Gregory and Sharon Poitra with their 5-year-old granddaughter Zelda. RON HARTMAN/CHRONICLE PHOTO
EUGENE – Sharon Poitra told her young granddaughter they were going “Camping in the Car.”
Since she was talking to a 4-year-old, she didn’t want to be brutally honest and say they were snowbound. That they didn’t know how long they would be there. So Sharon and her husband Gregory made the best of the situation. They entertained Zelda, who’s now 5, by singing songs and telling stories.
Sure, this was a frightening ordeal for the family for a couple of days before they were rescued, but Poitra doesn’t see this episode in her life as a tragedy. It’s more of a cautionary tale, she said, especially for anyone who travels frequently during fire season, when the roads become treacherous.
It was Dec. 23, 2020, and the Poitras decided they wanted to chop down a tree, as they traditionally do, so they headed up Highway 126, and then veered off onto 19.
“Gregory said he wanted to show Zelda a camp he went to as a kid,” Poitra said. “As we kept going, we kept passing traffic in the other direction, never had any sense that this isn’t going to turn out well.”
Those cars kept passing in the other direction because there was a large tree that fell across the road, halting all traffic.
“For a few hours we saw the fire devastation and saw trees falling, and when we got back to the Switchback intersection – it says Lowell 38 miles, Thin Rock 11 miles – we had gloves, we were equipped, we had to pull a few branches, but when it came to the point where there was a tree bigger than us, I said, ‘Let’s get back to the snow line, and maybe we can walk out from there.’
“Well, we got stuck. The tires were good for a regular road, but not for snow. And we were stuck in the middle of the road.”
Prior to this excursion, Zelda had asked about spending the night, but Grandma had said no.
“So the next morning I woke up early and saw they hadn’t called,” said Jada Sudhoff, Zelda’s mother. “Both of their phones went directly to voicemail, and that just doesn’t happen. I drove immediately to their house. I didn’t let myself freak out too much, although internally I was freaking out.
“I asked the neighbor if he had seen their car, and he hadn’t seen them. He offered to take his truck out to help look. I asked another neighbor who also hadn’t seen them, and that’s when I broke down.”
When she tried calling 911, she was told, “Even though this is an emergency to you, you still have to call the non-emergency line.”
The Lane County Sheriff’s Office, working in conjunction with Search & Rescue, first located the white Toyota Matrix by pinging the Poitras’ cellphones.
It was Christmastime, yet people were out at all hours of the night trying to aid in the rescue mission.
“I don’t know how many people opened up their time to us, but it was in the hundreds,” Poitra said.
Two words that were re-emphasized to Poitra: Be prepared! Always check your tires, and don’t drive in snow without tire socks (unless you want to get stranded, too). It’s important to have a clean cabin filter. Whether you’re heading to the beach or the boonies, always bring a checklist of basic supplies you will need. And make sure to bring a variety of snacks.
“I thought we need to have signs up at the main entrances in these little towns (saying no cell service),” Poitra said. “I know people might scoff at the need for it, but I say it’s a good reminder for everybody.”
Sitting in a car for a couple of days may sound like “roughing it” to some, but the Poitras enjoyed the peaceful, seasonal sights and sounds.
“We saw very few animals,” Poitra said. “We saw about three deer, we heard about three to four birds the whole time. But it was beautiful, utterly beautiful, all the snow reflected the light in the night.
“We had a full tank. We huddled up under blankets and a tarp and divided up raisins because that’s all we had.
“We could have eaten some snow, but it didn’t reach that point.”
Fortunately, they never panicked, because after all, they were just “Camping in the Car.”