[Note: This is the story of a 770-mile trip on prairie highways during a snowstorm. Duane is the compiler of this series of travel adventures. He would like to thank all who have participated. A more detailed story about Duane can be seen in “After School: Lives of Manitoba Normalites, Class of 1950-51” and in “Leaving Tracks: an Autobiography”. and seen about Pam in “I Have a Story to Tell”.]
For the first three years after we were married in 1964, we lived in a teacherage at David Thompson High School, near Condor, Alberta 35 miles (56 km) west of Red Deer. In December of that year, we experienced bitterly cold weather conditions. About a week before Christmas, we had a wind chill factor of -68°C (-90°F) for two days. We planned on driving 770 miles (1,239 km) to Williston, North Dakota, to be with Pam’s parents for Christmas. A snowstorm developed on the day that we were to leave! That was bad news, but it did not deter us.
Early in the evening of our departure, we had some work done on our car at a local garage. Then, Duane parked the car in the shop at school to keep it warm for our departure. Our friends suggested that we should not travel under the current conditions. As this was Pam’s first Christmas away from home, we decided to disregard the advice although we knew that we should heed it.
We commenced our journey about one-half hour after midnight. It was so dark and cold! Throughout the whole trip, we found it necessary to alternate drivers frequently to keep from becoming mesmerized by the driving snow. Before we reached Sylvan Lake, 18 miles (29 kilometres) from home, we realized that only our lane the eastbound one of the highway was passable. Snow had drifted onto the westbound lane making it difficult to navigate. Should we continue, or should we return home? Duane would gladly have turned back if Pam had suggested it. She was aware of that, but feared to say anything. He declined making the suggestion, knowing how much she wanted to be with her family on Christmas Day. In order to arrive there on time, we must continue to drive toward North Dakota.
On the freeway near Olds, a town about 30 miles (48 km) south of Red Deer, with Pam driving, we suddenly saw several little pigs on the road, wandering in the dark with their eyelids practically frozen shut. She missed them! This adventure was repeated three more times in quick succession. These lost piglets had been unloaded when a truck had overturned onto the median. With the temperature hovering around -20°F (-28°C), the pigs must have been suffering as they moved aimlessly. We were happy that our car had not hit any. However, it was a very nerve-wracking experience for both of us. We do not remember if we stopped to check the truck. We never learned what had caused the accident or what happened to the piglets after we left the scene.
We eventually drove into a shopping mall parking lot in Calgary, about another 55 miles (89 km), for a rest. It was about 5:30 a.m. It had taken us two hours longer to drive this far than it would have under normal conditions. We continued on to Lethbridge, a city which we did not know at the time, but knew well a few years later. We made one wrong turn, but found our way to #4 Highway our route to Montana. Duane recalled driving past St. Michael’s Hospital. Later, we became aware that we had been several blocks from the proper street.
When we were a few miles from Coutts, at the Alberta-Montana border, we heard on our car radio that the RCMP were advising motorists to stay off the highways in Alberta. It was now daylight, and we had fought our way for nearly three hundred miles. We were not going to turn back now after having come this far.
At Shelby, Montana, it was difficult to see the ramp as we left US #87 Highway for US #2 Highway. There appeared to be a snowdrift blocking the way! Duane swerved the car slightly to miss it, but then realized that his eyes had deceived him. The atmospheric conditions had caused him to see a mirage.
East of Shelby, the highway narrowed; and there were no fences on either side of the highway. Where was the edge of the highway? We were surrounded by a sea of white snow. Thus, as we took our turns at driving, we had to be alert to avoid driving off the highway. At one spot, near Harlem, Montana, where the highway briefly jogged south, the drifts on either side of the highway were as high as the car; and the snow was blowing over them.
Some time later when we stopped for gasoline at Glasgow, Montana, the attendant advised us to spend the night in a nearby motel because of the hazardous driving conditions. It was dark again now, and it was still snowing! Would it ever cease? We decided to continue for the last 80 miles (129 km) of the trip. We became virtually hypnotized by the snow falling onto the car’s windshield as we drove.
Keeping watch of the lines on the pavement, we turned instinctively as they turned. Fortunately, they were still visible. We were zombies by now! Eventually, we entered North Dakota, and a short time later arrived in Williston. The end was in sight! Seeing a telephone booth a short distance into the city, Pam phoned her parents for directions as we had never been in this city. Her dad came to meet us and to lead us to his house. It was now after nine o’clock, local time, on Christmas Eve. The trip had been completed safely! It had taken us twenty hours, with falling snow much of the way and blowing snow the rest of the time. It had been a very long, tiring trip.
We did enjoy our stay in Williston with Pam’s family. We had accomplished our mission, difficult as it was.
On the way home to Alberta, we traveled via Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, and the Trans-Canada Highway. This trip was about twenty miles shorter and took us only fourteen hours. We dreaded the thought of another snowstorm, especially as one had been forecast for Southern Alberta. However, before we reached Calgary, this forecast was canceled. What a relief that was! For some time, in referring to the storm which was forecast, Pam would say that it was called off because of the weather. Thankfully, we arrived home without mishap.
We have since thought how foolish it was for us to make this trip under such weather conditions, especially with little on which to survive in case of trouble. If we had driven off the highway during the night, in particular, the result could have been tragic. We feel that we were really watched over. This was the worst winter storm that we have ever experienced on a long-distance trip.
We provide our readers with the advice which both our friends and the RCMP gave, but which we did not heed. Unless it is absolutely essential that one should be driving in such weather, whether it be short distance or long, one should stay home. Also, it is wise to carry the necessary survival supplies, regardless of weather conditions, just in case a problem should develop enroute. It is so easy for a car to become mired in a snow drift on the road or in the ditch. We have since experienced both, but we received help when needed. We survived this one severe snowstorm while on a long trip, but the results could have been much different.