I ring the front desk at six on Saturday evening. “The snow is blocking my front door. I can’t get out of my room.” “I will send staff with shovels to get you out. It may take a while.” I take off my down jacket and put another log on the fire in my room at the UCLA Conference Center in Lake Arrowhead, California. I watch the fire spark and pop yellow and orange forked tongues, slowly turning blond wood into blackened ash. The wood must surrender. It has no choice. My fingers smell of woodsmoke and pine. It is getting dark and I can hear mighty gusts of wind push through the snow-laden trees outside.
I am at a conference site that I attend annually in February. In the past, this place has sometimes been powdered with snow, usually a minor character, just a pretty little kitten curled up in a corner to add charm to the place. But this year weather is a majestic lion, stalking the main roads, demanding we honor her status as king and bow to her roar. The power went out in the middle of this morning’s keynote. All of us froze in the dark until the generators brought back the light.
As I wait to have my front door shoveled, I look up the word “blizzard” and read, “a combination of severe cold, gusty winds, rain, and snow.” I grew up at sea level and have never experienced anything like this weather. Thirty minutes later, I hear men’s boots crunch through the snow. They scrape the front porch with their metal shovels until I can open the door. One man is tall with dark hair, the other shorter with blue eyes and blond hair. They are both panting. “We had to dig our way here. The snow is waist high in some areas, chest high up the hill.” Matt, the blond, walks in front of me, tamping down the snow with his boots. Tall John walks behind me saying, “Don’t worry. I’m here”. I have a small flashlight that I turn on to scan a spot where all one could see is white ground, white sky, and white air. I feel disoriented, as there is no way to tell how deep the next step will be. I place my foot gingerly and my right leg sinks down up to my calf. I start to topple to the right. John grabs me under my right armpit to keep me from falling. I gasp and tell myself, “just go slowly. Short careful breaths, short careful steps”. We make it across the bridge and are heading down the hill. Matt warns, “This next part is icy.” The soft snow has become shiny, slick, dark ice. John says, “I can take your hand” and I am relieved to be steadied by his firm grip. Soon we see the lights of the lodge. And I exhale. “Thank you so much. John, what is your job here?” “I’m the head of food and beverage services and Matt is the assistant manager of the center.” I smile at these two men, my heart full of gratitude. “We are stuck here too and can’t go home because the roads are closed. Our entire staff is doing double and triple duty to keep things going.”
The blizzard lasts five days. Indoors we have our productive meetings, meals, and warm connections with friends and colleagues. But outdoors is freezing cold, shovels, snowplows, whiteouts, and snow getting deeper each day. Some people fall. One woman slips on ice and breaks her wrist. By Sunday we are all supposed to leave.
I make arrangements to go with a colleague down the mountain in her jeep. Our driver was given a window of 1:45-3 pm. “That’s when my crew will have opened the roads for you to get out. But wait for my signal”, said a man in a snowplow truck. We wait in the lodge. I see sad faces of people coming through the front door looking deflated. They had tried to leave, but their cars got stuck and they had to be towed back to the lodge. “Okay, go now. We have opened the road. Go left on Daley Canyon to get down the mountain.”
I scamper into the center of the back seat of the jeep between two other women, sitting shoulder to shoulder. We have a calm, confident driver, who believes in her new jeep. The woman beside her navigates. As we drive, I feel hopeful as our big, heavy vehicle seems to be made to subdue the tough white ground below us. Within ten minutes, we stop behind a blue truck, that is stopped behind a low-sitting small red car. The red car is stuck, the hard-packed snow having plugged up its undercarriage. There is no way to get around and pass, as snow is ten to twenty feet high on both sides of the narrow road. We see people walk by us with shovels to go help. After an hour, our navigator gets out to investigate and soon comes scrambling back, beaming. “They used shovels to try and break the ice, then two people started to rock the car back and forth, which broke the ice, and now she can drive”. I strain my neck, cross my fingers, and look out the window. Soon the red car is free and on its way. We are jubilant and head on for a few minutes until we hit a bumpy patch of rocky snow and grab onto each other to stay in our seats.
We come to a fork in the road. The driver asks, “which way?” I say, “The man said to turn left at Daley Canyon.” No one else seems sure, so we turn left. We then see about six cars pass us going the other way. “The road must be open if they can get through.” We all nod. Sliding and slipping and rocking went on for a slow hour but we are making progress. Then a truck blocks the road. We roll down the window. The driver says, “This way is blocked. You have to go back.” After all this? I feel dispirited and drop my head. The woman next to me says, “Let’s go back to the lodge. I just want to be safe.” I say, “Me too.” The other three women speak with strong voices, “No.” The driver says, “We will turn back around and this time we'll go right on Daley Canyon. We can make it.” I put all my doubtful faith in her and stare at a rosary that hangs off of her rearview mirror amongst many plastic necklaces and rubber bracelets. We backtrack in silence. My jaw is tight as I hold onto a thin ribbon of hope. We turn right. It is getting dark, but the road is passable. We pass cars that had veered off the side of the road. People walk alone in the snow, looking sad. I feel bad for them and guilty that we were inside a warm car. My guts are tight from the stress but by some miracle we make it down the mountain, to where white disappears, replaced by grey asphalt, green grass, and a golden sunset breaking through the grey to say, “You made it.” It seemed unreal. We hoop and holler.
My body is lost after I get home that night after five hours on the rocky road. I sit in the kitchen and keep hopping up to hug my husband a million times. I need to feel his solid warm body against my cold, buzzy being, where my head is still pinging and spinning from the frozen world.
I wake up the next morning aware of being in shock but go to art class anyway.
I usually feel drawn to paint loosely, to get looser with my watercolors. I open my paints, get out my brushes and fill my jar with water. I pick up a pencil and draw the side profile of a woman’s face looking down. In her dark, drawn-up hairdo I draw one careful flower after another. Daisies, roses, tulips, sunflowers. These swirls and curves and squares and stems and leaves stay in their lane. Some in front and some peeking behind, some shoulder to shoulder but none lost or swallowed. An hour goes by. I only want to draw my flowers and not paint them. Watercolor is loose, it goes outside the lines. I can’t tolerate that today.
My mind wanders from the canvas. I see the defeated faces of folks walking away from cars they had to abandon to the unforgiving storm.
What happened to those people?
I blink back tears.
I feel fragile.
My pencil shakes.
My psyche is still on that mountain,
being tossed about by a wild lion who had me frozen in fear for a week.
I’m not back yet.
I look at my head full of flowers and frown.
I take a breath, look down, steady my hand and draw another tight little tulip.