Survival Stories #1

Catastrophic explosive failure at high speed.

We found ourselves trapped in the vast wilderness of Wyoming. I knew that we were in the same area that hundreds had died at over several years, traveling on foot with what they could carry, push or pull.

State Highway 287 extends from Muddy Gap to Lander, Wyoming. This long, empty stretch of rural, two-lane highway follows roughly the same route as the famous Mormon Trail, Oregon Trail, California Trail and Pony Express Route. A town that would remind you of a ghost town, several historic markers, and one rest area. Surrounding the highway: a vast, empty wilderness and associated wildlife. And Split Rock, a natural “gun sight” shaped notch in the “Rattlesnake Range” that had served as a beacon for emigrants heading west.

Here we were. Trapped. No cell phone service. Only a small bit of food and water. I was frustrated, and I was worried. Honestly afraid that we might just freeze to death if I couldn’t find help on this lonely stretch of highway.

We had spent the weekend down in Rawlins, Wyoming, visiting with our three grandkids we hadn’t seen since Christmas. Monday morning, President’s Day, so there was no school. We got our fill of hugs and kisses goodbye. A quick stop to fill up the gas tank, and we headed home to Riverton. It was a paltry 2-hour road trip. A trip we’ve made a 100 times in the last several years without incident.

Not this time.

Now here we were. Freezing cold. Hypothermia was setting in. Annie was already shivering severely, and there simply wasn’t enough material in the truck to keep us warm. It didn’t matter that we were out of the wind. The cold seeped into the cab of the truck and stabbed at us. “This is what happens,” I thought, “when we’re not prepared.”

We’d headed west and had a couple of hours of uneventful driving under our belts. We’d just passed Split Rock and were cruising along at a comfortable 70 miles an hour. Suddenly, we heard an ear-splitting squeal. Then again. It repeated every few seconds and lasted only for a moment or two.

Suddenly, I watched the temperature gauge go from normal to WARNING in about 10 seconds. I pulled our Xterra to the shoulder. As we came to a stop, realized that there was steam pouring out from under the hood and rolling out of the wheel wells.

“Shit,” I thought, “this ain’t good.”

I climbed out of our normally trustworthy Xterra, cursing to myself. As I popped the hood, waves of hot, sticky-sweet steam blasted my face. I know the smell. It’s coolant. The water pump we’d had installed less than a year ago, exploded. I know that we’re dead in the water. We’re not going anywhere. We’re stranded in the middle of nowhere.

I get back in the truck, wiping the grease and antifreeze off of my hands. As I tell Annie what I’ve found, panic is starting to dig into the back of my mind. I push it away, but it’s still there. Digging like a dog after a bone.

My Craftsman toolbox, normally a permanent resident in the back of the truck, sits at home. It’s on the workbench in my garage. Right where I’d left it after replacing the Mass Air Flow Sensor a week ago.

Not that it would help. I don’t normally carry a spare water pump.

At the moment, it’s 11:30 in the morning. The sun is bright though not exactly warm. There’re a few high clouds, and the wind is calm. Thank God for small favors. I just hoped that it wouldn’t suddenly pick up.

What to do?

Behind us, to the northeast, stands the tall Split Rock. This natural geologic formation can be seen for 50 miles on a clear day. The highway behind us has a rise in it, so we can’t see any oncoming traffic until they crest the hill.

To the west, the old uranium mining town of Jeffrey City is 14 miles away. City. Ha. It’s got one road-side bar, no working gas pumps. But it does have at least one working phone. With the binoculars that I keep in the back seat pocket of the passenger seat, I can see at least seven or eight miles of traffic coming from that direction.

My cell phone is more useful as a paperweight, at this point. Good old Verizon doesn’t have towers out here. I’m fairly certain that Union and AT&T work out here – but that doesn’t help us now. I get out and climb onto the rear bumper, holding my hand and phone as high as possible. If I stretch, I can get maybe ten feet off the road. No bars. No cell service.

I look at Split Rock. It’s four miles away. I look to the south, where Green Mountain looms. It’s an area famous for being home to elk, bear, and wolves.

I consider heading towards one of the mountains. I tell myself that I can climb a bit and try to get a cell signal. I quickly dismiss the idea. If I’m going to die, I want them to be able to find my body. I don’t want to be face down in an icy crevasse in a cold, Wyoming winter.

My wife, Annie, isn’t going anywhere. She can barely walk. She uses a wheelchair everywhere but at home. I’m not leaving her. I can’t go climb one of those mountains and look for cell service because she’ll be alone for a few hours, at the best. Worst case, it could be much, much longer.

What do I do?

The best I could come up with was to sit. And wait. I had the hood up, and the flashers were on occasionally. I didn’t want to kill the battery. It’s half an hour before the next vehicle passes, followed by several more. None stop to check on us.

After a long while, some stop to see if we’re okay. I know that I need to find someone with Union cell service, so I can get on the horn with a couple of friends to get a wrecker sent my way. The first two vehicles that stop are heading opposite ways – one to Rawlins and one to Lander. I write a note for each, with our situation, our location and our need of a wrecker. They head out. It’s only later that I learn that both actually made the calls.

Over the course of the next several hours, more than 150 cars, semi-trucks and a variety of other vehicles pass us. I’m starting to think that we’re going to need a Higher Power to get us through this day and get home safely. I’d learn later how right I was.

Of the many drivers that pass us, 16 stop to see if we need help. Some pass us, then slowed down to turn around and came back to check on us. Some have cell service. Most don’t. But, every one of them, I’m convinced, is an angel in disguise.

Every passing traveler that stops to check on us, and has cell service, is kind enough to let me make a few calls. I’m trying to get confirmation that a wrecker is on the way to get us home. I call my son Kenny in Nashville. He’s gotten the message and is in the process of calling every wrecker service in Riverton, where we’re headed. Not one of them will come out this far. Most of them seemed pretty suspicious of taking his credit card over the phone and they turn him down flat. We’re still out of luck, and it sucks.

The day is stretching on, and we’re getting colder. We can’t turn the motor on for heat. We’ve got only the clothes we’re wearing, a few extras in the suitcase and a couple of pillows to keep us warm.

Normally, I keep a blanket and sleeping bags in the cargo area of the truck. The bug out bags are back in the garage, too. Never thought we’d need them on this short trip.

Turns out that I do have my Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) bag with us. It’s got an emergency blanket in there – never opened – wrapped in the same original plastic it came in. I bought the bag in 2005. When I open it, I realize that the coating on the plastic blanket has turned to a fine powder. Unfolding the blanket – if you can still call it that – releases a mushroom cloud of plastic, powdery dust coats everything in the front seat of the truck.

I know that we’re screwed.

At this point, the sun is still high in the sky. We’ve managed to retain a fair amount of heat in the cabin of the truck, as I’ve been careful not to open the doors or windows too often. We’re fairly warm at the moment, but I’m worried about Annie. I know that dark is coming, and our bodies aren’t going to be able to produce enough heat to keep us warm for very long.

It’s now around 5:30 in the afternoon. The sun is setting behind the Rockies far to our west. A car passes us, and I see the brake lights come on in my rear view. The car makes a quick U-turn and pulls in behind us. Turns out, the couple is traveling home to Cheyenne, and they were kind enough to stop and check on us. They have AT&T service, so I’m able to make a few calls. The news isn’t good. There’s no one coming for us. No wrecker. No rescue.

At about the same moment, the driver, Jeremy, and I have the same idea: the Highway Patrol. In all the time we’ve been out here, we haven’t seen a single patrol car or sheriff’s deputy. Not one.

Jeremy calls the Highway Patrol. The dispatcher checks their list and contacts a wrecker from Fremont Motors of Lander, exactly where I’d bought the truck four years ago. The Highway Patrol calls back in ten minutes, saying that the wrecker is on the way.

Thank God. The nightmare is almost over.

Each time that I’ve stepped out of the truck to talk to someone who was kind enough to check on us, I’ve gotten colder. I didn’t dare roll down the window, as I didn’t want Annie to catch a chill. At this point, thought, I’ve got a full-body shiver and my teeth are chattering uncontrollably. From my training and experience, I know that these are signs of hypothermia. I’ve managed to lower my body’s core temperature, and I know that if I don’t get warm soon, I’m in big trouble.

Jeremy and his wife allow Annie and I to sit in the back of their SUV until the wrecker arrives. It takes Annie nearly 10 minutes to walk from our truck to theirs, and that’s with help from Jeremy and I. She’s cold, shivering the whole way we’re walking to the truck. Her joints are stiff and it’s painfully slow going. Once we get her settled in, they crank up the heat and we chat for the 90 minutes it takes the wrecker to get to us.

As the wrecker arrived, the temperature was heading towards the single-digits. The driver can’t put us in the cab with him, so Annie and I have to ride in the Xterra, on the back of the flat bed. That’s a scary ride that I don’t want to take ever again.
As we roll in to Lander, we’re still 30-some miles from home. The driver has to call his boss, so we can figure out what this rescue is going to cost us. Turns out that the entire trip, from roadside breakdown, to our driveway, comes to $500.

Ouch.

When I consider the costs associated with severe hypothermia, like Life Flight helicopters, hospital stays – or even funeral costs – the $500 suddenly seems like a bargain.

The driver finally gets us home around 9:30 that night. It’s a full 10 hours since we first broke down on the highway. Annie and I are still chilled, and I know that we’ve got to try and get some food into us. We haven’t eaten in too many hours to count. Annie manages to get all of her dinner down; I eat maybe half of mine. I put the dishes away, and then we head into the bedroom. I plug in a space heater and pull out a thick comforter, just to give us a little extra warmth that night. After that, and it’s lights out for both of us in less than a minute.

Survival Lessons Learned:
We would like to hear your survival stories! Where have things gone wrong in your journeys? Send your story to SurvivalStories@land-shark.com and you might just see your story shared on our blog. If we share your story, we’ll send you a Land Shark Tee Shirt and decal!

  • Always have cold weather gear in your vehicle during winter travel, no matter how many times you’ve driven the road. I simply didn’t follow through and keep my winter survival kit prepped, ready and in the Xterra. I know better, and it still happened to me.
  • Sometimes you can be in almost constant contact with other humans but without proper preparation, you might as well be alone in the middle of the woods.
  • Avoid succumbing to fear and panic. We used humor and positive thinking to remain mentally aware and keep our minds from fixating on the situation. References to Monty Python (“If I go first, I want you to eat me.”) and Star Wars (Han Solo stuffing Luke Skywalker into a gutted Tauntaun to keep him warm) kept our spirits high.
  • Food and water are essential pieces of gear to include in your winter driving kit.
  • If you’re going to be traveling, it’s a good idea to have someone waiting for a call from you when you reach your destination. As we learned, cell phone service is NEVER a guarantee! We’re looking at switching carriers to one with better coverage across the whole state.
  • Plan ahead. Take a look at the route you’re planning to take and check your cell provider’s coverage maps. If you’re going to be without service for a long portion of the trip – it’s better to know and plan for that before you head out.

This story has been shared with permission. Thanks to Rich Fleetwood for allowing us to share his story. You can read the story in the author’s own words and view the rest of his survival preparedness articles.