Chateau Retirement’s “Reflections” series highlights the rich life experiences of our residents.
My former husband, Steve, and I decided to go to California to spend Christmas with his 98-year old grandmother. We packed the van and trailer, then all piled in; my niece Libby 16, Mika 5, Asa 3, and Sela 8 months and we were off to San Bernardino, California. We were pulling a trailer because we planned to take advantage of the nice California weather and camp. Aware that our arrival at the campground would be quite late, we dropped all the Christmas gifts off at Grandma’s before heading to the canyon. We pulled into the KOA campground in Devore Canyon on Christmas Eve and set up the trailer. It was raining. Had we brought the Washington weather with us? In the morning we got ready to go to grandma’s, but soon found the only road into the canyon blocked due to high water running across the road. Disappointed, we turned around and went back to the campsite wondering what to have for Christmas dinner. All we had in the trailer to choose from was macaroni and cheese or chili.
Wanting to add some variety to the dinner menu, Steve walked to the KOA office which stocked a very minimal convenience store offering. While there, he started talking to a couple, Chris and Tom who had planned a huge dinner for friends, none of whom could get into the campsite and since we couldn’t get out, we were invited to their place for dinner. The canyon was home to Chris and Tom who lived there permanently in a tied down trailer.
At about 4 PM I took the kids up the hill to our hosts’ trailer. Steve stayed behind, working diligently to make the car and trailer more secure. I had no bottle for the baby and after an hour, Sela was so fussy the hosts, finding a rubber glove used for cleaning, suggested I poke a hole in one of the fingers to try and feed her some milk.
By 6:30, the kids were getting so restless that, even though Steve hadn’t returned, we decided to eat. For the first time in my life, I was spending Christmas Day with complete strangers who had graciously invited us to gather around their dinner table and share their delicious pot roast dinner.
At about 9 PM, suddenly there was the loudest sound I’d ever heard in my life, followed by things crashing against the trailer. Later, I found out that the hillside had broken free and we were in the way of a mudslide. It was a truck and trailer from uphill that had hit us. Amazingly, even with all that assaulting the trailer, it was not swept away and none of us were hurt.
Chris and Tom apparently understood what had happened. They left us in their trailer and spent the next few hours poking around in the mud with a stick trying to find Steve.
At 1:00 in the morning December 26th, the fire department evacuated us. The firemen carried the two younger children, Asa and Sela, while Libby, Mika and I walked out, our shoes oozing and sticking in the mud, one which was sucked off and kept by the mud. At the fire station, a man came around taking the names of all the people in each party. On his second pass, I saw a red MISSING next to Steve’s name.
Steve had been swept down the canyon a quarter mile. When he was finally able to crawl out of the flowing mud, he climbed up the hill to the freeway and tried to stop cars. No one would stop. He was covered from head to toe in mud and debris. Eventually someone stopped and took him to the hospital. There he was admitted to ICU with puncture wounds, hundreds of scratches, some broken bones, a separated shoulder, hypothermia, and sinuses, eyes and ears packed with sand. Even though doctors wanted to treat him, he refused until he found out that the rest of his family was safe. A nurse named Sandy listened to him and apparently decided he was not going to die on her watch… She found us, told him, and got his recovery started.
Since our van and trailer had been swept away, we lost everything. We had nothing, food, diapers, extra clothes, bottle, ID, money, car, or a place to sleep. The children were dependent on me, and I was unable to solve our problems.
When I visited Steve in the hospital, at 3:00 AM that night, I found that he still had his billfold, so I took his ID and cash. We went to a hotel the next night. The hotel would not take Steve’s credit card without my ID, they would only take cash. I only had cash for one night. The next day, my mom was coming from WA and would have cash, a rental car, and other needs.
My mom arrived and said, my cousin, Terri and her family, were on vacation, so we could stay in their home in San Diego while Steve was in the trauma center. He was there for seven days. The magic medicine for the children’s psyche was in my cousin’s backyard… a trampoline! The big box of Honeycombs helped, too. We ate them all. To this day, I still love Honeycombs.
Sometime during all this, I called Allstate to file a claim for our van that was destroyed. The claims adjuster I was working with said he was unable to help unless I brought the van in. I explained to him that the van had careened into a tree and was half buried in mud. I told him that the canyon was roped off, the police would not let anyone in, and the car could not be removed from the tree. Sticking to his guns, he insisted I bring the van in. The next day, the LA Times featured a front-page picture of a car embedded in a tree. I called the claims adjuster and asked him if he had seen the front page of the morning LA Times and he said, “yes”. I said, “That’s my car”. He replied, “Oh, I guess it’s totaled.”
We flew home January 1, 2004. We had survived a devastating storm and mudslide. Our family was intact. I had kept four kids alive with nothing. Perfect strangers had taken us in and fed us and Libby had been a huge help. Eight months after coming home, I was declared disabled and had to stop working. I am convinced the events of this trip and the mudslide resulted in the escalation of my MS. I was 39 years old.
For our ten-year anniversary, on Christmas Day 2013, we wanted to mark our survival in a meaningful way. What better way to do that than help another family survive. To do this, we bought a water buffalo through Heifer International for a family in Asia. Heifer International is a non-profit organization working to erase poverty and hunger. This one water buffalo would provide the family milk, the ability to plant four times as many crops, and barter with other people to use it for a day. For my family, Christmas Day is a day of gratitude to those strangers who dared to help. In 2013, we were the strangers.
Chateau Retirement Communities are based in the Seattle, WA area. Chateau Retirement offers Independent Living, Assisted Living and Memory Care living options. Contact us today to learn more about our family owned and operated communities, or schedule a tour.
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