I moved to Moncton, New Brunswick from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia on November 20, 2008 to start my new teaching position at Riverview High School. With only what I could fit in the car, I began my journey alone. It was early in the winter season and I didn’t worry about the weather or the road conditions, but that was a mistake that I will not make so easily again.
I reached the 10-kilometre section of the Trans-Canada Highway, known as the Cobequid Pass, at the height of the first intense snowstorm of the season. Visibility was reduced to zero and I was not equipped with snow tires on the car. I had less than half a tank of gas and I was not dressed for winter weather. I had every intention of stopping at the next gas station to wait out the storm when the road became impassable. A couple of trucks jack-knifed, blocking the road. Several cars tried to bypass them and got stuck, which quickly built a line-up of vehicles and left me stranded in the middle of it all.
A chain reaction started around 4:00pm when a tractor trailer started sliding off the road and another vehicle collided with it. When I arrived at 4:23pm, both lanes of the highway were blocked and several cars were stuck in the ditch. I waited patiently in my car for two hours before worry started to sink in and my stress levels began to build. My grandmother and grandfather had already lost their son in a car accident and they would most certainly be worrying about me. I should have been arriving at my brother’s house any moment and I was still two hours away.
Impatient motorists complicated matters by trying to get around stalled or slow-moving vehicles, further jamming up lanes. I watched two trucks attempt to cross the median with little to no success. The highway became a parking lot. People were beginning to panic and when panic sinks in, things become unpredictable.
I had no food, no water, no cell phone, and no sign of help. I was beginning to run out of gas so I was forced to shut off the car. With the -5oC temperature sinking into my bones, I felt a lump building in my throat.
What am I going to do? We must be going to move soon. What is the friggin’ radio station for this area? I’m freezing. Come on…. Get moving.
I fidgeted with the radio searching for some answers.
Why can’t I find a station that tells me what the hell is going on? Where are the snowploughs?
As if things were not stressful enough, I had to pee with the intensity of a race horse. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat and tried to think about something else, which was rather complicated considering I was sitting in the car alone on the side of the highway with nothing to look at except for other foggy, stranded cars. I finally couldn’t stand the need to pee so I needed to come up with a game plan.
My shoes were wet and cold and I was starting to shiver, but I had to bare the outside temperatures if I was going to relieve myself. A van was parked in the outside lane behind me and its lights shone directly on my car. I had no cover from the elements or the possible glaring eyes from the surrounding cars. It was either pee outside of the car or pee in my pants so I opened the car door.
I walked up to the van and knocked on the window. “Excuse me, sir. I really need to pee and I have nowhere else to go. Could you please turn off your headlights so I could pee peacefully in front of my car?”
The man looked at me like I just asked him for a million dollars. “Are you serious?” he replied.
“Very,” I said as I stood at his window in the blistering snow. “I don’t see any other option.”
He responded by pushing the button to close the window and shutting off the lights. I was less concerned by his attitude and more concerned about making it back to my car and relieving myself.
I searched outside of my car for the appropriate place, but etiquette seemed to be blown away with the howling winds. I opened the back and front passenger doors to the car and squatted in between the two doors. I had one napkin on hand, but it was better than nothing. When the cold air hit my bare bottom, I forgot about the other vehicles and concentrated on getting the job done, and not peeing on myself of course.
I sat back in the car, wet and cold. I knew I was going to be in for a long night.
By 9:00pm, I was sick to my stomach worrying about my family; the lack of food probably played a small role in my turning stomach as well. I scanned the other cars for prospective cell phone users. My first option was a tractor trailer parked directly behind me; it certainly wasn’t my first choice. My second option was a minivan parked in the passing lane. It seemed like a good choice. Minivans are synonymous with family people. Maybe they would understand my predicament. I tried looking in the windows to see if I could make out shapes or people, but it was to no avail. I was going to have to get out of the car again.
I tried to prepare myself for the short journey to the minivan. Only ten minutes before, my shoes were cold and damp from walking in the snow, but now they were frozen and hard from the ice. My feet tingled as I tried to push them into the shoes. If I was not so worried about my family, I wouldn’t have thought about getting out of the car.
I knocked on the driver’s side window and waited impatiently. A young woman with a panicked look on her face cracked the window slightly. Her eyes gazed through the slit in the window and she said, “Yes.”
I tried to remain calm as I spoke. “Hello. Do you have a cell phone that I could use? My family is probably worried sick about me. I should have been home three hours ago.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t have a phone,” she replied. She was only wearing a T-shirt and shaking uncontrollably. Her eyes were red and glossy and she tried to avoid eye contact.
“Well, thanks anyway,” I said. I was about the walk away when I caught a glimpse of two children in the van. They were huddled together with their mom’s jacket draped over their bodies. The mother sealed the window shut, but I could hear her cries even over the howling wind. I turned back toward the van and knocked on the window once again. The mother was hesitant to let any more heat escape from the vehicle this time. She looked up from her seat but she didn’t crack the window.
I yelled through the glass, “I have some towels in my car. Do you want them to put over your children?”
The mother couldn’t hide her emotions as she spoke, “Yes, please. I don’t know what to do? My kids are going to freeze to death and I’m almost out of gas.” She replied through chattering teeth.
“Okay. Just one second. I’ll be right back.” I ran for my car and grabbed all of the towels that I was using for heat. I had one bottle of water in the car, which I placed inside the towels. I passed them through the window and the mother finally looked me in the eyes. “Thank you. I really don’t know what to say. Someone must be coming to help us get out of here. What will you do now?”
“I’ll be okay. Good luck.”
I ran back to my car and started the engine for some warmth. I was shaking now and I could barely feel my fingers and toes.
The night seemed to last forever, especially after I gave away my only means of warmth. The gas light came on so I had to wait out the night in a sweater, wet shoes, and no heat. There were times that I thought about sleeping but I worried that I would not wake up. Freezing to death seemed like a possibility, and after sitting alone in a car for ten hours, some weird thoughts ran through my mind.
Can I freeze to death in this weather? Is my family freaking out? Do they know where I am? Have they heard more than me on the radio? I need more clothes. I can’t take the cold. I am going to die here! Where the hell are the police? I have to call my family. I will knock on every window if I have to. They need to know that I’m okay.
When I opened the car door, my fingers hurt from the wind. They were already so cold that I thought I would have frost bite and with the added chill from the wind I felt like my skin was going to burst. I knocked on the window of a Honda Civic and a man flicked his lights as a sign for me to open the door. He was curled under a blanket, talking on the phone.
“Get in,” he said as he motioned his hand for me to sit in the car.
I realized immediately that I was getting into a strange man’s vehicle in the cold, dark night but I didn’t worry. After all, he couldn’t hide from the other cars anymore than I could while peeing.
“Could I use your cell phone? I’m sure my family is worried sick.” I felt an overwhelming desire to cry and I found it difficult to get the words out of my mouth.
“Sure, no problem,” he replied.
“Oh, thank you. It is a long distance call but I have $10. Will that be okay?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Use the phone. I will not take your money.”
I called my sister first. She was relieved to hear my voice. My whole family thought that I was stuck in the ditch somewhere or even worse. They were sitting by the phone waiting for me to call. My mother was so upset that she was going to get in her car and go looking for me. She had called the police and they said that there were numerous accidents. They could not confirm my location or if I was involved in an accident because there were many that they couldn’t get to.
I told her to call everyone in my family and explain the situation. My voice cracked as I spoke on the phone. I was not hurt physically, other than being cold, but I was emotional. I remember saying, “I think I will be stuck here all night,” and “I’m not too cold,” but that was all I could choke out.
It was about 4:20am when traffic started to move on the opposite side of the highway. I instantly became excited and started the car. With the little gas that I had left, I thought it was important to defrost the foggy windows and warm my freezing body. My fingers were too cold to close around the steering wheel and my face was cold enough to make my whole head hurt. The throbbing pain extended from my head to my toes and made everything in between ache. A snowplough, followed by two police cars and an ambulance, drove up the highway on the wrong side of the road. The opposing traffic could not pass the toll booth, which made a clear path for the oncoming emergency vehicles. Within about 25 minutes, traffic started to move in the other direction. I knew that our turn would soon follow. I was silently screaming with excitement. I waited and watched hundreds of cars pass by. My emotions finally got the best of me; I cried and cried and cried some more. The cold tears froze to my face, but I was too weak and tired to wipe them away. I stopped hoping and speculating when I was going to get out of there and I turned off the car once again.
At 7:22am, I noticed break lights shining through the patches of window that were untouched by the frost. We were leaving! I was so overwhelmed that I started to cry again. There was no need for embarrassment or shame. I was alone. I had been alone for 16 hours. I thought that I could freeze to death, but I was okay, although I was most certainly going to miss my first day at my new school since I should have been arriving right about then and I was still two hours away.