When ‘Can’t’ Turns Into ‘Can’: A Road Trip And A Revelation

I’d been on the road only 10 minutes when the downpour turned to feather-like snowflakes.


Usually I get excited when I see the white stuff.

Except when I’m behind the wheel.

See, I never really learned how to maneuver a vehicle through snow and ice. I’ve spent the last 30 years on the Pacific Coast where snow days are nonexistent.

But on this December day I’m far from the coast. I’m traveling Interstate highway 5 from Medford, Oregon to San Francisco, and I have two mountain passes to climb.

I’d put in my order with Mother Nature – NO SNOW on Thursday – and I was counting on her complying with my wishes.

So much so that I blew off buying chains before I left Portland.

But I’d been told that they checked for chains if it was snowing, and I might be turned back at Mt. Ashland if I attempted to breeze through without these things.


The flakes thickened as I approached the town of Ashland, so I pulled off the highway where thankfully a gas station awaited with a big sign, “We Have Chains.”

Those who live in snowy climes or regularly traverse mountainous roads in winter may wonder why this seemed like such a big deal to me. Well, that’s the downside of living outside the snow zone – you never learn how to do this stuff.

The grizzled man at the cash register was genial.

“Umm, you have chains here?” My voice wavered a bit.

He grinned widely, “We sure do!”

I guess he took one look at my non-snow-ready apparel and concluded I was another one of those clueless city slicker types who didn’t know how to put on the chains.

Seeing my look of dread and confusion as he instructed me on their use, he smiled.

“Don’t worry,” he reassured me. “They have guys up there that can help you put them on.”

Oh. Whew.

Relief flooded through me. There’d be someone to help! Because  frankly the instructions he’d given me sounded like so much gobbledygook.

And maybe it would quit snowing by the time I got up there anyway.

Uh, yeah, sure. I began to climb within five minutes of being back on the road.

Up and up I climbed while the huge, sticky flakes swirled around me. I gripped the wheel and leaned forward.

Trucks and cars began pulling over, and people bundled in waterproof winter gear emerged, clutching bundles that presumably carried their chains.

Heads bent, they crouched down beside their cars.

I kept driving.

Maybe someone will stop me to see if I have chains, I thought. And then I can ask them to help me get the damn things on.

Snow swirled thicker and thicker, obscuring all but the few feet of road in front of me. Now it was sticking and piling up on the asphalt. 18-wheelers clung to the shoulders, lines of them pulled over and chaining up.

The car was starting to slide a little now. Shit, I’m going to have to put those chains on for sure.

Where are those fabled guys??

I was approaching the summit, the car skidded some more. A sign read “12% downhill grade”

Well, fuck. This was it. No one was going to stop me from a death wish apparently.  I knew I’d be nuts to drive down this snowy mountain in my little Nissan without chains.

A car pulled over in front of me. I pulled behind. Another 18-wheeler pulled in front of her.

A woman emerged, crouched down against the swirling flakes, and bent in front of her right tire.

I unzipped the bag and pulled out the chains, the directions, and some sort of mysterious cable that I imagined must be for tightening. I squinted at the tiny type on the paper.

Now, I consider myself reasonably intelligent, but for some reason mechanical directions never fail to confound me. It’s like it’s another language.

I pulled on my stocking cap and stepped out of the car – damn, it was FREEZING.

“Can I watch you for a minute?” I asked the woman who crouched over her tire. “I don’t know how to put them on.”

Secretly I hoped she’d be a capable Good Samaritan type who would say, “Oh, don’t worry – as soon as I get these on I’ll come and put yours on for you.”

But I could see she was struggling herself – and that’s because she had a totally different sort of chains – those old fashioned ones that look like actual chains.

Disappointed, I said, “Oh, you have a different kind.”

“Yes, if you the newer ones, this won’t help.” she responded.

Back to my own mysterious chains I went.

Why, oh why hadn’t I put my boots on?? And where was my warm jacket? I was wearing a raincoat and clogs, and my only gloves were thin cotton, meant to keep the California chill off. Definitely unprepared for snow.

I squinted at the directions again as the wet snowflakes began to soak the paper.

Shivering I began to lay the chains over the tires. Tears began to form. Fuck, I’m freezing. And I don’t know how to do this!

I got back in the car shivering, tears streaming down my cheeks, I can’t do this. I can’t do this! I pounded the steering wheel.

A minute passed. Snow began to build up on the windshield.

Then a saner voice: “You CAN do this. You have to do this. Get out there and do it.”


With numbing fingers I wrapped the cold metal around the tire, fumbling to connect what seemed to be the clasp.

Somehow, even though the directions got so wet they ripped completely in half, I managed to get both sets of chains around my front tires. My rain jacket was filthy from lying in the dirty snow underneath the car, but the darn things were actually attached.

But what about tightening them? I stared at that weird cable in confusion.

While I struggled to fasten the second chain, the woman approached me. “Did you get them on?”

“Well, I think so,…I hope it’s right,” I replied.

A good Samaritan after all, she checked them and assured me they were on correctly. “I tightened this one a bit,” she said. “But be sure to check and tighten them after driving a mile.”

By now I couldn’t even feel my fingers, I was soaked. Better get moving before I’m stuck here on the side of the road. The snow was flying thick and fast.

Slowly, following their taillights through the whiteness, I continued on what no longer resembled the highway I knew.

The heater blasted and my fingers began to thaw.

I did it!

I put chains on my tires! Wimpy old me actually managed it!

A little thing – but one I’d perceived I ‘couldn’t’ do.

Hiding inside that car, so unwilling to push through my own resistance, I found something inside me I didn’t know was there.

I can. Even when I think I can’t, I can!

And in that moment – all that self-help advice about how anyone can do anything they really want to do  – well it suddenly made sense. If I don’t have to remain wimpy girl who can’t put chains on, I don’t have to be the person that ‘can’t’ do so many other things.

I can forgive myself.

I can rewrite my overwhelm story.

I can practice self-care and creative incubation without flogging myself with guilt over the ‘lost’ productive hours.

I don’t have to keep the chains on me.


How about you? Is there something that you’re sure you can’t do?

Because an action as relatively insignificant as putting chains on your tires isn’t really that different from the big stuff.

Like – starting that exercise program you keep thinking about. Or approaching that attractive person you’ve been wanting to get to know. Or speaking up to the boss. Or quitting.

Maybe all those reasons that you ‘can’t’ do it, aren’t really reasons at all.

Maybe you CAN!

Share your story in the comments! What perceived ‘can’ts’ are limiting you? Or…. what have you found out that you CAN do after all?



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Showing 16 comments
  • Carol Hess

    “I don’t have to keep the chains on me.” That one got me bawling like a baby, Sarah. An inspiring, beautifully written story I will remember the next time I tell myself I can’t. Thank you.

    • sarah

      Yes, I sensed something profound was happening as I sat there in that car, shivering and bawling, and arguing with myself. But it took a few weeks to see the metaphor there! So glad you got some inspiration here Carol!

  • Bobbi Emel

    Great story, Sarah!

    I think the biggest “can’t” I’m working on is “I can’t be anything more than average.” There are many layers to that, but perhaps it’s just as simple as saying . . .

    “But I CAN!”

    • sarah

      Yes, Bobbi, you CAN!! I can certainly relate to that silly little narrative going around and around in my head. But I know it comes from that ‘ole Lizard Brain that just wants me to stay safe and small.
      Knowing what I do of you, I can say right now that you are far from average my friend!

  • Joel Zaslofsky

    I’m pretty sure I can’t give birth. Who knows. Maybe science will prove me wrong some day. 🙂

    Way to get those chains on, Sarah! I’m with you though. When it comes to mechanical objects and (what seems to me to be) heavy manual labor, I just assume I can’t do it. It’s good to know the spirit of The Little Engine That Could is still kicking in the Pacific Northwest!

    • sarah

      LOL – I almost did some sort of play on words from the Little Engine That Could in the title!

      And – yes there are a few physical laws that may be insurmountable at least in this lifetime. but who knows – there may come a time when guys can give birth. A male friend of mine was able to help breastfeed their adopted baby with a special device. So… who knows indeed?

  • Priska

    What a beautifully written story.
    ‘I can, even though I think that I can’t’.
    I strongly identify with the overwhelm and loss of productive time feeling on a daily basis as I learn to drive my wordpress website.
    Continually reminding myself to ‘let go’ of the loss of productive time and that overwhelm is part of the process of learning helps remind me that ‘I can, even though I think I can’t’.

    • sarah

      I’m so with you there Priska! Nothing like those tech conundrums to get your ripping out your hair screaming, “I can’t!!”
      And certainly there are some things, and some times, that warrant asking for help. And, of course, doing that is another one of those things so many of us feel like we ‘can’t’ do. After all, we should be able to ‘handle ‘ it all, right?
      By no means do I want to downplay the value of asking for help when that is the right path to take. It’s always a balance.
      Also: since when is the process of learning not productive time? I hope you ‘can’ be easy on yourself! You are making great strides

  • Janet

    I didn’t realize you were from Portland/Pac NW? Me too but I decided to get out of the whole snow zone completely and moved to tropical paradise 😀 I never learned how to put on chains either and that would be a big deal for me. Back when I lived in Bend, I remember getting studded tires.. I don’t think I ever got/needed chains..But those guys did the work for me. 🙂

  • Paige | Simple Mindfulness

    Your story reminded me of my two year sabbatical from corporate life. I had been a complete “city girl” up to that point. Then I decided to do something completely different in a quest to find myself and my life purpose.

    My first stop was spending a month and a half at outfitting school, living in a tent in the middle of the woods outside of Jackson Hole, WY in May – a time when it can’t figure out whether to rain, snow or shine each day. I followed this with being a manager of a dude ranch in Colorado. During that year and a half I can’t count the number of “putting chains on tires” kinds of experiences I dealt with. When you’re in the woods by yourself or with people who know less than you (and who expect you to get them out of the mess), there is no “can’t.” Unless you want to die where you stand, you have to figure it out and make it happen. And, yes, one of those situations was putting chains on my tires in a blizzard while my tires were sitting in three inches of freezing mud (I was on a dirt road).

    After those experiences, I know that there’s nothing I can’t do. All I have to do is decide to make it happen.

    Reading your story made me smile as I thought about that time in my life. Thank you!

    Unfortunately, we share the difficulty with caring for ourselves because we think we’re not being productive. Combining that with a can-do attitude can become a bit self-destructive as I’m discovering. With my new job, long commute, family, blog and businesses, I’m learning to say “can’t” as a matter of choice. If I don’t, I’m going to hit a big wall soon.

    • sarah

      You’re an inspiration Paige – with you ‘can do’ attitude! You’re definitely long past the ‘wimpy girl’ stage – if you were ever there.

      I hope you’re getting a chance to pull back and do a little love and care for yourself along with all the ‘can do’s’ that you’re up to.

  • Lori Carpenos

    Holy Cow – you’re brave Sarah! The thing that comes to my mind is having accomplished something I thought was gargantuan looking back on it, but at the time it was just what I did. I think if I had thought it was a gargantuan feat when I was doing it, then it probably would have felt pretty hard to accomplish. Good thing i was pretty naive back then. Lol.. I put myself through college while working full time – too long a story for here, but essentially, the less we think, the better! Lol…

    • sarah

      Yes, I think that’s part of my problem Lori. I THINK about stuff too much, running all sorts of doom scenarios – instead of just getting out there and DOING.
      Kudos to you for putting yourself through college. That is definitely a gargantuan achievement – and look where it’s led you – you’re a professional!

  • kathleen

    Oh, Sarah, I can’t tel you HOW MANY times I’ve had this same experience. And back in the day it was with a car filled with kids. Now, managing this mountain ranch, it still comes up sometimes, but I’m more likely to keep trying to get the Gosh Darn tractor chain off by pounding it with a rock, or get it turned around instaead of sliding down the snow covered hillside, however, the reaction to run or be rendered hel[less still wants to rise up. SO proud of you, and this website. xo

    • sarah

      LOL, you are definitely one the heroes I think of when I face such snowy adventures Kathleen! And wow, a car full of kids would be even more challenging than braving the storm by myself. And tractor chains?? Can’t even go there…:-)

      Thanks so much for the sweet words and comment. Miss you!!

  • Amit Amin

    A great story, thank you for sharing!

    I think you really nailed it – successfully fighting against old psychological limitations, even for something small like putting chains on your tires, really isn’t all that different from the big stuff. My first impulse is to trivialize what you did, but I know I really shouldn’t – fighting entrenched psychological limitations is damn hard.

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