North Dakota (ND) blizzards are to be feared. Those of us who have lived in ND all our lives have a healthy respect for our winter blizzards. North Dakota blizzards usually have winds over 50 mph with near zero visibility, temperatures below zero, and whiteout conditions, and can paralyze the state for days at a times. The cold temperatures and strong winds can cause wind chill temperatures as cold as -70 below. Death from hypothermia and frostbite are a real danger to anyone caught in a ND blizzard.
As foolish as it may seem, winter storms never factored into my decisions when I needed to drive someplace during the winter. A storm had to be raging particularly fierce before I would even consider not driving anyplace. Most of the time, I simply got in my car and went regardless of the weather. Well, that's not completely true. Most of the time I stayed indoors like everyone else during a blizzard. However, if there was someplace truly important that I had to be at, it didn't matter what kind of weather was raging outside. I would jump in my car and go.
Why would I attempt to travel when everyone else knew better and stayed indoors? I truly don't know the answer to that question. I do know, when I was younger, during my Hobo Joe years, I had a terrible reputation as a reckless and dangerous driver.
Very few people would ride in a car that I was the driver of. If I was drinking, than no one would ride with me. Although other people considered me a very reckless dangerous driver, I, on the other hand, honestly couldn't understand the reasons why people feared my driving back then. Sure, I rolled over four cars and was the passenger in another car that rolled over, but I figured I was just as good a driver as anyone. In fact, I considered myself a better driver than most.
I appeared to carry my "recklessness" over into my professional life after I settled down and became a contributor to society. I recall my friend, and mentor, Dr. Berg calling me into the college president's office one time and questioning me about why I appeared to always go looking for controversy. He said I reminded him of a fighter pilot he had talked to who and when asked by Dr. Berg why he was a fighter pilot said something to the effect, "For the excitement. First, I get excited, then I get scared, once I get scared I can't back out of what I want to do no matter how dangerous."
Well, I wasn't like that pilot. When I became scared, I usually quit doing, or got away from, whatever was scaring me. As for me looking for controversy, it was because I couldn't keep my mouth shut when someone said or did something that I thought was outright stupid or wrong. I was somewhat intelligent. I knew right from wrong; and I could recognize a con when I saw one, or a lie when I heard one. Tribal politics being what they were back then, lots of people either thought you were too dumb or scared to say anything. Not me. I spoke up when I would encounter this type of behavior, which led to a lot of heated discussions. This was the beginning of why I became a loner.
Anyway, back to my story. What I did know was that I had supreme confidence in my ability to drive through any storm no matter how severe. And, if I did get into trouble, I was confident that I would be able to survive any situation I got myself into. This confidence came from my childhood and young adulthood experiences growing up on the Rez; by the time I was 21 years old I had walked miles through many storms, I had chopped and hauled wood in very severe winter conditions, I had ridden in cars during the dead of winter that no one would trust in the summer time, much less a winter blizzard.... heck every winter was a fight for survival in our one-room log cabin. Therefore, winter storms did not scare me very much.
However, there eventually came a time when I had to use a cane to help me walk. It was then I realized there was a good chance I would not survive a winter blizzard if I became stuck and had to walk somewhere. I had broken my back 20+ years earlier and was partially paralyzed on my left side. Walking with a cane in the wind and snow was extremely hard. It was then I begin to think about driving a 4-wheel drive truck.
Several years ago when a friend was selling her truck, I bought it. With a 4-wheel drive truck, my confidence to travel in any kind of blizzard soon returned. I also realize had I purchased a 4-wheel drive truck years earlier, I would not have been in many of the life-threatening situations I had gotten myself into in the past. Of the dozens of blizzards I had driven through, many of them could have been fatal. Below are stories of three storms I drove through when I came the closest to freezing to death. The first incident was before I broke my back, the second and third incidents occurred after I broke my back and became partially paralyzed on my left side. However, that disability didn't slow me down. I still drove in all kinds of winter weather:
I. When I was in my mid-twenties, my two brothers, Besh (nickname) and Jerome, and my younger sister April, her friend Lisa, and I were out driving around on a Sunday drinking bootleg beer. The temp was several degrees below zero. Besh and I were in the front seat; Jerome, April, and Lisa were in the back seat. It was in the middle of January and cold out. It was around ten o'clock in the evening, I was driving on the back roads north of the Sheyenne River when we hit a snow bank in the middle of road. Try as we might, we could not push the car out of the snowbank. Due to being inebriated, none of us were worried, although it was dark, and we were miles from help. That attitude changed as the evening wore on, and we began running out of beer and gas, and the temperature began falling. Around three or four in the morning, we ran out of gas, and it quickly became extremely cold in the car. In desperation, we started burning everything that was flammable, the cardboard containers that held our beer were the first to be burned. This was followed by every scrap of paper we could find. If my memory serves me correctly, we even torn apart parts of the car's interior that could burn. We were so cold, we huddled together for warmth. Somehow, we survived the night without freezing to death. As soon as it became light enough to see, we decided to walk to the nearest farmhouse, which was several miles up the road. Although the wind had died down, it was still strong enough to make walking a struggle at times. April, Lisa, Jerome, and I soon outdistanced Besh who was several years older than us and was overweight. I turned around to wait for Besh, but when he caught up with me he told me not to wait for him. "I can make it," he said waving for me to go on ahead. By the time I had caught back up with April, Lisa, and Jerome, they had turned into an approach leading to a farm house. I quickly followed them in. Warm air had never felt so good!! I soon noticed the farmer and his wife looking at me strangely, so was April and Lisa, but they kind of had a smile on their face. When I went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror, I was shocked at what I saw; my entire nose was covered with frost, where my arms of my glasses ran along my face was all frosted over also, and there were huge patches or my face that were covered with frost also. After we warmed up the farmer drove us to my car and pull me out.
Footnote: About a week later, my face had healed except for the skin on my nose, which had turned black. Two of my friends, Jane and Sandra, came to see me. They were going to drink beer in Devils Lake and wanted me to go with them. I put a strip of white gauze over my nose to hide the black skin and held it in place with some bandage tape. Once in Devils Lake, we went into a liquor establishment, walked up to the bar, and ordered a beer. The bartender was acting extremely nervous. "What the hell is the matter with him," I remember thinking. As he was getting our beer, I went to the bathroom. When I came out, Jane and Sandra were laughing so hard I had to asked what was going on. Apparently, when the bartender saw the gauze taped over my nose when I came in, he thought I was an armed robber coming to rob the place. Back then, in cops and robber shows, robbers would simply put a strip of white tape over their nose before they went in to rob a place. The bartender must have watched too many of those shows. LOL
II. The second blizzard I will tell you about was probably the worst blizzard I have ever driven through. However, it was the one that concerned me the least as far as my personal safety was concerned: My sons had gone to spend Christmas vacation with their mother in Dunseith, ND. I had promised I would be go up and spend Christmas Eve with them. The day before Christmas dawned bright and clear; but by afternoon, the weather had deteriorated into a mild winter storm. Around three in the afternoon, my sister and brother-in-law went to Sheyenne, ND. When they came back, they talked about how bad it was outside, and maybe I should reconsider going to Dunseith. They had just moved to the Rez from New Mexico, so I figured they, upon seeing a little storm had become unduly excited. However, as I was going out the door, my tanhan (brother in law) came up to me and with a look of grave concern on his face said, "You shouldn't go Joe, it's really bad out there, stay here." This kind of gave me pause, but I already had my coat on so I told him, "Naw, I'll be alright," and left. As soon as I went outside, my experienced eye told me it was indeed a blizzard of some magnitude. But, having driven through many snowstorms, I quickly walked to my car and jumped in. By the time I reached Devils Lake, the storm had impressed me enough that I figured I had better top of my gas tank, pick up a gallon of water, and some candy bars. Once out of town, on Highway 2 heading west, I entered into the full magnitude of the storm, and it was ferocious! I had never driven in such storm before! The wind was howling, and blowing the snow side ways so hard that I could barely make out the road. I crept along at 5 - 10 mph, until I needed to go to the bathroom. Once out the car, the back of my head instantly became packed with blowing snow. While standing there, I noticed a shadow cross my headlights, but before I could react, a face materialized right in front of me. "Man, I'm glad you stopped," a young white man told me. He had driven into the ditch, and I had come along and stopped at the exact place to go to the bathroom. What a coincidence, if you want to call it that. I think his Christian God was surely watching over him that night. With an extra set of eyes, the going was a little faster. I pulled in the truck stop just on the other side of Churches Ferry and let him off. At that time, there was a gas station and a small café. The café was lit up and was filled with a dozen stranded travelers. My passenger exited the car and indicated he was going to stay there. When, I informed him I was going to continue on he pleaded with me to stay, but to no avail. I had promised my sons I would spend Christmas Eve with them, and I was damned if I was going to let a ND blizzard stop me. I continued toward Rugby, one tedious mile after another. When I arrived in Rugby, I stopped at a café and used the pay phone to call my brother Mark. He had made me promise to call him when I reached Rugby. With only 30 miles to Dunseith, I confidently turned north. It didn't take long for the storm to destroy my confidence. The conditions were worse than I had ever experienced. I eventually came to a stretch of road where a huge snowdrift stretched beyond my headlights. I said a quick prayer, put the pedal to the metal, and aimed my car at what I hoped was the middle of the road. There were a few touchy moments when my heart almost stopped from fear that I wasn't going to make it; but once again, The Great Mystery came to my aid. After about 100 yard I the snowdrift ended, and I continued on my way. I managed to make it to Dunseith and to the house where my sons' mother lived. When I walked in, I was surprised to find several people there visiting. One of them was my ex's mother who was quite fond of me. Apparently she told the other that we wasn't worried about me making it through the storm. "Erich is a good driver, he will make it", she stated confidently. Later it dawned on me later that they were sitting there in vigil waiting to see if I would make it.
III. The third blizzard I will write about was the time I came closest to actually freezing to death. It truly was my most frightening experience. I sincerely thought I wasn't going to survive, but Wakan Tanka was watching over me that night and saved a foolish young ndn boy from certain death by hypothermia on that freezing cold, January night. The day started in Billings, Montana. I had attended a meeting. When reports of a storm coming met my attention, I decided to leave early. I left Billings at around ten o'clock that morning. I was driving an old Rez beater, a 1987 Chevy Celebrity, with front wheel drive. I made good time, but the weather became progressively worse the closer I came to ND. When I arrived in Dickinson, ND, the highway patrol shut down the interstate. With three boys waiting for me at home, I couldn't spend the night waiting out the storm. I turned north, and when I came to Highway 200, I turned east. I knew Highway 200 ran all the way to Carrington, ND. I figured once I reached Carrington the final 40 miles would not be to hard to drive. As long as it was light out, it wasn't too hard to see the road, and I was able to travel around 40 mph. After I crossed Highway 83, between Bismarck and Minot, it rapidly became dark and that's where the nightmare began. There were places where I stopped for several minutes because I could not see anything. A few times, I actually got out of the car and checked to see where the road ended and the ditch began. It took several agonizing hours to reach Hurdsville, ND, a distance of around 40 miles. Once in Hurdsville I knocked on a door and asked to use the phone. I called home and told Marshall I would be home in a couple of hours. When I got to the edge of town, I could see there was no way I would be able to make it through the snowdrifts on the road leading out of town. I turned north, and the street that ran north through town was also heavily snowed in. I had no choice; I had to try to get through it. I gunned my little car, and it went bucking through the drifts. I held my breath until surprisingly, the car made it through the drifts. Once on highway, I started north toward Harvey, ND. A few miles south of Harvey, there is a cut-a-cross road that ends up in Fessingdon, ND. Like a fool, I turned onto that road. I quickly came across a snowdrift which I made it through. The second snowdrift I tried to go through, I wasn't so lucky. I got stuck. After trying to rock the car back and forth a few times without any luck, I got out to see just how bad I was stuck. It was bad. And, the wind was blowing hard, the blowing snow stung my face, and it was COLD. I quickly jumped back into the car. I knew I was in serious trouble. If I didn't get out of this snowdrift, I would surely freeze to death, I thought. With nothing to lose, I tried to rock the car out of the drift. I quickly noticed that when I backed up, the car was going further than before. I floored the accelerator, and lo and behold, the car went spinning out of the drift. I carefully turned around, took a run at the next drift, and broke free! I was back on the highway! Once I reached Harvey, I turned southeast toward Fessenden. When I arrived at Fessenden, I turned east on the highway to New Rockford, ND. The storm seemed to pick up fury as I traveled east. I came to a huge snowdrift, so I stopped and got out to look. It appeared if I went on the north side of the road, I would be okay. But, it wasn't okay. I got stuck. Fortunately, I was close to a farmhouse. The people inside had seen my headlights, and came and pushed me out. The farmer implored me to stay at his home. Again, I said I had three boys waiting for me at home, and I kept going. I knew there would be a snow bank where the railroad track ran across the road, when I got close to Highway 281. Sure enough, there was a huge snowdrift, but I had come too far and was too close to home to stop now. I simply stepped on the accelerator and smashed through the drift. Fortunately, I stayed on the road until I came out the other side. Once I turned north on Highway 281, the weather cleared, and I was able to make it the rest of the way home without too much trouble. My boys were happy to see me; they had no idea how glad I was to see them. I hugged each of them in turn and thanked The Creator for watching over me - again!
As with my previous writings, these blogs about my personal experiences are meant more for my children's eyes than anyone else. If you read this far, thank you for your interest. As a private individual, I realize just how little my children know about my life outside my home. I am hopeful they will take some time to read these blogs at some point in the future.
THE END - FOR NOW