rather than foothills when he was little. Exhibit A is that Major Dick Winters, from Band of Brothers, credited running up and down Currahee Hill as an important factor in Easy Company’s camaraderie. The simple act of fighting against gravity makes people stronger. A friend of mine has joined a growing group of people who regularly hike up the Manitou Incline. I could walk to the top, if I really embraced the idea, but I would have to stop frequently, and I’m 100% sure my days of hiking up steep hills are long over. But for those who can do it, improved health and endurance are guaranteed.

Once, I was getting a tire changed at a long-gone gas station across from the Waffle House, which is still there. I heard a lot of honking and looked out on the street. A large garbage dumpster had broken free from the truck that was hauling it up the hill. The driver was backing downhill, frantically trying to snag the runaway dumpster with the crossbar on the back of his truck. Cars were veering out of their lanes to avoid a collision. All except for an elderly woman in a Cadillac who stopped in her lane and froze. I guess she just couldn’t believe what was happening. The dumpster peeled the passenger side of her car like a sardine can. Thirty yards later, the trucker managed to connect with the dumpster and stop it from careening through the I-25 intersection. It was an incredible bit of driving that prevented a much more serious accident.

I don’t blame the woman for freezing. We can all have a hard time accepting something outside of our normal or expected experience. It’s why a car can drive the wrong way on a freeway for miles before hitting someone. Many people recognize the danger and avoid it. But some people just don’t see it coming because they don’t expect it. I’ve learned to expect the unexpected when it comes to Fillmore Hill. I have had a couple of close calls, but because I am always on guard, I have managed to avoid another accident there.

The areas surrounding Fillmore Hill have changed a lot since I first drove up it in 1965. There’s a solar farm now at the top and a shopping center. And in winter, the city lights up the water tower with a very pretty display. I always try to pause now, mentally if not physically, when I drive up or down the hill. There aren’t many places where you can see how far you’ve travelled or how far you are going. Fillmore gives you quite a view of either. Oh, one more thing. Kim’s and my first apartment when we got married? You guessed it—it was on Fillmore Hill.