John Hearon’s Long Walk
It was shortly after midnight on February 4, 1956, when 38-year-old John Hearon drove his bus out of the station in Tucumcari, New Mexico. He was starting his regular 226-mile trip to Amarillo, Texas, and back.
Snow was falling heavily, but Hearon had made the trip 208 times before without difficulty, and he guessed it would stop soon. That part of the country seldom had bad storms. The wind was piling the snow into drifts on the road, however, and Hearon didn’t arrive in Amarillo until four o’clock in the morning. This was later than usual, but in plenty of time for the return trip.
He had coffee, checked his passengers were called to begin the trip to Tucumcari. Nine men and four women, one carrying a 21-month-old baby, came a board. At 5:30 Hearon was passing through the deserted, snow-covered city streets. By the time he reached Highway 66, most of the passengers had begun to doze a little.
The snow and wind were getting stronger, and the bus moved along at 20 miles an hour, sometimes less, until nine o’clock. “Then,” Hearon says, “I started to ease the bus through a drift that was deeper than I thought – actually, it was four feet deep. I tried to back out, but the wheels skidded and the rear end of the bus slipped off the road. We were stuck. The men got out and tried to push, but the bus wouldn’t budge.”
Neither Hearon nor the passengers were immediately worried. Highway 66, the main east-west road through the Southwest, received more care and attention than any other road in the whole area. Help would come, perhaps within minutes.
Hearon and his passengers could not know that a blizzard had hit Highway 66 and was making snow-clearing machinery useless. The lives of 300 persons would be lost before the storm was over.
Hearon turned on the motor from time to time to generate warm air through the bus, and everyone accepted the delay with good nature. One man said, “I imagine they’re talking about us on the radio.” He was right: the local radio was soon reporting a stranded bus, condition of the passengers unknown.
As they waited, Hearon began to feel uneasy. By two o’clock in the afternoon he realized that help might not come in time to prevent grief.
The snow was still falling, and outside the temperature was somewhere between 10 and 20 degrees. About one quarter of his gasoline remained; when that was gone the bus would become an icy tomb. The little food still remaining was saved for the baby.
The best source of food and gas, Hearon decided, was Glenrio, a tiny town on the Texas-New Mexico border, about nine miles to the west. Hearon a husky man, thought he could get there in three or four hours.
“I’m going up the road,” he announced to the passengers, “to see if we can get some gas and food sent to us. The men can start the motor whenever it gets too cold here; the heater will keep you warm.”
Wearing only his regular uniform, street shoes and gloves, Hearon stepped out into the snow and wind. He hadn’t gone more than 200 yards when he forced back to the bus: the wind was giving him a terrible pain in his right ear. He wound a piece of cloth around his head to cover his ears and neck.
Starting again, he held the top of his jacket with one hand while he breathed inside it. He kept the other hand in a pocket. When the unprotected hand became icy cold, he put it in a pocket and took hold of his jacket top with the other hand.
The unbroken whiteness of the snow made him squint. Sometimes the drifts covered long stretches of the road. He could find his way only by the telephone poles beside the road. He often slipped, fell and hurt his kness.
Near dusk he came to a stranded car. A couple and their child inside asked him to come in and rest. Hearon sat down and lighted a cigarette with shaking hands. He was exhausted; his eyes ached.
The couple urged him to remain in the safety of the car, but Hearon said his passengers, especially the baby, needed help; he had to try to get it. After five minutes he went on.
While Hearon struggled through the deep snow, the officials at the bus station in Amarillo, telephoning stations along the route, discovered where the bus was stuck, but travel on the roads was impossible. A helicopter was ordered to the scene, but weather conditions forced it back to the airfield.
By seven the wind was blowing colder and sharper, and Hearon – after fighting through the storm for five hours – wanted to stop. But he knew that he couldn’t; he would die from the cold.
With darkness, he had more trouble staying on the road. “sometimes I’d wander off the road and run into a bush or a fence. Then I'd move back. The only thing on my mind was Glenrio – I kept thinking about hot coffee.
“Then about nine o’clock my eyes felt strange. There was a beacon north of Glenrio I’d been using as a guide, but suddenly I stopped seeing it. I couldn’t understand why until I turned my head and saw it with my left eye. Then I knew my right eye had gone blind. I put my hand to it, and it felt like a piece of ice.”
Shortly after that Hearon fell suddenly, for no obvious reason. He pushed himself up. The sight of his left eye was growing less clear. He fell again. He wanted to lie there, but once more he struggled to his feet. Realizing he might fall asleep, he began to slap his face hard. The blows on his face made him feel better.
A little after ten his left eye saw tiny spots of light which he knew were in Glenrio. He hadn’t eaten in more than 24 hours, and all he could think of was hot coffee. He forced himself forward. At last he reached the first building, a gas station.
“All I could see was a terrible white glare that hurl my eye,” Hearon says. “But I knew it was a gas station, and it didn’t have coffee.”
He remembered that the next building, about 200 yards up the road, was a diner. Coffee. Turning from the safety to the gas station, he pushed on toward the next lights.
A final Effort
Halfway there he fell sank into the deep snow. He raised into the deep snow. He raised himself a little, then dropped back again. He got to his knees for a few seconds, pushed up and fell. His falls packed the snow in a small circle around him. With his last strength he stood up straight and forced his legs to support him. But they were unable to carry him any farther.
He knew he couldn’t stand many more seconds. When he dropped again, it might be his last fall. He tried to call for help, but his voice wouldn’t rise to a shout. Searching his mind for a means of getting aid, he took a deep breath and whistled – through his teeth. He waited, no longer feeling pain or cold. There was no answer. Taking another breath, he managed to whistle two more times.
A young man sitting in the diner heard the final whistle, opened the door and peered into the snow. He could see nothing, but he called into the darkness: “Do you need help?”
“Yes,” Hearon said, but only a little above a whisper. “I can’t talk.”
“Keep talking and I’ll find you,” the voice answered.
Hearon collapsed as the rescuer arrived. The young man shouted, and two other men ran to help him drag Hearon into Joe Brownlee’s gasoline station. “He looked nearly dead,” says Brownlee. “His face was blue, his eyes closed, his lips swollen. I’ve never seen anyone one look like that.”
A Long Battle
It was 11:15; Hearon had fought through the storm for almost nine hours. The distance from the bus to Glenrio was nearly 12 miles.
Suffering from cold, shock and weariness, Hearon was trembling so much at first he couldn’t say a word. “But when he was able to talk,” recalls one of those present, “he told us about the passengers and the baby. Even in shock his mind was clear about bus. He described exactly where it was, how many passengers were in it, how long they had been without food, how much gas there was when he left.”
Leaving Hearon in the care of his helpers. Brownlee put chains on the wheels of his truck, loaded in food, blackest and gas, and began forcing his way through the snow on Highway 66. He reached the stranded passengers waiting on the bus at two o’clock in the morning.
The motor of the bus was still running, and the passengers were warm and in good spirits. A doctor who examined the passengers later found no ill effects from the long wait. Instead of a disaster, there was nothing more than a long, uncomfortable delay because of Hearon’s courage and determined efforts.
Hearon recovered fast. After four days in the hospital and six days’ rest at home, he resumed his nightly Tucumcari-Amarillo trip. As he climbed aboard his bus one night, a friend asked if he would prefer another kind of work after bad experience in the big snowstorm.
Hearon looked surprised. “Why no,” he said quickly. “Bus-driving is my job.”
Bus, a large motor vehicle for carrying passengers
Drifts, snow lying in deep piles. Wind blows the snow to form the drifts.
Aboard, on or into a vehicle
Deserted, without the people who are sometime there
Doze, sleep lightly
Skidded, slipped to one side
Generate, produce; bring into existence
Radio, a means of receiving sound sent through the air
Grief, deep sorrow or suffering
Tomb, a grave or place for the dead
Gas, short form of gasoline (used to make buses and other vehicles run)
Husky, big and strong
Gloves, covering for the hands
Jacket, a short coat
Squint, look through partly closed eyes
Exhausted, very tired
Ached, were in continuous pain
Helicopter, a kind of flying machine
Beacon, a strong light used for guiding or warning
Obvious, easily seen or understood
Slap, strike with the open hand
Glare, very bright light
Diner, a small restaurant
Peered, looked closely
Collapsed, fell down; lost all strength and could not go on
Swollen, increased in size; much larger than usual
Truck, a motor vehicle for carrying heavy loads
Disaster, sudden event that causes great trouble or suffering
Resumed, began again