THERE WAS AN INTENTIONALLY UPBEAT tone to the diary kept by Jean Chaney, 68, as she and her husband, Ken, 75, saw dawn after spending a night trapped inside their snowbound car in California's Sierra Nevadas. She seemed to know from the beginning that they were not in a winter wonderland—they were sealed inside a tomb that would claim their lives 18 days later. But Jean Chaney wanted her last words to sound lighthearted, like a brave postcard. She wrote on the first day:
So many things I want to say. I want you all to enjoy your life and remember what is so dreadful today will be forgotten next year. Please be a family!! And let my grandchildren know that I love them....
It was such an unexpected calamity, the result of a routine trip from the Chaneys' home in Mariposa County to Fresno, 60 miles away, to clear up a tax question. On the way home they got lost. After their 1984 Thunderbird piled into the snow-bank, the devout Christian couple started writing on scraps of paper or the backs of envelopes.
We began to realize that we were on a road that isn't maintained during the winter. Truly a miracle if anyone comes by. We spent the night singing hymns...and quoting Bible verses and catnapping. We would run the heater for about five minutes every couple of hours.... We have no idea what lies ahead...so here we are, completely and utterly in God's hand!! What better place to be!!!
In all, the Chaneys were missing for eight weeks. Family and friends had long since given up hope of finding them alive. On May 1, a Forest Service employee gauging snow depths in the remote mountain area—50 miles from the nearest town, North Fork—found the car after the spring thaw. Jayne Peterson, 29, the couple's daughter, and her husband, Karl, 32, a construction worker, were stunned by the contents of the diary. Among the jottings were funeral instructions, a will and the record of her parents' final days.
The third day, and so far we aren't hungry. Found two little packages of jelly and a stick of gum in the glove compartment. Saving them. We reach out the window and eat snow. Daddy is feeling bad about not showing up at work this morning....
Ironically, Ken Chaney moved to California from Ohio to get away from snow. He was a high school athlete in basketball and track who played Triple-A baseball into his 30s. Until he was stricken with gout, he earned his living as a carpet layer. "Be sure to learn a trade," he told his son, Skip, 33, an electrician. A powerful 6'1" man, he reminded people of John Wayne, with his good nature and blustery bad jokes ("When someone said, 'Pleased to meet you,' he'd always say, 'The pleasure's all yours,' " says his son).
Ken was a divorced father of three when he met Jean Wright in Goshen, Ohio. They began their ardent religious and charitable work after moving to California. They often brought drug addicts and the homeless to their house for meals, and with their children—Madge, 37, Jayne and Skip—spent weekends at migrant labor camps, distributing food and clothing.
Monday, March 4. It is pouring rain....We're wondering if anybody has missed us yet. We thought maybe there would be helicopters or snowmobiles out looking.... I wish I had more paper. I would like to write to each of you individually.
In 1985, the Chaneys moved to Antelope Valley, a high desert area 50 miles northeast of Los Angeles. They supported themselves by managing other people's properties, including a horse ranch. Ken was about to start a new job in a hardware store in Mariposa when he and Jean vanished. "He was always a good, kind man, but he became sweeter as he got older," says Jayne. If Ken grew into gentleness, it seemed to come naturally to Jean. "If you met her once, she would always remember you in her prayers," says Skip.
March 6, Wednesday. This will be our seventh night here. The gas is all gone, so no more heat. We have eaten one little packet of jelly between us, Rolaids and Tic-Tacs. Quite a feast!!
The cold had frozen the windows shut and for water, they scraped the frost off the glass.
March 12. A drink of water for me will never go unappreciated again. And a bite of food—any kind.... Today is the first day that I have noticed any weakness. I love you all....
That was the same day that Jayne and Karl chartered a helicopter for $700 and conducted a 2½-hour search of the roads around Mariposa. They looked nowhere near the stranded car.
Kids: I can't find the dome light—writing by glove compartment light. Dad went to the Lord at 7:30 this evening, March 18. It was so peaceful I didn't even know he left. The last thing I heard him say was "Thank the Lord." I think I'll be with him soon.... So much to say and so little time. I can't see. Bye. I love you.
There were requests for favorite verses and hymns at the services, but what the six children, 23 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren will remember above all else are the tender words left in the diary. "We're fortunate that Mom was so sweet that she would give us something so beautiful," says Skip.
DIRK MATHISON in Palmdale, Calif.
- Dirk Mathison.
Friday, March 1, 1991, 6:30 A.M. Well, here we are in a winter wonderland! We have been here since about 6 or 6:30 last night. We skidded into a snow drift on the wrong side of the road and couldn't get out. And then it snowed about another foot during the night. I can't even get my door open. (Don't mind the writing—I have to write on my hand and lap....)