We didn't have the weather channel. Most nights, we didn't watch the news. Sometimes, we would listen to the radio, but for the most part, we spent our days with a weather rock. When it was white, it was snowing . . . . you know the drill. That meant, that as kids we had to become pretty adept at reading the weather. I can still tell when it is going to snow by the smell of the wind. I could tell when it was going to cloud up later in the day by the way the sky looked. All of that was important, because I grew up with the stories about the great plains blizzards that used to blow up out of nowhere without warning and kill anyone caught without shelter. (Yes, I know that we didn't really live on the Great Plains, but I have always been caught between this life and my last one, which was spent on the plains, so bear with me.) Did you know that the only animal that can survive a Great Plains blizzard is the American Bison, also known as Tatanka? Anyway, there are stories told in the west about settlers and Indians caught out when the storms come down from the Northeast and you can get 40" of snow in 12 hours (been there, seen it). Drift fence was constructed by the early white settlers so the storm wouldn't drive the cattle for 1000 miles in front of it. Buffalo just hunker down and don't really care. Cattle and horses mostly die.
So, for maybe the first fifteen years of my relationship with J, every time we get a big snow I break out the anecdote about Great Plains blizzards and perishing in the snow. And then this happened . . .
J and I have always loved to camp. It was the very first activity we did together when we started dating and we try to get out camping at least once a summer, if not more. T got the bug early and has loved to camp with us, although the very first time we took him out he came down Hand, Foot and Mouth disease, which made a 3:30 am run from our camp ground to the emergency room 30 miles away a necessity. Still, he has always been a camper, loving the night sky, rock climbing, hiking and throwing sticks. (Give him a stick and a rock and the boy is happy.) Usually by the end of May we are so stir crazy from the weather (our snowiest months are March and April, a fact that doesn't excite me at all this year) and ready to be out under the stars. Our favorite place to camp is a spot off of I-80, between Cheyenne and Laramie, called Vedauwoo. I have been camping there for thirty years and my mom camped there for years prior to that. It's where I want my ashes scattered when I am dead.
My heart place.
One day I will camp and have Ashke up here. My heart will explode with happiness. And this year I plan on doing the 25 mile LD they run called Happy Jack Endurance Race.
It was 2004. T was 4 years old and we were going nuts wanting to go camping. Friday was June 9th and we checked the weather channel for the extended forecast before deciding to head up. Although it was supposed to be rainy on Friday night, it was supposed to stop raining at about dusk, and the rest of the weekend would have scattered showers with a high of 70. I, in my infinite wisdom (or maybe it was just the small quiet voice in the back of my head) made sandwiches in advance (I worked at Quizno's at the time) for lunch on Saturday, which we packed in the cooler. We packed one pair of long pants and a couple of pairs of shorts, plus sweatshirts and a rain coat. We packed a lot more than that for the boy, because being small and having the energy level of a small nuclear device, he always needed more clothes. We loaded the tent, our coolers, the clothes, our camp stove and four dogs into the 4Runner and headed north.
When we got to Vedauwoo, we bypassed the State Park there and headed into Medicine Bow National forest (I will always camp in the middle of nowhere, if I have the chance.) We drove past our normal campsite, where I have been camping for thirty years, because the last time we were there we were interrupted bright and early in the morning by a full-scale grid search for human remains (someone had found a human skull next to the highway) and nothing will taint a campsite like police people looking for human remains. We continued down the road, through a wash over where the creek ran over the road, then through the forest looking. We found a cut off to the left where the horse hitching post is and started following the road that led back between the hills. The road was washboard and pretty primative, curving and bending around, until we came to another creek crossing. The crossing was about 15 feet wide and about six inches deep, but the bottom was rocky and the 4Runner crossed without issue. We continued up the road, climbing in elevation, to a place where the road curved to the right around a huge freaking boulder. The road angled, tippy the truck at a crazy angle toward the rock, but we eased by without scraping anything or tipping over (always my fear). Past the rock, the road leveled out quite a bit and we found ourselves in a long, flat meadow.
About half way down the meadow, there was a track that ran off to the left toward a big pile of rocks. We turned off there, wanting to camp in the lee of the rocks, if possible. The track climbed up for about an eighth of a mile, and then dropped down into a small bowl. We were down out of the wind, there was rock on three sides of us, and there was a small slope of trees for our hammocks between the campsite and the rock. It looked perfect. There was a flat area for the tent and plenty of wood close by for a fire. We got the dogs and the boy out of the truck and set to work.
It was getting colder as we went, so J worked on getting a fire started, and when the rain started coming down (not a surprise, we were expecting it) she left off trying to get the fire ready and brewed us some hot chocolate. By that time, I had the tent up and the air mattresses filled inside, covered with our sleeping bags and pillows (the mattresses were wall to wall, thank goodness). We got the boy set up with his DVD player, pulled the sandwiches and sodas out of the cooler for dinner and crawled into the tent. J took about an hour after she ate to dig a trench around the tent to keep the water flowing past, because the rain was really coming down. Finally, she crawled into the tent, changed out of her drenched clothes, including her rain jacket, crawled into warm clothes and into her sleeping bag. We played with the boy, made jokes, told stories, sang some songs and finally fell asleep just about dark. The rain stopped at about the same time, so we felt pretty confident we would wake the next morning to a world of sunshine and no rain. The last thing I thought when we went to sleep was how happy I was we were sleeping on air mattresses, because there was two inches of rain in the bottom of the tent. We had let the dogs out when we first got to the campsite and they were soaked and cold. We tossed them in the back of the 4Runner for the night, with their blankets and the back window cracked.
At some point in the night, I pulled T out of his sleeping bag and into my double bag with me, curling his small body against my chest and tucking his sock-covered feet between my thighs. I wrapped the extra blankets and sleeping bags over us and snuggled my sweet son while listening to the pine cones falling from the trees. It still sounded windy, but it wasn't raining any more. It was, however, pretty darn cold.
At about 5, the sound of something falling woke me up. It always sounds like footfalls to my subconscious and I come wide awake. I lay in the tent and listened, but the dogs weren't barking, so I didn't think it was a stranger. Then I realized that the breath coming out of my mouth was white. I decided I needed to look out and see what in the hell was going on. I got T wrapped up and warm in the sleeping bag, then rolled over and opened the tent window a crack.
The snow was going past the tent sideways. There was about 7" on the ground already. I couldn't see to the edge of the clearing we were in. Total white out conditions.
I closed the tent and rolled over. I said, "J, it's snowing. There is about 7" on the ground and it's going past us sideways. What do you want to do?"
J: "What time is it?"
Me: "About five or so."
J: "Sleep til seven."
I made it another half hour or so, and then I got up, put on my wet clothes and went outside to assess. I let the dogs out to potty and then they came shivering up to me and asked to get back into the truck. They were boxers and had no fur to speak of. I locked them back in the truck, got any dry clothes we had and trekked back to the tent.
I had a pair of dry pants, but my shoes were tennis shoes and soaked. J had waterproofed shoes, but only shorts and a tee shirt, plus the sweatshirt she had worn to bed. Her coat was soaked. We dressed T in as many layers as we could, then ran him to the truck and set him up with his movie, while we broke camp. By this time there was ten inches of snow on the ground and more coming down every minute. I had parked the truck at the top of the hill, facing outward, or we might never have left that campsite, since the drive up the hill was over slick rock.
The dogs were the losers on this packing trip. They ended up sharing the back of the 4Runner with the cooler, the stove and jammed in stuff. I didn't try to fold or pack anything. I just made a pile and jammed it in the truck. Even the tent ended up a big wet, snowy wad. We packed everything we could find, but we knew we were leaving things under the snow. Neither or us was willing to search any longer, being cold and wet and worried about finding our way out.
Finally, with everything packed, I started the 4Runner and put it in 4WD low. I tried to back up the truck in order to get back on the track we had followed up. The truck slid sideways toward the trees to my left. We stopped. I told J we had to go forward, even though we had no idea what was in front of us. J hopped out of the truck and in shorts and a wet coat, walked the track in front of the truck, with me following her slowly. Our biggest issue was that we had no idea how to get out, since we had only been there once and all of our landmarks were gone in a veil of white. When we got to the meadow, J got back in and I walked the edges, trying to figure out where we were. We finally figured out that we had crossed the road we had taken in and needed to back track. Once again, J got out and led the way.
When we got to the boulder, the road to the left of the boulder was filled with water. I knew it had to be six or eight feet deep and there was no way to drive past. There seemed to be a path through the trees, but my memory told me there had to be huge boulders in the ground that could rip the guts out of the truck if we weren't careful. J walked the pathway and I followed in her footsteps as we wove through the trees and rocks back to the road. We made it. We went back later and I have no idea how we managed it, though, since the path we think we drove was littered with huge boulders.
When we got to the creek we had crossed going in, it was twenty feet across and about two feet deep. J was going to try and find a path upstream, but I knew that wasn't going to work. I had noticed on the drive in that there was marshland and bog there, with deep rutting where dumbasses had mudded in their jeeps. That thick bog was buried under water, but it was still there and I knew if I tried to go that way we would be stuck. I waved J out of the way, took a deep breath and gunned the truck. We made it through without getting stuck, although J wasn't happy with my preemptory decision. With that obstacle cleared, she was able to get back in the truck.
There were no tracks. We continued through Vedauwoo toward Happy Jack road (good decision because the highway was closed and if we had gone the other way, we would have had to turn around and go back). Once we hit Happy Jack we turned toward Cheyenne, pushing snow with our bumper and following the mile marker signs at the edge of the road. About three miles out of Cheyenne there was a line of demarcation, where the snow turned to ice in the space of a foot. It was raining in Cheyenne and dry and 75 by the time we hit Denver.
So, we got to experience a High Plains blizzard. It was luck and determination and not a little bit of luck that got us out and safe. Our only other option was to stay put, in the truck, until the snow stopped and the water lowered. We had no cell coverage. We had limited food. And we had wet clothes. If we had been in the pop-up, we probably would have stayed put, since the pop-up has heat and the ability to cook and we could have dried out our clothes. Our bedding would have been dry. The dogs would have been inside and safe and dry. Things would have been different.
We were very lucky that day.