"In the dark of late night, in the middle of nowhere, in a place no one would come, in a heavy snowstorm with 6 inches of snow in 6 hours, a gusty wind blowing at 50 miles per hour, a temperature of -40F, and zero visibility - guess what was going through my mind in those 10 long hours?"March 24, 1996.
-- From mail to my friends.
It was a Sunday afternoon. When I came to our research center that morning, it had been rainy. I complained about the rain because it came too soon in the cold, early spring, so that I had to drive carefully on the 20 miles of icy country road. The frozen land was not yet ready to let rain water penetrate, so the water was creating mud here and there.
I know the road well: pass an alcohol plant, pass the military training center gate and its road, pass one farmer's house, and the rest is all corn fields and animal grazing land, strewn with hundreds of bunkers built during World War II. There is also an idle railway running through the undeveloped land. This is the only road from the small town where I live to our research center, located in the middle of nowhere on the vast Nebraska plain. As usual, I encountered only a couple vehicles during the 20-mile trip to my office.
My time in the office on Sundays has always been pleasant, since I could spend whole blocks of hours on the Internet while waiting for some experiments running in the lab. Learning, exploring, and working on the Internet is my hobby.
In mid-afternoon, while looking out the window, I found some big clumps of wet snow had been blown and stuck to the window. "Gee! What a change!" I commented on the weather.
By 5 p.m., I needed to check my experiments in the lab. Coming out of the lab, I was greeted in the hallway by the center's General Operations Chief.
"I knew someone was in the building!" He smiled and appeared relieved.
I was surprised to see him in a heavy overcoat, with his head, feet, and hands well protected. Before I could return the greeting, he continued: "You'd better go home early. There is a big snowstorm coming and it is already pretty messy out there!" I learned later that he came especially to find me and advise me to go home before dark.
About an hour later, he came to knock on my office door again: "I have called Lester (the center director) at home, and he advises you to stay in the building and not go home." I started to sense the seriousness of the storm, but still took it lightly; I grew up in Inner Mongolia, and spent so many years in Wisconsin, where the cold and snow in winter are much worse. I started to prepare to go home, since I was really tired and wanted to have a hot shower, a hot meal, and a sound sleep.
By 7:10 p.m. I was in my car. I realized only then that the storm was much stronger than I had thought. What I had seen through my office window was only the view from the lee side of the building. Actually, I didn't realize fully the danger ahead of me.
After driving to the road, I found the snow was blowing so heavily that I could not see anything through the windshield. As I could glimpse the road between snow gusts and I knew there was basically no traffic on the road in this area, especially at that snowy time, I determined to go ahead. I felt a bit reassured when I took a look at the gasoline gauge. I had almost a full tank.
On the westbound road I drove the car, pushing onward through the northern wind, into the darkness, where I could see nothing besides horizontally flying snow. The only thing I could do to keep the car on the road was to look out driver's-side window to look for the left edge of the road - taking advantage of my car to shield my view.
I could not drive more than five miles per hour. For the entire five miles before the first stop sign, I stayed in first gear.
I have walked through vast curtains of falling snow, out of the mountains in Inner Mongolia; I have driven through blowing snow that blotted out the sky and covered the earth on I-90 in Wisconsin; but this time it was so different: hundreds of tons of snow was flying in a fierce wind, so that I could not tell where the sky ended and the earth began, and there was almost no chance for me to take a breath or find any reference in the gusty wind. What is more, it had gotten dark.
I started to become nervous, since I could barely see five feet away, and I could slide the car off the road at any moment. I thought of going back, but it would be very difficult to make a three-point turn without running a wheel off the road. It was easier to keep going forward, in the meantime getting farther into the wildness.
Even so, I had to come to a complete stop four times, the blowing snow was so dense. If it were not for the flying snow, I could have caught glimpses of the World War II era bunkers. These bunkers look like huge tombs, lined up in rows and columns that stretch over 20 miles. Their black shapes in the night often gave me the feeling of an evil presence. It was good that I couldn't see them at all now. The snow enveloped the whole world!
I felt as if I was on a boat in rough seas, or a piece of leaf floating in the sky.
After the first stop sign and a right hand turn (north), two miles further there is an S-curve where the road has a yield for a train stop at the National Guard Training Site. Since I was traveling north against the gusty wind, I lost the advantage of having my car be a "vision shield" to let me see whether I was still on the road. The wind was blowing towards me; the snow would have been flying into my eyes if there had not been a windshield.
The northbound road was worse, since the snow was thicker. Fortunately there was no oncoming traffic, otherwise we could have instantly run into each other. I finally managed to reach the S-curve. I became more nervous as I approached the curve, because it was right there where I ran into the ditch, turning myself 180 degrees on one still, sunny morning; and where I once ran into a deer shortly after dusk. This is just a bad curve.
I prayed not to run into a deer and not to skid on ice. I finally managed to get through the curve while keeping myself on the road. It took me about half an hour to cover the half-mile distance.
By going north for another mile I would come to the second stop sign at a T-junction, where I would turn left (west). Although I was only driving in first gear, I almost overshot the road into the ditch. I barely saw the stop sign on my right, traveled another 15 feet on the slippery road before coming to a full stop, and then made the turn. No car came from either direction.
Now I could again take advantage of my car as a "vision shield" so I could find the edge of the road through my left hand window and stay on the road. Even so, several times I went very close to the left edge and almost drove off the road.
The gusting was stronger. It was as if the whole world was being wiped away. Away.
I knew I would pass by a farmhouse on my right, and the National Guard Training Site gate on my left, shortly afterwards. Then I would be halfway home.
Still, I completely missed the farmhouse, although the house had its driveway lights on and was only 20 feet from the road. I didn't realize this until I saw a dim light on my left hand side. I knew I had already come to the National Guard Training Site gate, and it was the gate's lithium light I saw. It used to hurt my eyes from miles away. I felt a kind of warmth, because I finally saw something familiar.
There are some wild trees on the roadside after the gate. I could barely see their silhouettes in the blowing snow. I knew I would come to two more turns, and soon I would be on State Highway 6.
I realized the reason I could see the outlines of the trees was that they cut the wind a little bit. I should have also realized that the nearby trees could also cause snow drifts on the road, which could block any kind of traffic.
Very soon I realized I was running into trouble. Snow drifts extended across the whole area and piled up high, so that I could not see where the road was. This realization was so sudden that I didn't have time to think, but could only keep driving onward. I knew that if I stopped, my car would also turn into a snow drift, with me buried in the blowing snow.
I drove and drove. I ran through three small drifts and finally came to a bigger one. In the snowy wind, I could not actually see what was small and what was big. All I knew was I didn't get through, and my car came to rest on the snow. At that moment, my mind went blank.
At the moment I drove into the snow drift, I sensed I was going to be stuck, I sensed I was in trouble, I sensed that what I had heard of happening to other people was happening to me, I sensed that I might be dead and my beloved ones were going to miss me, I sensed ... So many thoughts went through my mind at once, just like a brilliant lightning flashing in the dark, illuminating the whole landscape, before everything returned to total darkness.
I checked my watch. It was 8:40 p.m. I realized that it had taken an hour and a half to cover 10 miles. There were yet 10 more miles to the town.
I restarted the engine. It still ran alright. I checked gasoline gauge. The tank was 90% full. I checked my clothes, but didn't have to check: I wasn't wearing much heavy clothing. I had just cleaned my car that morning and didn't leave even a small blanket in the car. What was I going to do?
Many ideas and options spun through my mind. I tried to rock the car back and forth to see if I would have any luck getting it out. I failed. I knew the more I tried this, the more trouble I might get into.
I used the horn in the hope that someone would hear me and come to the rescue. I recalled that in many stories, people used various ways to send out "SOS" signals, and I also recalled that the Morse code telegraph uses a combination of "long" and "short" signals.
"SOS?" Anyway, I tried "long-short-long," "short-long-short," with both horn and headlights. Apparently no effect. Finally I couldn't help laughing at myself. In such a roaring stormy night, miles from anywhere, who would hear my horn? Who would see my lights? It was the same as my not being able to hear anything but the blasting wind; I could not see anything but blowing snow. Even if anyone could see or hear me, it would have been all but impossible for them to get through in such a bad weather.
I felt like an alien on Earth, or a human being in outer space.
To break the dull sound of blowing snow, I turned on the radio. Lively music instantly filled the car. Oh! I am not so far from being alive - human beings! I felt a little cheered up.
"The National Weather Service issued extreme weather warnings for central and southern Nebraska ..."
"Six inches of snow is predicted for tonight. Currently the northwest wind is 50 miles per hour. The wind-chill temperature is 40 below zero ..."
Sub-zero temperature! Forty below!
"Don't go out unless you have to. It is dangerously cold out there ..."
The rest of the broadcast was a series of school closing announcements for the next day.
With the trembling voice of the broadcaster, I started to feel a trembling too.
I recalled the last time when we had severe weather. The advisory was, "Don't go out unless necessary." Apparently this time it was a very bad and rare weather situation. "Well, they don't have to come out, but I have to stay here," I tried to joke and console myself.
In order to save gasoline, I decided to only run the engine for heat periodically.
I anxiously took a look at my watch. It was only 9:10 p.m. I didn't know how I could spend the night in a wild area like that. It was so deadly cold, I hadn't had a meal, couldn't go to sleep (I knew falling asleep was dangerous), and didn't have much clothing to protect myself from the cold!
During some moments, I thought of getting out of the car and running back to the National Guard Training Site gate. Finally I decided not to take the risk, because I knew it would be a stupid and dangerous attempt. In many cases, people lost their lives attempting what appeared not to be so risky. Although I estimated the distance was only about a mile and a half, I didn't know if there was any guard at the gate house, and how much snow was on the ground. I might not be able to get anywhere before I was frozen to death.
I felt a cold trembling, recalling some of the stories I had heard when I was in Inner Mongolia. How truck drivers were frozen to death when they had engine trouble; how those truck drivers attempted to burn gasoline for heat, but accidentally set the truck on fire; how dead bodies were found only a few hundred feet from villages; how every one of those frozen people had a smiling face; ...
In one real story I heard in the countryside, when a snowstorm was almost over and kids started to come out to throw snowballs, a couple from a neighboring village came to go shopping. They were trapped in the snow on their way back and eventually froze to death, only 50 meters over a small hill from the playing kids. The kids heard some shouting - sounds like "Help!" - but with the blowing wind, they weren't sure and didn't know that it was serious.
It was 9:50 p.m. It seemed the wind had been blowing constantly and was getting stronger. Outside the car, it was still a snow-filled world.
I estimated that I needed to run the engine for heat three times an hour, each time lasting about 10 minutes, with 10 minutes in between. With this much gasoline, I estimated, I could run 340 miles, or 5-6 hours. If I run only 30-40 minutes per hour in idle, this much gas could last ... until dawn or early morning. I felt a bit reassured.
I felt another trembling when I realized I had to spend the night this way. As a matter of fact, I had never slept out and never stayed awake for a whole night, even when everyone was staying up for New Year's Eve. "But tonight, I mustn't sleep," I told myself. I knew in such bad weather to sleep was suicide.
Between 10 and 11 p.m., I usually called my girlfriend, now my fiancee (we got engaged six weeks ago). I knew she must be impatient at not getting my call. I knew she must be calling me and finding no one answering her calls. Would she be upset - unhappy about it? Anxious for my well-being? Would she be restless? Wonder at my whereabouts? Would she call the police? I wished she would call the police and the police would trace my route. But I was only dreaming that something good might happen.
What if I die? She might be crying, "Why, why, why?"
What if I were taken to a hospital and did not recover? Would she be there to be my companion?
What if she were with me now? What would we do then?
My old mom would be unable to bear the tragic news. Would my sister and brothers withhold the news from her? I felt so sorry for my mom, since I hadn't had much chance to perform my duty as a son.
All sorts of wild, weird, logical or illogical thoughts came and went.
My mind relaxed when I thought of the wedding we had arranged in May. It had been six years since my divorce. Actually, I had led a de facto bachelor's life since I got married 12 years ago - working in different cities for two years back in China and having three years of hard life when I came to the US, struggling for a master's degree. During the one year my ex-wife came to the US for a reunion, we spent more than half a year fighting over the divorce. And now, wow! I am going to have a family. I am going to end my bachelor's life! I felt delighted, and a warmth. Actually, what I felt most was that I was in love - really in love with her, and I felt warmth, as I knew she loved me too. We were in deep love. I always felt so happy whenever I thought of her and her hot love ...
However, my sweet dream didn't last long. I began to hear an unusual sound from the engine - like someone using a blanket to choke the engine. A low and continuous engine blowing sound persisted.
"This is a new car!" I exclaimed.
But it seemed not to be a mechanical problem. Based on my experience repairing diesel engines in the Inner Mongolian countryside during my "re-education" period 18 years ago, I judged it must be that the deepening snow had covered the exhaustion pipe so the engine could not breathe! I noticed that the snow drift had already piled up so high on the left hand side that my side window was covered. Half of my car was completely under snow.
The right hand side of my car was clear, since the wind was blowing from that direction. I tested the right-hand door, and found it could still open. So I determined to go out to clear the snow from around the exhaustion pipe. Although all I had was a snow scraper, something little more than a stick, I had to try, since this was a life or death problem. I had to use my full strength to push the door open against the strong wind.
"Gosh! It is cold!" Although I grew up in cold Inner Mongolia and am used to cold, I still felt the cold wind biting my hands and face. When I managed to reach the rear end of my car, using the car to keep my balance against the wind, I found the pipe was clear, since it was on the right-hand side.
With no need to stay out any longer, I got back into the car right away. Gee! It was cold! I realized the time one feels cold is the time spent recovering from the cold. Trembling, trembling ...
"Then what is the problem?" I worried. "It must be the intake pipe or air filter then!" It seemed impossible, since everything is under the engine cover. It later turned out that the whole engine compartment was filled with snow. The wind had carried and packed the snow in there from the unprotected area beneath the engine! At the time, it was impossible and dangerous to open the engine cover to check, since the snow had piled up from left-hand side and had begun drift across the top. At least half a foot of snow was covering half of the engine cover.
After the engine had run for a while, it seemed the stuffy sound was relieved a lot. It seemed the heat from the engine was helping to clear the intake. So I had to run the engine in relatively shorter gaps to make sure it could run before the snow really choked it to death. Actually, this imposed another danger that I didn't realize: the melting snow could quickly freeze into stone-hard solid ice, once the engine stopped running for long enough, which would be difficult or impossible to clear away. Fortunately, that situation didn't materialize.
It was after midnight. The snow was still blowing constantly. I suddenly felt privileged to be watching the blizzard from so close. I once again came to appreciate what my car had provided me.
The snow flew horizontally past my eyes. The whole world was flying horizontally.
I felt sleepy and tired sitting there. So I lowered the seat back to lay myself down. Only then did I realize that the ceiling of the car was much smaller in size than I thought, in relation to the car, since I was able to see out the windows on all four sides, and the square ceiling was only a small barrier between me and the sky.
With my feet on the ceiling, I started to recall all the moments from my old days, good or bad, even those I hardly remembered at all - from playing with my high school classmates to my countryside re-education in the Inner Mongolian mountains, from my college life to my PhD defense, from the time I cried when my mom put me down on the ground to free her arms for her work to the hard time I got for fighting with neighbor kids ...
But now I felt insignificant in the mighty storm. I felt I was just a powerless tiny creature trying to survive in this angry storm. I started to laugh at myself for my naive attempt earlier to send out signals for help. It was no use at all! Even a village, a town, or a city, could be wiped out, or simply engulfed, if the storm got really angry.
In front of the mighty storm, all political struggles in human society seemed meaningless, not to mention personal fights. What were they for? Everything could just be erased! I really felt some political struggles among CSS were childish. This shows how one's view can be changed. Sigh!
Through the side window, the twinkle of a star reached my eyes in between the snow gusts. "Hey! I am able to see the sky!" Although I could not see it again when I tried for confirmation, I knew there was a light of hope that the storm might diminish in strength.
By 3 a.m., the blasting reduced to blowing, although the wind was still strong, and the storm was still formidable.
There was dullness. I knew I could fall into sleep. I told myself repeatedly not to fall asleep, not to fall asleep, not to fall ... and then, without being aware of it, I fell into sleep! Just for a while. Before it became a deep sleep I jumped up when I felt the bite of the cold around me. This happened twice more. It was 4:30 a.m. when I checked the time again.
I didn't know when, but the radio broadcast diminished.
The snowfall became lighter. I started to be able to see lights in the far distance, and then was able to recognize the roadside trees by their black shapes against the still dark, but snow-painted sky. Then I was able to discern the railway half a mile away, for a train was lying there, lifeless.
Only then, I started to realize that the orientation of my car was odd. I could not put the position of the woods, train, railway, and the road into a familiar picture. It was not until daylight that I realized my car was 45 degrees to the road and was off the road by five feet!
Suddenly, I saw a pair of headlight beams. A truck was coming from the right! Apparently it was on a different road, crossing my road 50 yards away. When I realized I should try to get the truck driver's attention by horn or lights, it was too late, for the horn was still too weak compared to the windy storm, and the headlights, although more effective, would not be able to catch the driver's attention, due to the angle of the car. My lights were aimed at his left rear blind corner.
But now I knew I should get ready to use my headlights to catch the attention of the next truck that came by. Very fortunately, another truck came along shortly after 5 a.m., and the driver saw my flashing headlights.
He was not able to come close to me, for the snow drift on the road, but he managed to come around through the corn field, where wind had blown the snow away.
He was a worker in a nearby factory that had just closed due to the bad storm, so he could go home. He took me home in his truck.
On the way back to the town, once we got on the county road, we saw strings of vehicles lying on both sides of the road. Apparently they met the same fate as I had, but the occupants apparently had better luck getting to safety. I counted 35 vehicles on that seven-mile stretch of road.
As I waved to say thanks and good-bye to the truck diver, I saw the light of dawn in the east.
I called my beloved girlfriend right away, waking her from her sweet dreams.
The next day when I got to work, I wrote to my network friends:
I just had a dreadful experience on Sunday night - caught in a big snowstorm for over 10 hours, until 5 a.m., when I finally got the attention of someone passing by with my flashing high beams. I was almost buried in snow. I recalled lots of those tragic stories that occurred in Inner Mongolia. When drivers in cars or trucks broke down in the middle of vast grasslands, they burned gasoline to get warm, but lost everything eventually. I was lucky that I had a full tank of gasoline and the car was designed with a heater. So I survived. :)