Caught in the Blizzard

Story and photographs by Sunny Lockwood

All pictures in this story were taken during the first 20 minutes of the Feb. 17, 2011, mountain blizzard. Although they appear to be black and white, they were taken with a color Canon digital camera.

Copyright 2011 by Merikay McLeod All Rights Reserved

Prologue The drive from my home to West Point, California, covers 40 miles. The drive north along State Highway 49 and then east on State Highway 26 rises from 1,400-feet elevation in the rolling Gold Rush foothills to about 3,000-feet elevation on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. Near West Point, the road drops into a river canyon, descending precipitously and then climbing sharply. It’s not a route for the unwary.

The blizzard caught me. I’d checked the computer forecast about noon and it said 40 degrees in West Point (California) for the day, with snow flurries and rain. Mountain blizzards are quick and brutal and there’s no way I wanted to deal with one. But I figured I could handle 40 degrees and rain. Just to make sure, however, I phoned my hairdresser for an on-the-ground assessment. She said fluffy flakes had been floating gently all day, but they were gone before they hit the ground. “It’s fine here,” she said. So I drove to West Point for my monthly hair-trim. Unfortunately, the forecast was wrong. As my hairdresser was shaping my fresh-cut for a few minutes under the drier, the air outside turned gray/green and snow poured thick, wet and heavy. We could barely see across the street. “Go! Get out of here!” she said. “Pay me next time.” I ran out, wet headed, into the storm. Jumping in my car – a feather light Toyota Corolla with no snow tires -- I hightailed it for home. The windshield wipers strained to move under their sopping snow load. Two miles away, when I reached Rabbit Foot Road, on the rim of the Mokelumne River Canyon, the snow was at least three inches deep, but I had one thought – get home. If I could get down below the snowline, everything would be fine. Since West Point stands on a 3,000-foot high ridge, I figured I could make it below 2,000 feet and be out of the snow and wind. So I crept down the canyon, across the bridge at the bottom, and up the other side at 10 mph in whiteout conditions, scared out of my wits. The wind made my car lean and moan. By the time I reached Humbug Creek Farm at the top of the canyon on the far side, I couldn’t go any farther so I pulled off into the driveway.

The snow should have been lighter here, and the road, State Highway 26, should have been clear. Obviously, this was a bigger blizzard than I’d counted on. I got out and hiked the quarter mile drive up to the house. No one was home. By the time I got back to the car, the snow had already filled my footprints. Inside, staring out at the torrent of white erasing the landscape around me, I began recriminating: I should never have risked the trip. My hair could have waited another week for a trim. I should never have left the beauty shop. I should have turned around and gone back when I reached Rabbit Foot Road. What was I thinking of? As I sat there, the snow piled up wet and thick, smothering every sound except the swish of it against my car. “What have I got myself into?” I wondered. I snapped some photos of the wild beauty all around me, but they did nothing to calm or reassure me. New strategy: wait for the snowplow and then follow it along State Highway 26 to where it crosses State Highway 49, at least 1,000-feet farther down the mountain. Surely from there I could easily drive home on clear roads. After about an hour, as darkness began closing in like a fist, a snowplow scraped by, clanging against the pavement as it passed. Joyously, I turned on my car, switched on the windshield wipers and pulled out behind it. The wipers strained with a shh-thunk, shh-thunk in the torrential snow. Unfortunately, the plow I was counting on to get me out, did not scrape down to the pavement. It left a layer of slush that my tires could not handle. Almost immediately, I started slipping and sliding. I entered the state of hyperventilation where I would stay for the next few hours. For the most part, Highway 26 has no shoulder. Like many mountain roads, its two narrow lanes wind and dip and climb like an asphalt ribbon between cliffs that rise on one side and cliffs that drop on the other.

I put my car in 2nd gear and crept along at a walking pace, praying for somewhere to safely pull off. As I slid toward the falling cliff, I prayed, “Please don’t let me go over the cliff!” As I slid across the oncoming lane, toward the rising cliff, I prayed, “Please don’t let me hit the cliff!” Back and forth I fishtailed to the straining shh-thunk, shh-thunk of windshield wipers. Visibility vanished. The snowplow’s tracks disappeared. The ceaselessly pouring snow erased everything. A few feet ahead, huge branches broke from wind-whipped trees, crashing to the ground. Then, on a gentle rise, my car started sliding backward. “Help!” I cried out, but the car continued to slide. Then it went into a broad half spin and came to a stop crosswise in the middle of the road. I freaked. Anyone coming down the hill would surely slide into it. I turned on the headlights and the blinking taillights and got out. I had no gloves, no boots, no shovel, no hat. The trunk was totally empty. I did, however, have a large umbrella covered with light-reflecting stars in the back seat. That was the only useful thing in the car. I didn’t even have a winter coat on, just a light sweater jacket, jeans and tennis shoes (already wet from my walk to the Humbug Creek farmhouse). But I was too scared to think about my condition. It looked like six inches of icy snow covered everything. And as I surveyed the situation, I saw that my light, little car was facing a side street (Flying Dove Lane). If I could just inch the Toyota over to that lane, it would be safe from traffic.

I knelt down and began hand clearing a space in front of each tire, scraping away snow and slush until I’d reached the pavement. I cleared about a foot in front of each tire, then climbed back in the car and drove forward just about a foot. Then back outside, down on my hands and knees and more clearing. The snow piled on my head, shoulders and back. I was so cold I could barely feel my feet or my fingers. Back inside and another foot forward. All the while the snow poured and the wind gusted. As other cars and trucks came down the hill, I opened my umbrella and waved them around my car. They were creeping and sliding along, doing their best to stay on the pavement. Then back to clearing snow and slush, back inside to inch forward. Back outside clearing a path and so on in my desperate, freezing attempt to get my car to safety. Fear filled me as inch by frozen inch my car crept toward Flying Dove Lane. Eventually, more of it was on the lane than on Highway 26. But the snow was at least a foot deep and I was so cold and wet, I could barely move. I heard nearby voices. Although it was dark, the falling snow kept a kind of glow alive. I followed the voices and found a young couple who had just made it home from work. The husband grabbed a shovel and returned with me to my car. He had been a tow-truck driver at one time and he quickly cleared the snow away from my tires making a path to some pine trees on the side of Flying Dove Lane, then he pushed as I drove. Once the car was safely under the shelter of the trees, I locked it up. Next, this kind couple lent me their phone and I called a friend who lived in the area. Her husband came immediately and got me. His 4-wheel drive Pontiac Vibe slid all over the place in the blustery wind and slippery snow. When we finally reached his drive, he parked, saying the car wouldn’t make it up. So we hiked the last 300-feet up the hill, struggling through calf-deep snow.

My rescuers had a delicious beef stew simmering and there was a fire in the wood stove and a guest bed upstairs. For the first time since I left West Point, I felt as if everything was going to be okay. However, the blizzard blew out their electricity so we all ate by candlelight. In the morning, with their back-up generator running, we had coffee and scrambled eggs. There was more than two feet of snow on their deck, and nearby trees bent low under their heavy burdens of white. Later in the morning, when the blizzard calmed, my boss drove his SUV over to pick me up. When I climbed in his car, he said, “Don’t tell me this is all because of your hair.” “Okay, I won’t,” I said, thinking his was such a typical male question. If I’d driven to West Point to discuss hunting or fishing or trucks, there’d be no query about the appropriateness of the trip. Nonetheless, his question made me smile. And smiling felt a whole lot better than what I’d been through yesterday. On our way out, we saw many cars and trucks parked in roadside snow banks. Later that week, after much of the snow had melted, I drove my car home. The blizzard experience reminded me of nature’s power as well as the profound power of generosity. The driving snow hid the road, bent pines and broke branches but could not stop the big hearted people of Calaveras County who helped me and others like me during the storm. Thank you to all who reached out in the spirit of neighborliness. Because of you, life in rural California (even during fierce winter blizzards) is grand. ###

Epilogue Looking back on this experience of freezing, fear and frantic struggle, I realize that my panicked prayers for help were answered “Yes.” All I can say in response is “Thank you!”