In my senior year of high school, I took an English class where a student teacher from the local university handled the final quarter before graduation. Because we were a senior English class, there wasn’t a lot left to be done, and we spent a lot of time on fun exercises, current events, and storytelling.
One day in class, one of my fellow students raised her hand and said, “I noticed you don’t use your right arm very much…” or something to that effect. I was a little surprised because I had never noticed anything out of the ordinary about our student teacher. She smiled, complimented the student about being observant, and proceeded to tell us a story about why she didn’t use her right arm very much.
She hailed from a small North Dakota town of a few hundred people. One winter day in high school, she hopped in the car with two friends for a quick trip to one of their houses, just a few dozen miles down the road. It was snowing, but nothing too terrible. They got in the warm car without winter coats, believing they would only be on the road for twenty minutes or so.
The moment they got on the road, the snow began to fall harder, and once they got outside of town on the highway, conditions got treacherous. About ten miles down the road, visibility dropped to zero. The girl driving the car went off the road and got the car stuck in the ditch. The car was still running however, and as long as they had heat, they believed they would be fine. It would just be a matter of minutes or hours before someone came to rescue them.
The snow continued to fall, even heavier at times, and began to pile up outside the car. Today, most people know if you get stranded in a blizzard, you have to get out every hour or so and make sure snow isn’t piling up around your tailpipe. But not everybody knew that in the seventies, my teacher told us. As night began to fall, the engine stalled, choked off by snow clogging the tailpipe. The girls were unable to get the car re-started, and quickly found themselves stranded in a freezing car without winter clothing.
The snow continued to pile up throughout the night, and when the sun came up in the morning, they were shocked to see a snowdrift on one side of the car, completely blocking out the windows. The wind howled and the snowdrift eventually grew to completely cover the passenger side and the windshield. As night fell a second time, one of the girls made a terrible mistake — she decided to go for help. She got out of the car and disappeared into the blizzard. She would not return.
On the third day, the car had become completely buried in snow. My teacher and her one remaining friend were not able to see out of the windows at all. They were freezing, their teeth chattering. They had lost the feeling in their extremities many hours before. The inside of the car was becoming coated with ice from the moisture in their breath. My teacher told us they began to think nobody would find them before they froze to death.
Just as night began to fall a third time, they heard a noise. It sounded like a voice. They listened intently to see if they would hear the noise again, and suddenly there was a loud thump, metal on metal. A shovel had just struck the top of the car. Help had arrived.
A rescue crew dug the car out and rescued the girls. My teacher’s friend had to have her tennis shoes chipped from the floor of the car. Her feet had frozen to the floor. They were taken to the hospital and treated for frostbite and dehydration. Her friend who had gone for help was found dead, frozen, face down in the snow, about fifty yards from a building. There had been a building about one hundred yards from the car and they had never known it.
As my teacher finished telling us this story, she took the opportunity to give us a short lecture on the importance of dressing appropriately for the North Dakota winter. She told us she had permanent nerve damage in one arm due to the ordeal. She held up her left arm and made a simple pinching motion, bringing her index and middle finger together with her thumb. Then she held up her right arm and attempted to do the same thing. But instead of a simple pinching motion, her arm went into a terrible spasm, bending at the elbow as her hand flapped back and forth wildly. A few students briefly laughed at the almost comical gesture, but the laughs quickly subsided and the we realized the seriousness of what we had just seen.
It was a story that had a serious impact on me, and I have never forgotten it.
Every year as the winter weather rolls in, I think about that teacher and her experience. In the cell phone era, it’s nice to have a lifeline, but even the convenience of a phone is no guarantee of winter safety. Plows and emergency services are frequently pulled from the road in severe conditions. So even when you can tell someone where you are, it’s no guarantee help will be able to reach you in a severe blizzard.
Experts recommend you have a winter survival kit in your car, but you don’t need to buy one, you can make one at home. Here’s what you should have:
- A metal coffee can – use a can opener to punch three little triangular holes in the rim at even intervals. You can use these holes to hang the can if necessary
- Three large safety pins – use for hanging the can, if necessary
- One large pillar candle – this will be your heat source in an emergency, and can be used to melt snow in the can
- One pocket knife and/or scissors
- Three pieces of brightly colored cloth – these make signal flags when tied to a door handle or antenna
- Dissolvable food – soup packets, hot cocoa, bouillon cubes
- Solid food – granola bars, cookies, peanuts, dried fruit, etc…
- Extra socks, gloves
- Flashlight and batteries (keep them separate until needed)
- 2 books of matches in a plastic bag
All of those items can be packed into the coffee can, which should be kept in the passenger compartment. In addition, you may want to keep the following items in your trunk.
- Blankets, sleeping bags
- A folding shovel
- Kitty litter – for traction in getting your car unstuck.
- Jumper cables
- Tow rope
- Signal flares
And of course, a charged cell phone will be your best friend. One other item I recommend for winter survival (but not in the car):
Root Beer Barrels
In a highball glass, combine
1/3 root beer schnapps
Top off with beer or cola
Tastes like root beer, warms your belly. If you choose to use cola as your mixer instead of beer, you may want to add one shot of spiced rum to bump the alcohol content of your drink a little bit.
Troy Larson is a producer, writer, photographer, and designer from Fargo. Read more about the unexplained, science, urban legends, and more.