December of 1995 was a hard time for ranchers in the upper Panhandle. On our ranch in the Canadian River valley, we got a blowing snow the week before Christmas and that complicated my simple routine of feeding cattle every day.
First, I had to plow my way through snowdrifts to reach the cattle in outlying pastures. Then the snow began to melt, turning the ranch roads into mush. Then a norther came through after Christmas, bringing frigid temperatures and an ice storm that turned our mushy roads into sheets of ice.
Worse yet, the National Weather Service in Amarillo issued a heavy snow alert for New Year's Eve: up to five inches of new snow, with high winds.
On the morning of New Year's Eve, I decided that I had better drive into town and get a new set of snow tires for my pickup. I made this decision at 8 o'clock. I knew that most of the businesses in town would close at noon, so I was operating under a deadline. The trip to town, which usually took 45 minutes, would take an hour and fifteen minutes, because of the wretched condition of our roads.
My son Mark and I left the house at 9:00. That would give us plenty of time. But the ground was covered with a layer of ice, and to my amazement, I got my 4x4 pickup stuck in front of the house. I couldn't keep it in the road. It kept sliding sideways.
After we had spent half an hour digging, pushing, and chipping ice, Mark said, "Dad, did you know your left rear wheel isn't turning?"
No, I didn't know that, but it sure explained why we couldn’t drive in a straight line. It appeared that the wheel had frozen during the night and couldn't get enough traction on the ice to break loose. We would have to pull it with the 4x4 Suburban.
We did that. We pulled it a mile and the wheel still didn't break loose. The road was too slick. Then, on a little hill near the bunkhouse, some slack came into the nylon tow rope. Mark hit it too hard with the Suburban and the rope snapped in two.
We were running short on time. If we left right now, we would get to town fifteen minutes before the tire shop closed. We could still make it. All we needed was a tow chain. I always carried a chain in the back of the pickup, for situations just like this.
Do you know what happens when ten inches of snow settles into the bed of a pickup, then thaws and freezes? It becomes five inches of solid ice. Everything in the back of my pickup was entombed in a block of ice, which in turn was covered with several inches of alfalfa leaves and stems.
Everything was locked in the ice: high-lift jack, tire tool, shovel, tool box, and the tow chain we had to find.
Mark grabbed a shovel from the barn and I found a pick-ax, and we went to work. The temperature for the past several nights had dropped to five degrees, so this was serious ice. We chopped and chipped and hacked. Time passed. We didn't find the chain, and it soon dawned on me that it wasn't there. Someone had borrowed it and hadn't bothered to return it.
With no tow rope or chain, I decided to switch to Plan B. Or maybe it was Plan C or D. I had noticed that the pickup wheel turned in reverse, so if we drove the pickup backwards for a mile or so, maybe the wheel would warm up enough to break loose. It sounded crazy, but it was our last hope.
We tried it and it worked, thus ending two hours of frustration.
The story had a happy ending. We pulled up in front of the tire shop at 1:00 and found that they were still open. I bought $600 worth of new mud-and-snow tires. We also discovered why the left rear wheel had locked up. The emergency brake cable had gotten bent on some ice and had caused the brake shoes to drag. We got it fixed for no charge. That was a piece of good luck.
Driving back to the ranch, we listened to the weather report on the radio. The National Weather Service had changed its storm advisory to a storm warning, and it was due to hit around sundown.
Well, let it come. It had been a long frustrating day, but we were ready.
But you know what? The snow went south of us! We didn’t get one flake of snow. And two weeks later, when the ice in the back of my pickup melted, I found my chain, just where it was supposed to be, just where it had been the morning we needed it.