Two days into the relentless snowfall it became clear: There would be no leaving the mountains.
Robert Rice was initially unfazed by warnings of the impending storm. The 79-year-old had lived for more than four decades in the same home in Running Springs, a community tucked into the San Bernardino National Forest. Snow had often blanketed the landscape.
Although arthritis plagued his hands and knees, Mr. Rice was in good health, accustomed to walking a few miles every day at elevation with his Labrador retriever, Ranger. His garage held a generator and an extra canister of gasoline, the pantry was stocked with soup and chili. A Vietnam War combat veteran, he was not worried about hunkering down for a while.
But as flurries fell at a record pace, stacking high outside his windows, Mr. Rice received distressing news.
His wife, Ann Rice, was struggling to breathe. She had been on a ventilator for three years, but something had changed. Carbon dioxide was building up in her lungs, and doctors cautioned the end could be near. The skilled nursing facility where she lived was 27 miles away.
ImageRobert and Ann Rice on their 48th wedding anniversary. Credit…
Ms. Rice, 81, had long suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and had also developed congestive heart failure. In December, when breast cancer invaded her body, she was in no shape for radiation or chemotherapy. The cancer spread to her bones.
Mr. Rice visited her nearly every day.
The two had been together for 54 years, ever since meeting through a bowling league in Pasadena, Calif. He was a police officer at the time and tended to be stoic, while she was generous and gregarious — an extrovert who struck up conversations in the grocery aisle. They soon married in Las Vegas, raised three children and became known as an inseparable pair who liked to read in their matching brown recliners.
Mr. Rice was trapped in his home in Running Springs, Calif., for more than a week after a snowstorm that started in late February.Credit…Alisha Jucevic for The New York TimesImageMr. Rice relied on a generator while the power briefly went out in his home.Credit…Alisha Jucevic for The New York Times
Now, with miles of snow between them, Mr. Rice feared he would be unable to say a final goodbye.
It was one desperate situation of many that played out in the shadows of a record-breaking storm in Southern California. Beginning in late February, rain turned to days of ceaseless snow that trapped residents in the San Bernardino Mountains, in a region about 85 miles east of Los Angeles. Nearly 10 feet of snow would ultimately fall, causing roofs to cave and leaving many without power or access to food or help. Shovels and snowblowers were no match against what became a towering icy mass. The local Sheriff’s Office would end up responding to at least 13 deaths.
Residents whose homes suffered damage have had little respite since, their troubles exacerbated by two atmospheric rivers over the last week that pounded the area with several inches of rain. The latest storm departed on Wednesday after leaving a slushy mess in the mountain regions and flooding various parts of California.
When last month’s snowstorm began, Mr. Rice thought he could at least maintain a clear portion of the driveway that sloped down from the street and ran 50 feet to his attached garage.
“But it was snowing so hard, it just didn’t do any good,” he said. “It was almost like a blizzard condition; wind was blowing, and I just couldn’t keep up with it.”
Mr. Rice had been a paratrooper and sergeant in the Army for six years before becoming a police officer. For almost three decades he held a second job as a corporate security supervisor for UPS. He liked to take charge and lead. He did not like asking for help.
He had gotten word about his wife’s condition from his daughter Shelley Renison, who lived out of the snow’s reach in San Bernardino. By that time, Ms. Renison, her sister and her brother had gone to their mother’s bedside.
Their mother’s decline had been difficult to watch. Once able to get around with an oxygen tank, she now had a tracheal tube. About a year ago, she grew uninterested in using the valve attachment required to speak.
Mr. Rice bought her a tablet so they could communicate through a messaging app. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, he sat outside her window with a dry erase board, holding up bits of conversation. She replied with notes on her own board.
But about six months ago, Ms. Rice appeared to lose awareness of her surroundings. She did not always recognize who visited. Her family lived for the rare moments when her eyes would suddenly focus and she smiled or mouthed, “I love you.” This had not happened for a while. And the family had recently agreed to a do-not-resuscitate order.
And so it seemed, on the last weekend of February, that Ms. Rice would die with her three children around her but her husband far away.
“We just kind of came to accept the fact that he wasn’t going to be there, and we were trying to prepare him for that,” said Ms. Renison, a middle school vice principal and teacher. “He was in denial. He kept thinking he’d figure out a way to get himself down here.”
On Feb. 26, Mr. Rice decided to dig a path up the driveway so that he might be able to walk to the street, which he couldn’t even see. The snow loomed above his head, near the edge of his roof.
He began hacking at the icy mass with a shovel, and then used the snowblower to try to clear what fell. He repeated the routine again and again, his fingers aching in the 25-degree chill.
ImageResidents braved the rain and fog for a morning trip to the grocery store in Running Springs. The snowstorm prevented many from leaving their homes until crews were able to clear roads.Credit…Alisha Jucevic for The New York TimesImagePiles of snow in Crestline, Calif., a neighboring town, as residents tried to resume daily life after the storm.Credit…Mario Tama/Getty Images
But after two hours, sweaty and exhausted, he gave in. He had managed to scrape out only a 10-foot line.
“I looked out there and said, ‘There’s no way I’m getting out.’”
That evening, he received a call. Doctors had managed to find a way to help his wife dispel the carbon dioxide through her ventilator. It bought Mr. Rice some time.
Still, the days would continue with no solution to all of the clogged driveways and impassable roads. When the snow finally stopped, an eerie stillness came over the neighborhood. Social media posts revealed the hard truth. So many in the region were stuck at home.
Mr. Rice passed the hours with episodes of “M*A*S*H” and “Dragnet” that he had thought to download before his satellite dish was buried. Luckily his power went out for only a short period of time. He called the nursing facility every day to check on Ms. Rice’s condition and constantly messaged his daughter for updates.
He and his wife had bought their butterscotch-colored two-story house in 1979 while it was still under construction. Ms. Rice had walked inside and declared, “This is the place.”
She was the one who charmed the neighbors, offering rides to everyone’s kids. Quick-witted and playful, she endeared herself to customers while running the beloved Good Witch's Bakery at Santa’s Village, a nearby amusement park.
Mr. Rice was more restrained, uncomfortable with displays of emotion.
Years of active duty had hardened him, he admitted. “I learned when I was overseas you don’t make really good friends because, my God, you might lose him or never see him again,” he said. In many ways he was drawn to his wife because of the light she seemed to exude.
After his wife moved out five years ago, he had refused to make any changes to their home, insisting that he needed her input. A part of him believed she would get better and come back.
By March 5, Mr. Rice noticed the bay window in his living room was cracking from the weight of the snow. The only walkable area outside was the patio where Ranger had taken to relieving himself before rushing back indoors. There was still no conceivable way to get up the driveway.
A couple of friends eventually trudged over with shovels. But after a day of work, their efforts felt futile.
Then three days later, Mr. Rice received word that his wife’s hemoglobin levels were dropping because of internal bleeding. She was already undergoing blood transfusions every other day. Nothing was helping.
ImageNearly 10 feet of snow fell in parts of the San Bernardino Mountains.Credit…Alisha Jucevic for The New York TimesImageSnow is still stacked high throughout Running Springs, Calif.Credit…Alisha Jucevic for The New York Times
The doctors recommended stopping intervention. Ms. Rice could have six months left, they said. A handful of weeks was more likely.
Mr. Rice tried to absorb what he heard. He opened a book to busy himself, but had an urgent and terrible feeling.
“I sat there and thought, ‘Oh my God, she’s going to die before I get there.’”
Then the tears came.
That’s when he decided to take a different approach. He went to his laptop and began to type.
“I never thought I would have to do this. Here goes,” he started. “My wife Ann is in a skilled nursing facility down the hill. She does not have long to go. I can’t even get down to say goodbye. Is there anyone who can help with my driveway. It’s about half done, needs to be wider so I can back my small car up. I’m a Army Vietnam veteran and retired LEO. This is very embarrassing for me to even ask for help. Sorry.”
He added his phone number, and then posted the plea on a local Facebook group.
“I was hoping that people wouldn’t think I sound corny,” he said. “There were other people who probably needed the help more than me.”
It did not take long before Mr. Rice’s phone began to ring. Someone wanted to drop off food. A man offered to donate money for a hotel near his wife. One woman said she could ferry him to her in a Jeep. Firefighters stopped by for a wellness check. Five neighbors showed up at his front yard with shovels. Numerous people thanked him for his service. And many told him he should not feel embarrassed.
It was his longtime neighbor who appeared that day with the answer: a tractor with a front loader bucket purchased a few years ago for the winters. He could manage the roads because an agency had recently made a pass through the area with a plow. After three hours, a path had been carved out of Mr. Rice’s driveway.
On Thursday morning, March 9, Mr. Rice hopped in his Chevrolet Trax and began to back it out of the garage, but it soon scraped against the wall of snow. The path was still not wide enough. He spent another two hours broadening the opening.
Finally, he managed to get up onto the street. He eased down the mountain, flanked by giant snow berms that had created what felt like a one-way tunnel. Relief surged through his veins as he headed toward his wife.
When he arrived at her side, he reached out and clasped her hand. He smoothed her face and hair and told her how he had spent his days, how much he had missed her, loved her. How he wanted to make it to her before she slipped away.
Mr. Rice could not tell whether his wife knew he was there. But he had heard that those close to death retained their hearing long after other senses gave out. Hopefully she knew at least that she was not alone.
He would be back tomorrow.
ImageSnow on the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California.Credit…Mario Tama/Getty Images