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Seasons Greetings from Rock Springs, Wyoming: How did I end up here?

11.30.2009


Not "a-nice-hot-chocolate-would-just-hit-the-spot" kind of cold, but a "somehow-I-fell-asleep-and-woke-upon-the-Moon" cold, a "Southern-Californian-found-frozen, gnawed-to-irrecognition-by-wolves-and-identifiedby-dental-records" cold.

If you've ever been up at dawn, in the dead of winter, in the heart of Big Sky country, chiseling through an inch of ice grafted to the windshield of your 4-cylinder rental car, desperately trying to get out of town before
a blizzard hits, you know what I'm talking about.

Gloveless and wearing the same suit and woefully inadequate coat from the day before, I thought back to last night's weather report: this morning's -2 F (which might rise to 4 F by the end of the day!) would feel like -20F with the wind chill. I figured I had about 15 minutes to get the car into driving shape before I permanently lost the use of my hands.

As I frantically chipped away at the windshield with the - gratuitous but shoddy - ice scraper the hotel provided, two enormous moose wandered by on the other side of the dirt parking lot. The essential human question: "what am I doing and how did I get here?" occurred to me.

It began innocently enough.

It was late December, just before the holidays, and I was managing a search for a field operations executive for an energy client with large-scale facilities in the Rockies. With a slate of candidate interviews lined up, I boarded an early evening flight from San Diego to Denver, then took one of the two daily commuter flights (capacity 20 people - tops) out of Denver, 350 miles northwest to Rock Springs, Wyoming.

After touching down in the darkness onto the single runway, and locating my bag at the bottom of the exitladder, I remember looking around and thinking "wow, this is like landing at the North Pole." The total absence of city lights, or apparent civilization, meant that the entire sky was filled from horizon to horizon
with improbably-bright stars. Peaceful, tranquil - a Robert Frost poem come to life.

I picked up the rental car (as far as I could see, the only car at the airport) and drove 15 miles down the road to the town's hotel. Meetings the next day went like clockwork, and in wrapping up the last one, I remarked to the candidate that I had enjoyed my time in Wyoming and was soon headed back to San Diego.

"You're supposed to fly out today?" he inquired.

"Yeah, to Denver, about two hours from now."

"Hate to tell you, but no one is flying into or out of Denver anytime soon - they got three feet of snow since last night, and more is headed this way!"

Almost from the moment I had touched down in Rock Springs, a blizzard had blanketed the Denver area. It would leave 4,700 travelers stranded in the Denver airport and result in more than 2,000 flight cancellations in a three-day stretch.

I concluded the meeting and hurried to the front desk clerk who confirmed the news, as did my assistant, Victoria, on the phone moments later.

Of course, the remaining flight into Salt Lake (the only other destination serviced out of Rock Springs) was overbooked that night and the next morning, and chances were by tomorrow afternoon the Rock Springs airport would be snowed-in too.

Clearly a precarious situation, compounded by the fact that in 48 hours I was due to depart from San Diego on a flight back East for the holidays...previous experience told me if I missed THAT flight, I'd be on standby
till New Year's...

Victoria valiantly tried train, bus - and I'm sure horse and sled - options, but, unbelievably, the best and most realistic solution to get out in the next four days was to drive the rental car 390 miles north to the airport at Billings, Montana. Rather than attempt the drive overnight, through the vagaries of the Wyoming/Montana badlands, I elected to crash at the hotel for one more night, wake at dawn, and make a break for it.

During the night the snow started, ice formed, and thus I found myself in the parking lot with the moose.

Eventually I got the two-wheel drive machine on the road and with the storm at my back, sped north into the grey morning.

It would be nice to say that I appreciated the uninterrupted, seven hour drive through some of the country's most majestic and striking landscapes - circumnavigating Yellowstone, driving by Little Bighorn (site of Custer's "Last Stand") - but mostly I alternated staring at the hypnotically uniform frozen road, speedometer (can this thing go any faster?), menacing storm clouds, fuel gauge, and odometer (380 miles to go, 378,
372...).

As I transversed into and out of cell phone coverage areas, my thoughtful friends at the firm began calling to break the monotony, asking how I was holding up, how far I had gotten - I think they had a map in one of the
conference rooms tracking my progress. I like to think that they were being supportive, but the laughter coming through on the end of the speaker phone as they hung up each call made me wonder...

Eventually I reached the airport at Billings, amazingly before any snow had even fallen on the city. I flew from Billings to Portland, Portland to Seattle, and then Seattle to San Diego (with a layover in San Francisco). It had taken about 24 hours but I had made it home - with a few hours to spare before catching my flight back East for the holidays.

One of the great philosophers of our time once said - and I'm paraphrasing - the day you stop learning in life, is the day you should hang it up. In my escape from Rock Springs, I learned that while nature (and especially winter) is a force to be reckoned with, human ingenuity - desperation? - and the support of friends is enough to overcome any obstacle. And also that I will never leave home without a good set of winter gloves. Never.

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