Trapped in the Big Horn Mountains

Trapped in the Big Horn Mountains

Desperate prayers are answered by modern-day cowboys during a snowy night in Wyoming

By Kevin Uhrich 10/09/2013

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By the time we hit 9,000 feet on the Big Horn Mountain range in northern Wyoming late that Thursday night, snow had been falling fast, ultimately turning the dark, winding road ahead into a white, slippery blur.   

My girlfriend and traveling companion Marina and I — having just completed a whirlwind tour of South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, Deadwood and Devil’s Tower, then Yellowstone Park, Jackson Hole, the Wind River Indian Reservation, Cody and other scenic portions of unseasonably chilly and wet Wyoming — held out hope that the unexpected storm that we unwittingly drove into along US Highway 14 would stop. But it didn’t let up. It only got worse by the minute. In no time, the impromptu blizzard, one that did not come up in our pre-trip weather reporting, became almost too much to handle for our rented Toyota, which soon became unable to get the extra traction needed to climb the occasional icy incline en route to the summit.

As they say, there are no atheists in foxholes. Although I’m not an overly religious person, I was raised Catholic, and it wasn’t long after seeing the stop engine light go on for a third time that I found myself silently throwing out a few SOS calls to God, Jesus and the Blessed Mother, as well as Allah, Vishnu, Buddha … any deity in a storm, as it were.  After much white-knuckle, face-to-the-windshield driving, our prayers apparently were heard; we had finally made it to the peak. Now, we reasoned, we could simply coast, or more accurately sled down the other side. We were wrong, though, and in more than one way, but more on that a little later.

As we were getting up some speed in our hopeless race away from the snow, we approached a fork in the road, US 14A, better known as Medicine Wheel Passage. Briefly distracted by what in the far distance appeared to be a dim street light being consumed in the blizzard, I turned just enough to lose control of the steering, thus beginning an unalterable headfirst slide into a nearby ditch.
Except for my pride, neither of us was hurt after the Toyota landed with a muted thud in the snow-laden brush. The tough, little car also sustained no damage, its motor, heater and lights still functioning. But how long would that last? With the temperature dropping radically, literally no one else on the road that night, and help being an unknown number of miles away in some small town down the mountain, how long would it be before we were rescued?

Then, from seemingly out of nowhere, an all-terrain vehicle, an ATV, looking like something that might have been dreamed up by scientists at JPL, barreled off the road and plowed through the mounting snow toward our crippled car. I jumped out of the still-warm confines of the Corolla and ran toward the ATV’s front-mounted floodlights as it approached.

“Are you all right?” yelled the driver, Randy, who was joined by his friend, Rock. Neither were strangers to relentless snow. It seemed the two men were born to it.
“We’re OK, but we’re stuck,” I replied breathlessly, suddenly feeling both a bit cold in the 20-degree night air and kind of stupid as I stood in a calf-deep drift wearing the windbreaker, Penn State ball cap, shorts and tennis shoes that I had put on that morning at the Comfort Inn in Cody, about 100 miles back.

The ATV had a cable winch on the front end, but, as luck would have it, the rental car had no hooks to latch onto. Randy then thought he could pound down the snow to make a surface hard enough for the car to drive on. Courageous Marina, who had long been out of the car by this time, helped in mashing snow with our feet, and she later pushed. But that didn’t work either.

Then another vehicle, a pickup, only one without towing equipment, pulled in from out of the darkness. These were two more modern-day cowboys who had been hunting earlier and driving around that night in what turned out to be the region’s first major storm of the season, coming a few weeks early.

“Get whatever you need and get in,” Randy finally shouted to Marina and me over the howling wind. “There’s a lodge up the road.” I grabbed one of Marina’s bags from the trunk and squeezed in. Rock piled into the truck with the other two guys and we all headed toward the street light, to Bear Lodge Resort.

Once at the 30-room facility, which is open year-round but in warmer weather is used for formal affairs like weddings and banquets, all four guys got out of the rigs and talked and laughed with us at the roof-covered front door. We offered them money, but they refused it. They were all genuinely happy just to have been of help to us. No big deal. Then, after we were safe, they took off for parts unknown.
We entered the cozy, rustic bar where there sat another couple, Mike and Mona, as a lone person minded the sparsely staffed complex. The kitchen was closed and most lights were out by then (just after 11 p.m.), but there were rooms available, said Petie, our bartender.

A flat-screen TV with a satellite hookup hung from one of the walls, showing, of all things, the Channel 7 News with Marc Brown from sunny and warm Los Angeles, which actually broadcasts from my hometown, Glendale. What a small world, I couldn’t help thinking. Petie, who could not have been any nicer or more understanding of our plight, threw another log on the near-dead fire before getting Marina some tea and me a draft beer.

A doe-eyed kid young enough to be our daughter, Petie joked with my fearless but shaken companion, then salved my bruised male ego by telling us our situation was not all that unusual at Burgess Junction, where 14, Bighorn Scenic Byway, and 14A intersect. Everything would be OK in the morning, when the sun was up and the roads were plowed, she assured us.

Following a terrific breakfast cooked to order by a lodge staff that practically adopted us the next morning, Melodie, the cashier, made a few calls and Jay, with Ted’s Towing service, arrived from Dayton, the town at the base of the mountain. When we reached the disabled car, Marina noticed that someone had wiped snow from the windshield overnight, probably looking for people inside. In no time, Jay had us out of the ditch and by noon Friday we were headed downward, following the tow truck most of the way.

Only in the light of day did we both realize that this part of the road was so steep, its cliffs so high and sheer, that there was a real possibility of again sliding out of control had we actually made it this far past the junction on that unplowed road. If that had happened, there was a strong chance of breaking through a guardrail and plunging over the side.

It was an unsettling realization, and I just couldn’t help pondering our unbelievably good luck. First, I thought of the people involved. No offense intended, because it’s a great name, but I have never met a woman named Petie. A few Jimmies, a couple of Johnnies, a few Charlies, but no Peties. What made that important to me is my confirmation name is Peter. Peter is my patron saint. And Petie welcomed us in from the cold in the middle of the night, no questions asked. I know that’s her job, but we passed a smaller lodge a few miles back, at that point of no return along the 45-mile-long stretch of road. Only it was closed and totally dark when we passed it. Petie clearly didn’t have to stay open either. She could have just closed the bar and gone to her room at the resort. But she didn’t; she was there for us.

Next, Randy and Rock, who were only there that night to get a six-pack of beer before Petie closed and saw us while on the way back to their hunting camp. Peter was the Rock of Christ’s church. Then there was Ted’s Towing. Theodore, or “God’s Gift,” happens to be the name of my son, who I guessed is about Petie’s age. And what about the guiding light in the distance, which I first suspected was a dead end but which proved to be our salvation?

I realize this is all just a little bit thin, but I need answers. Could our misfortune, which could have been fatal but later turned into very good fortune literally by accident, really be mere coincidence? Am I reading too much into this, seeing miracles and angels in every little thing? Or was there an unseen hand keeping us out of harm’s way that night? We’ll never know for certain.

What we know for sure is Marina and I might not have made it out of there without all the selfless people who helped two frightened strangers trapped one fateful night in Wyoming’s beautiful but potentially deadly Big Horn Mountains.
Thank you all.

Bear Lodge Resort is at 5600 US14A, at Burgess Junction, in Dayton, Wyo. Call (307) 752-2444 or (307) 752-5444. Visit bearlodgeresort.com.

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Comments

Kevin,

What a great story and so glad that kindly souls reached out to help.

As I am planning an excursion to Lovell, Wyoming which is on the other side of the Big Horn Mountains, your experience was of interest.

Thanks for the interesting read.

Shirley Spencer

posted by Pasadena OMA on 10/10/13 @ 05:59 p.m.
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