This is a short but true story that was written by my husband Jeff a few years ago. I thought that it would be quite fitting to share this story here on the booneyliving.com blog.
Several years ago our family made a major lifestyle change. We left the hustle and bustle of life in the suburbs and moved to the mountains of southern Oregon.
One of the challenges that came with moving into the mountains was the amount of snow that fell during the winter. Prior to our move, we lived in Utah so we were somewhat accustomed to dealing with the challenges of living in the snow. Unfortunately, no amount of time spent enduring the Utah winters could have prepared us for the winter of 2008.
The first two winters on the mountain were more severe than we had anticipated. Fortunately, they weren’t so severe that we couldn’t manage. In retrospect, if our first winter up there would have been as bad as the winter of 2008, we wouldn’t have been able to stay on the mountain at all.
That winter actually started off pretty slow. Some people were even beginning to worry that we didn’t have enough snow pack in the mountains to fill the reservoirs that supply the much needed water for the summer. Any concerns that people had were, however, quickly stifled when the snow fell in late February.
The first big storm dropped about 15″ of heavy wet snow during the night. We were completely caught off guard by the storm. Since we lived in a remote forest, there weren’t any city, county, or state snow plows to clear the roads for us. We were responsible for our own snow removal. A few of us had snow plows on our trucks which was nice. Our family was responsible for plowing about a half mile of the gravel road. Normally, our plow rig does a pretty good job of moving the snow but the snow from this storm was particularly challenging. When the snow is wet and heavy, it can be extremely difficult to manage. Instead of it moving off to the side of the road and spilling over into the ditch as you drive forward, it tends to build up in front of the plow until you just can’t push it anymore.
It took most of the day of fighting with the thick heavy snow to sufficiently clear the narrow dirt road that day. When the sun went down, we went to bed relieved that we were actually able to accomplish the task. We were fortunate that we had the equipment to deal with this unforeseen surprise. Others were not so lucky.
Our little mountain home was situated two and a half miles from the highway. If we could keep a path cleared to the highway, the state plowed the rest. It was a total of 35 miles to town from our place. I’m sure you can understand how important it was for our roads to be free from snow. In the event of an emergency, it could take quite a while to get to town when the roads are dry. Add snow to the equation and a medical emergency could potentially become life threatening.
There were about five families that lived farther from the highway than we did. Ironically, none of them had snow plows. They either hired someone to plow for them or put chains on their four wheel drive truck tires and attempted to muscle their way through the snow until they got to the portion of the road that we keep plowed. On the day of this particular storm, none of these families did either. I imagine that they thought the snow from this storm would melt in a day or two and all would be fine. After all, the winter had been really mild thus far.
We went to bed that night tired but relieved that we were actually able to clear a path to safety. When morning came, my wife forcefully woke me and urged me to go outside to see the snow that had fallen during the night. When I opened the door, I felt as though I had been punched in the stomach. Good ‘ol Mother Nature had left an even bigger mess than the night before! In addition to the fifteen inches from the day before, we now had another twenty four.
The snow wasn’t quite as heavy this time which should have been good news. It should have meant that we would be able to move it with the plow a bit easier. The reality was that it really didn’t matter what the snow was like. We had been hit with nearly forty inches of the white stuff in just two days. At the end of the first day, we had a one lane path cut through the snow. The bad news was that the snow banks were packed with nearly four feet of heavy, frozen snow. This meant that there wasn’t any place to push the new snow. Things were not looking good for us and the relief that we felt from the night before was quickly turning to panic.
We began to take stock of our supplies and it quickly became apparent that the situation was not a good one. We lived off the grid which meant that the power company didn’t supply power to our home. We had a generator to produce our electricity and we knew that our supply of gasoline was running low. We probably had enough for a couple of more days but that was all. If we were to become stranded on the mountain, there would be no telling how long it would be before we could dig our way out.
I decided to try and move some snow with our plow to get an idea of what we were up against. It only took a couple of minutes to figure out that our plow was no match for the newly deposited white stuff. There just wasn’t any place for the snow to go. At that point, my only option was to try and use the front end loader on our small tractor to lift the snow a scoop at a time over the snow banks. It would take a long time but it had to be done. It was the only way off the mountain.
My wife and I were concerned about ourselves but we were also worried about our neighbors who lived farther down the road from us. Our plan was to use the tractor to clear a path so that we could get to town and stock up on supplies. They however, didn’t have that option. They were snowed in, and for how long was anybodies guess.
Moving the snow with the small tractor was a daunting task. It took the better part of a day to reach the point where others had been clearing snow. Already exhausted from a hard day of snow removal, we loaded into our Jeep and quickly made our way to town for supplies. While we were driving, we began to talk about our neighbors who wouldn’t be able to make it to town. What if they needed supplies but couldn’t get them? We started making phone calls to try and find out what their situation was. As it turned out, they all had enough on hand to hold them over for a while. That is all but one of our newer neighbors. There were a couple of people who we weren’t aware of. Luckily, one of our neighbors had met them earlier that year and had exchanged phone numbers with them.
I tried and tried to get in touch with them on the telephone but no one answered. We thought that perhaps they had gotten off the mountain before the storm hit and that was why they weren’t answering.
After stocking up on supplies that we might need to stay comfortable in the event that we did get snowed in, we headed back up the mountain. It would be an inconvenience but we would be warm and comfortable while we waited it out. I remember my wife joking around with the kids to help settle their nerves. As it turned out, they weren’t nervous at all. All this snow meant to them was that school was going to be canceled for a while and what kid doesn’t love a good “snow day”?
It was no sooner than we arrived home that the phone started ringing. My wife answered and it was the new couple that we were concerned about who were on the line. They were actually still on the mountain and things were not looking good for them. After speaking with them for a minute, we learned that one of them was diabetic and was running short on insulin. Unfortunately they hadn’t prepared for winter life on a mountain very well. They informed us that they were rationing their food and living mostly on bread and tea.
It was around 7:00 PM when we heard from them and learned about their predicament. My wife works in nursing and she was all too aware of how dangerous their situation was. She explained to me that a diabetic without food and the necessary doses of insulin could easily die. After hearing this bad news, it became apparent to me that somehow we needed to get some food to them; and it had to be soon.
We immediately took a minute to assess our options. Driving the supplies back to them was definitely out of the question because the snow was simply too deep. Hiking it in would have been too tasking with all the supplies that needed to be carried. The only option that seemed to make sense was to use my mule to make my way up the mountain and deliver the supplies. Fortunately, she had extensive experience riding in the snow and it was a regular occurrence for me to take her on long winter rides.
My wife and I discussed the possibility of waiting until morning but we decided that if it snowed again that night, it would be impossible to get back to them. Our only chance of getting them the supplies that they needed would be for me to leave right away. While my wife packed several sets of saddle bags with some food that she thought would help a diabetic in an emergency, I saddled up Annabelle.
She had always been a good reliable mule but that night things would be under different circumstances. I had taken her away from her evening meal to saddle her in the dark. Both of these things were out of the ordinary for our routine. Despite the unique conditions, she was remarkably steady and calm.
The temperature was quickly falling and it was starting to snow again. Ironically enough, it was especially dark that night. I bundled up in several layers of clothing, grabbed my survival pack, the saddle bags stuffed with food, and headed out to begin my journey. I could tell from the look on my wife’s face how worried she was. She seemed to realize the danger to come even more than I did at the time. All I knew was that my family was safe and warm and these people were hungry and in a precarious situation and that I was the only one who could help them.
I remember that it was especially difficult to climb into the saddle that night. I had so many layers of clothing on that it was a chore just to bend my legs. I train all of my animals to move over to the fence and wait for you to get on just for occasions such as this. This little trick really paid off that night. Mounted up, Anabelle and I headed out the gate and down the long dark and snowy road.
Things started out well enough but when we arrived at the end of the plowed road, our journey began to get a bit more challenging. About forty-five minutes into our ride, I began to notice that her slow, steady, powerful strides were gradually becoming more labored. I stopped to rest her but when she continued, all she could manage were a few clumsy forward lunges into the increasingly deep snow. On the third lunge, she fell over and of course I went with her. Exhausted, and breathing heavily, she laid quietly in the snow while she was catching her breath. I felt horrible for pushing her so hard. I never would have dreamed of doing such a thing but a persons life was at stake. While we both lay there in the snow I spoke quietly to her and apologized for putting her through this ordeal.
A few minutes passed and she made her way back to her feet. I however, didn’t budge. I just laid there and contemplated my next move. Should I go back? Should I walk in the rest of the way? I just didn’t know. I decided to use my cell phone to try and get an idea how much longer I had to travel but each time I tried to call, the call went straight to voice mail.
I was alone and my only companions were an exhausted mule, the cold wet snow, and the darkness. For a moment, I thought about leaving Annabelle and attempting to carry the food the remaining distance on my own but I took a few strides in the belly deep snow and I knew immediately that going it alone wasn’t an option. It was hard enough for me to forge my way through the snow without the extra burden of carrying fifty pounds of food.
After weighing my options, I concluded that the best thing to do would be to lead Annabelle and let her carry the supplies while I broke the trail for her. Step by painful step, we advanced up the mountain. The amount of effort that each step took was discouraging to say the least. I was breathing hard and beginning to sweat. Anyone who knows anything about winter wilderness survival knows that once you start to sweat, you’re in trouble. Hypothermia is deadly and it can set in very quickly when your skin and clothing are wet from perspiration.
As I began to sweat, my glasses quickly fogged up. As if the dark and snow didn’t make it difficult enough to see! Now my glasses were completely covered with fog. I’m very nearsighted and most everything farther than fifteen inches from my face is blurry without my the use of my glasses. It didn’t matter anyway, as fast as I could wipe them, they would fog up again. I decided to put them in my pocket since they weren’t doing me any good anyway.
The snowflakes that night were very small but there were a lot of them and they were coming down rather quickly. This made my flashlight relatively useless. If you’ve ever driven at night in a blizzard, you know that your headlights will be of little use to you. With a bit of squinting I was able to see the ponderosa pine trees that lined the snow covered gravel road. This would at least help me stay on the right path which was about the only good thing I had going for me at the time. My spirits were down and I was becoming colder by the minute. I didn’t know how much farther I had to go and although I wanted to turn around and head home. I couldn’t help but think about these two people who where stranded on the mountain without anything to eat.
As I continued forward, strange things started to happen to me. I would take a few steps and then rest for several minutes on my knees. Because the snow was literally above my belt line, plowing my way through it step by step was extremely tasking. The combination of being cold and exhausted was beginning to cloud my judgement and I seemed to be “losing time”. Almost as if I had been drifting in and out of consciousnesses. This really scared me because I knew that if I were to fall asleep, I would certainly freeze to death. I remembered hearing stories about people who had succumbed to the cold. As the stories were told, it’s a relatively painless death. The victims of the cold simply drift off to sleep to never wake up.
I started slapping myself in the face to try and become more alert. Despite these attempts, my thoughts were becoming more and more clouded and I was continued to lose time. Still, I forced myself to press on. I kept thinking that I had to be getting close to their house and if I could just make a few more steps up the hill, I would be able to warm up and rest. The thought of being able to get warm, gave me the strength to push on which is exactly what I did.
What happened next is a bit foggy. All I can remember was the feeling of rhythmical painful thumping on my back. I remember being confused. I didn’t really know where I was or why my back was hurting. I remember thinking that I was at home in my bed and surprisingly, I wasn’t cold at all. It wasn’t cold but I didn’t realize where I was and the thumping continued as if someone were punching me in the small of my back.
After an unknown length of time had passed, my thoughts began to clear and I realized that I was lying face down in the snow and Annabelle was pawing at me with her front hoof. I slowly made my way back up to my knees and it was then that I realized what had happened. I had fallen asleep and she must have sensed that something was wrong because she was trying to wake me up by thumping on my back with her foot. Relieved and startled about what a close call that was, I rubbed her briskly under her neck as I thanked her and told her what a good girl she was.
This close call was surprising rejuvenating. I suddenly found the strength to once again begin to make my way up the long snow covered mountain road. I remember that every few steps, I would stumble and fall to my knees. Each time, Annabelle wasted no time in nudging me with her nose. This was a bit irritating but it was motivating at the same time. You see, if I didn’t keep moving, she would nudge me and knock me off balance. I was so tired that it required a lot of effort to regain my footing after she knocked me down and the painful memory of her stepping on me inspired me to push on.
I can’t tell you exactly how much longer this went on but it seemed like hours. Then, all of a sudden I remember being quite relieved to see the faint outline of man standing in the snowy road and waving a kerosine lantern to get my attention. I couldn’t hear him but I could make out that he was waving the lantern back and forth. As I continued on, I heard him calling out to me. He must have been able to tell that I was struggling because he was offering words of encouragement and telling me to keep coming because I was almost there. I remember hearing him yelling, “You’re almost here! Just a little bit farther!” I didn’t have the energy to answer him but I found just enough strength to make my way the last few steps up the hill.
You can’t begin to imagine the relief that I felt when I finally reached the narrow path that he had cleared in the snow. Relieved at having arrived, I eagerly untied the saddle bags and handed one of them to the man and hastily threw Anabelle’s lead rope around a nearby tree branch.
The faceless stranger introduced himself and led me to the front door of a rather odd looking house. Once inside, I noticed that they had some tea warming on a small kerosene heater and I eagerly accepted their offer of a steaming cup of the tasteless liquid. It was very mild tea. I imagine that they had been using the same tea bag for quite some time. I’ve never been very fond of hot tea but that night it was a special treat. It was so warming and so comforting that I had two more cups of what amounted to be surprisingly satisfying hot water while I visited with my new neighbors.
If you can believe it, they were actually living in a twenty five foot metal storage container. It was furnished with a couple of chairs, a folding table, some stacked up cupboards, and a small bed that was covered by a strangely out of place, plastic sheet. The container wasn’t insulated and the warmth from their kerosine heater combined with the moisture from our breath was causing quite a lot of condensation to accumulate on the metal ceiling.
While I was resting up from my unpleasant trek up the mountain, I noticed that the condensation would build up on the ceiling until it was too heavy and then it would start dripping like rain onto us and all of their belongings. After seeing this, the plastic comforter on their bed suddenly made sense to me. I must admit that I was really quite shocked to see that these people had been surviving in such inhospitable conditions. They mentioned that the only thing that was making these conditions bearable was the company of their two small dogs. When they told me this, I couldn’t help but wonder to myself how long it had been since these dogs had eaten because there didn’t appear to be much, if any food in their tiny metal home.
They were, of course, very gracious and thankful for the food and the effort that it took to deliver it to them. They offered to let me stay the night but I was doubtful that I would be able to make it home in the morning if it continued to snow like it had been. By leaving when I did, I would at least have the luxury of riding out in the same path that Annabelle and I had broken on our way up the hillside. I thanked them for their offer but declined and said goodbye as I began to make my way back to where I had left Annabelle. Even though I wasn’t thrilled to be out in the cold again, it was a comforting feeling to see her patiently sanding by the tree and waiting for me to return.
I remember that the snow where she was standing was especially deep and despite my efforts to climb into the saddle, I was unable to. I had several layers of clothing on and getting on her before we headed out on this journey was a pretty tough chore. Now that I was tired and wet, mounting a 15 and a half hand mule was out of the question. I felt deflated when I looked around and realized that there wasn’t anything that I could climb up on so that I could get on her and ride home. Dejected once again, I started walking down the dark mountain road.
The silver lining to this cloud was that it was a little bit easier hiking on the return trip since we had already broken a bit of a trail on the way up. After a few minutes, I was able to make out the shape of what appeared to be a large snow covered stump or rock. The feeling that came over me when I made this discovery was like someone had just picked me up in a limousine. It meant that I would be able to climb onto it so that I could get a foot into the stirrup and ride out instead of walking several miles back down the mountain.
As fate would have it, Annabelle was as eager as I was to get home and she started walking before I could swing my leg over the saddle. I remember laying there on my stomach with my body draped over the saddle like a dead cowboy in the old western movies. As she carried me down the hill I had a grin on my face and remember saying to myself, “hey, at least I’m not walking”. I let her walk for a while and then pulled back on the reins to stop her so that I could get my leg over and settle myself comfortably into the saddle. I never did put my other foot into the stirrup that night. I simply held tight to the night latch, gave her the reins and let her carry me down the trail while I rested. It was an amazing feeling to know that the hard part was over and that we would be home shortly.
When I finally made it home, I unsaddled Annabelle and treated her to a big flake of hay and several scoops of sweet feed before making my way to the house. You could sure see the relief in my wife’s eyes when I came walking through our front door that night. She jumped up and threw her arms around me and with tears in her eyes told me how thankful she was for my safe return. I had been gone over four hours and she was beginning to fear the worst.
The first thing I did was take a hot shower and then I got bundled under some heavy blankets and shared the story of my adventures with my family. It wasn’t until I went over the events of the evening with my wife and children that I realized exactly what Annabelle had done for me that night.
I can say, in all honesty, that I owe my life to that funny sounding “half-assed” horse. If she hadn’t sensed that something was wrong and kept pawing at me to wake me up, there’s not a doubt in my mind that I would have frozen to death on the mountain that night.
For that I’ll always be grateful to her.