It was dark when he came to. He felt around him. He was in his car. A lump on his forehead told him he must have hit the windshield. Twin white fangs of pain and icy cold pierced his body from his throbbing head to his aching toes. When he tried to get out, the door wouldn’t budge. Slowly he realized what had happened: his biggest nightmare in this Rocky Mountain frozen hell.
Last he remembered, he had been driving home from late shift at the Missoula hospital. He’d worked past midnight, his job as engineer to coax the boilers to warm the building in this 40-below-zero Farenheit cold snap. It was an alien environment for this boy from tropical North Queensland. The Moon. Dante’s frozen inner circle. He remembered crossing the parking lot, the snow crunching and squeaking under his cowboy boots like sand on the beach back home. He’d heated the car key with a cigarette lighter to get the frozen lock to turn, then chipped the ice off the windshield with a scraper. He remembered the car skating around on the deserted highway as he hit a blizzard coming through Hellgate Canyon, then nothing. He must have slid off the icy road and speared deep into the snowdrift beside it, burying the car completely, as if the frozen earth had opened up and swallowed it.
His car was a 10-year-old clunker, a 1975 Ford Pinto with worn-down metal studs on its snow tires. The snowdrifts piled up by the wind on the side of the highway were higher than a house, and wider. And he was in the middle of one somewhere. Somewhere no-one would ever find him. He had to get himself out.
He tried restarting the engine with what power the battery had left. The worn old Pinto had so little compression it always cranked over, so it fired up. But wedged firm in the snow, the car would not move. Its tires spun uselessly.
I’ll dig myself out. He wound the window down and scrabbled at the snow with gloved hands. But the endless crystals poured into his lap, only to be replaced by more. The snow above him bore down like tons of sand.
His wife, born and bred out on the Montana high prairie country — where it really gets cold — had warned him not to run the engine if he got buried in a snowdrift. You’ll die of carbon monoxide poisoning.
So he killed the engine and dug around in the back seat for the sleeping bag she had put there. Montana survival kit. Crawl into it and wait for help to arrive. Rule number one when it was 40 below outside, with a wind-chill factor of 90 below: keep warm. But would help arrive? Would she wake up in the early hours and realize he was not there? Would she come look for him? Or call the cops? How would they even know where to look? The snow would cover any tracks he’d left.
Dog tired, he dozed fitfully, wondering vaguely if it was hypothermia setting in. A thundering roar woke him, getting closer until the car rocked as if it were at sea. Then it faded into the frozen silence. The county snow plow. A Mack truck, big as a trailer house, pushing a 10-foot–high steel blade to hurl the snow off the highway up on to the roadside mound, burying him another 10 feet deeper.
His feet were freezing now. The snow he had let in the window earlier had melted from his body heat and soaked though the sleeping bag on the floor, before refreezing. He was going to have to do something. He couldn’t feel his feet. He didn’t want to lose his toes to frostbite. A guy could never walk unaided again once he lost even one big toe.
Gazing out the windscreen now, he could see the sun-drenched beach back home, looking out to Orpheus Island. It shimmered like one of those tourist postcards where an impossibly blue sea lapped at blindingly white sand. A warm breeze swayed the palm trees. His wife was there with him, her hand warm in his.
“Come on, darling. I’ll show you how it’s done,” she said.
They walked across a frozen sea toward the island. The whitecaps crunched and squeaked like fresh snow between their bare toes.