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The tale of an Arctic Circle tour bus on a long, cold road home in a snowstorm

DAVID GURA, HOST:

By the end of today, many winter festivities will be behind us, but there will still be a lot of winter ahead. That's why we're bringing you a series this month of thrilling, icy cold, true tales to liven up this frozen season. Originally performed in front of a live audience for the Alaska storytelling show and podcast "Dark Winter Nights," hosted by Rob Prince, we thought they'd sound just as good over your dark winter morning coffee. The first story, told by Sarah Manriquez in 2019, is about a little tour bus and a long, cold road.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DARK WINTER NIGHTS")

SARAH MANRIQUEZ: I first moved to Alaska a little over seven years ago, and when I came, I wanted to have an Alaskan job. And I didn't really know what that meant. But when I got here, I found home in being a tour guide - and not just any tour guide. I was hangin' with the big boys on the ice road up north on the Haul Road, and I was operating a 25-passenger coach to the Arctic Circle and beyond.

GURA: The Haul Road, also known as the Dalton Highway, is the famously rough, remote road that stretches over 400 miles through northern Alaska, all the way up to Deadhorse on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. You may know it from the reality TV show "Ice Road Truckers." Most of the road's traffic comes from commercial vehicles hauling supplies up to Alaska's oil fields.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DARK WINTER NIGHTS")

MANRIQUEZ: And on this particular day, it was pretty cold; it was negative 40. And I had 25 passengers, and I had people from all over the world on my vehicle. I had doctors from Michigan. I had newlyweds from Australia. I had a family from Brazil and a bunch of people in between.

GURA: The turnaround point for the tour was a rest stop about 115 miles up the highway that marked the start of the Arctic Circle. Things had been a bit windy, but otherwise fine, up until that point. But as Manriquez drove the last stretch to the Arctic Circle wayside, the wind picked up - a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DARK WINTER NIGHTS")

MANRIQUEZ: So it's really kind of pushing on the coach, and I'm noticing how much snow is in the road. But as we continue to move down the road, these snow berms are growing in size.

GURA: As she passed them, she checked her odometer and the milepost signs on the side of the road to try to keep track of where the snow berms were. She wanted a map in her mind of where to be extra careful driving home in the dark. Once they got to the rest stop, the weather was calmer.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DARK WINTER NIGHTS")

MANRIQUEZ: It's pretty protected there. There's trees there. There's outhouses there. We have hot cocoa; I brought it. I roll out the red carpet, and we have our official Arctic Circle crossing in style. And we're happy campers.

GURA: But by the time they got back on the road...

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DARK WINTER NIGHTS")

MANRIQUEZ: Firstly, it's dark. And secondly, I'm immediately hit with a whiteout. And I'm a little bit stunned because in the area that we were in at the Arctic Circle, I didn't realize how protected it was.

GURA: And as they headed southbound down the highway...

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DARK WINTER NIGHTS")

MANRIQUEZ: The wind is no longer whistling; it is howling. And the wind is no longer pushing against the coach; it is pitching the coach from side to side we go. And I'm like, OK; I'm going to put on a little movie.

(LAUGHTER)

MANRIQUEZ: It's about little animals. And this will be great. I need to distract these guys. I cannot be doing talking right now. I need to be focused. So I put in my little movie. I tell them how great it's going to be. And within five minutes, they're like, excuse me; we're trying to concentrate. Can you turn off the film? Sure. You're trying to - me too. OK. So I pop out the film. And I'm like, OK; these guys are nervous. This is bad. I hear click, click. People are putting on their seatbelts.

(LAUGHTER)

MANRIQUEZ: There's really not much that we can do other than move forward. In a whiteout, you can't just pull over to the side because if someone else was traveling on that road, you would be a huge, huge safety hazard. And so you have to keep moving forward. It's your only choice.

GURA: As she inched along, Manriquez was trying hard to stay in the center of the road, but it was tough to see in the dark with all the snow. She worried that if she veered off, she could get her tires stuck in the shoulder or even roll the coach. And then...

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DARK WINTER NIGHTS")

MANRIQUEZ: I go plummeting at about 10 miles an hour into a giant 3 1/2-foot pile of snow on the road. And I hit it like hitting concrete. And it comes up over the hood, splashes onto my windshield and my front tire is anchored into it. And the coach starts to move because that tire was acting as a pivot point. And that wind that was pitching us was now swinging us. And it was slow, but it was steady.

GURA: She followed her training, switching between forward and reverse and using her steering wheel, trying to rock out of the berm. Even as she did, she could feel the first set of her back tire start to slide off the road and onto the shoulder.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DARK WINTER NIGHTS")

MANRIQUEZ: And so I'm rocking and pushing and trying to break free of this thing, and I'm kind of breaking away. And as I'm starting to make this progress, I feel the inside of the second wheel start to go into that soft shoulder, and this is concerning. I am alone. And I start to think, you know, what if I did roll? What does that mean? What does that look like? The reality is no one would find us until that storm settled. And so I'm, like, I need to get us out of this.

GURA: Eventually, she did. They broke through. She drove on at an inching pace for hours. And then, just as they were nearing the halfway point home...

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DARK WINTER NIGHTS")

MANRIQUEZ: The wind lifts stop, and it stopped snowing. And finally, we can see the sky. And we can see every single star in the night sky. And the aurora comes out, and it's fantastic.

GURA: Pretty soon, she found a good spot to pull over, and everyone piled out to take pictures.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DARK WINTER NIGHTS")

MANRIQUEZ: And as we got them back on and headed back, that tour remains the longest tour I've ever been on.

(LAUGHTER)

MANRIQUEZ: It remains the best group of people that I've ever had on a vehicle - such troopers. And it was a really good reminder that no matter how big or bad or impossible the storm is, you have to keep moving forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GURA: That's Sarah Manriquez who told this story in front of a live audience in 2019 for the show and podcast "Dark Winter Nights."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.