Friday, December 21, 2007


So you've probably heard about the family lost and rescued from their trip to get a Christmas tree?

Yes. Well. Once Upon a Time, in the frozen west, a certain family set out on a Saturday afternoon to cut down their own tree.

It was Thanksgiving weekend, the traditional time for us to get started decorating for the season, and we were stoked. We'd done church and lunch, packed up all sorts of good, warm clothes. The kids knew we'd be driving for quite awhile to get where we wanted to look, to the area in which the permit was good, so they'd been bribed (shhhh!) with promises of hot chocolate and supper from a fast food place -- a rarity. The kids were good. S behaved herself nicely in utero, K was her usual easy-going self and napped in her seat, G and E listened to stories and played, safely buckled in their seats. We flew up into the mountains, across steel colored highways splotched with just enough black ice to keep one alert, then onto ever smaller roads packed deep and white. When we turned into the area we'd aimed for, the trees were thick, covered like wooly sheep, a perfect array of choices for cutting. The snow, plowed off the roads, was piled about three feet on either side. It had taken us two hours, maybe a little more, to get into those roads where snowmobiles were cavorting. The light would soon be fading.

A certain someone got himself together to tramp out into the snow. He had layers on, plus gloves, hat and a good down coat. I insisted (silly, pregnant me) that in addition to the two-way radios we had, he take with him a water bottle and granola bar, just in case. He was sort of rolling his eyes at me. Rather, he kindly did not roll his eyes at me, though I'm pretty sure he wanted to. (Heh) He agreed that yes, indeed, stranger things had happened than someone getting lost looking for a nice tree to complete their Christmas revelry, and yup, it's not a bad idea to take emergency supplies.

Off he went. We were parked on the side of a forest service road, the snow packed pretty well. It began to snow a little after awhile. I ran the van again to warm us up as the kids bounced around inside to entertain themselves. Somebody had to go potty, so we hopped out and took care of that. We listened to Christmas carols, sang our favorite songs, talked about all sorts of stuff. K needed a diaper change, that got done. The number of snowmobilers began to dwindle. I began to wonder what was taking him so long.

Finally, after something like forty-five minutes, he checked in via radio. He was tromping back through heavy snow. He was pretty cold, his calves and feet wet by now, and he'd just passed the place where he had originally marked the Perfect Tree. He was walking in circles. It was dark.

Hmmm. What to do. My squirrel brain began to go a little wild. Did I mention that I was pregnant? As he was striving through drifts with great effort, I was trying to think how I would contact Search and Rescue. Was there a house near enough that had a phone? Was that last building we had passed a restaurant? Surely by now, whatever nearby officials had been out for the day were back home, and far away. Pray, pray, pray.

A certain someone heard a snowmobile approaching -- Tell me when you hear it, he said. Minutes passed. So, so slowly. Finally there was the snowmobile. Oh dear. That's rather farther away than he'd thought. ('Scuse me while I have a stroke.) He asked me to honk the horn. I did. He couldn't hear it.

I swear my heart stopped beating.

After I recovered enough to think, I put the van in reverse, figuring that in a FWD if I could keep the front wheels out of the deep snow I'd stand a better chance of either not getting stuck or getting unstuck. I was feeling a little rattled by now, shushing the kids so I could better concentrate on backing a mini-van through the dark, avoiding the occasional snowmobiler, honking the horn periodically, waiting to see if he could hear us. The batteries in the radios were beginning to wane, his first of course. We discussed whether or not we should turn them off and check in at timed intervals in order to save the power.

Okay let's back up a little more, there's a wide spot in the road, back into it, it's been about a mile and a half down the road, time to think what we should do now. Pray, pray, pray. Honk the horn again, he said. I did.

He heard it. (Oh, thank God.)

A few minutes later he emerged from the darkness, into the headlight's safety. The kicker? He hadn't taken the saw with him because he wanted to find the tree without having to haul it along. He'd marked the tree and was going back out to get it.

What? I wanted to just forget the tree, no stoopid tree is worth losing life -- husband, daddy -- over. But no. He knew right where it was and he was going back out. He did go, he did know, he returned victorious, tree in hand, and only a little time had passed. (It felt like hours.) But he didn't even need the granola bar, so that was good.

As he was tying the tree on to the top of the van, someone had stopped and asked if we needed any help. (Well not now, I thought.) They talked for a few seconds before the guy went on. The poor, half-frozen, timber-felling, hero of a man somehow got the tree secure. His fingers had to have been plain old numb by then. He managed it, though.

I was thinking that he'd be driving then, since we were all set to go and my adrenaline levels hadn't yet returned to normal, but he was wet and cold. He needed to strip off the wet layers and focus on getting warm while we beat it out of there as quickly as we could. We'd heard some vague reports of a snowstorm coming late that night and we had still at least two hours to travel. As we pulled out of the area, it began to spit little bits of snow. The kind that blows everywhere instead of sticking. The wind kicked up. As I returned to the formerly bare and dry roads, I could see the occasional patch of black ice. Pray, pray, clench the steering wheel, pray. The snow was thick in the air, swirling opaquely on the road. I slowed from forty to thirty to twenty-five. I was using the reflector posts on the side of the road to indicate a general field in which I could safely drive. When the surface of the road did become visible, it was for a few seconds at a time and I was usually pretty close to right over the center line. The kids were pretty still while I hunched over the steering wheel.

He was slowly warming up, having peeled off his wet layers, the heater on his feet blowing full blast. The kids and I had removed some layers so he could keep the heat up high without frying the rest of us. Thankfully, he had no frostbite, though his feet were pretty tender.

Eventually we made it back to the nearest town, got the kids their hot chocolate and some food. As we were getting gas, he noticed the sign across the road at the motel -- hot tubs. He joked that we should just head over and get properly warm (never mind the three punkins in the back seats). Grinning at both the joke and our relief at still being able to share them, we hopped back in and got on the freeway again.

The wind was worse, the trucks were driving like they were being chased, the black ice seemed to be gathering with every revolution of the wheels. I couldn't do it anymore. I was too shaken, too tired, too pregnant, and it was now nearly eleven o'clock. I asked him if he thought he could drive now. He thought he could and I pulled over so we could switch. We crept home, driving as fast as he reasonably could, and we pulled into our driveway at just about midnight.

It had started to snow big flakes as we came down the mountains, things turning slowly white, ordinary objects gaining grace as they lost their shapes in a coat of fluff. We left the tree (stoopid, lovely, most perfect tree ever) on the van roof, both of us just too flat tired to take it in that night. I believe we both said that if anyone needed it so badly that they were out in that kind of weather, they should have the thing.

When we got up in the morning, there were about six inches of snow dampening the sounds of the world. The mountains had gotten several feet overnight. (Gulp.) The roads had closed shortly after we passed over them, not to re-open for several days.

He took the tree off the van roof, shook the snow off and set it up on the porch to drip a little before we set it in it's stand.

It turns my stomach to think what a close call that was. Of course he had his considerable wits about him (did I mention I was functioning with that pregnant brain handicap?), was probably not nearly as worried as I was (using the snowmobile sound to orient himself, etc.), we were both praying, and he was strong and young and healthy. Oh, thank God. Thank God.

It really was a lovely tree.

1 comment:

Jenni said...

What a lovely memory. I'm glad you are here to tell the story and that you are still able to tell it so beautifully. What a wonderful gift for your children.