Nothing Like a Near Death Experience to Put Life Into Perspective
Long before the days of GPS on every cell phone, over the Christmas holidays of 2009, we made a trip South Carolina to see my husband's (Angus) 100 year old grandmother. She lived in a retirement facility and had been there for some time and since she had become unable to travel easily, we decided it was beyond our turn. On our way home, our new Garmin system routed us over the Smokey Mountains. It wouldn't have mattered if there HAD been GPS on our mobil phones because there were no cell towers in these remote areas. We were doomed to a fate that was worse than anything I could ever imagine. Where just hours earlier that very day, we had wrapped up an amazing visit with my husband's family, who would have dreamed we would be facing an experience that would change the trajectory of our lives? This is our Christmas story...
When we left Topeka there was about 10 inches of snow on the ground. We were happy for a break from the hard, cold winter weather - our region had been slammed with three snowstorms a few weeks prior. Taking our time to get to South Carolina, our trip there took two and a half days. We had been able to shop a little and rest when needed. After all, we had a 7 year old for which to entertain and care. Exploring was a must. Disney movies, sing alongs and being silly were all the norm.
We'd had a lovely time and almost hated returning to Kansas. The new Garmin gadget we’d received from Angus’s parents was great. It had a feature for all sorts of voices - even a squirrel voice. We’d had so much fun setting it up. Now for directions. On our return trip we had left a little after noon and had been on the road for some time. We planned to take our time returning home. Tired and hungry, we needed to stretch our legs every few hours. As we headed toward the Blue Ridge Parkway, the quickest route the Garmin directed us, all but guaranteed that it wouldn’t be too much longer. But things quickly started to unravel.
We’d been on the road forever, only stopping once to re-fuel. Angus and I had traded driving so it was not too tiring...at least not until that last stretch. It was after 9 pm and we thought we would surely find some place to eat after we turned onto the Parkway. As we continued to ascend, our daughter became extremely car sick - there were so many hairpin turns. She would heave as though she were going to vomit and then cry and cry. It had been so long since lunch and there was nothing in her stomach, so that made it seem even worse. Her head, stomach, and throat hurt badly. I finally got into the back seat with her. We would sometimes stop and give her a break from the motion while I wiped her tears and wiped her forehead trying to get her comfortable, before continuing on our journey. And then, as the road would twist and turn, it would happen all over again. The road to the top of the mountain had become narrow, lending virtually no place to pull over. The sides of the road seemed steep and dangerous because often there were no guard rails. Seeing a car was a rarity, but we didn't notice that because we had such a sick little girl. The next time we stopped the car, I came around to get behind the wheel. The air was a sharp contrast to the warmth contained inside our car. But I told myself that it could not be much longer. The road would turn into a highway, it would straighten out and our daughter wouldn't be nearly as sick.
As I began to drive I noticed the fuel gage light had come on. We needed to find a fueling station in the worst way. The road became dusted with snow. We were really high and I thought that we surely must be almost to the access where we entered the Parkway. Once we accessed this highway, we could grab some food, fuel and make up the time we had lost on the way up. Still, we saw no cars. It hit me that us passing the occasional trailer house was long gone. Gosh. I wondered just how long it had been since we had seen a home. if we needed help, we would likely have to walk for miles. We continued.
The snow gradually began laying across the road like a down quilt. It was thin at first and grew thicker and deeper. There were no tire tracks and you could not tell where the edge of the road was. Angus tried to get cell service but there was none. As I continued to drive the snow was becoming something I was really uneasy about with terrible turns amid snowdrifts and then we would cross back. To say it was dangerous was such an understatement. I assured myself that just like the awesome road crews of our area, the highway we were about to get on would be clear, salted and safe.
The night was dark with only the light of our headlights and the snow that made everything seem a little lighter. I (now) really wished my husband was driving. We crawled along with no road guide except the mountain on one side and a occasional trees on the other. As I drove I thought...these are Christmas trees. Yes. And how appropriate after celebrating Jesus’s birthday. Anything to take my mind off the impending fate we all faces. I guessed we were almost above tree line. We had to push on and get out of this. Was this even a two lane road? How could this be happening? I was becoming so frightened. I looked over at my husband to see a face drawn with worry. Surely it wouldn't be too much longer. The fuel warning light glowed like a beacon in the night.
We finally came to a clearing that had to be the entrance to the Parkway. FREAKED was an understatement.
The snow was much deeper now. This clearing looked almost like a park and ride area containing several cars that were abandoned and covered with snow. They had obviously been there for a while. The drifts were significant, making it almost impossible to figure out into what I was headed. As I entered, I turned my head to do a quick survey of the situation. Snow was deep and thicker than anything we had ever driven through or dreamed of shoveling. We weren't in an SUV, just a sedan. As I steered, to my left I pulled through a wide open area were I saw closed and locked guard gates with flashing red lights lining the top rail - almost like the warning of an approaching train. The Parkway was closed.
Frantic, I turned the car to make a circle and head down the mountain we had just driven up. Or, maybe it was several mountains. I new if I stopped we would be stuck and not be able to move the car. As I continued to turn, the car slid to the side and we became so firmly stuck in the snow, almost bottoming out on something really hard. The snow was so high. How in the world could we slide? It totally made no sense. We were in such trouble because I had overshot the "on" ramp...I guess it was the on ramp. Who knows? There were snow drifts everywhere along with a steady wind. You couldn't tell what or where anything was except for the edge of the road/lot/mountain-side that dropped straight down. Tears streamed down my face as I quickly wiped them away. I needed to remain strong for my family, but inside I was falling apart. I was so afraid.
“Oh God… We’ve never needed you more than now. Please help us. Please Father, please help us.“ That was the flare prayer I sent up over and over and over. Begging.
I looked at the fuel gage only to see the needle was hovering below the empty mark. If we had actually been able to turn back and head down, we would surely run out of fuel within seconds. How did this happen? It happened because we were fools! What kind of fools were we? HUGE fools! We had no food, water and snacks. We only had light coats but no blankets to keep warm until morning. We would't make it to a gas station and probably wouldn't get help for hours if not days. What poor planning. We had a seven-year-old that was so terribly sick. She needed to be fed and put down for the night. We were so far away from a hotel it was absolutely ridiculous. We had no cellular signal. Nothing to dig with, not to mention a shovel. We had dogs that were at a pet hotel. Who would even know where they were if we died? Because we were surely going to die.
Why? Why did it have to end like this? How could God have let this happen?
Then I thought about Jesus and how he had died such a horrible violent death. I'm sure that God seeing his only son suffer so terribly was much much worse than anything I could've ever imagined. And, to think...we had just celebrated the birthday of Jesus.
As Angus opened the door to get out of the car, the interior light showed me a face that had lost all color. As he uttered "JUST GREAT" and looked back at me, his lips were tight and colorless. He slammed the door, furious at the situation. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I lowered the car windows so I could hear his commands as he began to work to get us dislodged and unstuck. Around the back of the car he saw what I feared: we were just a few inches away from a no return situation.
“Put it in drive,” he yelled (he screamed and we kept sliding), but the tires spun throwing up snow and creating icy ruts. “Rock where you are (what?),” he commanded, and I tried but the whole thing was a lost cause. “Turn the wheel! NO! STOP STOP STOP!!! WE’RE sliding again!" The car moved further and further toward the edge.
I thought we'd surely bottomed out and we wouldn’t slide further. But no. We had NOT. It was terrible. Angus continued to loudly bark commands to me that became muffled under my heavy gasps of breath in-between tears (thinking of the impending doom we were facing).
“Please Father, save us” I plead. “Not on Christmas. PLEASE NOT ON CHRISTMAS. OUR PARENTS COULDN'T HANDLE THAT. Please God, If you’ll just get us off this mountain, I’ll do my part to spread your Gospel. I’ll be the best example of who You are. I’ll be the best mom possible. I’ll be the best wife possible. I’ll be the best daughter possible. Please father, I’ll give up everything, just save my daughter and my husband.” I'll do this...and I'll do that... I made all sorts of deals and promises. I was out of my mind. Any moment Angus could have lost his footing slipping into the dangerous black mountainside. Looking back, I’m so ashamed of my desperation.
As Angus kept trying to push and move us back on track, and there was no way anything was going to happen except him being rolled over by our car which continued to slide. Suddenly, a small voice from the back seat said, “Mama that man just flew through the gate... mama look there’s a man coming.”
I looked up through my tears and turned around to see a figure heading toward the back of our car. He what I assume was black ski bibs a black ski mask that completely covered his face.
W H A T ??? If this being completely helpless problem wasn't enough, now there was someone skiing toward us who could possible murder us?? Seriously?
There he was...a very small framed guy that stood about 5’7” tall. He looked about the size of a 14 year old boy. His presence turned the volume up on my panic. He’s going to KILL Angus. He’s heading toward my husband! We are REALLY going to die.
The snow was somewhere in the neighborhood of 11 to 12 inches deep - almost up to Angus‘s knees. The only light available was from the stars in the sky (in-between the cloud covering) the subtle illumination from the white snow on the ground, the blinking red warning lights on the gate, the tail lights and the glowing E on the fuel gage. Trying to make sense of the situation, I decided to turn on the interior light so I could see better.
As he moved toward Angus he pulled off his ski mask said, “Wow. Y’all need some help!” Angus turned back startled and looked at him as he stepped out of his skiis, and tossed his polls as he made his way to the back of the car. This little guy was not going to be much help. What could he do? Angus’s footing was dicey at best. Was there even room for a second person? He crawled behind the car, joining Angus.
Where did he come from? Who goes cross country skiing at this time of night? By this time my daughter had unbuckled herself from her car seat and was turned around, perched, watching everything going on as best she could.
“Turn your wheels to the right,” he commanded “And give some acceleration.”
Angus’s foot slipped and he fell to his knees as I followed these new commands. As Angus lifted his head and looked to his right, there stood this 14 year-old boy-like figure lifting what had to be a 2 ton car, loaded down with luggage and Christmas gifts. Ironically, Angus knelt there watching and witnessing a true miracle as this small, slight, figure lifted and pushed the car from what was certain devastation, back on to an area that allowed for me to gain traction and pull forward away from the edge of the mountain. Were we saved?
Angus rose to his feet and turned toward where the Superman/boy figure had been standing, but by that time he had scurried up the slope, clipped his boots back into the skis, picked up his polls, put on his mask and was skiing away. I heard Angus call after him trying to get his attention to thank him, but he had essentially vanished into the darkness.
Angus walked up to the passenger side of the car and opened the door. He leaned over with his hands on his knees, breathing so heavy. He was covered in snow from about his knees down and on the elbows of his jacket. Snow was scattered on his clothing in various places. His mustache was white - completely iced from his warm heavy breath. And, his brows, hairline was frosty from the sweat of his work. My face was wet with tears as he asked if I was ok. I said I was and asked where the man who had helped had gone. My daughter said “He’s gone, Moma.”
I immediately turned around in my seat trying to spot him. But I could not. I looked at her. She was now buckled back into her seat as though the show was over and we needed to focus on the task ahead. Angus nodded and agreed that he was gone. It all happened so fast. I sat there in shock. What had just happened? I looked back at my daughter. In the light from the dome, she looked almost ethereal with beautiful sleepy eyes. Here we were, about to head down that mountain with so many twists and turns. She had been so car sick and we were going to put her through it again. I told her to close her eyes and we'd wake her up when we found a place to stay. I hoped my nudging would be enough for her to drift away into sleep. We'd been so on edge for so long and I was sure she must be tired. Co-dependent as the whole thing might have been, the adrenaline rush she had experienced, herself, was wearing off.
We still had serious work ahead of us. We were at least an hour away from Brevard, the first town we would come to on our way down...if we even made it that far. The fuel needle was below E and we were “spent” to say the least. Oh how I wished we could have just stopped at that point.
I turned to Angus and asked if he were ok. He dusted snow and nodded yes as he began to slide into the passenger seat. I just didn’t think I could drive back down so he walked around the car and opened my door as I got out. I was shaking - still so freaked out and so much in shock. We held one another as I disappeared into his broad chest and arms. I could hear his heart racing wildly. I cried.
After a few seconds, we both got situated in our seats, and Angus put the car in drive. As we rolled back onto the snowy road leading down the side of that mountain, I looked over at him. Tears were streaming down his face as well. The gravity of our situation was beginning set in...for both of us. Would we even make it to the first house before running out of fuel? I had not seen house for at least 30 minutes on our way up. If we did make it, would they let us in? After all, we were strangers in a very strange area in backwoods North Carolina.
As we headed down, I’ve never seen such a dark night. The world was silent as snow crunched under our tires. I could tell that the cloud covering would come and go. At times the road and surrounding woods would be a little brighter with the stars seeming to guide our journey. While still at other times the night was definitely something you'd have read about in a scary story. While we journeyed, I could see eyes peering from out of the thick woods. What if we became stranded among the wild animals? Bears were hibernating, but if either of us had to exit the car and walk any distance at all there were wolves and mountain lions. I had recently read an article about how the mountains had become overrun with wild hogs. The enemy had me full tilt.
Time seemed to stand still.
Most of the time, on our way down, we traveled the side of road that had been cut into the mountain, and then were exposed to the cliff side. The new threat, now, was running into rocks or even boulders that might've fallen into the middle of our path. It is interesting that on the way into the area from Topeka, the highway going through Asheville had just been closed a few hours earlier because of an avalanche. In science class as a kid we had learned that ice and cold weather caused rock movement in mountains. Here, everything was covered in snow.
Again…we were such fools.
I leaned my head on the headrest trying to calm down. PLEASE GOD. PLEASE GOD. PLEASE GOD. I’ve never felt such butterflies in my stomach. It was as though we were going to slide down 150 feet at any minute - so much worse than the fear I had as we had driven up. I breathed slow and steady.
There was a certain peacefulness as we made our way down the mountain, our speed through the snow was slow and steady. The sound from the crunching snow seemed to be an almost calming force underneath us. I closed my eyes still trying to calm down and began to drift in and out of sleep. Then, I would jerk myself awake. Sleep was the last thing I needed at a time like this. Angus needed me as his co-pilot. But, I was of no use and sleep came softly.
I have no idea how much time had passed or how long I had been "out" when there was a change in the way the car felt. Were we about to stop? Yes. I must’ve fallen asleep. I opened my eyes to see what looked like wet asphalt. There in the distance, beaming as though it were a lighthouse, was an older 7-Eleven sign from days gone by. How in the world had we made it all the way down the side of the mountain with the needle below E? I turned and stared at Angus as he pulled into the convenience store to fuel. His grey, ice encrusted mustache and wet face was now dry and pink. I watched him as he walked into the store.
I looked around and could see that roads had been plowed. I looked at my watch. It was 10:30. Our kid was asleep in the back seat but seemed to be stirring. We needed a room so terribly. Angus came out with a bag of items and said we were we heading over to the Holiday Inn to see if we could get a room. The 7-Eleven clerk had told him there was a lack of rooms in town because of Christmas and that our chances getting one were not good.
PLEASE LORD. PLEASE LORD. PLEASE LORD. Again, I made all sorts of promises to Him.
The parking lot of the hotel was full. Perhaps we could find another hotel I thought. But, from what Angus had learned from the 7/11 store clerk, there was only one hotel in town. It looked like we were probably going to need to head to the next city. Oh God...when would it end?
He pulled up under the portico and headed inside. Within just a few minutes he came back out. I thought, oh no…my turn to drive. This is going to be terrible. We’re going to be driving all night long, looking for a place to stay. He opened the car door and flashed that handsome smile and said, “You want to know how good God is? They only had two rooms left. We got one.”
How many miracles were we going to receive that night? We surely didn't deserve even one. Angus got back in the car and pulled away from the hotel. I had no idea what he was doing. We were all so exhausted. Pizza Hut was the next stop although the hotel desk attendant was certain they would be closed due to snow. We were so hungry and we were their last customers. We grabbed our pepperoni pizza and headed back to the hotel.
I thought about God’s unfailing grace. He had saved us. I can’t imagine what would’ve happened had He not intervened. And he brought us off that dangerous, snow-covered mountain top, in a safe, warm car with the needle on E. If only I trusted Him.
We unloaded the pizza, our luggage and our sleeping child and fell on our tired and shaky knees as we thanked God for seeing us through. It all seemed so surreal to us. Today, it still does.
I’ve told this story several times since that fateful night in 2009 and I receive all sorts of reactions. Some people totally discount our encounter, quipping we were "lucky". Some dismiss it and say oh yes that cross country skiing is a huge sport in that region. Still others say whoa, y'all are idiots, or I bet you learned your lesson, or your guardian angel was busy. They totally miss the point that luck had absolutely nothing to do with this. And, until you’ve ever experienced something like this, you know this was so much more than a guardian angel.
Yes, God saved us on that mountain that night. But He saved us all the day Jesus was born. Surely His sacrifice is worthy of celebration...every day.
Early on I asked, "Who would have dreamed we would be facing an experience that would change the trajectory of our lives?" Had these miracles not happened, we would not be alive today to share our Christmas story. We would not be able to exist with a purpose. Even today we still remember and talk about it like it just happened yesterday. It was an experience that none of us will ever discount. Since that time we have tried to make all decisions with God in the forefront of our minds. We will all remember it with the emotional rawness that this experience illicits. We should also be aware of Christ's death with that same rawness.
So if you do not have a personal relationship with our Maker, perhaps the time is now. Call me if you would like to talk at 785.383.1633. If you do already know our Lord, I ask that you stretch out of your comfort zone and share YOUR miracle story with someone no matter how large or small. It only takes a few minutes and the impact could be life changing...