With those fateful words spoken out to the Universe, we decided to attempt to reach our favorite camping spot, high in the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, secluded at the end of a twisting, jumbled road. With me behind the wheel, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs blaring on the stereo, we were just a quick stop for snacks and fuel from jumping on Highway 14 and wending our way up Poudre Canyon. This is a favorite drive of ours, one we make so often I know every little twist — where I can accelerate through a turn and where I need to brake to avoid dumping us into the Poudre River that flows along the side. At that time of year, the river was not much more than a trickle, most of it still frozen at its source high in the Rocky Mountains. An hour or so later and we were turning off onto Pingree Park road, to complete the last part of our ascent.
Perhaps the thick mud and spots still slick with ice should have deterred our journey. But we pushed on, kicking the little Toyota RAV4 into four-wheel drive until we came to the sharply inclined side road that led to our camping spot. I gunned the car up the road until it leveled out a bit and that is when the mud and deep snow finally put a halt to our trip. We got out and stomped around, kicking at the snow and knocking icicles off the trees. Then, with an “Oh well, guess we won’t be camping here anytime soon”, I began to back down the road. And that is when the trouble began. Because of the deep snow drifts, the road appeared to have substantial girth to the right. Which was completely false. The first slip of the car and I wasn’t too concerned. The second slip caused my heart to jump a bit. And then, with the third slip, my heart almost stopped. The car slid and tipped towards the passenger side, down the ravine off the side of the road. With a string of curse words, I attempted to brake and swing the car back to the left. But it was too late. With a gut-wrenching motion, the car slid sideways, finally stopping as it came to rest against the smallest pine tree in the area.
I shouted, “I think we’re tipping.” Luke, in his annoyingly calm way, simply looked out his window and then back at me.
“We aren’t going to tip,” he stated, “But we are both going to have to go out your door.”
Out the door, into the mud and snow, and all I could do was stare at the car. We stood silently for awhile and then began trying to push it out. Which did not work. We tried the old floormats-under-the-tires trick. Which, of course, did not work. We formed a makeshift road from branches. Which also did not work. So I tried crying. I begged Luke for forgiveness for sticking us in that situation, to which he laughed and kissed me. I cried some more and then suddenly, everything was just really, really freakin’ funny. There was nothing to be done about it — we were stuck for good. In the middle of nowhere. In freezing temperatures. At least ten miles from the isolated highway, where we would be lucky if anyone even passed by. With the afternoon sun beginning to set, we weighed our options. We had food and water and blankets and enough gas to run the car most of the night. We could camp out and wait to get an early start hiking out. We also had plenty of warm clothing and flashlights. We could hike out that night and hope to catch a passing motorist. Suddenly one of us (I really can’t recall which one) remembered the cabins along the highway. We decided that even if no one was home, we would break in and use the phone and pay for damages later. After all, what kind of cruel homeowner would deny that this was an emergency and not forgive us for a broken window?
We bundled up in as many layers as we had, grabbed food and water and found our flashlights. And away we went. At first we were silent. The road was slick and required full attention to maintain our footing. Soon we were in a rhythm and began to laugh about our predicament. We talked about who we would call to come help us and what an amusing story this might prove to be. We talked about more serious issues, such as our business and my plan to return to school. The sun shone brightly and the journey didn’t seem that bad — we foolishly hoped it would be completed shortly after sunset. The sunset came, and at that elevation, without so many mountains to obscure the view, it was stupendous. Great streaks of salmon pink and flame orange and lemon yellow streaking into the clear blue sky. But then the sun set completely. And the darkness was a bit different. Suddenly, we realized how cold it was and how far we still had to go. For awhile we were silent again, wondering if we had made the correct choice to trek out of the wilderness in the dark. And then the stars began to pop out. That far away from city lights, it seemed there were stars on stars. A great glittering curtain, close enough that you could almost reach up and pluck down a tiny gas cloud. The Milky Way was clearly visible and I suddenly felt immensely large and infinitesimally small. The bright stars above, the dark silhouettes of the closely gathered trees off the side of the road, the glittering snow, all conspired to take my breath away. Our silence shifted from despair at still having so far to go to the easy silence we had experienced earlier. We were becoming fatigued, so our conversation started again, this time focused on encouraging each other down the slick decline towards the highway. Luke tracked our progress on the GPS. At eight miles I slipped and cracked my knee on the rock solid dirt road. For a moment, I couldn’t even answer Luke’s concerned voice.
“I’m okay,” I finally said, “That is one good thing about being this cold — I can’t really feel it.”
Luke helped me to my feet and we were back to our journey. Just past mile ten, we saw the lights of one of the cabins and I could have wept again. A stumbling quarter mile more and we were at the door of the cabin, knocking. The door opened and eight faces peered out curiously, before welcoming us in with questions of where we had come from and offers of hot chocolate. The cabin was very small. A fold-out couch bed took up most the living room and a kitchen area filled the rest of the front room. The only other rooms were a tiny bedroom and a bathroom, containing only a composting toilet. Yet it was better than any other building we had ever encountered because it was warm…and had phone service.
Our entire bodies aching, all we could do was fall into chairs and try to explain how we had gotten stuck, thanking them profusely for opening their door to strangers and apologizing the whole time for being an inconvenience. As it turns out, the inconveniencing was just beginning. This cabin happened to be the vacation cabin of a Fort Collins police officer, who was spending a weekend trip with his wife, their two daughters and four of the daughter’s girlfriends. They were watching episode after episode of “I Love Lucy”. The officer seemed almost grateful for our appearance and immediately offered to take his Toyota 4Runner and pull our car out. We reiterated that we just wanted to call some friends to come get us. And we tried to convince him that attempts to remove our car with another car most likely would not be successful. His wife joined in on our side, reminding him, in a not-too-happy tone while looking sideways at us, that he was not at work. I could almost hear the poor woman thinking about his silly need to always be helpful and how they were on vacation and therefore we weren’t their problem. I couldn’t help but wonder how many times she had found herself trying to convince him to let go of being a police officer for more than five minutes. However, the officer insisted over and over that he could help.
It was finally decided that he and Luke would just run up “real quick” and I would wait with his wife and all the girls. Nothing like being left in a room full of strangers while your fingers and toes tingle themselves back to life. Especially when one of those strangers was a wife who was becoming increasingly annoyed as the minutes slipped by. And slipped by. Sixty minutes slipped by and I realized Luke and the officer were most likely stuck. Casual conversation with the officer’s wife had ceased and her icy glare was cooling the warmth of the cabin considerably.
“Should we try to drive the mini-van up there?” the wife asked, fretting that something had happened to our men. Which only served to compound my own concerns. No way was that mini-van making it up that road, so I finally decided to call some friends.
By now it was almost midnight, but I knew our friends Lindsey and Jenny would most likely still be up (although I had some doubts about their sobriety level at that hour). Sobriety confirmed, they were out the door within minutes, excitedly on their way to “save” us. Another forty-five minutes of waiting in stony silence while the officer’s wife twitched her foot with worry (worry being the ever-present companion to a police officer’s partner) and the friends were finally there. I escaped into the comfort of their friendly hugs and familiar car, away from the twitchy wife. Ten minutes up the road and we saw two dark figures tromping along the side — Luke and the officer. Fortunately, both were unharmed and enjoying a friendly dialogue regarding politics. They explained that although they were able to get the 4Runner up to where our RAV4 was stuck, the mountain had claimed another vehicle with the old “where is the edge of the road” trick. As the officer attempted to get close to our vehicle, his slid off the road…slamming into the drivers side of our car…and slightly pushing it forward so that the tree on the passenger side tore the side mirror off.
“At least I get how it happened to you”, he said, “So you shouldn’t feel so bad about getting stuck”.
All I could do was laugh. With plans to meet the officer the next morning, Luke and I gratefully journeyed back down the highway with our friends, to collapse into our bed for a few hours.