My family and I experienced a true Thanksgiving travel nightmare in 2001. At the time, we lived near Los Angeles. My husband and I, along with our three children, were driving to Boise, Idaho to spend Thanksgiving with my Mom and Stepfather. My oldest brother was driving in from Washington, and my other brother was driving in from the Sacramento area with his wife and three children, as well. The last time I had spent Thanksgiving with my mother and brothers was when I was fourteen years old, and I was really looking forward to this holiday visit.
The drive North through California was easy. I was nervous going over the Oakland bridge because there had been very recent terrorist threats to California bridges, but we made it over safe and sound. With the tragedies of 9/11 so fresh in our hearts and minds, we took notice of many, many American flags hanging from freeway overpasses all along our route. As a result, we spent a lot of that time silently reflecting on all that had transpired in the previous two months.
Near Sacramento, we caught up with my brother and his family, as we had decided that my husband and I would follow my brother’s family the rest of the way to my mother’s house, since they had made this particular trip between Sacramento and Boise several times before. That night brought lots of rain, and the last portion of our trip through Southeastern Oregon felt a bit nerve-racking to me, but we all arrived at my mother’s house safely.
As the holiday weekend drew to a close, it was time for both my family, and my brother’s family, to head back to California. We chose to leave at the same time, and again, drive the route from Boise to Sacramento together. I had checked the extended weather forecast before we’d ever left Los Angeles, and checked it again on the local news in Boise before heading out for our long drive home. No inclement weather was in the forecast.
However, as we made our way through the Southeast corner of Oregon, towards Nevada, snow began falling quickly. At the time, my oldest children were nine and three years old, and my youngest was only 6 months old. The snow was exciting at first. But things changed very quickly. Within a few minutes, the snow was falling fast and furiously, and we could only see about two car lengths ahead. We had chains packed in the van with us, but the storm had hit us so fast that we never had time to put them on the tires.
Before we knew it, cars began sliding off the road. As we crept further along the highway, cars traveling from the opposite direction were sliding as well, and we began passing several cars in the ditches along both sides of the highway. It was terrifying! We did not know if we should stop and try to put the chains on the tires, and we were beginning to panic. As we approached yet another vehicle that had slid off the highway, I rolled down my window to ask a man who was standing outside the vehicle if we should stop to put on our chains. He frantically waved us on and yelled at us not to stop our vehicle. We followed his advice, but our fear was growing with each passing second.
A million thoughts went through my mind. If we slid off the road into the snow, how would I protect my children? We had heavy coats and one emergency blanket in the vehicle, along with some snacks and a few water bottles. But I was so frightened at the thought that if we were stuck long enough, that the falling snow, which had become a full blown blizzard by this time, would bury our van quickly if we were to come to a stop in the ditch on the side of the road. I wondered if that happened, how anyone would find us? I knew we would be able to run the heater for a while, but what about after that? Would we freeze to death? I was absolutely terror-stricken, although I stayed silent because I did not want to scare my children.
We continued on, trying to remain calm. It was horrifying to think that one of the many large trucks traveling in the opposite direction might slide across the two lane highway and hit our van. All of a sudden, our van began to slide and spin! My husband tried desperately to keep it steady and slowly get us back on track, but to no avail. I remember the look of absolute defeat and desperation on his face when he realized he could do nothing. He said quietly to me, “That’s it”. Our van began sliding across the line that divided the two lanes of the narrow highway, and as it did, it also began to spin. A large semi truck had passed us just before it began to happen, and we were frozen with fear, knowing that another would be along in just seconds. Our van continued to slide and spin, and we ended up landing in the ditch off the opposite side of the highway, faced in the direction opposite from the direction we’d been originally traveling in.
Just as we came to a stop, another semi truck zoomed past us. We knew that we had narrowly avoided being smashed by it.
Within only a few seconds, my husband began trying to get us out of the ditch. We knew if another big truck slid off the road behind us, that our children would be critically injured, or even killed. We were terrified at the thought of being stuck in that ditch. But it appeared impossible; the ditch was a few feet deep, and the snow was slick. I just couldn’t see how we’d ever get our van up the side of that ditch and back onto the road. It really seemed hopeless.
But then it happened. Not only did we miraculously make it out of that ditch, but we also escaped being hit by any oncoming traffic as we did so. We began slowly making our way further along the highway. My nine year old daughter was petrified, and my three year old son was very scared and confused. Fortunately, The baby had slept through the entire ordeal. That was such a blessing because I just don’t think I would have been able to keep calm as we inched along that icy highway if I’d had a wailing infant to contend with at the same time.
After just a few minutes, we came to what seemed like a pretty steep grade. There was a guardrail, but I could see that there was somewhat of a drop-off on the other side of it. All I could think was that we would hit ice again, and slide right through that guard rail and off the side of the grade. That’s when I began to panic. I begged my husband, irrationally, to just stop the vehicle and let me walk with the kids! I was so desperate not to have to go down that grade in our vehicle. Clearly, it would have been far more dangerous to walk along the icy highway with tiny children in a blizzard, so my husband refused to stop, despite my tearful pleading. By this time my daughter and son were also crying and beginning to panic. I forced myself to calm down and tell them it would be okay. Then I closed my eyes and begged God to get us safely down to the hill.
He did. Shortly afterwards we came to a Chevron station where we were able to get our two flat tires replaced. My children and I sat inside the station, shaken and still in shock. We were slightly comforted by the kind owner who offered us hot chocolate and asked us if we were alright. It took two hours to get our van fixed, but I didn’t care. I never wanted to get back in that vehicle, and I certainly didn’t want to drive in anymore inclement weather.
To compound the situation, we had lost track of my brother, his wife, and their three young children in the blizzard. I was so scared at the possibility that they may have slid off the highway somewhere. They had been traveling behind us, and as there was no cell phone service due to location, weather, or both, I could not reach him. Amazingly, when we reached the first real town after leaving the Chevron station, we saw my brother and his family drive past. So, at least we knew they had made it that far, and that was a huge relief.
A few hours later, we were heading into Reno, with plans to go over Donner Summit on I-80 and on to my brother’s house for the night. However, it began snowing again, and I began to panic and cry, and told my husband I absolutely could not go over the pass in the snow, and in the dark. I insisted he pull off the interstate so that we could get a hotel room for the night.
Once inside the room, I could see the Sierras from the hotel window, and I just knew my brother would be heading over it. I felt certain that he would just want to get his family home, now that he was so close. I stared out that window towards the huge mountain range, and begged God to please keep my brother and his young family safe. Just about that time, there was a knock on the door of our hotel room. I opened it, and was both shocked, and elated, to see my brother and his family standing there! They stayed the night at the hotel as well, and we all made it safely over the pass the next morning.
This Thanksgiving marks nine years since our holiday travel nightmare. We still avoid driving in the snow, and every year when I see news footage of cars sliding off of icy roads, I am reminded of how thankful I am to have my family with me, safe and sound.