Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Just call me Stolpa.

Jim and Jennifer Stolpa
Years ago, in 1993 to be precise, all of California was glued to the television because of the Stolpas. Jim and Jennifer. Oh...and baby, Clayton.

An Army private, his wife and their 5-month-old child survived a week in a freezing, snowbound Nevada wilderness by eating snow, cookies, corn chips and vitamin pills, the couple said today at a joyous hospital news conference, one day after the family's rescue.

The couple, James and Jennifer Stolpa, and their baby boy, Clayton, became stranded after setting out in their pickup truck on Dec. 29 from the San Francisco Bay town of Hayward to drive to Idaho for a family funeral.

The highway that they had planned to take over the Sierra Nevada was closed because of a snowstorm. So they took another road, a little-traveled route through the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge, just over the California border in Nevada. (emphasis mine.)

Everyone who lived in California at that time remembers this story.  Every one of us was glued to the TV, waiting for the next update. Would they be found? And when? What were the chances they would be alive? What the hell were they thinking?

The weather in the Sierra Nevada mountains is nothing to be toyed with. While I realize that everyone in the rest of the 49 states thinks all of California is Venice Beach, a LOT of California is rugged and unforgiving. And it doesn't show leniency to stupidity. Ask the Donner Party.

So Grandma's dead and the Stolpas decide that they are going to Grandma's funeral -- come hell or high water. Or even a HUGE snowstorm, as was the case. So they pack up the baby and off they go. What they DON'T pack up are supplies -- of any kind. And they leave their brains, too.

But off they go.

When they get to Donner Pass (yeah, one and the same) on Highway 80 -- the MAIN highway crossing the Sierras - they find that it is CLOSED due to snow. Kittens, when Highway 80 is closed, basically CalTrans has ABANDONED ALL ROAD MAINTENANCE. Closing Highway 80 is the same as saying, "You're fucked and you're NOT getting through." Everyone knows that. Everyone except the Stolpas. Not to be deterred by a silly road closure, they check their map. Oh, joy! There is this little cow trail shown going off into the wilderness and at some distant point might just connect back to civilization. Let's take THAT!

So they do. They actually think that they can navigate a small, untraveled road into the mountains when CalTrans has CLOSED the biggest highway to like --- ANYWHERE.

Not to worry, kittens. They have a bag of Doritos and a Coke. Good to go.

Of course they get stuck. And of course, they are now surrounded by swirling, driving snow in the middle of nowhere. And no one knows where they are because this is before cell phones and GPS. This is in the time when people died from stupidity.

But God takes care of idiots and innocents and I think they were both. They made it. All of them.

Why I made it today is still a mystery.

This morning we had a huge storm blowing in after weeks of balmy, spring weather. This storm was going to dump a foot or so in the Sierras. But I needed to drive to Reno either today or tomorrow. I HAD planned on going tomorrow because of the storm, but that would have created its own problems because of other appointments I had and couldn't change, so I got up this morning and checked www.weather.com. The assholes said the storm wasn't going to hit until 1 or 2 in the afternoon. Yeah! I could make it up and back by then if I jumped into the car and fled! So I did. So fast did I leave that I didn't charge my phone or even put on a coat. Remember, from where I left, it was 50 degrees and just a little windy. Never mind that my husband told me to take a ski jacket and gloves, etc. Yeah...yeah...yeah...blah...blah...blah...

So off I go. Just call me Stolpa.

I realized almost immediately that www.weather.com is run by a stupid bunch of stupid weather guys, probably the same stupid morons who are telling us we need CFL's to save the planet, because I drove into the storm within 20 minutes of leaving the house - at 8:50 a.m. in the morning. This would have been an excellent time to just turn around and go to Reno tomorrow.

But nooooooo. I have 4 wheel drive. I have all-weather, super-duper tires. Good to go.

The trip up to Reno was a little troubling, but nothing horrifying. I've lived and driven in snow my entire life. I was undaunted by the first leg, but I was somewhat concerned about the trip back as the storm was obviously increasing in strength. As soon as I got everything done, I started back. By Kingvale, we were slowing to a stop. Highway Patrol was moving everyone off the highway. Apparently there were already so many wrecks that they were closing the highway for an hour. Just swell. Since I hadn't taken the time to even pack a bag of Doritos or a Coke, a la the Stolpas, I now popped into a convenience store and bought a candy bar, a bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos, and a tall Starbucks Mocha drink. All set.

Sitting there waiting for the highway to open again, I checked my phone. Did I mention that my cell phone battery was so low that I had turned off my phone to conserve what little battery I had? Just another incredibly great coincidence to a super-fan-TAB-u-lous day. So I turned it on now as I sat there and discovered that my daughter had texted me a dozen ALL CAPS messages about answering my phone. NOW! Well, "now" had long since passed and now I was stuck with a road closure at Kingvale. With a dead phone. After picking up those pleas for rescue or contact or attention or whatever, my phone's battery died altogether.

Just ducky.

When they eventually opened the highway, I headed down, determined to get home -- come hell or high water.

Just call me Stolpa.

No more than a few miles down the highway, there was a blockade where they were enforcing chains for all vehicles that didn't have 4 wheel drive AND snow tires. I had both. Good to go. But I did ask the CalTrans guy if my connecting highway was still open. It's not that well traveled and is often closed. If closed, it would have added an extra hour at least to my trip as I would have had to go much farther down Highway 80 and then double back. He said, "Yes, it's closed. We always close it when we have chain control on 80 so no one gets out there and gets trapped."

Like the Stolpas.

Highway 80 was open, but just barely. The conditions were a white-out, people were swerving all over and you no longer could determine the road for all the blowing snow. But when I got to the exit for my connecting highway, it was open! I took it. Yeah...just me. Going down a little used highway through the woods.

Just call me Stolpa.

I didn't even have any Cheetos by now. I'd eaten them all. The only smart thing I had done all day was fill up my gas tank in Reno. So if I got stuck I could stay warm for a couple of hours before dying.

Heading down the road, I quickly realized that it hadn't been graded by a plow all day and the snow was at least a foot across most of it. I dropped down to 15 mph and crept along for MILES. Do I have to tell you that I was screaming swear words into empty space just to release the tension and keep my head from blowing off my neck? You probably already assumed that.

So I made it. You probably already assumed that, too. And I only lost control once, doing a full across-the-road-spin-into-the-snowbank-corrected-at-the-last-minte-only-to-end-up-in-a-heading-straight-off-a-cliff-spin-corrected-like-a-boss to end up heading back down the road in the proper direction.

So I'm good.

And I rescued my daughter. I got her pickup off the side of the road, where she had spun out and so left it to go to a friend's home, and got home in time to feed the horses.

So, just like the Stolpa's, no one died (except for Grandma).


  1. Yeah, we get idiots of this ilk who, in the same fashion, think our Aussie outback is something you can travel with no preparation.

    Too many have lost their lives just because they didn't think, failed to notify anyone where they were going etc.

  2. I love it when you tell stories - you have a talent for narration.

    And I'm really glad you didn't die, hahahaha! I read your email earlier too and was all HOLY FUCK! and then THANK GOD!

    I lived in Minnesota when I was 16 so that's where I learned to drive and where I spent my first few years as a driver. So I was really good on snow and didn't fear it at all. I was 100% confident! I knew how to correct spin-outs and how to spot black ice and all the rest. Zero fear and zero accidents for me.

    Then I spent the next 15 years in Texas, and forgot how to not fear snow and ice.

    And now I'm 40 and absolutely, sickeningly TERRIFIED of snow and ice. It's damn near a phobia at this point and you couldn't pay me enough money to get in a car, behind the wheel or not, in any kind of snow. Last winter we went skiing up in the Alps (it's like a 40-minute drive, just a day trip) and it was clear all day until just when we were leaving. Snow came down hard and we had to get down that mountain on little windy roads, and it was the absolute most terrifying experience of my entire life and I am not kidding.

    We did get into a minor fender-bender, which didn't help my fear. We have our right-hand drive British car, which happens to be a model notorious for being bad in the snow, and Rupert just could not get stopped behind a big SUV even though we were about four car lengths behind it and only going 5 mph. We just...slid. And slid and slid and slid, until we gently tapped the back of that SUV. Which was full of young Italians, who all jumped out and started yelling at us in Italian about snow chains (it's actually the law to have them here, and we didn't - OOPS). We'd only been here about 6 months at the time and my Italian was still limited and it was just a fucking nightmare to try to apologize to them and exchange info (our car was damaged, theirs wasn't but they wanted our info anyway, which was terrifying but nothing ever came of it).

    Anyway then we rolled the car over to the side and waited until the snow plows came through and then it stopped snowing and it only took a few hours for it to melt enough for us to get the rest of the way down that mountain but I tell you again it was the single most SCARY experience of my life. I literally almost vomited from the fear. There are very few guard rails up there and if we slid on one of the curves, we would've plummeted off the cliff. I hated hated hated hated every single second of it, and we have never gone back up to that mountain. We did buy snow chains the next day, though.

    Anyway - so that's why I got all shaky and heart-poundy reading your email this morning and this post just now. I admire your ability to drive in that shit and not panic. Oy.

    Now STAY SAFE, Stolpa. hahahahahahaha

    1. I certainly wasn't twisting down the side of the Alps! YIKES!

  3. For goodness sake, be more careful. If you got yourself killed like that you'd never live it down. This would be a good time to get a car charger for your phone and throw it in the glovebox.

    1. I know...I know...! I do have a car charger, but it was in the Lexus, which is MY car. The Excursion, that piece of shit, is my husband's vehicle and I never drive it.

      When I was telling hubby about the spin out and how it just happened, he admitted that he had never lost control of any other vehicle in his life either, but that this Excursion drove like crap and he had nearly wrapped it around a few trees as well. We decided that we are getting a new car. Our old Suburban was a CHAMP in the snow. Just went. This POS is DANGEROUS. And I have no idea why. It's got all the right "stuff."

  4. Oh shoot. Scary.
    The fact that after all that you still get behind the wheel makes you a shiny example of heroism. A beacon of pioneer spirit and perseverance. I am not kidding.

    1. There is a fine line between brave and stupid. I cross it all the time.

  5. When I was much younger and stupider, a buddy of mine and I decided to visit our parents in January. His were in Shingle Springs and mine in Alturas. We decided to visit my folks first. I-5 north to 299 wasn't bad, only some fog. There was a little snow in Alturas the next day that had started to melt by the time we headed south on 395. We got to Reno just before the storm and decided to take Highway 50 rather than the 80 because it was a closer shot straight into Shingle Springs. That was an error. The chippies were closing the highway right behind us as the storm blew in. We spent 100 miles in a white out. We couldn't even see the lake going through Tahoe. We made it with only minor dings to the truck but I will never underestimate the Sierras in winter again.

    1. I will never underestimate the Sierras in winter again.

      Only in winter? Years ago, when I was young and stupid (still one, not the other), several of us decided to hike into the Sierras for a couple of days at a lake called, of all things, Hidden Lake. It was July. We walked in with day packs in shorts and t-shirts only, having arranged for mules to bring in the big stuff. We got to the lake around 3 o'clock and a HUGE freaking storm blew in, complete with high winds, plummeting temps and SNOW! And the mules didn't arrive until nearly nightfall. I thought we were going to freeze to death, or at least I was. I weighed about 104 lbs and had the body fat of a Nazi prisoner back then. I was seriously FREEZING! In JULY!!! Damn stupid mountains. Even after our tents, sleeping bags and clothing had been delivered and we'd set up camp, the wind and storm continued so that we couldn't build a fire. We just huddled in the tents all night. Fun times.

    2. And Lambert...100 MILES??? You were also lucky.

  6. I have trouble pointing fingers at the stupidity of the Stolpas because I could've pictured myself doing the exact same thing back when I was younger. As a matter of fact I remember years ago driving from LA to SF when virtually the entire state was under either monsoon or blizzard conditions. After almost getting stuck in snow on the Grapevine north of LA, I ended up taking the coastal route (101) instead. The rain for the next four hours was like driving into a firehose. Around Paso Robles I gave up and went inland to try I-5. The rain had slackened somewhat, but the gusts were blowing my little Mazda all over the road. By the time I got to the Bay Area over 12 hours had passed for what should've taken no more than 6. I made it, but should've listened to my dad and waited a couple days, for there was no good reason why I couldn't have left later.