The snow started falling over the Texas Panhandle on 1st February 1956. Within hours it would herald one of the worst blizzards in American history as snow fell for four straight days over Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico; by the time it began to thaw, at least eighteen people and hundreds of cattle were dead. The little town of Vega bore the brunt of the storm, recording a staggering 61 inches of snow, but everywhere was affected. But life had to, somehow, go on and that meant Route 66 had to keep rolling.
If the road was open for business, then so were the companies that used it, among them the bus line, Continental Trailways. At 5.30am, John Hearon, 38, pulled his Vista-Liner out of Amarillo, heading to Tucumcari. He knew that the conditions were dire, having already done a run in the opposite direction, arriving in Amarillo two hours behind schedule. There are varying estimates as to how passengers he had on board for that return trip – contemporary accounts state between 14 and 35 (although the lower figure is probably the correct one) but all agree that among the passengers was 21-month-old Patricia Henderson, travelling with her mother, Ruth.
All was well until around 9am when, John Hearon related; “I was going about 25 miles an hour when I hit this drift in a deep cut. Snow was about waist high and we couldn’t move the bus. No-one got excited, though. We had about a half tank of fuel, so there was no immediate worry about heat. We figured we’d just sit tight until help arrived.” But more than five hours passed with not a single vehicle in sight – the blizzard had closed down Route 66 and even snow clearing machinery couldn’t get through – and Mr Hearon started to worry that the bus was running low on fuel. Once that ran out, the bus would become a freezing metal box – and possibly a tomb. The only food on the bus was two sandwiches which the passengers gave to the little girl. Mr Hearon decided that he had to go for help. Norris Turner, a passenger from Houston, offered to go with him, but Mr Hearon urged him to stay behind and help keep up the morale of the other passengers. John Hearon opened the door and set off into the storm.
Adrian was the closest town, but John Hearon realised that he would be walking uphill and into the freezing wind and blowing snow, so he headed west for Glenrio. He was wearing only his bus driver’s uniform of low cut shoes, unlined gloves, woollen trousers and a light regulation jacket and within minutes he had to return to the bus to find a piece of cloth to wind around his head to protect his ears and neck. Then he set off again, finding his way by the telephone poles along the now hidden road, often slipping and falling. He came across a couple stranded in their car who tried to persuade him to seek refuge with them, but Mr Hearon was adamant his passengers, especially the little girl, needed help and he pushed on.
He would later tell John Phillips of the Reader’s Digest, “About nine o’clock my eyes felt strange. There was a beacon north of Glenrio I’d been using as a guide, but suddenly I stopped seeing it … my right eye had gone blind.” Not long after, his left eye began to cloud up as he began to succumb to snow blindness. Slapping his face to keep himself awake, he finally saw distant spots of light just after 10pm; he had been pushing himself forward for hours with thoughts of steaming hot coffee and he passed Joseph Brownlee’s gas station, stumbling towards the diner next door. But his strength finally failed him and he fell to his knees in the snow. He managed to whistle a couple of times and this saved his life. A young man in the diner heard him and found him in the dark, dragging him into the gas station. Joe Brownlee said; “He looked nearly dead. His face was blue, his eyes closed, his lips swollen. I’ve never seen anyone look like that.”
John Hearon had staggered through the storm for almost nine hours. Frostbitten and snowblind, he could barely speak, but he managed to tell his rescuers exactly where the bus was, how many passengers were on it, how long they had been without food and how much gas had been in the tank when he left. Joe Brownlee loaded up his Power Wagon with food and blankets and, putting chains on the wheels, fought his way to the bus, arriving at 2am. Thanks to John Hearon’s incredible bravery, everyone was well and in good spirits and the engine was still running, although they were no doubt pleased to see Joe Brownlee. Over several trips, all the passengers were ferried back to the diner where the town donated food for all of them.
Mr Hearon spent just four days in hospital. After six more days at home, he resumed his Tucumcari-Amarillo route. His courage was recognised with an all-expenses paid holiday to Treasure Island in Florida (Continental Trailways let him have the extra week off, which was mighty big of it) where he was feted and presented with an engraved medallion and his wife, Winnie, with an orchid and a pendant. Other gifts were a little odder; as well as money, the town of Sudan, Texas, presented him with a bale of cotton.
However, there was no long happy ending for John Hearon. On 12th March 1965 he passed away from pneumonia while suffering from lung cancer. He was just 47 years old. But to his four children, the oldest of whom was just 12 when he died, to the passengers of that bus and to the people of Glenrio he was and always will be a hero.