Saturday, October 25, 2008


I mentioned a few posts back that I have experienced hypothermia, that euphoric drifting off to sleep which ultimately, if not checked, results in death. I thought I might share my story.

28 years ago, my husband and I took care of a high mountain ranch in New Mexico. We had some cows there and a bunch of horses, we hauled our drinking water from a spring a quarter-mile away, bucketed wash-water up from the hand-dug well behind the cook shack, and survived well without a telephone.

As winter came on, we laid up supplies, though I had certainly never bought groceries for a whole season before. We had laying-hens on the property to provide our eggs, we had plenty of hay in the barn and feed in the bins. I remember spending $200 on groceries, a princely sum back then, on foodstuffs I felt would last 120 days or more.

As the snows started, the beauty of the mountain valley we lived in, 12 miles from our nearest neighbors, cloaked the pines, bare aspen trees and subirrigated fields. We parked our Chevy pickup across the dirt "Forest" road that led to the ranch, on the other side of the little creek that promised muddy crossings in early Spring. The four-wheel-drive was chained up on all four tires, with extra weight in the bed and a full gas tank.

But the snow continued to pile up that year, without melting in between. The wind blew the snow into tall drifts which arced around the old log cabins on the place, including the one that once served as a post office long ago. We kept feeding the fire, feeding the livestock, and enjoying each others' company.

Feeling it was safest to set a certain day that we'd ride out to gather our mail from our closest neighbors (who'd been picking up our mail for us another 13 miles away in the small town of Ft. Defiance), we agreed upon the day of Wednesday. This way, we'd know our neighbors were home when we arrived after a tough ride through the deep snow. This was before cell phones, and we didn't own a snow machine. Weeks before, the truck proved useless in so much snow. After all, our ranch, Twin Springs, was a whole 9 miles from where the snow plow stopped.

I rode a big, rawboned Appaloosa named Amigo, a tank of a horse who marched and lifted his big knees up high to break trail through the snow. Amigo had eaten loco weed before we bought him, and was never reliable, but he worked well for me that winter.

I often had eggs stashed behind me in the saddle bags, which I gave to my neighbors to deliver for me to the feed store in town. I sold them for 90 cents a dozen, and if I was lucky, I made $1.80 a week.

In true, neighborly fashion, these ranchers closest to us would always invite us to put our horses in their barn, and then to step inside their old house to the smells of ranch bacon frying and fresh coffee.

As soon as we returned home, following the trail we'd just broken through hours before, we curried off the horses, fed them a good pile of mountain-meadow hay, and then headed to the cook shack where we were living, and enjoyed our mail.

Food started to become sparse, but we always had eggs from the chickens, and when one of the range cows calved, I coaxed her into the barn and trained her to allow me to milk her. We went at least a month with only pinto beans, eggs and milk to eat.

It turned out to be the worst winter on record since 1933. Snow kept building up, eventually too deep even for old Amigo. The snow crusted over, making it even worse for horses to try to get through. We eventually started walking the nine miles out, leaving early in the morning to enjoy the relative ease of walking on crust. Often, we led a Shetland pony named Chubby, who was tacked up with a pack saddle and ready to bring home the dog food we'd asked our neighbors to pick up and have ready for us, or maybe a sack of potatoes.

I wasn't aware of it at the time, but I was pregnant when in the Spring we were hiking out, 18 miles round trip in one day, struggling through deep snow and weak crust that our weight would often break through, joltingly and adding to our fatigue. Often, the snow had drifted to where we didn't have a clue where the road was, so we followed the small power line that led to our ranch. We'd stop along the way, sit under a tree, and maybe open up a letter or two, to eagerly digest word from the outside, a world that seemed so far from where and how we lived.

One thing I recall is that every Wednesday, we had to decide if we were going to go out to the neighbors or not. Was it snowing? Was it going to snow? What was the weatherman on our radio predicting? Is it safe to try to go?

But...if we don't go, then it is a whole week until we can try to get out again! Because we must travel on a Wednesday, otherwise we might find an empty, locked house when we got to our neighbors'. With sadness, we called off the trip for that week due to bad weather. Then the next Wednesday, again, the weather was bad. I remember how sad it was when we had to forego traveling out 3 weeks in a row. How we wanted our mail and craved other people's voices!

Hiking back one time, with my backpack laden with mail and goodies, I felt weaker and weaker. It was cold, spitting snow, and we were following the power line, not giving thought to where the road actually lay. I felt extremely sleepy and weak, and unable to lift another leg. I stopped and told Pete, with all sincerity and solemnity, "Go on ahead to the ranch, feed the stock. I am going to go lie down under that pine tree where there is no snow. I'll be happy there. I'll sleep the night and then you can come back for me in the morning."

This made perfect sense to me and I was dead-on serious. Thankfully, Pete had his wits about him and urged me to press onward, saying the ranch was only one mile away. I did, and he was right, we were almost within shouting distance of the old log cabin.

Five months total, we were snowed in on that ranch. We had many experiences that I will never forget, most of them fun and laughable. We inner-tubed on a nearby hill; we fashioned skiis from old wooden bed-slats, and using mop and broom handles for ski poles, we swooshed around the valley, marveling as we glided over places where the barbed wire fences were unseen, but we knew they were there. We played cards, guitars and got along amiably well. I was afflicted with boils on the back of my neck, and Pete lanced them for me with a rattlesnake-bite kit. We were warm, we had plenty of protein to eat, and I don't recall any feelings of hopelessness or helplessness. When the snow melted and the mud dried up enough for us to drive our Chevy out and go to town, we loaded up the loco'ed Appaloosa and sold him in town. When the horse trader asked us how much we wanted for him, Pete told him just enough to buy a large pizza!

Later, I read the classic symptoms of hypothermia and realised that they were exactly what I had experienced that night as I begged to go to sleep under a tree.

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