As humans, we go about our day to day living with nary a second thought as to what we encounter. Sights and sounds are familiar, real, tangible, common place, validated by their familiarity, hardly questioned. We rely on science to back up our experiences. Sometimes, this is not always so. Sometimes we are thrown a curve. We are caught off guard and baffled by a mystery. Common logic fails us as to an explanation. Those truths that sit comfortably in our brain are blown away; they fail us. The incident that follows falls into that domain.
On December 27, 2014, a tragedy occurred on a stretch of the Coquihalla Highway between Merritt and Hope, British Columbia. The incident was covered by some of the local papers, making front page news. It seems a transport truck lost control on a snow covered curve, and crossed the median into oncoming traffic. A snow plow, as part of that oncoming traffic swerved to avoid a crash, but ended up going through the guard rail and down a steep embankment to rocks below. Two township employees were killed. The transport truck driver suffered only minor injuries.
Fast forward to this past Christmas. It has become the custom for my wife and I to travel to Kamloops from Vancouver Island to spend this time with her sisters and their family. We left early in the morning, as the six hour trip involves a two hour ferry ride from Vancouver Island to the mainland. At this time of year, travelling the Coquihalla is an exercise in preparation. It requires a full tank of gas, water, snacks, blankets and winter attire. Anything less is asking for trouble and just plain dumb. As it turned out, it was smooth sailing all the way.
A few words about the Coquihalla highway itself. The first section of the highway between Hope and Merritt was opened in 1986, and was the third major highway connecting the British Columbia coast with the interior. Named after the Coquihalla River, it means “Stingy Container” in the language of the Stó:Lō tribe. Rising to 4081 feet above sea level, it is a route filled with both beauty and danger. In winter it can become a bit of a challenge as one is transported from green grass to white out conditions. Vehicles are required to have snow tires, and transports must carry chains. The big yellow signs put it quite bluntly, High Mountain Road, expect sudden weather changes.
The real story of our trip happened on our way back home. It was snowing, not heavily, just enough to keep one alert. Visibility was fair, and didn’t pose a great concern. It was the temperature that posed the problem. At a couple of degrees above freezing, the snow was wet. Great for making a snow man, but a red flag for drivers. Because of the water content of the snow, the slush on the road has the ability to render a vehicle uncontrollable. Which is exactly what happened to the pickup ahead of us, off in the snow bank, going nowhere.
I am not normally a person who stops to assist, not wanting to put myself in danger, but the driver was trying to move snow by kicking at it and that said to me, stop, and help. Also, the driver, an elderly gentleman, was inadequately dressed.for the season. I pulled off the highway, as far as I could, flashers on, making sure that I did not end up in the same situation.
He was grateful that we had stopped, albeit a bit embarrassed by his predicament. He soon revealed that he did not have a snow shovel; and a back condition which greatly restricted his lifting ability. On top of that he said that his wife suffered from anxiety attacks, and he was concerned about leaving her alone in the cab. They appeared to be in their 70’s, and totally ill prepared to handle the situation. My wife then joined us, and I suggested that she keep them company in the cab while I got to work and moved some snow. With that taken care of, I had my first real chance to assess the situation.
It did not take a lot of time to figure out just what I was looking at. A pickup mired in a snow bank, just me with a shovel, and a lot of hard packed snow to move. I grabbed the shovel from our car and started to break up the snow in front of the truck. It was hard work as the snow had compressed to a rock like condition. Now I am not a religious person, and I was not looking to the heavens for divine intervention, but, at that moment a plow making it’s way towards me gave me hope.
A crazy thought went through my head. Stepping out from in front of the pickup, I waved my arms and shovel at them. Slowing to a stop behind the pickup, the fellow riding shotgun rolled down his window. I asked if they could drop their blade as close to the front of the truck as possible, thus clearing the way to get back on the highway. The solution seemed simple enough, but would they? After the two had a quick exchange of words, they agreed to the request. Thinking I might want to post this moment on social media, I took a quick picture of the two and moved back out of the way. They pulled up a bit forward of the pickup, slowly lowered the blade to about six inches of the front, and were on their way, mystically blending in with the rising mist from other vehicles.
With their departure I anticipated that my job should be fairly simple. After poking around for a bit, and hoping that I had moved enough snow to free it, I asked him to give it a try. It was equipped with 4 wheel drive but the back end, being lighter, wanted to pull into the snow bank. Back to more shovelling, and then my weight on the tailgate worked to break them free. Thinking back now, not once did I notice that cars and trucks were travelling by just feet from our position.
With the truck freed, my wife hopped out; I had actually forgot that she was still in there! She got back in our car while I suggested to the husband and his wife that they stop in Hope. I gave him the name of a restaurant just off the highway and said we would meet them there. The snow had eased off by this time, but the roads were still very slushy.
The drive to Hope was uneventful, and my wife told me about their conversation in the cab. As it turned out, the couple in the truck were returning to Maple Ridge from Merritt. They had been attending a funeral for a previous neighbour who had moved to Merritt to be with his children. His wife had passed on, he was lonely and not in the greatest of health, hence the move. This was their second such trip in 4 years. The first one was to attend the funeral of their neighbours son. He had been like a son to them, having looked after him on a number of occasions.
We caught up to their truck just before Hope and followed them to the restaurant. Though popular and always busy, we soon found ourselves settled into a cozy booth. An order for coffee and a light lunch, which they insisted on paying for, was placed. I was pleased to see that his wife looked a little less upset now that the ordeal was over. We had a very pleasant lunch, and conversation flowed easily. It was easy to see the tension melting away.
Realizing that they had not seen the pictures of the plow operators, I hauled out my phone. The looks on their faces told me that something was not right. His wife let out a gasp, paled, and put a hand to her mouth, looking away. Her husband, not moving, just starred at the picture. Once they had settled down somewhat, her husband spoke. It seems that one of the men in the photo was of their neighbours son, Ben, who was killed when the plow he was operating was forced off the road trying to avoid a collision with an on coming semi trailer.
The date, December 27, 2014. Today’s date was December 27, 2018.