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What I Learned from My Two Death-Defying Battles with the Polar Vortex

James Forsyth

Brantly Millegan - published on 01/09/14

You do not want to be stuck outside when it’s cold. You could die.

I was just a few blocks from my house when I noticed the lights in my car were dying down whenever I wasn’t pressing the gas pedal. I decided I better head home, so I pulled off onto a side street to turn around. As I was turning the car, the engine completely gave out. The lights in the car dimmed. With the sun just under the horizon and temperatures close to zero, the car came to a stop in a diagonal position in the middle of a residential intersection.

Uh oh.

Round I: If No One Can Help, What Do I Do?

Let’s be clear what “Polar Vortex” really means. The New York Times used the term to describe temperatures in New York City that dropped to – gasp! – 5 degrees overnight. That would be a rather mild day in a normal Minnesota winter. The “Polar Vortex” in Minnesota meant lows in the double digits below zero, with wind chill making it feel even colder.

On Monday, we discovered that our minivan wouldn't start. Nothing would turn on at all. We had enough food and supplies to make it a few days, and since the high was -9, we decided to just stay inside.

By Tuesday, it had warmed up to a whopping 8 degrees during the day, so after work (I work at home) I went out gave the mini-van a jump. My wife said dinner would be ready soon, so I said I would take the minivan for a short 15 minute drive to charge up the battery, and that’s when I got stuck.

The first thing I needed to do was move the car. It was blocking the road, it was getting dark, and the emergency lights were dying with everything else electrical in the car. I quickly shifted the car into neutral and was able to push it a little bit to the side of the road before it ran into a bit of ice. It still blocked one lane, but I wasn’t able to move it any further on my own. I was going to need help, and fast.

My wife was just a few blocks away at home, but I knew I couldn’t get help from her since she was watching our two small children and the car left at home didn’t have car seats. And I couldn’t just walk home because I couldn’t leave the minivan where it was.

I went to the nearest house with lights on and knocked on the door. No one answered, and its “Beware of Dog” sign made me not want to linger too long. I went across the street to another house. A middle aged woman came to the door. I explained my situation, but she said her husband had a bad back and couldn’t help me. I asked if there was anyone nearby she thought would be able to help me. She said almost everyone was elderly, except for maybe a Protestant minister that lived just a few houses away. When I knocked on that door, another middle aged woman looked through the glass. She wouldn’t open the door (I don’t blame her not opening the door at night to a young man she didn’t know), but I explained my situation and she mouthed the words “No.”

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