The thermometer showed 24 degrees Fahrenheit. It felt like zero. Cold winds swept down from Hawksbill Mountain, the tallest peak in Shenandoah Valley National Park. With the winds came snow flurries, which seemed to last longer than flurries should.
It was beautiful in the way that nature is beautiful when you accept its power, when you realize that the idea of conquering it is man's folly. We climbed back into the 2007 GMC Sierra 1500 extended-cab pickup. We proceeded cautiously. It mattered not that the Sierra is among the most robust of pickups available, a body-on-frame leviathan equipped with a big V-8 engine and four-wheel drive.
All along Interstate 81 and adjoining roads was plenty of evidence of what happens when drivers of four-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive vehicles assume that man's technological savvy is capable of trumping ice. The ice wins, canceling traction and throwing vehicles off the road, or tragically tumbling them and their occupants onto their heads and into oblivion.
I have a theory about big pickup trucks and why there are so many of them in places such as Luray and the swamp and bayou towns of my home state, Louisiana. Trucks are practical. They carry and pull lots of stuff, much of it heavy and unglamorous. Terrain and weather in those regions often are challenging. Two-wheel-drive wimpmobiles don't measure up to conditions. And most of the people in those areas are workers, people who turn wrenches, plant fields, lift bales and use hammers and saws as part of their daily regimen. They need vehicles that work as hard as they do.
But, in a way, those rural truck drivers and owners are as much victims of automotive illusion as their paper-pushing, word-processing cousins in the city, where sports cars, luxury sedans, and super-bling sport-utility vehicles reign.
Cars and trucks are more than the sums of their parts. They have a meaning far beyond themselves. The city slicker in the high-end sedan is telling the world that he or she has arrived, if only at an elevated place in his or her own mind. The owner of a pickup truck in small-town America is declaring his or her just-folks status -- a sort of down-to-earth ruggedness, an awareness that getting close to nature also means getting dirty, dented and scratched, a belief that only trucks are worthy of that bruising communion.
That is why there are so many pickup trucks in rural and small-town America.
Luray and similar towns constitute the America that General Motors is wooing with its big-muscled Sierra 1500. It is the America that Ford is going after with its F-Series pickups, and that Nissan is trying to claim with its Titan pickups, and that Toyota is pursuing with its broad-shouldered, giant-braked Tundra CrewMax.
That America is not going away anytime soon. As long as it remains, the War of the Pickups will rage. With its GMC Sierra 1500 and several other models, GM is hoping to win with a combination of power and common sense, finesse and brutality.
The GMC Sierra 1500, for example, uses a GM technology called "active fuel management." It is a computer-assisted system that shuts off four of the engine's eight cylinders at moderate speeds, or when the truck is carrying nothing except the driver and a passenger or two. At higher speeds and with heavier loads, when more power is needed, all eight cylinders go to work. The upshot is a full-size, four-wheel-drive truck that can complete a 400-mile round-trip journey, including several side-road diversions, with 120 miles worth of regular unleaded gasoline left in its 26-gallon tank.
In the past, GM seemed to care little about the wide seams between panels in its pickup trucks, or about mundane materials and interior layouts of those vehicles. The seams in the new GMC Sierra 1500 are tight. Interior materials are high quality. And although the passenger cabin still bespeaks "work truck," it is much more attractive and comfortable than the cabins of any of its predecessors.
It is a likable truck, which is why, I suppose, there are so many of them running around rural Virginia. It fits well with the landscape of the Shenandoah Valley.