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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!”