Learning Michael’s Lesson: Be Prepared For the Unexpected While Traveling On the Prairie

When I was a kid, I followed the story of the Stolpa Family.  They had been traveling out west somewhere (Nevada- it was all the same in my Jersey mind) with their young baby. Their pickup truck had broken down.  It was winter.  On the side of the road, they waited days in their pickup truck. They turned it on periodically to warm themselves with the heat.  No one ever drove by.  When they finally ran out of gas, they set out on a 50 mile journey to a paved road.  Finding shelter in a cave, they spent the night there and the next morning the husband set out by himself to bring help to his wife and baby.  They survived.  A few years later they made a TV movie about their ordeal starring Neil Patrick Harris.  

During the news reports of the Stolpa Family’s survival story and again during the TV movie, I kept on wondering how it was possible that no one drove by the road they were stranded on. For days. I remember even asking my mother about that.  It’s just out west somewhere, was her reply. Now that I live on the prairie of Colorado, I understand how there are some roads that people really might not drive on for weeks at a time.  I’ve been in the Nevada mountains, and yes, it is more desolate and rough than the Colorado prairie, but the Colorado prairie and the Nevada mountains are really not that different from each other when you compare them to New Jersey.  We both have sagebrush and in Jersey sage is simply a spice to cook with.

Here in Lincoln County, Michael Anderson from Wichita Kansas was recently traveling through, on the dirt roads between Arriba and Hugo.  He ran out of gas in his pickup  and set out across a pasture to get help.  This was December 12th, which according to Weather Underground, had a high of 21 degrees in nearby Limon. Michael was never seen or heard from again until December 21st when they found his body in the original search area.  The authorities are not saying if Michael simply succumbed to the elements or if he met with foul play.  There is a current investigation so everything right now is hush-hush.  I wish Michael would have had a better outcome, one more similar to the Stolpa Family.  Although I never knew Michael, his tale has hit me hard.  His story points to our vulnerability traveling these prairies. May his soul forever rest in peace.

Living on the prairie, it seems that all I do is travel.  I travel to the Front Range frequently to go to real doctors and go to real stores.  Although not recently, I have frequently travelled to visit my relatives in Jersey through western Kansas, which is just as rural as it is here.  Here I must even travel to the “neighbors” who are maybe five miles away.  I even occasionally travel to more out of the way places like Karval or travel dirt roads for 40 miles if I take that shortcut to go to Colorado Springs.  Most of the time when I travel, I am alone with my six children six and under.  We are perhaps more vulnerable than Michael, who was a single man in his twenties.

So we can perhaps learn some lessons from Michael?  Can we be prepared so that we do not die in a pasture between Hugo and Arriba like he did?  We can try.  I am by no means a survival expert, but I will share with you what I do to attempt to avoid a fate like Michael.  The truth is that out here on the prairie it can happy to any of us.  So here is my “list” in no particular order.  I hope it can help you.  It is by no mean inclusive and I welcome you all to add to it in the comments section.

1.  I have a cell phone.  In theory I keep it charged, but not always.  This is something I have to work on.  I have T-Mobile which roams off of AT&T, but reception is spotty for GSMs and CMDAs.  I keep an old Verizon cell phone charged in my minivan, too.  If I do not have service in a particular area with a particular carrier, I might have service with the other carrier.  I can dial 911 if the need arises, with the charged up phone.

2. I try to make sure someone knows where I’m going.  My husband does not control me, but I always let him know where I’m going.  If it’s in the dark, I let him know the general route I’m taking.  Even when I was single and lived by myself in Pennsylvania, I would sometimes call a friend and tell her that I’m at a certain place when it was night and I was by myself.  If I go missing, I want someone to know to call the Marines.

3.  I keep my vehicles gassed up. I know. You’re shaking your head because you recall that time three years ago when I went down to Karval and ran out of gas on my way back.  (The closest gas station to the town of Karval is maybe 30 miles away.) My husband was at work and my wonderful saintly father-in-law came and brought me gas.  It was a few kids ago and it was in the middle of a beautiful sunny day, but I really learned my lesson and vowed that that would never again happen to me and it hasn’t.  I am not responsible for just me anymore.  I have the responsibility of my beautiful children and I am determined to not let something stupid like gas be our demise.  I always make sure I have enough gas in all of my vehicles to go to a real hospital, or for whatever unexpected adventure awaits us.  I also have money with me.  When I was a cashier at a truck stop, I can’t recall how many times travelers were stranded with no gas to go on and no money to buy some.  That’s not going to happen to me.

4. I don’t blaze a trail.  You’re also shaking your head because above I just told you that sometimes I take that 40 miles of dirt roads shortcut to Colorado Springs.  I do, but I always make sure it’s high and dry and during the day.  I will only venture that way when there are perfect road conditions.  And even so, it’s a known shortcut and it is very well travelled, for out here at least.

5.  I don’t always stop to check on strangers. That day when I ran out of gas, a kind pastor-man stopped to check on me.  The very time before that when I was stuck on the side of the road when my transmission died near Rush Colorado about four years before that, the very same pastor-man stopped to check on me.  If it is a well enough travelled road, I’ll drive right on by because someone else will stop.  I fear Jack the Ripper is there.  I’ll judge the situation. Sometimes I’ll call the non-emergency number of the sheriff dispatch.  Sometimes it will be my neighbor and of course I’ll stop.

6.  I ask our guardian angels to guide us there safely. When I’m traveling alone with the kids, we’ve got our 7 guardian angels in tow with us.  I’m sure we keep them working overtime.

7. I keep the van stocked. You name it. I got it. Water, glow sticks, granola bars, blankets, hoodies, diapers, formula, bottles, candles, matches,  etc. If we had to hunker down and spend some time in our van, we’d be OK.

8. Although our vehicles are older, we keep them in good working order.  I wouldn’t feel safe if they weren’t.   Of course anything can happen at any time, but we try to minimize the risks and have reliable vehicles and tires.

I feel so bad for Michael Anderson.  What a tragedy  that he ran out of gas on dirt roads in Lincoln County and it claimed his life.  I try to be prepared and take precautions so that we will not have the same fate.  The Stolpa Family in Nevada survived, but I do not think I could.  I aim to prevent situations like Michael’s and the Stolpas’.

Update 12/30/15: I have since learned that Michael did meet with foul play allegedly from his own traveling companion.  However, if he did not run out of gas, the murderer would not have the opportunity. We could also argue that if the murderer was determined, they would have found another opportunity.  Sigh. At any rate, this is a truly unbelievably sad tragedy.  May Michael’s soul forever rest in peace. 
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