July 31, 1976
Have you ever experienced a what if? Ever been dangerously close to a hazardous situation, to realize just how fortunate you were to have escaped, only to have it gnaw at you later?
Today, as I celebrate this Independence Day, my mind goes back to a moment in time I shall never forget.
We headed for Colorado’s Rocky Mountain State Park for a continued weekend bicentennial celebration, to enjoy the magnificent canyons’ cool mountain air and breath-taking river valleys.
Loveland Pass, CO looking east from the summit. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
The afternoon breeze, mingled with the whiff of hamburgers sizzling on the pit, put our troubles behind us. Don was in good spirits, along with ample supply of his favorite beverage. He drank one after another, as he rehashed old childhood and war stories. I roasted marshmallows over the campfire, until raindrops drove us inside our van. We tucked in for the night in our sleeping bags.
In no time, Don’s snoring commenced. As my eyelids grew heavy, I thought, at least I’m not out in this wilderness alone.
Sometime later, I awoke with a start, “Donny! Donny, wake up!”
“Hmmm?” my still-asleep, great protector mumbled, turning over.
I sat up and held my breath. I felt the van vibrate. The plunking sound of raindrops rattled across the rooftop, lashing at the van’s exterior. I strained to listen for something else, feel something else, but wasn’t sure what.
Only a case of bad nerves, I reasoned, starting to lie back down. No! There it is again.
“Donny, did you feel that? Our whole van shook!”
“Go back to sleep, gal,” Donny muttered. “It’s probably just a bear.”
Just a bear? Better not be any bear out there!
Minutes passed. I lay back down and willed my body to relax. The sound of rain soon lulled my unsettled thoughts and sleep overtook me. Before nodding off, I thought I heard rumbling in the distant.
Dusk turned to dawn, and I considered my night’s fright silly. We ate a quick breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, leftover meat and orange juice.
“Shake a leg,” Donny announced. “Time to go.”
We left our campsite cruising over mucky roads. Puddles and slushy trails made the roads treacherous and tricky. At one point, our van was stuck in the mud. Donny kept his foot over the gas pedal and accelerated. The tires sloshed and the van swirled, nearly tipping over.
“Jesus!” I cried out, thinking we were history.
Unruffled under pressure, Donny turned the wheel sharply to the right and back on the road again.
“What’s the matter?” he said, looking at me as if I were a dimwit.
“Nothing,” I huffed.
As we continued, we noticed massive trees toppled over, many bobbed along in the river. We heard the whump, whump, whump, whump of helicopters overhead. Soon, we approached park rangers re-routing traffic. I stuck my head out the window and overheard bits of instructions given to other passengers in their vehicle. “. . . mountainside . . . engulfed . . . destroyed . . . missing . . . proceed with extreme caution . . . !”
The reporter on the radio described how a typical summer rainfall turned into a horrendous nightmare for hundreds of people. Many homes washed away in a flash flood. Cars vanished, buried under tons of debris. Roads had swept away along the canyon, broken concrete stuck out of the riverbank like foreign objects. It took hours before we careened back into town.
Photo: Vehicles were left stranded in the aftermath of the 1976 Big Thompson flood. Courtesy of Water Resources Archive
“Big Thompson River Flood Marker” by Wusel007 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
The morning headlines read:
“THE BIG THOMPSON CANYON FLASH FLOOD.”
Many reported missing. Dead. Houses and businesses washed away, destroyed. The overwhelming thought hit me on how oblivious we were to the dangers the night before. If we had camped near the Loveland area, we would never have escaped. Donny could have innocently erred by having us camped out in that Loveland area—and brushed off my concerns in his half-drunken sleep, just as he did the night before. Then what? We might have been one of those statistics.
© M.A. Pérez, 2015, All Rights Reserved