Monday, November 16, 2020

"I've always depended on the kindness of strangers": An Athabaskan woman and six Mexicans saved me from freezing to death in Alaska's Copper River Basin

 "I've always depended on the kindness of strangers," Blanche DeBois said in Streetcar Named Desire. I know what Blanche was talking about. Several times in my life, I was saved from catastrophe by someone I did not know.

Many years ago, when I was a young Alaska lawyer, I was driving a rental car through the Copper River Basin on my way to a school board meeting in the little town of Glenallen. It was winter, and the temperature on the Richardson Highway was 20 below zero.

I wasn't speeding, but I was driving too fast for the road conditions. I hit a patch of black ice and rolled my car into a snowbank. I wasn't hurt, but I was dangling from my shoulder harness. I released the seatbelt and climbed out through the passenger side window.

It was about three in the afternoon, and dusk was falling. I had my so-called survival gear in the car's backseat  (parka, Sorel arctic-pack boots, heavy wool pants). I began putting it on as a heavy snowfall began, almost immediately obscuring my rolled car, which was white.

Before I got my cold-weather gear on, I realized I would not survive the night. The temperature would drop to 40 below, and no one was likely to travel Richardson Highway at this late hour.  My cold-weather gear was utterly inadequate for what lay ahead.

As my terror began to rise,  I saw a car creeping down the highway at about 20 miles an hour. An Athabaskan woman was driving, and she gave me a lift. I still remember the feel of her car's warm cabin with hot air blowing toward me through the air vents.

Improbably, the Athabaskan lady was traveling to visit her boyfriend, who was working on a seismic crew somewhere out in this frozen waste. Before long, we found him. He was Mexican (also improbable), one of a crew of six guys who spoke Spanish. 

The boyfriend and his comrades had some sort of enormous industrial vehicle.  I couldn't make it out in the darkness, but I recall it was so large that I had to climb a ladder to get into the cab.  We drove down Richardson Highway until we found my car.

Our little group pondered the car's situation. It was lying on its side with all four wheels exposed. 

"Anybody hurt?" the leader asked.

"No," I replied.

"Thanks be to God," he said and made the sign of the cross.

After diagnosing the situation, the Mexicans attached a chain to the car's underbody and pulled it out with their behemoth machine.  Then they pushed it over until it was upright on the road.  They cleared the snow out of the engine compartment and told me to try to start the engine.

I turned the ignition key, and the car started. All of a sudden, my near-death experience became an amusing personal anecdote. I told them I would buy them a case of beer, but one of my rescuers demured.  "No, no," he said. "Jack Daniel." 

I was not Catholic at the time, and I found the Mexican's sign of the cross to be charmingly childlike. I did not realize that the Athabaskan woman and the Mexican seismic crew were angels dispatched by St. Joseph to save my life.

But why did St. Joseph bother with me? I still don't have a clue.

Richardson Highway in winter

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