As I have written before, my family lives in Colorado and I live in Tucson, Arizona. In December 2011, for the first time in three years, I decided to go home for Christmas.
I was so excited in anticipation of my trip! I rented a car since my SUV had some trouble on the long trek last summer and does terrible on gas. I packed a suitcase for myself and one for my dog, Levi, and plenty of snacks for us both and we hit the road at 2 a.m. on December 23rd to get from Tucson to Conifer by dinner time that day. I had driven the same route several times over the past three years, always leaving fairly early in the morning, so there was never a doubt in my mind that it would be an uneventful trip. The possibility of what ended up happening never crossed my mind....
About two hours into the drive East on I-10, I drove across the state line between Arizona and New Mexico. I knew I had two more hours to drive to get to Las Cruces, then it would be a straight shot North on I-25 into Denver. Twenty-four miles after crossing the state line, however, the interstate was closed, and brightly lit signs advised travelers to "seek local accommodations."
I was so frustrated. I had no idea why the road was closed because aside from it being typical 4 a.m.-in-the-desert-temperature outside, there did not seem to be a problem with the freeway. No poor weather conditions, and no indication of when the road would be open to travel. I looked on my iPhone for an alternate route to get to I-25 and I saw a few state highways wound up North then East to reach I-25 between Las Cruces and Albuquerque in Williamsburg, so I decided to take these roads with hopes that it wouldn't add too many hours to my drive.
About fifteen miles North on NM-90 I realized why the road was closed: there was a snow storm. Looking back, I see that my initial evaluation of "snow storm" could probably better be described as a "white-out-blizzard." But it is important to understand that I learned how to drive in a place where getting 5 feet of snow did not warrant a snow day, and I even had some harrowing track practices where several inches of snow accumulated on my head after two hours of running around. I learned how to drive in white-out-blizzard conditions, so it shouldn't be hard to understand why I kept driving. It was only snow.
I slowly backed the car up and turned the wheel to reposition my car to face down the hill. And slowly, my car pulled into a snow drift on the side of the road. I cursed under my breath and eased my foot on the gas to nudge the car forward. It just slid a little further. I rocked the car to try to get it back into my own treads. Nothing. I sighed and got out of the car. There was snow piled around on three sides and in the undercarriage. I put on my gloves (which were just cotton driving gloves) and started to moved snow out from around the tires. I got down on the ground and pulled snow and ice out from around the frame and engine. I got back in the car and slowly eased the car forward. And it started to move forward!
Then it promptly bottomed out again. And I was stuck. Again.
I pulled out my phone and saw what I already knew: I didn't have cell service. I tried dialing 911. The call failed; I couldn't even place an emergency call. There was no reception.
I started to notice what I should have thought about on my way to this point in my day. No one was driving up this road. There were no emergency telephones on the way up. There was no ranger station. And the snow just kept piling higher while I contemplated all of this.
I got out my car and dug it out again. More thoroughly and fervently than before. And again it moved forward slightly before pulling further into the snow drift. I got out and did it again. At this point my driver's side door would not even open; it was wedged against a snow drift that I would guess was about 3 feet high.
I crawled across the passenger side of my car and furiously dug out and kicked at and marched through the snow. I was soaked, head to toe. I was alternating between praying out loud and singing I'll Be Home For Christmas. I begged God to help me get out. I thought about the movie, 127 Hours, and thought that if I died on this mountain in this blizzard, that maybe my story would one day become a cautionary tale of telling your parents where you are, what kind of rental car you are driving, when you left in the morning, that you are deviating from the route you had planned on taking...
My head hurt. I was so exhausted I thought I could sleep, although my heart was racing from exertion. I had to pee. Twice. I decided to stop digging. It wasn't working.
I got back in my car and blasted the heat. I put on all dry clothing and put my gloves on the heater to dry. I closed my eyes and shuddered. It was 9:30 a.m. I still had not seen a soul since I got stuck.
I was so scared. I was worried. I was anxious. I had no idea what was going to happen. But something notable was that I did not break down into the hysterics that I would have expected for myself. I stayed calm. I just focused on getting out. And although nothing in the world has ever felt more dire and uncertain in my life than whether or not I would get out of there, I was sure that I would somehow be okay. Does that sound strange? I considered the possibility that I would be stuck there in a snow storm that was not ending on a road rarely travelled and possibly die, but at the same time I knew I would be okay, even if that did come to pass. Peace is not a word that I would readily use for what I was feeling, but I can't describe the feeling as anything more than I knew that I was being taken care of and that if I died, then it was my time to go. How strange is that?
I don't want you to think that I thought death was inevitable and that I was giving up. I also considered the thought that I might be stuck there for days before being rescued. That was an interesting scenario in my head. I thought about my full gas tank and how long that would last. I watched the snow fall and wondered when it would stop. I watched the temperature linger around 11 degrees. I thought about my family, waiting for me to arrive in Colorado that day. I thought about what Christmas would be like for them, not knowing where I was. I thought about that last post on my Facebook in Silver City: would that worry my parents, or would that give them what they needed to find me?
I decided that it was still early enough in the day that Levi and I could start walking down the hill towards the entrance of the park and hope that there was cell reception, a ranger station that I hadn't noticed before, or any other kind of help. I put on every warm layer that I could find in my suitcase, wrapped my scarf around my face, and put my cell phone and my keys and my wallet in the pockets of my jacket. I put a few bottles of water into a plastic bag and started walking down the road with Levi at my side.
I think it's a cute little side note that this was my dog's first taste of snow. Poor little guy.
I walked down the road and about 20 feet from my car, another car came driving up the hill. I started waving my arms frantically for them to stop. I thought the only thing worse than a car not coming was a car that came by and didn't stop.
In the car were two guys and two girls about my age. I told them I needed to get somewhere where I could call a plow or a tow or something, and they said "get in." So I got in and Levi sat on my lap and they continued driving up the road. The driver told me "we put chains on a while back. Otherwise I don't think we would have made it this far." I closed my eyes and squeezed my dog as we drove up the road, past my car. The car started to slow and eventually it bottomed out in the middle of the road about a mile further than I got in my car. We were stuck. I was stuck. Again.
It was close to 10 a.m.
The two guys got out and trotted down the hill, thinking that their chain had broken off their tire and was lost in the snow somewhere over the last mile since they picked me up. A couple of minutes after they left, one of the girls realized that the missing chain had literally broken off right under the car where they had bottomed out. The girls honked the horn. They yelled for the guys. But the guys were gone; none of us could see them. We sat there, completely clueless as to what would happen next. While my gas tank was full, their gas tank was only a quarter-full, and the girls started to feel that sinking nervousness that I had been feeling all morning about when we would get out of here and debated over whether or not to turn off the engine to conserve gas. I started to feel feverish. I had a headache and I had to pee. Again.
Over an hour passed when finally we could see not two, but three, figures walking up the hill. The two guys (who I learned were twin brothers, and the girls were their wives) had found another guy our age who got his Jeep stuck at some point further down from my car. The third guy had been able to make a 911 call from his car. Help was on the way. Help had no idea how many of us there were.
And we were about to learn that we would not be able to leave Silver City until Christmas Eve at the earliest. Every other road out had been closed for hours. This was the last one open.
The guys said that they were going to go back down to the Jeep to wait for the sheriff to meet them, and that they were going to try to call their parents. A lump rose in my throat and I choked out, "can you please call my parents, too?" I wrote down my name and my parents' telephone number for them and continued sitting and waiting in this car and started breathing for the first time.
The patrol car arrived with a plow and proceeded to dig everyone out and have us follow them out of the mountains and into Silver City. It took everybody helping to get my car unstuck. And I spent two hours trying to do it myself.
I got into town and the sheriff recommended The Drifter Motel as overnight accommodations. So I curled up on an uncomfortable bed and rested in the same miserable city where I had filled up with gas 9 hours earlier.
On my way down into town, I watched my phone to see when I got reception. It was about 10 miles from where I was stuck when I finally got a bar and saw I had a voicemail from my mom at about 8 a.m. She cheerfully said "We just want to see how far along you two are! Call us!" I had already been stuck for a half-hour at that point.
I broke down crying again when I talked to my mom that afternoon. I started feeling what my body wouldn't let me feel earlier that day: fear. I told my mom I was scared. She said she was scared for me. My whole body hurt. I felt sick. I was exhausted and wired at the same time. And I could not help feel like I had survived a truly desperate situation. I guess there is a word for that feeling: blessed.
December 24th, 6 a.m.
The next morning I woke up and mapped out a route for the remainder of my trip that took me over an hour in the wrong direction for the sake of staying on the interstate and other safe roads. I told my mom I would call her every hour. I told my parents if I noticed I didn't have cell service then I would backtrack and call them where service ended. I told them the make, model, year, color, and license plate of my rental car.
I arrived at I-10 in Deming, NM about a minute before they opened the highway to traffic. The remainder of my trip into Conifer was uneventful. I arrived approximately 44 hours after leaving Tucson on December 23rd, but I gained an understanding of myself and my own imperfection and completely-human-limitations that I never thought I would need.
I have told this story so many times in the last month. I wanted to write it down because aside from being a ridiculous story of how things can go wrong in the best laid, most organized plans, it also fits Pheidippides quite well. I've been writing and reflecting over the past two years about my life and what I want to learn and where I want to grow, and I unintentionally stumbled upon lesson in life by chance.
I could not have asked for a better outcome that day.
Well, I would be lying if I said I didn't wish the whole thing never happened...
But it did happen, and I will never forget the impact it had on my life and my family's life, if only for a few hours that day.