Seventy-two-year-old Terry June Harnish took a wrong turn while traveling to a friend’s house on Thanksgiving Day.
It was a seemingly innocent mistake. Who hasn’t done that before? But on this day, the wrong turn was just the beginning of her woes. While trying to turn around on a dirt road, her car got stuck. She tried to walk to a nearby farmhouse but collapsed when her shoes filled with mud. She returned to her car, where she remained for three straight days until a couple of young men discovered her during Sunday night’s blizzard.
Fortunately, Harnish is now safe and sound, but the memory of her ordeal will stay with her for years to come.
A Thanksgiving to forget
Harnish hails from Hubbards, a small fishing village near Halifax, Nova Scotia. She’s been coming to Fairfield regularly since 1983, and lived here from 1989-94. She came to Fairfield a few weeks ago on Nov. 16, intending to spend six weeks visiting old friends.
On Thanksgiving Day, she ate lunch with friends on the campus of Maharishi University of Management. Her plan was to visit friends Barry Rosen and Bonnie Gould-Rosen using a rental car she picked up the day before. She got directions from her friends about where to go, and off she went.
Harnish headed north on Highway 1, turned onto Jasmine Avenue, and later onto 140th Street.
“It was pavement up to the Hoskins’ house, and suddenly it became a dirt road,” Harnish said. “I started to fishtail in the mud.”
Undaunted by the dirt, Harnish persevered, traveling over a few hills before realizing she was in big trouble. She was now keenly aware this was not the way to her friends’ house, so she reversed in a cornfield and headed back toward the pavement. But before she could return to a hard-surfaced road, her car veered into a rut and she got stuck in the mud. Her wheel well filled with sludge, and try as she might, the car wouldn’t budge.
Harnish thought she could walk to the neighboring farmstead over the two hills. It seemed like a reasonable idea, given that it was a nice day for late November, about 50 degrees, and she knew people were at the farmstead because she saw cars drive up to it. Harnish commented that she was dressed “like I would be for summer in Nova Scotia.”
Walking on the dirt road was no easy task. Her shoes filled with mud and she could hardly move her feet. Complicating matters further was that she just had her knee replaced.
“I attempted a few steps and fell head-first into the mud,” she said. “I was saturated in it.”
After spending about 30 minutes trying to compose herself, Harnish made another attempt, but this time fell backward into the mud. She lay there for what she estimated was two hours before summoning the energy to get up. By this point, it was getting dark, and she realized her best option was to forego the long trek to the farmstead in favor of her car.
“It took me six hours to get to the car. I didn’t get there until 1:30 in the morning,” she said. “I was drenched from back to front. My feet were so encrusted with mud that when I finally got in, there was mud all over the car.”
That was true even for her car keys, which contained so much caked-on dirt that her hands, ailing from arthritis, could not maneuver them into the ignition. Harnish had a cell phone, but did not call 911 because she assumed it wouldn’t work in America because her phone is from Canada. She tried to reach every friend and relative she knew in either country but none of her calls went through.
Sleep in the car
Harnish was resigned to spending the night in her car. She put down both front seats and tried to sleep, with little success.
“I was so wet, and it was so cold,” she said. “My beautiful coat is covered in mud. I hope there’s a dry cleaner nearby who can help me with it.”
Mud covered everything on her body, including her bracelets and watch, all of which are still in the car.
By Friday, Harnish was determined to clean off the keys so she could at least start the car to warm up. Though she had a full tank of gas, she had no idea how much longer she would be marooned on the road. To conserve fuel, she left the car running for only 10 minutes at a time.
Walking to a farmstead was hardly a better option Friday than the day before. Harnish left her shoes outside the car because they were useless, filled to the brim with mud.
The one island of fortune in a sea of bad luck was that Harnish had stopped at a grocery store before heading out on her journey. She had purchased a Christmas fruitcake and a bottle of kombucha.
“Very slowly, I picked off pieces of the fruitcake and drank the kombucha,” she said. “Thank heavens I had gone to Everybody’s before I went to the dining hall. I would never have survived four days without food.”
Harnish was starting to lose hope. Because she was in such a remote location, she knew it was unlikely to encounter a passing motorist.
“I knew my family of sterling men, who all drive trucks, might know that I was missing, but where would they begin looking?” she said.
Harnish had been staying with Carmen Quinton, whom she has known for 40 years. Quinton takes care of a 96-year-old woman, and spent Thursday night at that woman’s house. When Quinton returned to her own home Friday morning, she noticed that the lights she had left on for Harnish were still burning bright. There was no sign of Terry anywhere.
She called friends to see if Harnish was staying with them, and they all said no. She informed the Fairfield Police Department that Harnish was missing, and they issued a “be on the lookout” alert for law enforcement agencies in southeast Iowa. The police did not immediately issue a national “missing person” alert, because that is reserved for instances when a person is believed to be in danger, and at that point, law enforcement did not have grounds for believing that.
Saturday was noticeably colder than Friday. By then, Harnish had run out of kombucha, but still had fruitcake. She was down to a quarter of a tank of gas, and she knew that if she kept the engine running, she would soon run out.
Quinton and other friends of Terry left no stone unturned in their search. They drove around that day looking at all the trailheads in the area, hoping to spot Harnish’s car.
By Sunday, Harnish had been missing long enough that the police issued a national missing person’s alert. That was also the day of the blizzard, which Harnish knew was coming from listening to the radio in her car. Not only was she stranded on a dirt road, she was about to be covered in a snowdrift. She began to think that nobody would ever find her.
But that’s when her luck turned a corner. At around 7:30 p.m., after the blizzard had been going strong for several hours, Harnish saw a couple people on snowmobiles. This was her chance to be rescued.
The two people were Jared Horras and Malcolm Myers, both 2017 graduates of Pekin High School. Horras lives on a farm about 2 miles from where Harnish got stuck.
“We saw there was a lot of snow on that road, so we decided to go down it,” Horras said. “To our surprise, we saw a car there.”
Harnish turned on her headlights and hazard lights, hoping to get the men’s attention. Horras thought that was suspicious. He figured the person must have gotten stuck there during the blizzard. He and Myers approached the car to see if someone was inside.
“I scraped snow off the window, and I saw an older woman in there. I asked her what happened, and she said she had been there for four days,” Horras said. “I was amazed.”
“I was so relieved to see them,” Harnish said.
Horras shut the car door so Harnish could stay warm. He called his father George to ask what to do. Jared’s first thought was to give her a ride to the highway on his snowmobile, and then have a police officer pick her up. His dad didn’t like that because it would expose Harnish to the harsh elements. Instead, George drove his tractor to the scene because it has a heated cab. He picked up Harnish and drove her to the highway, where a police officer was waiting.
The police wanted her to go straight to the hospital, but Harnish explained that she had been subsisting on a fruitcake and kombucha during her time in the car, and that she would rather go home to take a shower.
“My rings were like globs. I couldn’t move my fingers,” she said.
Safe at home
The police officer took Harnish to Quinton’s house. That night, Harnish informed her friends over social media that she was finally safe and “out of the cornfields.” After eating a few hearty meals at Quinton’s house, Harnish went to the Jefferson County Health Center the following day, where she received a CAT scan, hip X-Ray, chest X-ray, and knee X-ray, and provided the hospital a blood and urine sample. Harnish was told she had a brain-stem bleed, perhaps as a result of her fall into the mud on Thanksgiving Day. This came as a complete shock to Harnish, who didn’t feel any pain in her head. She was taken by ambulance to Iowa City at 4 p.m. Monday. She expected to spend the night there, but the doctors discharged her at 3:45 a.m. after prescribing medication for her brain bleed.
Four days after her rescue, Harnish said she’s doing fine, and doesn’t feel any lingering effects from spending more than three days with so little nourishment and no bathroom.
As of Thursday, Harnish’s rental car was still stuck in the mud on 140th Street. A representative from a towing company has seen the car and told Harnish there is no way he could get it out. She hopes someone with a tractor can tie chains around it to pull it out.
Since her ordeal, Harnish has decided to extend her stay in Fairfield. She was initially going to stay until Dec. 27, but now she’s thinking of staying until March.
“I have a huge family of friends here, and I’m a member of the Golden Speakers Toastmasters club,” she said.
Harnish is busy planning a storytelling festival Dec. 21 at Morning Star Studio. It will be called “Once Upon a Winter Solstice.” Telling stories is what she does for a living in her native Canada, but no story she has told can compare to her real life experience of spending Thanksgiving weekend stranded in a cornfield.