A Lil Yul Aften Miracle

This Sunday is our annual family Christmas celebration—Lil Yul Aften. (Little Christmas Eve.) By the way, the right way to spell those words is Lil Jul Aften. I grew up with my Swedish-born grandfather, Grandpa Anderson, calling me “Yudit instead of Judith.” So I get it, but because many of my readers may not share that what we sometimes call Scandihoovian background I usually spell Yul with a Y as opposed to a J. And if you’re interested in knowing some of the background here, there’s an earlier blog that spells it out. Lil Yul Aften. Feel free to click on it if you’re interested.

But back to this year. A big segment of our family lives in Eastern Washington—five hours away in good weather, but Snoqualmie Pass in the Cascades lies between here and there. The weather forecast for Saturday, when most of them will be traveling, is not good. So I sent out a note last night saying that anyone who decided against making that potentially dangerous trip automatically has an excused absence and we will celebrate with them at some other time. I was worried about the people who are planning on coming. I should have been worried about people who weren’t.

One of our sons remarried several years ago. His bride, Kathleen, came with four sons of her own, one of whom, the eldest named Max, married his bride, Micah, this past spring. The two of them moved from Seattle to LA last fall. They decided to bypass Lil Yul Aften here in favor of driving straight to Cheney to spend the holidays with both sets of parents. Somewhere in California they turned off onto Highway 395 which crosses the northern part of California and the southern part of Oregon on a diagonal before ending up in Washington on the far side of the pass.

I may have mentioned before that, for my mental health, I’ve put myself on a TV News time-out. I was unaware that I-5 was closed in Northern California at Redding, due to inclement weather. I have reason to believe that the weather on Highway 395 was considerably worse. A lot of those rural highways in that part of the state don’t have any guard rails at all.

I’m sure you’re already seeing where this is going. They went off the road and ended up in the bottom of a ravine with the car upside down and all the airbags deployed. They managed to get themselves and their two dogs out of the vehicle and climb back up to the roadway. Their phones were still in the wreckage. Fortunately a car full of passersby stopped and let them use their phone to summon a tow truck which eventually took them to a hotel in Lakeview, Oregon—a small town that bills itself as the highest city in Oregon. They’re in a hotel—maybe the only hotel. They are fine and the dogs are fine, although I suspect that all four of them need to be checked by health-care professionals. The dogs especially are completely freaked out and may well be candidates for cases of canine PTSD. Tomorrow morning, Micah’s parents will get in their truck and make a ten-hour, one-way drive to retrieve them.

So all’s well that ends well. Cars can be replaced. The fact that no one was badly hurt is the real miracle. But while I was walking this morning, I was wondering, What in the world made them decide to take a back road through the mountains?” When I asked the engineer in the family, Bill promptly pulled out his iPad and showed me that using 395 constitutes a big short cut. In the summer, maybe, but not in the winter. Not in bad weather. And there I was, all ready to get on my grandmotherly high horse when a memory came flying out of the past and put me in my place.

In 1999, Bill and I attended Left Coast Crime in Albuquerque. It was probably early March, and as we headed for Sedona in our four-wheel drive Suburban, we ran into a storm. In northern New Mexico, the winds were fierce, and we saw the remains of several overturned RVs scattered along the shoulder of I-40 while wind-blown semis swerved involuntarily across both lanes of traffic By the time we neared Flagstaff, we were driving in windblown snow. As we turned south onto I-17, we saw several jack-knifed semis.

These were the old days, back when there was no such thing as a GPS. Bill was at the wheel, and I was in the passenger seat with an open road atlas spread out on my lap. As we passed another stranded semi, Bill said to me, “Isn’t there a shortcut from here to Sedona?” So I check the map. Sure enough, there was a thin red line leading from the freeway down to Sedona. “Yup,” I answered. “Here it is. It’s called Schnebly Hill Road.”

People who have personally encountered that rough dirt track are already rolling on the ground with laughter. When the exit came along, off we went into the wilderness. It was night. It was dark. There was snow on the ground. There were homeless people camped out here and there, but on we went. At first it wasn’t that bad, but once we went off the edge of the Mogollon Rim (For you outlanders, that word is pronounced Moe-ghee-on) things went south in a hurry, in every sense of the word.

It was steep and narrow with no way to turn around and go back the way we’d come. At one point we picked our way through boulders that had slid into the roadway, bumping over rocks big enough to scrape the undercarriage as we went by. Schnebly Hill Road is a short cut all right—eleven miles from top to bottom as opposed to 29. The long way around takes an hour. Our eleven-mile short cut took two hours—two white-knuckled, terrifying, nightmarish hours. When we finally staggered into our hotel, we told the desk clerk, “We just came down Schnebly Hill Road.” She looked at us in amazement and said, “Isn’t that road closed?” “No it isn’t,” we replied, “but it should be.”

So I won’t be uttering a single grandmotherly word to Max and Micah about the inadvisability of taking mountainous shortcuts during the winter. After all, I’ve already been there and done that, and people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

I’m just incredibly grateful that they’re okay and so are their dogs.