Published without the authorized permission of the Waterloo Region Record – but with the best of intentions. Credit Record staff – Robert Williams
The snow is piling up, burying our car deeper and deeper into the snowbank.
Deb Dooling-Westover pulls out her crackers, cream cheese, and roasted red pepper jelly, and offers some to her husband, Mark Westover. In the back seat, a hitchhiker takes a few for himself. He’s on his way to Listowel for his daughter’s first Christmas, with a bagful of toys and a few spare clothes, but his taxi ha long turned around and left him on Line 86, just outside Wallenstein. The back seat of the Westovers’ car is his only chance at warmth for the night.
The car is not moving. The snowbank has made sure of that, and the trio are settling in for a long, cold night. Snowplows can’t get to them, and there’s no way in or out of this country road. The Westovers – Deb, 63, and Mark, 71 – and their hitchhiker – a young man of about 30, are trapped.
They’re talking, but their eyes dart nervously at the fuel gauge, that’s slowly ticking lower. The snow is piling up the windows, and they’re equally worried that someone may come piling in behind them. It’s Christmas Eve, and a winter storm bringing heavy snow and wind gusts of 100 km/h has shut down much of the Province on one of the busiest travel days of the year.
On this rural road, 30 kilometres north of Kitchener, it feels as if nothing and nobody is around you. It’s a vast rural area. Dotted with Mennonite farms and sprawling fields. The Westovers are on their way from Ayr, to spend Christmas with friends in Wingham.
They spent the morning checking the weather, to make sure that the roads were still open when they left, just before noon. The farther they drove, the worse the conditions got. Eventually, on a long stretch of farmland between Wallenstein and Macton, there is no going any further.
There are a few other cars stuck in this area. As the winds pick up and blow the snow in blankets across the farm fields and over the road, it gets harder to make them out. Each car is an island, and the snow is gobbling them up.
After a few hours sitting inside the car, Deb looks out of the snow-covered window and rubs her eyes to make sure she’s not hallucinating. A man with a pair of snowshoes has emerged from the snowbank. He knocks on the side of the car, and she opens it up to him.
“Do you have food and water?” he asks.
“Well, we don’t have a lot of food, but we have some water and Diet Coke in the cooler.” she tells him. “My car is behind my husband’s. I only have a quarter tank of gas.”
The Westovers had filled their two cars with presents, and they were hoping to do some work on Deb’s fuel tank, once they got to their friends’ house. She had been following Mark the whole drive, but both of their cars were now stuck in the huge snowdrift.
“Don’t worry.” he says. “I have lots of gas. I’ll come back for you later.”
An hour goes by. It’s dark now. With the wind-chill, it feels like -27 C. The snow continues to fall, and the wind is howling. A roar starts up behind them, and Deb jumps out of the car to see approaching blue and red lights. Their man in the snowshoes has returned, this time with a tractor.
He gets Deb back into her car, pulls it out, and then pulls out Mark and the hitchhiker. By this point he has already pulled out some of the other cars as well. Once they’re all safely back on the road, he asks the occupants of all the cars – about six in total – to follow him about a kilometer down the road, and up a long driveway, where they all stop at a farmhouse.
The group walks into the house to find the man’s wife peeling carrots in the kitchen, with two young boys bouncing around the house. They are a modern Mennonite family, and the farmhouse is equipped with power, heating, and a functioning telephone.
“I’ve never spent any time with a Mennonite family, or been inside a (Mennonite) house before.” Deb said later. “And I have to tell you, these are the most beautiful people I’ve ever met.” Deb joins the woman in the kitchen, helping to peel carrots. Then she watches as she puts potatoes through a food processor, throws them into boiling water, and mixes them with cream and butter to make mashed potatoes. Then she begins cooking summer sausage, as more people start piling into the farmhouse – there’s about a dozen of them now.
The family has some table extensions, and by the time dinner is served, it’s a feast for nearly 16 people, each with a spot around the ‘harvest table.’ They say a silent prayer, and dinner begins.
“I was literally crying.” says Deb. “It was the most unbelievable thing I had ever seen in my life. There we were, thinking that we were going to freeze to death. We really thought we were going to die. And now we were all seated around this table, warm, and having dinner at this farmhouse.”
Around the table, the different groups recount their stories. Each talk about watching the weather advisories, checking to make sure the roads were open, and eventually finding themselves stuck in the snowdrift with no way out. But something still doesn’t add up. How did this man know to come and get them?
One of the women at the table speaks up. While she was waiting in her car, she noticed a name on a nearby mailbox. She called her son in Listowel, and he started calling every number in the area with that last name. Eventually he got through to their rescuer, who threw on his snowshoes and headed into the storm to see if he could find them.
Not wanting any unnecessary attention, the family has asked to keep their name private. “I don’t want any honors or glory.” the man told The Record. “It’s just the Lord’s glory and we did our Christian duty.” After dinner is over, the family leads Deb and Mark to a spare bedroom to hunker down for the night. It’s cold in the room, but thick blankets keep them warm. The rest of the travellers are spread out around the house, sleeping on makeshift beds and couches.
In the morning, Deb runs out to the car to grab some peameal bacon she had purchased on Christmas morning. Many of the others do the same, bringing in what food they can contribute to the feast. Like the night before, they cook up a big meal, each sitting around the table to enjoy a Christmas breakfast. When the meal is finished, they clean up together, and start getting back in their cars, each bound to family and friends.
None of them know each other. After they say their goodbyes and wish each other luck for the journeys ahead, all they’re left with is a handful of first names and memories of faces, warmth and a reminder of good people when tragedy strikes.
The Westovers’ Wingham friend said that they did their final checks, but I guess they were just in for an adventure. They eventually reached their final destination. The gifts that they had piled in their cars made it to the friends and family they had planned to see. As they sat around the Christmas dinner table, they told the story of a snowy country road, and a man on snowshoes who appeared out of nowhere, and took them to safety in a farmhouse with his family.
Deb said, “I have to tell you, it was the most beautiful Christmas ever.”