Stranded on a winter night in the Jemez Mountains

Road map of the Bandelier-Jemez area, New Mexico

One snowy and cold winter night in the 1980s, I was stranded on a forest road adjacent to New Mexico State Highway 4, between Los Alamos and Jemez Pueblo.  I drove a 1976 Chevrolet short-bed pickup with a two bunk camper.  The pickup was desert tan and the camper green with off-white stripes.  Not a flashy pickup, but neither was it an Eddie R. V. (National Lampoon Christmas Vacation).

I defined myself as a broad-gauge field researcher, taking notes on terrain, Native American culture and the interaction of Anglo, Spanish and Indian sub-cultures.  I kept a good set of notes and used them in class and at the desk when I wrote.  (Those notes are in filing cabinets in the barn today.  It’s 20 deg. F. this morning and I’m not fetching notes.  I’ll retrieve them later this year.)

On this particular trip to New Mexico in the 1980s, I had spent one night in Taos in the maid’s quarters at the Sagebrush and I was headed south to the Jemez Pueblo to spend the night at their campground and then on to Socorro and warmer climes the next day.  (A camper could pull into the campground at night and pay the next morning.)  It was around New Year or Christmas and snow had fallen in the higher elevations.   New Mexico State Highway 4, from Bandelier to the Jemez Pueblo, had an elevation of 8,000 feet and the snow had been partially snowplowed from the roadway, but neither forest roads nor pull outs had been cleared of snow and ice.

It was late in the evening, about 9:30 p.m., when I began to ascend the Jemez range.  As I left Los Alamos, I believed if I drove carefully I could safely go over the mountains and down to the pueblo.  My pickup was a two-wheeled drive with off-road tires and I had driven in snow and mud for many years in New Mexico and Texas.  When I reached the top of the Jemez range, I pulled into a picnic area that had not been cleared.  At first, I did not see a slight slope downhill, but when I noticed it, I immediately stopped and put my pickup in reverse to pull back out on the highway, about 150 feet from my position.  I backed up fifty feet and the traction gave way, tires spinning.  I was stranded and it was 10:30 p.m.

Snow was falling and no cars had come by on the road.  I wasn’t about to wander onto the road at night to flag down assistance.  Who would stop in the middle of the night for some guy up on the mountain and a pickup hidden among the conifers, nowhere to be seen?  Nobody would stop.  I decided to wait until daylight to flag for assistance.  I got out of the pickup, turned away from the road and walked down into the forest.

What a moment, I thought.  I may be stranded until morning, but the quiet of late evening and starry sky made me appreciate my predicament.  Only in this isolation, no trucks or cars passing, did I hear and see the forest and sky.  The stars were much brighter than on the Texas plains and they seemed to flash and glitter.  Wind blew through the trees sharply and the older pines creaked and groaned.  As the wind coursed, its sound was basso, baritone, not sharp tenor, but deep tones, earthy.

Even now, twenty-years-plus later, I slip into a reverie, reflective of that moment:  I have on my Eddie Bauer green parka, waterproof hiking boots with bright-red gaiters to the knees, snow pants, toboggan cap and ski gloves.  I walk farther down into the forest and stand transfixed in the snow for five minutes or so.  I realize I am experiencing one of the keenest moments of time, space and nature in my life.  And, it all comes about because of my carelessness.  The wind passing through the trees sounds lonely, yet comforting.  The stars faraway, yet close.  Alone without human company, I feel a family.

Well, enough of an Emersonian Drop’s Pond moment, I thought.  I have to get to sleep.  I walked back to the pickup and climbed into the camper.  I had several bedrolls.  My warmest bedroll was a blue mummy-type, goose down, that I would sleep in.  I spread the other bedrolls and a couple of old family quilts on the floor of the camper, stripped to my long underwear, got into the bedroll and pulled on my toboggan cap, tightened the mummy bag and promptly began to contemplate my fate.

I had no fear of freezing to death.  I was embarrassed for getting stranded.  Really embarrassed.  I could die of embarrassment.  Here I was on top of the Jemez in a two-wheel drive pickup.  I really didn’t want to hear from anybody that I should’ve had a four-wheel drive or chains.  Yeah, I should’ve, but I don’t.  But in order to get out of this jam, I would have to listen to the criticism.  Small price to pay, I thought, to have someone pull me out.  I drifted off to sleep, awakening a couple of times before morning light to the sound of high wind through the trees.  I slept warmly and awoke refreshed.

When it was fully sunup, I stood beside the highway.  I had heard one or two trucks during the night, but none since sunrise.  The weather news on the radio was good — no squalls or fronts approaching.  After twenty minutes, a man in a jeep came by with a winch on the front bumper.  I waved him down politely.  He stopped and I asked for just a pull out to the edge of the highway.  “Well, sure,” he said.

I waited for the inevitable why don’t you have four-wheel?  Chains?

Those words did not come.  He drove the jeep down close to my Chevy, hooked the winch on the pickup and pulled me back up to level ground where I had traction, taking all of three minutes.  Unhooking the winch, I reached for my billfold to give him a couple of dollars and thanked him appropriately.  He refused to take any money, saying, “It’s no trouble, glad I could help you.  Take care.”  And, with that, he drove on down the mountain without throwing criticism in my direction.  I was as grateful for his understanding as I was the pull out.

I pitched my Chevy into second gear and came down the Jemez, heading south to warmer climes, remembering the sound of wind through the trees and shining stars on the mountain as well as the kindness of a stranger with few words.



I wrote notes on this adventure the next day.  The notes are in the filing cabinet in the barn.  Still.

In writing this post, between paragraph one and two, I wrote a couple of hundred words about eating and lodging in New Mexico in association with this adventure, but deleted it.  I saved it for another day.

I looked for a photograph of snow on the Jemez, but could not find any to insert.

I do carry chains in bad weather these days.  But, they are cumbersome to take on and off, depending on the terrain.  Solutions include having a four-wheel-drive truck, have two spare tires with chains already placed so that you change tires out or stay by the fire.  Tour another day.


Filed under Adventure

12 responses to “Stranded on a winter night in the Jemez Mountains

  1. Bryant

    hey Jack, nice read. Thanks for sharing the story. Reminded me of a few strandings, including the time I threw a serpentine belt in a blizzard near Cebolla, N.M., way up north, and a couple of local ranchers spent an hour helping remount the thing. Never said a cross word about it. New Mexicans are by and large just nice folks.

  2. The weather in the SW, particularly NM, has taught me a few lessons, mostly that for each predicament there is a huge payoff, if one makes he choice to see and appreciate it.You certainly did. That must have been some quiet. The air at that altitude and the sense of being so close to the sky… I could feel it as I read.

  3. Truly a thrilling experience. Thanks for share.

    I am very happy to climb the mountain, but I also do not like bad weather and do not want to see a bad experience with the weather. 🙂

  4. Nice story. It was so nice that you took time to actually enjoy the moment and it became an adventure rather than a nightmare. I’ve been stranded in deep snow overnight as well. It makes for good conversation years later. Weather can humble us all, no doubt about it.

  5. Pingback: How I heard God’s Voice and What I Thought It Said « The Narrative Imperative: Tell Stories or Die

  6. I really enjoyed your story Jack! You were, after all, very well prepared; both from the perspective of safety and from the emotional awareness that enabled you to take good advantage of the unique opportunity. A wonderful memory and a great story!

  7. Kittie Howard

    A great story and a really great read. A Jack London read with a happy ending! I figured you were well prepared so didn’t worry, just enjoyed how you enjoyed the oneness of it all.

    But I was disappointed you omitted those NM notes. Humph!

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