Hughes’ Nov. 15 trip from Spearfish, S.D., to her friend’s place in Powell had gone way off course in the Big Horn Mountains. She’d later learn her Garmin GPS had led her 12 miles off the highway, down a dead-end Bighorn National Forest road, before heavy snow entrapped her 2003 Monte Carlo.
“It was scary,” Hughes recalled in an interview last week. “I had very long, in-depth talks to Jesus. I was like, ‘Sir, I know you and I have had an off-and-on relationship, but do I really deserve this?’”
Hughes, a 19-year-old freshman at Black Hills State University, had set out for Powell around 3 p.m. on Nov. 15.
“I just put it in my GPS and headed out on my way,” Hughes said.
She and the turn-by-turn navigation system did fine until reaching Burgess Junction in the Bighorn National Forest. Instead of continuing west on U.S. Highway 14-A or south on U.S. 14, Hughes followed her GPS’ advice and turned north onto a Forest Service road that provides access to the Bighorn’s back country and heads away from civilization.
At first, Hughes said, it didn’t look like a mistake. The road was paved and it looked like any other road.
“It was desolate, but I thought, ‘Oh well, it’s Wyoming.’ I thought maybe you have quite a few desolate-looking roads,” she said.
But it quickly turned from a normal road to a “crazy” dirt one that looked more like an ATV path.
“My GPS was like, ‘One mile.’ And I’d be like, OK, I can probably drive one mile — and I did — but then it had me turn on another crazy road just like it,” Hughes said.
As the turns continued, she remembers thinking she should probably turn around, but she kept hoping the next turn would bring her back to a normal road. Plus, it was dark and Hughes wondered if it was safe to go off the road in the unfamiliar terrain. She compared the experience to a roller coaster, where you’re stuck once you get on.
Ultimately, a dozen miles and several turns away from the highway, her Monte Carlo got hopelessly stuck in a snow drift.
None of the many things Hughes tried — including vigorous turning attempts that destroyed her vehicle’s power steering — were able to free her. Repeated honking on the horn also summoned no one.
She’d gotten stuck around 8:30 p.m. with about a quarter-tank of gas remaining. Hughes describes herself a pretty calm person, and although there was some crying and “freaking out,” she knew panicking wasn’t going to help.
She also knew to stay in the car overnight. Figuring it was her lifeline, Hughes also charged up her phone while the car ran.
When she awoke at 7:30 the next morning, Hughes found that — to her surprise — the car was still running and providing warmth. It’s unknown what temperature it was in the Big Horns that night, but it was likely well below the 20 degrees recorded down the mountain in Sheridan.
“I figured I should be found that day, because the next night I wouldn’t have heat and I could probably die or something unfortunate like that — which I didn’t really want to happen,” she said.
After some more honking on the horn continued to draw no one, she used her GPS to find the nearest town — apparently Dayton — and had some thought of perhaps trying to walk the 11 miles shown by the navigation system.
“At that point, I knew that there obviously had to be people looking for me,” she said. “I have a rather neurotic mother.”
Hughes left the car and walked what she believes were several miles up the road until she got phone service.
There, she texted her mom to say she was alive and not to worry; she then called 911. That helped authorities figure out Hughes’ general vicinity, while she began hoofing it back to the car.
Tears of joy
She was most of the way back when, around 9 a.m., she encountered Sheridan-based Wyoming Highway Patrol Trooper Kelly Broad. Broad and another trooper had been searching U.S. Highway 14 and 14-A for Hughes on a hunch before the more exact location was known. Broad found Hughes’ car near Forest Service Road 180 and had started following her footprints.
“I started crying because I was so happy to see him,” Hughes recalled. “I will tell you I have never been so happy to see another living human being in my whole entire life.”
She said Broad was “very, very kind.” A news release from the Highway Patrol last month said the trooper gave Hughes a hat, gloves and candy. She said he added one other item — a map of Wyoming.
Hughes said she plans to double-check her map the next time she sets out on a trip.
The college student was taken to the Sheridan hospital, where she was treated for a low core temperature and then released.
The story of her ordeal has been picked up by many news outlets across the region and Hughes has read many of the comments left on some of the news websites.
“People are going, ‘Wow, is she even intelligent enough to be allowed to operate a motor vehicle’?” Hughes said with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘Yes, I really am, but I understand where you’re coming from.’”
It’s a textbook example of why transportation officials advise not to overly rely on GPS navigation systems, but it’s also difficult to understand where Hughes’ Garmin GPS unit was coming from when it advised her to head north on the network of Forest Service roads. They ultimately dead-end.
Wyoming Highway Patrol Capt. Carl Clements of Sheridan told the Tribune last month that if searchers hadn’t received the information from Hughes’ phone, “no one would think to go down that road.”
When asked about the incident by the Tribune, a Garmin spokesman said the company was sorry to hear about it and is glad Hughes is safe.
Garmin’s maps come from leading map provider HERE (formerly NAVTEQ), said Johan-Till Broer, a spokesman for the Olathe, Kan.,-based company. He said Garmin works to ensure the maps are as up to date and accurate as possible.
“We are also committed to working with our customers to correct any confirmed map errors so the maps can be updated accordingly,” Broer said. “However, it is important for drivers to keep in mind that GPS devices are to be used as navigational aids only and shouldn’t be followed blindly.”
He noted that warnings about deferring to road signs and conditions are included in device documents and in an on-screen warning every time the device is powered up.
Hughes said a couple Sheridan area residents told her they’ve seen some other visitors take the same wrong turn after being routed that way by their GPS.
She describes the routing as a crazy glitch, but she’s also found deeper meaning in the incident.
While waiting out the night in the car, Hughes says there was a moment where she prayed to God, “I just don’t believe in you, because I just don’t feel like I’m talking to you, anyone, period.”
What made the moment strange for Hughes is that when she tried her radio a short time later, she found the only station she could clearly pick up was a Christian broadcast.
“I was like, ‘OK. I get it,’” Hughes recounted with a laugh.
She’s come away from the experience more appreciative of life and with a stronger faith.
“I might sound crazy, but I think it was a good experience and I think I kind of needed it,” she said. Hughes said she’d been going through a rough time with some other things in her life and her ordeal on the mountain “just put things into perspective that things could probably be a lot worse.”