~Stranded~ along a winter highway

A Baker family’s 24 hours of uncertainty

By Sherry Vogel

Reporter’s note: Although this incident happened three months ago, it is a story worth publishing as old man winter continues to pursue southeastern Montana with intermittent snow flurries. Everyone in Fallon County has at one time or other found themselves having to travel in less than optimal weather and road conditions. Most of us feel we are readily equipped to face winter traveling conditions.  Reevaluate, is that four-wheel drive all you need to guarantee you and your family a safe journey home?

A Baker family’s 24 hours of uncertainty

A trip home to Baker, on Christmas morning, started out blissfully for the Rick and Bryon Wiman families. They had just celebrated Christmas Eve gathering together at their daughter and sister, Aimee Wagner’s home in the small rural community of Warner, South Dakota.

Although they were always accustomed to listening to the weather report before traveling in the winter, there was no television service and the local radio channels available were only playing Christmas music.

Like many native Montanans who have become accustomed to harsh winter conditions, they felt equipped to make the winter trip. The day was sunny and although it had rained a little bit that morning the roads were good. Besides, son Bryon drove a 4-wheel drive diesel pick up, which had added traction, as it was pulling a trailer with a disabled pick up mounted on top. The family was traveling in a caravan of two vehicles. Other than the truck that Bryon and his sons, Rexx and Summitt, were riding in was grandmother Debi’s Dodge Chevy Ventura van, which grandfather Rick was driving.

The group waved their farewells and started out on their 317 mile trip at around 2:30 p.m. It wasn’t until almost an hour and a half later that the weather became noticeably colder and slush was prevalent on the highway. The family realized they had better hurry or they were going to have to travel on frozen icy roads.

“Then suddenly without warning, thirty miles west of Macintosh, we had just popped up over a hill and found ourselves in the middle of a major blizzard,” Debi shared. “Bryon was leading and was bucking a trail through drifts that were already spanning the highway. We went a short distance before realizing we should turn around and go back.” Bryon began looking for a suitable approach to turn around the large truck with the long loaded trailer in tow. However, it rapidly became impossible to even see a highway road marker. The van was able to follow the pick-up’s taillights and clear the deep drifts because the trailer was riding low, due to the weight of the wrecked pick-up upon it.

Hopeful that they could make it to the next town of Macintosh, S.D., suddenly Bryon’s white Chevy pick up veered off the road into the ditch. The visibility was zero and without guidance from the mile markers the white snow covered road became one with snow filled ditch.

With the sudden disappearance of the glimmer of the red taillights, Rick and Debi realized that their son’s vehicle was head end in the ditch, with only a small fraction of the trailer still upon the roadway.  Luckily, both vehicles were equipped with shovels. Everyone worked fiercely in the bitter cold wind to try to get the lodged vehicle away from its frozen captor. The family’s efforts were futile. It was useless.

The decision was quickly made to have the oldest boy, Rexx, accompany his grandparents in the van, to attempt the trip alone to summon help.

Bryon and Summitt would wait for the snowplow or wrecker to dislodge them. They were concerned that another vehicle with poor visibility would run into the end of their trailer, which partly remained on the edge of the road.

It was now 6:30 p.m. and the storm was howling. Bryon, having filled his diesel tank to full before embarking on the journey, was confident that he had enough fuel to keep the heaters running until the tow truck arrived.

Rick, Debi and Rexx started out on the treacherous journey. Insightfully, Rick set the odometer to keep track of how far behind they were leaving Bryon and Summitt. It was a slow and nerve wracking endeavor. When they neared where they calculated Macintosh should be, they slowed, finding that their vehicle was now also stuck in snow. Visibility was zero, temps were reaching subzero temps and getting the van out of the snow mound was impossible.

*Unbeknown to them they had actually reached Macintosh and were stranded in the parking lot of a Co-Op gas station. The closed convenience store that offered heat, food, water and telephone service was merely a short 100 feet away. It was not visible due to the fog and thick blowing snow.

to be continued next week . . .