Way back in March of 1977 I learned firsthand the awesome, frightening power of nature. Up until that time, I hadnít really experienced anything scarier than a thunderstorm. The lessons learned that day stayed with me, and to this day I donít play chicken with Mother Nature.
After spending a little over three years in Germany, my father had rotated back to the States. His new, and final, assignment was Fort Carson, Colorado. After arriving at JKF airport in New York City, we proceeded via taxi through New York city to New Jersey to pick up our 1975 Plymouth Duster we had shipped weeks earlier. Of course, the weeks of sitting had resulted in a dead battery-an inauspicious beginning. After getting that taken care of, we were on our way to Colorado.
The trip was routine. Living in a military family, you get used to long, often boring, car trips. My two brothers and mother did their best to adjust to hours of sitting while my father drove. Around the third day of the trip, we found ourselves nearing our destination state, Colorado. While listening to the radio, however, we heard that I-70 was closed near the Colorado/Kansas state line due to weather. Since my father had planned on getting to our destination, Fort Carson, by early evening (it was then early afternoon), he decided to turn off of I-70 and go around the roadblock. This was a decision that nearly killed our family.
Turning south from I-70 onto highway 27, we headed for what we thought was an alternate, safe route. After a short time on highway 27, the wind started picking up and small wisps of snow (called snow snakes out here) began to appear on the pavement. A few more miles brought a steady, wind-driven snow, but visibility was still acceptable. Within the space of just a few subsequent minutes, however, all hell broke loose. We were being hit broadside by a genuine Kansas blizzard that made me think 17 years was all I was going to get on this earth.
Visibility had dropped to no further than the hood of our car. To this day I donít know how we kept from running off the two-lane highway; divine intervention must have had a hand in it. There was really no way to turn around, and sitting still wasnít an option, so we kept creeping forward for what seemed an eternity. If you have never been in a blizzard, it is difficult to imagine the sheer terror of being disoriented, blind, and surrounded by bitter-cold wind and snow.
Finally, mercifully, we made it to a small whistle-stop of a town named Sharon Springs, Kansas, thirty miles due south of I-70. Waist-high drifts were already forming up against anything that impeded the wind-driven snowís progress. As I recall, Sharon Springs consisted of nothing more than a few houses, a gas station, a diner, and a motel, but it looked like a heavenly oasis to me. I remember begging my father to stop in the town, thinking he might have had a notion to continue. He assured me we that there was no way we were going to continue. We got a room in the motel (we actually had to dig our way IN to the room because of the drift against the door), ate in the diner, and had a fitful nightís sleep.
The next day, the storm had passed and the sun came out. Looking outside, there was very little snow on the flat-as-a-pancake Kansas fields surrounding Sharon Springs. Against buildings, however, snow was drifted all of the way to second-story roofs. The contrast was amazing! Since there was almost no snow on the roads, after one last meal in the diner, we proceeded to our destination.
What were the lessons learned here? One, when an area is closed due to weather, do not try to find an alternate route into said area. Find out more information and then go home or find a safe place to stay. Two, donít underestimate the weather and/or overestimate your ability. Three, keep your wits about you in a bad situation; they are really the only chance you have of surviving.
I hope I have been able to convey the seriousness of respecting natureís weather whims. Although we often like to think of ourselves as prepared for any eventuality, the best preparation is to not get into a dire circumstance in the first place. No amount of survival gear we could have carried (had we even known about survivalism then) would have saved us if we had stalled on the highway. Had we stalled, we would have been buried alive under 20 feet of snow.
Please, for your own sake, as well as the sake of your loved ones, learn a lesson from my familyís ignorance and respect the weather.
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