Memories Decoded

IMG_9013This square actually contains two stories, both of which have been requested. I’ll tell the story of the other one tomorrow.

When I published the photo of my memory box, I promised to tell the story of any square in it that someone requested I tell. Two people have requested I tell the story of this one, so I’ll tell it first. If you’ve requested other stories, they will be coming up in the near future, one a day.

The year was 1966 and Christmas was fast approaching. That year, my sophomore year at the University of Wyoming, my folks had let me bring to college the little red Ford Galaxie that my dad traded a combine, two horses and a bit of cash for my junior year in high school. The way my sister and I learned my dad was buying us a car was that he told us to get in his pickup, we were going to White River. What for? A surprise. When we got almost to White River, 23 miles away, he pulled off the road into a lot filled with a number of machines, cars and farm equipment and pulled up to a little red Galaxie, told us to get out of the car and tossed us the keys. My sister and I soon got the message that this was our car. I was 16 and had just gotten my driver’s license. My sister Patti was 20. We got in the car, stared at the stick shift and revealed to my dad that neither of us knew how to drive a stick shift. Well, he guessed we’d learn on the way home, he said, and took off in his pickup. He was right, we learned on the way home.

The thing about stories is that every story has so many stories attached to it and so it is with this one. At any rate, with no further digressions. Since I was one of the few girls in the sorority house who had a car and since I was always up for adventure, shortly before Thanksgiving, I decided I would take friends up to the Snowy Mountains to cut a Christmas tree for the Chi Omega house where I lived. With a bit of squeezing, the back seat could accommodate four; the front seat, with its gear stick on the floor, could accommodate two. So, six of us piled into my car in the early afternoon, sure that we could get to the Snowy Range, cut a tree and be back by our ten-o’clock curfew that night. Included in the group were three of my best friends since my freshman year and two new pledges, both from California.

Our troubles didn’t actually start until we had arrived in the mountains. Because the dirt road was very narrow and steep, there was really no place to pull off, so all I could do was to pull as far over to the side as possible and hope no traffic came along. We knew the chances were remote, as it was a timbering road meant for the trucks that went back and forth to the lumber camp at the top of the mountain, the road being too small and rough for regular traffic. We set off scouting out a tree and soon found one the right size and proceeded to chop it down, not too skillfully, I might add. It had started to snow as we set out from the car but we were so intent on finding and chopping down the tree that we didn’t pay much attention to the fact that the snow was falling more and more heavily.

It was as we were dragging the tree back to the car that we heard the loud beeping of a horn, which in the muffled air of what was now a snow storm sounded more like a fog horn than a car horn. As the other 5 dealt with the tree, I ran out to the road to discover a huge lumber truck pulled up behind the car. My friends wrestled the tree into the trunk and I tied the lid down with the top few feet of the tree sticking out behind the trunk. We piled into the car and since I could not get past the truck to head back down the mountain, I was forced to drive further up the mountain—up the deep ruts of the frozen dirt road that were quickly filling up with snow, the lumber truck close on my heels, now and then sounding its horn if I slowed down too much.

As the snowfall got heavier and heavier, I found it harder and harder to see, the windshield wipers barely keeping up with the accumulating slush at their corners as well as the newly fallen snow. It seemed like an eternity as we drove farther and farther up the mountain. On one side was a sheer drop-off. On the other side, a steep mountain bank and trees. The mood was tense in the car as we searched each side for a possible place where we could turn around to go back down the mountain. As I type this, I can again feel the tension—a feeling of fullness in my chest—a panicked sensation of something gathering and swelling in my throat. It was panic, a growing fear that there was no way we were going to get back down that road, even if we were able to reach the lumber camp.

“I think we’re going to be spending the night at the lumber camp,” I remember thinking—and perhaps saying. The one good thing about our situation was that truck behind us, which could help us if we got stuck and which could also lead us to shelter in the lumber camp. But when we finally did get to the top of the mountain and a dirt space large enough to turn the car around, whoever was driving the lumber truck just parked the rig, jumped out and headed down through the trees. Not knowing where he was going or how to find the camp, we turned the car around and headed back down the mountain.

By then it was so dark and snowing so hard that the only way we could see to stay on the road was to open all the windows and hang our heads out, shining flashlights out of each window to see where the edge of the road was. We drove slowly for what seemed like hours, the tires sliding on the icy road until finally, the car went into a skid and started to go over the side of road. Knowing that it was a sheer drop off on the side we were skidding toward, I pumped the brakes, then as it seemed sure we were going to plunge off the side, I jammed down on the brakes and pulled the emergency brake as well. As the car went over the edge, however, the banked snow and frozen dirt stopped us. With the two passenger-side wheels hanging out into the air and the rear driver’s side wheel barely making contact, the only thing keeping us from going down the side of the cliff was the wheel and undercarriage under me. I knew it was necessary to get as much weight as possible out of the other side of the car, and yelled at the passengers in the back seat to slide as far over to my side as possible and to jump out of the back window–the side nearest the road. Then I told the person in front with me to climb into the back seat and to exit by the same means. As she did, I opened the glove box and emptied its contents into my purse. A package of chewing gum, five packets of ketchup, an extra flashlight, matches, a lighter–I don’t remember what else–but I knew we might have to survive for awhile on whatever was there. When all of my friends were out of the car, I opened my door and jumped out into the snow, fearing that without my weight the car would go on over the side.

It didn’t, but we knew it was not safe to stay in the car as it could go over at any minute. But what to do? We were all dressed warmly except for one girl from California, who had no socks and no gloves. I had earlier taken off mine and given them to her when they had gotten out of the car to push at one point. We were not equipped to survive in a mountain snowstorm, however, and I knew we needed to find shelter. In spite of the fact that we had noticed no cabins on our way up the mountain, finding one would be our only hope of survival. We had, as I recall, four flashlights, and since it seemed important to stay in contact with the car, I devised a system whereby I would stand as far from the car as I could so I could still see the car and shine a flashlight in front of me. The others would walk together shining one of the three remaining flashlights in front of them, fanning the area around them looking for shelter. They would walk as far as they could so long as they could still see my flashlight. When they had walked the furthest possible still seeing my light, one person would stand and turn on her flashlight, fanning the surroundings as they had before. If they saw nothing, that person would again shine the flashlight in a forward direction into the woods parallel to the road and the other three would walk forward together, fanning their flashlights to look for a cabin for so long as they could see the light being held by the second person. When they got to the furthest spot that they could see her light, one more would stop and shine her light for the remaining two. In this way, it would always be possible to find their way back to the car. And luckily, when they were almost to the furthest place where they could still make out the third light, they discovered a cabin, tightly boarded up for the winter. They blinked their flashlight twice, the girl above them turned and blinked her light at the one closest to me, who turned and blinked her flashlight at me and I blinked my light twice to let them know I had seen them, then grabbed the axe, thinking we might need to chop some firewood, and headed down the mountain toward lights number two, three and four!

Little did I know that I’d be using the ax to chop down the door to the cabin, which was nailed tightly shut, as were all the window shutters—a precaution against bears! Luckily we hadn’t considered the possibility of bears. The cabin was as cold as the outside air, however, and we knew we needed to get a fire started as soon as possible. The prospect of cutting down a tree and getting wet wood to burn did not appeal to us. Luckily, there were wooden chairs which we chopped up—but what to use to start the fire? Finally, we stripped insulation from the walls to stuff under the pieces of the chair and lit a fire in the cookstove. What we had not taken into account, however, was that the owners had put a coffee can over the smokestack before closing up for the winter to keep it free of critters and snow, so the cabin quickly filled with smoke.

As a result, we could just spend a few minutes in the cabin before going outside to breathe the clear air, and this was how we spent our time for I know not how many hours, taking turns standing outside to watch for any possible light coming up the road. Could there possibly be another lumber truck? Who else would be out on a night like this in such a remote spot? It was past midnight when one of the girls came running into the cabin to say she had seen a light. We all ran out, waving our flashlights as a pair of headlights made its way up the mountain. As the rangers’ four wheel drive vehicle pulled up on the road above us, we all went running up the hill, screaming, waving our arms as three men piled out of their vehicle.

Long story short, they were park rangers, who winched our car out from its precarious position, put out the fire in the cabin and wedged the door shut, then loaded three of us into the park rangers’ vehicle and the other four into my car, insisting that one of them would drive my car. We made our way down the mountain to the entrance of the park, at which point we were met by highway patrol cars. Those of us in the park rangers’ vehicle were transferred to a highway patrol car. “I can drive my car, now,” I protested, but a highway patrolman slid into the driver’s seat and we proceeded to the Laramie city limits.

At that point, we were transferred to a city police car for a brief ride to the University of Wyoming campus, where the campus cops assumed responsibility for us, driving us up to our sorority house where every light in the house was blazing and every girl in the house was waiting inside the entrance to the house, along with our house mother. By then it was 3 in the morning and they had been waiting up for us all night. When we hadn’t shown up for curfew, friends had admitted that we’d gone up to the Snowies to cut down a Christmas tree. Our house mother had called the dean, who had called the police who had called park rangers. Search parties had been sent out both from the University of Wyoming and the park headquarters. It had been 1 in the morning when they had received word we’d been found, but by then the story had been picked up by A.P. and U.P.I. and broadcast nationwide.

The next morning, we did not go to class, but slept in. We’d be seeing the Dean of Women in the early afternoon to face the music. When I woke up the next morning, the phones had already starting ringing—the press, wanting to hear the story first hand. Unfortunately, the person who answered the phone calls was Kathy Mulcare, the California girl who was the one I’d loaned my gloves and socks and boots to. Were we warmly dressed? The reported asked, “Yes, everyone but Judy Dykstra from Murdo, South Dakota. She was in low-cut shoes with no gloves!” And that was how the story went out nationwide.

When I called my parents the next morning, wondering how I was going to break the news, I said, “Hi, Mom. Guess what?” She said, “You mean how you were stranded in the mountains while cutting a Christmas tree last night?” My heart sank. It turns out that they had been up all night listening to the radio, knowing only that six girls from the U. of Wyoming were missing in the mountains after going up to cut a Christmas tree. No names had been given, but my mother said, “Ben, I just know one of them is Judy!” My dad said “Don’t be ridiculous. There are thousands of girls in the University–what are the odds that one would be Judy?” But he, too, waited up until they learned they had been found. No names, though, until I had been the one to tell them that alas, it was their daughter.

Yes, we were campused for the next semester. In addition, once the names had been announced, my dad came in for a lot of ribbing from his coffee buddies in Mack’s Cafe. “Can’t you afford to buy that daughter of yours boots and socks and gloves, Ben?” they teased. My mother advised that I not come home for Thanksgiving that year. “If you do, your Dad is going to take your car away.” And that is how I came to spend Thanksgiving in Thermopolis, Wyoming, with two of my friends who had shared the great Christmas Tree Adventure, and yes, there was another big adventure awaiting us in Thermopolis. But that is a story for another time and place and this is the story for that particular square in my memory box. Why the elephant and dog? That, too, is another story entirely.

Postscript: The strange thing was, no one ever asked us to pay for the damage to the cabin, and, although the news story ended with the quote “the little Christmas tree they had risked so much to get was left behind in the mountain blizzard,” in fact, they didn’t confiscate it. Nor did they ask if we had a permit to cut it, which we didn’t.

Although the original post was made in June, and I started this post then, I evidently got distracted. Forgottenman just found it in my drafts. So here it is, three months late. You can see the entire memory box HERE.

30 thoughts on “Memories Decoded

  1. Patti

    Just to set the record straight, Judy, I knew how to drive a stick shift when we picked up the red car. I learned how my junior year in high school by reading how to do it in the driver’s education book. The high school introduced the class that year and required all juniors to take it, even though most of us had been driving for years. Dianne’s brother then let me practice shifting in his car. Dad would have never sent us off in a new car if neither of us knew how to drive a stick shift. I probably taught you how to drive it on the way home, don’t you think?


    1. lifelessons Post author

      It was very scary but amazing how well it turned out, given how it might have. When I went to a psychic in Taiwan, it was actually one of the things he picked up about my life–and he actually related two Xmas tree stories…one of which I’d forgotten.


  2. Pingback: Memory Box | lifelessons – a blog by Judy Dykstra-Brown

  3. integratedexpat

    Exciting stuff! I know that feeling of fear as a passenger with my husband, who loves driving up mountain roads and scaring his passengers. Fortunately we’ve never been the ones hanging off the side of the mountain, though a 4-wheel drive coming towards us did once move over just a little bit too far once and slid sideways towards the trees a couple of metres below, in normal conditions, so had to be towed out; he seemed to think it was a daily occurrence. You sound like you were up to the challenge, with quick thinking and taking charge. I’m glad to hear the car survived the ordeal. And you too, of course!



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