By Ashley Wilkinson
Images Courtesy by Amanda Heichelheim
A man hobbles out of the hospital using one hand to wheel along his oxygen tank and the other to grip his discharge papers. As soon as the doors slide open, a blast of freezing air hits his face. He had heard of the snowstorm from the weather channel playing in his room’s small television, but this was his first time seeing it for himself. This snow has a fluffier, more powder-like texture than the other rare times it had snowed in Texas. Snowflakes melt in his gray hair. The brightness of the snow highlights the wrinkles in the man’s face. His wrinkles tell many decades worth of good memories to share with his grandchildren. This story would be one more to tell.
A red-haired woman who he had never met before guided him to her lime-green Jeep Wrangler and helped him pile in the backseat with three other passengers. The Jeep was one of the only vehicles that could conquer the ice-glazed roads that day, and he was grateful to the stranger for being willing to take him home.
After helping all her passengers load up in her Jeep, affectionately named Salty MoJo, Gilmer resident Amanda Heichelhiem climbed into the driver’s seat. Her hot coffee in her cupholder leaves Salty MoJo smelling like a coffee shop. She usually gets home late after taking the late-night shift employees home, so a dose of caffeine is a saving grace to keep her going. She waves goodbye to the friendly faces of the hospital staff as she drives away, but they know it is not goodbye forever. She will be back in a while to take home the next group.
In the backseat, the gentleman chatters on about his beautiful wife who was waiting for him to come home. She looks up in the rearview mirror from time to time to meet his eyes. He reminds her so much of her papaw. His warm voice spreads throughout the Jeep as he tells intriguing stories about how he met his wife, how he asked her to marry him and how lucky he is to be her husband. Even his fellow passengers are silent, hanging on to every word he says.
Since he lived the furthest out, he is the last one to be dropped off. As Salty MoJo drives over the blanket of snow that covered the man’s driveway, he pulls out his wallet with thankful tears running down his face. He offers her a few bills as gas money and a warm meal. It is the least he could do for this kind stranger.
“I declined all of it,” Heichelhiem said. “I told him that seeing the joy on his face and his wife’s face was the only payment I would ever accept. I will never forget that. I drove away in tears; they were happy tears but still tears.”
Heichelhiem, an East Texas Jeep Outlaw member, transported over 40 people to and from Christus Good Shepherd Medical Center in Longview due to the recent snowstorm leaving many without a ride from Feb. 13 to Feb. 20. The East Texas Jeep Outlaws organized a group of 81 members throughout East Texas who helped transport and rescue about 900 to 1,000 people.
“We help Christus Good Shephard [hospital] anytime that there is bad weather,” Justin Hollis, president of the East Texas Jeep Outlaws, said. “This time, it just lasted a week. My Jeep club was built to help veterans and hospital personnel in any way we can or any time they are in need.”
The hospital sent Hollis a list every morning of doctors and nurses who needed to be picked up to go to work and then be brought back home. Hollis then dispatched the 81 volunteers through text message throughout the week. Some of the volunteers also picked up discharged patients who were unable to find a ride home and helped pull out drivers who were stuck in the snow.
“My momma raised me to always help without question and without fail,” Heichelheim said. “[Also] I’m a cardiac patient. If it wasn’t for nurses and doctors, I wouldn’t be alive today. The least I can do is give them a ride! This is the first thing I have done with the club, as I am a new member.”
Hollis and a few friends founded the club with the intentions of giving back to the community in any way possible.
“Once you buy a Jeep, you become part of a society that is one big family,” Hollis said.
Heichelheim designed and bought her 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL brand new from a local dealership after searching for eight months and not finding what she wanted.
“I always wanted a Jeep but just never got one,” Heichelhelm said. “Then in 2018, I decided it was time for me to do something for me. She [the Jeep] had all of 17 miles on her when I got to bring her home.”
Heichelheim named her Jeep Salty MoJo as a combination of the official name of the vehicle’s color, Mojito Green, and an old nickname. She joined East Texas Jeep Outlaws to make friends in the area.
“I’m not originally from the area, so it’s a good way to meet like-minded people that enjoy the same things,” Heichelheim said. “They do a lot for the community and I’m going to get to be a part of giving back.”