Mountain-Stranded on New Year’s Eve

An afternoon of cross-country skiing at the Barteaux, my sister-in-law’s family in Margaretsville on the Bay of Fundy, a fragrant hot supper of chili con carne and home-baked rolls, games and chats until the clock struck midnight…these were our best-laid plans for New Year’s Eve 1989. Until a capricious weather system over the bay had its say.

We did make it to Margaretsville, enjoyed the skiing. Then, a CB radio announcement over dinner alerted us to an approaching front of freezing rain. We hastily downed the chili, loaded the skis into the back of Old Nellie, our Ford LTD station wagon, and set off down the mountain toward our home in the Annapolis Valley. Old Nellie was my vehicle – sombre-looking, long and black, with wood-grain paneling on the sides. Someone once noted that I looked like Morticia behind the wheel! Nellie had flourished in our old home in Vancouver, but since our move to the Annapolis Valley a year ago, she had fish-tailed in winter and taken me into the ditch on three separate occasions. Studded tires were in order, I claimed, or a new vehicle with a better centre of gravity. The pleas fell on deaf ears. It all came down to the driver, husband Joe maintained.

Barely a minute into the drive the freezing rain started descending: cold and wet from the heavens, but then morphing immediately into ice upon contact. No other soul was about. The car crawled along the road in the ink-strong darkness, its headlights barely capturing the icy surface. And I knew, just knew with a sickening drop in my stomach as we approached the sweeping curve on the Stronach Mountain Road, that the car wouldn’t make it. I glanced over at Joe. “Watch me,” he said, as if he’d read my mind. Hearts in throats, we watched helplessly as Nellie struggled to negotiate the curve, then skittered to the left and into the oncoming lane, and finally nose-dived into the rock-strewn ditch that hugged the exposed cliff of the mountainside. I recall triumph flickering briefly in the midst of the predicament. Although expert manoeuvring on Joe’s part had prevented us from tumbling off the cliff face to the right and into the trees below, here was proof on a platter that it didn’t come down to the driver!

Like many predicaments, ours demanded a speedy decision. Staying in the vehicle, we decided, was not an option. We could walk (awkwardly slide) down the road into the valley and ask for help at the first available house, or walk gingerly back up the mountain, a trek of about five-and-a-half kilometres, to Margaretsville. We chose option number 2.

Shaken but unhurt, we clambered out of Nellie and set off, back up the mountain. Every one of our movements was robotic – we had to make sure that each footfall made lasting contact with the ice that coated the shoulder of the road. And still the rain came down, perfectly benign until it hit the road and the human beings negotiating it. Occasionally, lights would beckon from a farmhouse set back from the road. Should we knock on the door and ask for help, we wondered? We had some qualms about who might come to the door; besides, we couldn’t ask a Good Samaritan to take their vehicle out on the road and potentially suffer the same fate we had.

One hour passed – two, three, then four – as we trudged back to Margaretsville. Two adults and three little girls, aged 11, 8 and 6. The freezing rain built slabs of ice on our backs, created icicles that dangled from Joe’s beard and moustache. We didn’t talk; everyone was focused on staying upright. And finally, after four hours of non-stop tentative walking, we were there. The Barteaux kids were long abed, but ours got parked in front of the fire as their Aunt Debbie bustled about, pulling out mattresses and bedding for the over-nighter, placing a big pot of milk on the stove to boil for hot chocolate. The best part of the evening for the girls: that hot chocolate was garnished with mini marshmallows. (Our girls had a pretty rough upbringing – no pop, chips or candies allowed, except on Halloween. The occasional hot chocolate, yes, but absolutely naked.) And to top off the evening, Uncle Ken fired his hunting rifle at midnight – three times, I believe – to usher in the New Year.

Nellie left the family the next summer, traded in for an unglamorous K-car. Just before that transaction Joe and I took the girls to Europe on holiday. In the southern Bavarian region of my father’s people we took a hike up a mountain one day. The air was bracing, the vistas spectacular. There were a lot of complaints coming down the mountain, though. It was taking too long, it was boring. I reminded the girls of New Year’s Eve, how they hadn’t once whined on the slow and torturous trek back to Margaretsville. “Ah, but that was fun,” one of the girls pointed out.

As the saying goes: Attitude is the difference between an ordeal and an adventure.

With thanks to those who enriched my experience: Debbie and Ken Barteaux and their children, Jill, Katie and Mitchell, all formerly of Margaretsville, N.S., and my family: late husband, Joe, and my daughters, Marissa, Courtney and Crystal.

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3 comments

  1. Michelle Guitard

    I get giddy with excitement when a new story posting goes up on your website. Such a good read with a smile stuck on face.

  2. Jillian Barteaux

    I remember that night, but in a much different way…

    Yes. I was asleep when you all arrived that night. I was just a few days shy of five years old, and could sleep like the dead. The house could fall down around me, and I wouldn’t even turn over in my bed. Or, in this case, a mattress and bed could be made up on my bedroom floor and a cousin (Marissa maybe?) could be installed there, and I wouldn’t know a thing about it. I would, however, be roused by the fitful snores of what could only be the Monster Under the Bed, growling to warn me that this night could be the night that he emerged from his dark hiding place to finally ‘get’ me. In the face of this clear evidence that the Monster was not a figment of my imagination as parents would have you believe, I assumed the defensive position of complete concealment under the quilts and squeezed my eyes shut and hoped that hiding would somehow help me escape the Monster. I eventually fell back asleep and woke to find no Monster at all, but a house full of festive excitement and the novelty of the night past and rare morning together.

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