Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Happy Ending

My Honda CR-V stuck in snow
(Continued from yesterday).........
And so I started walking forward, sloshing through mud and more snow which was getting more frequent as I walked on. This made me realize that if I ever had made it through that first patch of deep snow/ice mixture, I would certainly not have made it any further. The snow was deep and the gravel was very muddy, but at least I created enough traction to walk on, occasionally falling into the foot-deep snow covered with ice which appeared strong enough to hold my weight, but at some areas was not as strong. The snow kept falling intermittently, and at one moment it was coming so hard that I had to seek shelter under a pine tree, of which there were millions. But I stayed on the main road not knowing what kind of wildlife was in the area. Luckily there was hardly any movement all along the 10 miles remaining. By 12 noon I had covered 3 miles and I was wondering what Teresa and her mother Anna Mae were thinking, as we had agreed to meet at her house for lunch. At this time I had lost all interest in photography and I carried my camera just because I had taken hundreds of pictures so far on my trip and did not want to leave it behind in my car. Besides it was light and kept it occasionally around my neck and at times in my plastic back, so that I can put my hands in my pocket to kept them warm By 12:30 PM I had finally reached the Cottonwood campgrounds, but to my disappointment everything was closed and locked up, and worse yet, the sign said :”Open June to September.” There was absolutely no sign of life, no cars and undoubtedly no one ever came close to the entrance in months, as the snow was in the middle of the road and no tire marks were anywhere to be seen.

But at least I was now walking on black-top, besides the occasional stretch of snow, especially in the areas where the sun does not hit or where the pine trees do not let the sun to shine anytime during the day. Since snow was abundant everywhere, I came to the conclusion that this campsite is located in the high mountains, probably around 6500 feet above sea level. Other than an occasional chipmunk and some birds, mostly crows, there was no sign of life. But there were a few creeks or small rivers that gurgled down water or melted snow. One sign of hope was the signpost that read Mile 6 on the side of the road. These are mileposts that usually go down towards the main road. So as I continued to walk and hope that the next milepost will be 5, I thought to myself “6 miles ain’t that bad, and besides I walked 3 NYC marathons in 1985, 1986 and 1987, and with the 4 miles I had already walked, 10 miles should not be an impossible task, as long as there are not many hills.” And to my advantage, the rest of the way was completely downhill, a non-stop twisting and turning road that must be pretty busy in the summer months, but completely desolate today and throughout the winter months.
I started timing myself between each mile, which I covered in an average of 18 minutes. Snow and sun intermingled their participation in this ordeal, but my constant moving kept me warm and focused on my goal to get out of this alive. Three rosaries and three Novenas of Divine Mercy filled my time between each mile, and to my great relief Mile 5 led to Mile 4 and then Mile 3 and Mile 2 as I kept my eyes for the last sign that said Mile 1, finally ending my descent as the time now was 2:30 PM, hoping to hear some traffic in the distance and eventually the sight of cars whizzing by Route 140. Cows in a nearby fields and an adjacent ranch gave me the first sign of human and animal life, other than the chipmunks and crows. The long road that leads to the main road finally appeared and even though I could not see any cars go by for a full two minutes, thinking that this was simply a start of another abandoned side street, a truck finally went by and then another car, knowing that I was finally safe. As I reached the intersection of the end of Cottonwood Drive, I stood by the side of the main road, Route 140, hoping that the first car will stop and pick me up. But that was not the case. An Idaho license-plated car whizzed by and ignored me, a Penske truck and another car went by and thereupon I realized that this part of the ordeal is going to be the most heart-breaking. If these drivers knew what I have been through, and that my car was stuck in the snow on top of the mountain, they would have treated me better, but all they saw was what appeared to them as a homeless man with a plastic bag and a Yankees baseball cap, flagging them down. After three more cars went by with the same result, I thought of plan B, and half a mile down the road was a ranch with plenty of cows pasturing. That’s where I headed hoping to at least make a phone-call to the Albertson’s. My cell-phone all along showed the same message “No service,” and this is as helpless as seeing that annoying clock showing 12:00 flashing in your face after a power failure.
Reaching the ranch, I met two men working and after explaining to them what had happened to me, I asked if I could use their phone and called Anna Mae, since I knew Teresa would be there, hanging out after lunch and waiting to pick up the children from school, as it was now 3:25 PM. The two guys at the Drews Valley ranch were very nice to me, and one of them told me that two weeks he got stuck in the snow on a 4-wheeler up on Cottonwood mountain. I don’t think he went as far as I was stranded at, but he understood my predicament, and after thanking them, I waited for one of the Albertson boys to pick me up.
Sure enough, Mark and his father Leo arrived within half an hour, and mercifully picked me and listened patiently to my story. Since Mark apparently has a dog, I noticed afterwards that my black jacket was completely covered with dog hair, which was quite an ordeal in itself to pick out one by one. Drews Valley ranch was 23 miles from Lakeview and the Cottonwood drive was 7 miles from town. I told Mark and Leo that there was no way they could reach my car from the black-topped road from where they had picked me up, since there was a large amount of snow on this side of my stranded Honda, and assured them that the only way in was from the other entrance, from where I actually had started. So off we went, and both Mark and Leo calmed me down and convinced me that they will pull out my car without any problem. I explained to them the fact that it wasn’t buried deep in snow, but was precipitously close to an embankment, and I was afraid it might fall or tumble down, hurting me and damaging the car beyond repair. So up the hill we went, twisting and turning as I had done 8 hours earlier. I had no doubt that my car was still where I left it, as I was sure that not one single car went up there after me. Even Mark found it hard to maneuver some of the turns as his truck is bigger than my car. He even put on his 4-wheel drive contraption as he started going over the snow. The sight of my car was a sign of relief for all of us and after turning his truck around, they both hitched my Honda from the back and pulled me out in 3 seconds. After getting two big hugs and plenty of smiles from me, we turned around and headed home, with both Leo and Mark making sure I was right there behind them, at least for the first 4 miles down the muddy and snowy hill. From then on I stopped to take a few more photos but did not prolong my return home, after a long and scary day, a day to remember …..and a memory to forget.
So many thoughts crossed my mind through all this. What if I persisted in trying to get my car out by myself and fell down the embankment, hurting myself? What if I fractured a bone, what if I bled to death? What if I froze to death, since the temperatures were way below freezing overnight. How could I have walked the remaining 10 miles if I got hurt? Would they have got the Search and Rescue team to look out for me? Would I have stayed up there all night long and waited for someone to rescue me? I had enough gas for maybe 100 miles or so. Therefore starting it every hour to warm myself during the night would probably have done the trick. But maybe after all, I did make the best decision - to walk on, even though I was between Cougar Peak and Grizzly Peak. But thank God I only found that out after my ordeal. If I discovered that before, I would have certainly stayed up there in my car, waiting for help. But my courage and my determination won the biggest victory for me that day. It was a traumatic experience that I will never forget as long as I live. And even after driving 1158 miles and taking 1084 photos, the one thing that will stick to my mind during this week is the possibility of having lost my life up on a mountain surrounded by cougars and bears. It surely was....a day to remember …..and a memory to forget.

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