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Remembering a tragic road trip
By Terri Harber
Fliers billed the event Saturday evening at the Sunridge Inn simply as “Coffee With Rita,” but her story of survival is complicated: riveting, sometimes sad and, at other times, inspiring.
Rita Chretien came back to Baker City to thank people who helped search for her and her husband, Albert, after they lost their way during a road trip to Las Vegas and ended up stranded in the desolate wilderness of northern Nevada.
The couple, from Penticton, British Columbia, Canada, were seen together at Jackson’s Food Store in Baker City on March 19, 2011. Search efforts for the couple were centered in this area for a while.
It turned out, though, that the Chretiens were hundreds of miles away, their minivan stuck in the mud of a road in the Nevada backcountry.
“Al tried real hard to get us out of this mess,” Rita said Saturday.
Albert was able to make a successful 9-1-1 call from a cellphone but couldn’t finish telling the dispatcher everything first responders would have needed to know so they could reach them.
The couple separated after three days. Albert left Rita inside their minivan and began walking in an effort to get help.
He hasn’t been seen or heard from since.
Rita Chretien showed a video of an interview she gave about the experience at a Calgary, Alberta, church with a lay member, Gordon Elhart. She also answered questions asked by people in the local audience of about 30. Many of those who came had helped authorities with the search or helped conduct searches themselves.
Some of the photographs taken by the couple also were projected on to the video screen.
The Chretiens are a religious family. Rita credits her strong Christian faith as the motivation that kept her alive in the wilderness, exhausted and starving, for 49 days.
May 6, 2011, the 49th day, was the day she was finally at peace and prepared to die.
“I was looking forward to being with the Lord,” she said.
That day Rita made the trip from the minivan to a nearby creek for water in more a crawl than a walk.
She cleaned herself up, put on fresh pair of socks, wrapped herself in a blanket and drifted off to sleep.
She hoped her end was going to be swift.
But an engine sound woke her. It was a small group of hunters. They spoke to her and went for help. A helicopter showed up soon after.
Almost two months earlier, with winter nearly over, the Chretiens started their road trip that was supposed to conclude in Las Vegas. The family owns an excavation business and the couple planned to attend an equipment trade show there.
“Al had always wanted to go to that,” Chretien said. “It only happens once every three years.”
They stopped in Baker City to buy gasoline. The couple intended to reach the small town of Jackpot, Nev., for an overnight stay before continuing their drive to Las Vegas.
The Chretiens had traveled for hours before they realized they had become lost somewhere in northeastern Nevada while trying to reach Jackpot, which is located near the Idaho border. They had just started using a GPS during the trip but it didn’t provide accurate directions for a shortcut to their intended overnight stop, Chretien said.
“Somehow we got on the wrong road,” she said. “The GPS didn’t give us good directions.”
Albert skidded off the rough forest road they had been inadvertently traveling and their minivan ended up stuck.
The map wasn’t very detailed. The Chretiens guessed they were stranded near Mountain City and that their best chance was to walk until they found someone or reached the small community. They believed it was a couple of days away by foot.
The pair tried to walk out together on the second day. They were forced back to the minivan because a cold rain started falling and Rita had injured her knee.
They made it back to the vehicle and called it a night.
Albert opted to walk out by himself the next day, March 22. He had the GPS, written directions, half of their supply of candy and trail mix as well as a knife, flashlight and blanket. He was dressed relatively warmly with long johns, T-shirt, sweater, jeans, coat, leather work boots and gloves.
They discussed it, prayed about it and came to the conclusion that “the Lord would be with him,” Rita told the Canadian interviewer.
“We were in panic mode,” she said. “Trying to make sense of it all.”
It was the last time she saw her husband, the man she met in her teens and married at age 18.
“It was difficult to say goodbye,” she said. “I have a vision of him walking away still coming to mind.”
One of the people in the Baker City audience asked why he decided to go off on his own.
It was “a chance to find somebody,” Rita replied. “He knew we had no food to speak of.”
She had some bottles of water, trail mix, hard candy, and fish oil supplements. Once the food ran out — she consumed no more than about a tablespoon’s worth each day — only water and fish oil pills were left. She also had brought vitamins but they hurt her stomach.
Once the bottled water was gone she only had melted snow and water from a nearby creek to drink.
One of the audience members asked if she boiled the water before drinking it. She couldn’t because she didn’t have matches or a lighter.
She had a magnifying glass and used it to try to burn bits of wood and other dried plant materials but everything was too wet to burn for very long.
“It either rained or snowed every night,” Chretien said.
She hoped that a small animal would come by so she could catch it and make a meal out of it. Perhaps a mouse or rabbit. Her trapping skills weren’t good, however.
Larger animals were a safety concern. Elk were in the area frequently. So were wolves. She saw paw prints of other animals as well.
“I prayed they’d eat their usual diet so they wouldn’t want to eat me,” she said.
Along with her fear of being attacked by an animal she also worried that a person “who wouldn’t be so nice” would come along.
Rest was hard to come by. The seats in the minivan didn’t fold flat so she tried to sleep semi-reclined or scrunched up almost in a ball, on the back bench seat.
She brought with her a Bible as well as a couple of other books. She also prayed, sang and wrote down her thoughts.
These were the main things that allowed her to think about something other than her scary and lonely predicament.
She’d ask herself, “Which hotel are you going to stay in tonight, Rita?”
“I guess this one,” she’d reply.
A bird came around every morning and chirped. She thought God sent it down to keep her company.
Chretien had a strong feeling something had happened to her husband by the second week. Although she was sad, she also tried to console herself with the thought that he was in a better place.
“With the Lord,” she said.
She began planning Al’s memorial service on the 40th day. She had decided on such minute details as the menu and the flowers. She eventually threw away that plan because she believed the memorial service would be for two: Al and Rita.
So she revised it on the 45th day.
She was disappointed for a while that she didn’t get to die. She soon realized, however, that God needed her “as a witness.”
The helicopter crew couldn’t figure out how she was able to grab her bag, braid her hair and stand patiently waiting for their arrival. She guesses that was powered by one final jolt of adrenaline.
They took her to St. Luke’s Magic Valley Medical Center in Twin Falls, Idaho. The hospital staff kept smiling at her.
“I thought I was in heaven,” she said. “I wondered if it was real.”
She was treated there for a few days before being sent home to continue convalescing for several weeks.
“She didn’t come out of it crazy. She was never crazy,” said Hannah Hyland, Rita’s friend and neighbor who traveled with her to Baker City. “She’s not down in the dumps, not vengeful or bitter.”
Chretien doesn’t know what she might end up doing. She still owns the excavating company. Perhaps she’ll write a book.
She even drives the minivan in which she spent so many anxious weeks. One of her relatives brought it back. At first she wanted nothing to do with it but eventually relented.
In addition to Hannah Hyland, Chretien was accompanied on her trip by Hannah’s husband, Ken Hyland, and her brother-in-law, Henry, and his wife, Betty.
They visited other communities where people had shown the Chretiens kindness and expended time and effort to help them, such as Twin Falls.
“I realize everyone did their best. The hardest thing was to forgive myself — for the stupid choices we made. But life goes on,” Chretien said.
The group also went to the area where the couple was stranded.
“So many twists and turns and trees and rocks,” said Hannah Hyland.
Baker City was the end stop on Rita’s “thank you” tour.
What might have become of Albert?
“Most people think that he froze to death,” Chretien said. “We can only guess.”
And she continues to hope Al is found alive.
UPDATE: Oct. 4, 2012:
Rita Chretien grateful her husband’s remains were found
PENTICTON, British Columbia (AP) — The wife of a man whose remains were found in the Nevada wilderness 18 months after their van got stuck in mud and he went for help said she’s grateful there’s now tangible evidence of how he died.
Albert Chretien’s body was found in a heavily wooded area of Merritt Mountain, six miles west of where he set off. Dozens of searches were conducted in the vast Nevada area around where he disappeared.
Rita Chretien said Tuesday she and her family will be even more grateful on Canadian Thanksgiving this weekend now that her husband Albert’s remains have been found by two elk hunters.
Rita survived for 49 days in the couple’s van and was nearly dead when she was found by hunters.