Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Through the past, darkly...

A few years ago I submitted this memory of a family ordeal to another site, where it still remains posted. I guess it's about time to publish it here. Perhaps you'll find it interesting and instructive.

Way back in March of 1977 I learned firsthand the awesome, frightening power of nature. Up until that time, I hadn’t really experienced anything scarier than a thunderstorm. The lessons learned that day stayed with me, and to this day I don’t play chicken with Mother Nature.

After spending a little over three years in Germany, my father had rotated back to the States. His new, and final, assignment was Fort Carson, Colorado. After arriving at JKF airport in New York City, we proceeded via taxi through New York city to New Jersey to pick up our 1975 Plymouth Duster we had shipped weeks earlier. Of course, the weeks of sitting had resulted in a dead battery--an inauspicious beginning. After getting that taken care of, we were on our way to Colorado.

The trip was routine. Living in a military family, you get used to long, often boring, car trips. My two brothers and mother did their best to adjust to hours of sitting while my father drove. Around the third day of the trip, we found ourselves nearing our destination state, Colorado. While listening to the radio, however, we heard that I-70 was closed near the Colorado/Kansas state line due to weather. Since my father had planned on getting to our destination, Fort Carson, by early evening (it was then early afternoon), he decided to turn off of I-70 and go around the roadblock. This was a decision that nearly killed our family.

Turning south from I-70 onto highway 27, we headed for what we thought was an alternate, safe route. After a short time on highway 27, the wind started picking up and small wisps of snow (called snow snakes out here) began to appear on the pavement. A few more miles brought a steady, wind-driven snow, but visibility was still acceptable. Within the space of just a few subsequent minutes, however, all hell broke loose. We were being hit broadside by a genuine Kansas blizzard that made me think 17 years was all I was going to get on this earth.

Visibility had dropped to no further than the hood of our car. To this day I don’t know how we kept from running off the two-lane highway; divine intervention must have had a hand in it. There was really no way to turn around, and sitting still wasn’t an option, so we kept creeping forward for what seemed an eternity. If you have never been in a blizzard, it is difficult to imagine the sheer terror of being disoriented, blind, and surrounded by bitter-cold wind and snow.

Finally, mercifully, we made it to a small whistle-stop of a town named Sharon Springs, Kansas, thirty miles due south of I-70. Waist-high drifts were already forming up against anything that impeded the wind-driven snow’s progress. As I recall, Sharon Springs consisted of nothing more than a few houses, a gas station, a diner, and a motel, but it looked like a heavenly oasis to me. I remember begging my father to stop in the town, fearing he might have had a notion to continue. He assured me that there was no way we were going to continue. We got a room in the motel (we actually had to dig our way IN to the room because of the drift against the door), ate in the diner, and had a fitful night’s sleep.

The next day, the storm had passed and the sun came out. Looking outside, there was very little snow on the flat-as-a-pancake Kansas fields surrounding Sharon Springs. Against buildings, however, snow was drifted all of the way to second-story roofs. The contrast was amazing! Since there was almost no snow on the roads, after one last meal in the diner, we proceeded to our destination.

What were the lessons learned here? One, when an area is closed due to weather, do not try to find an alternate route into said area. Find out more information and then go home or find a safe place to stay. Two, don’t underestimate the weather and/or overestimate your ability. Three, keep your wits about you in a bad situation; they are really the only chance you have of surviving.

I hope I have been able to convey the seriousness of respecting nature’s weather whims. Although we often like to think of ourselves as prepared for any eventuality, the best preparation is to not get into a dire circumstance in the first place. No amount of survival gear we could have carried (had we even known about survivalism then) would have saved us if we had stalled on the highway. Had we stalled, we would have been buried alive under 20 feet of snow.

Please, for your own sake, as well as the sake of your loved ones, learn a lesson from my family’s ignorance and respect the weather.

Take care.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Strange coincidence, I was also caught in this same blizzard, and was stuck at a farm near Sharon Springs, KS for two days. I was a student in Dallas at the time and was on my way to Denver with a friend for spring break. Like the author I had no idea of the power that a blizzard has. We also had been foolish enough to get off the main roads to try and beat the storm. We got stuck on a county road with night falling, and only thru the good luck of having a truck pass by coupled with a CB radio to contact locals did we avoid a potentially dangerous night in the car. When we came back to the car the next day snow had blown up into the engine compartment so that when the hood was raised only a little of the air cleaner was visible. The rest of the engine compartment was packed solidly with snow. Driving into Sharon Springs we saw a snow drift that was higher than the large snowplow that was trying to break thru it. We had to detour thru a farmer's field to get around it. Strangely enough, when we got to Denver it was 60 degrees and sunny.