For me, when everything goes wrong – that’s when adventure starts.
The Adventure Begins
“There’s oil coming out”, Jan calls. I guess I didn’t come off that rock slowly enough. In hindsight, a skid plate would have been a great idea, but now we’re six miles from the campground at Eureka Dunes, over fifty miles from the nearest town, and about twenty miles from cell reception. The course of action is clear: 1. get off these rocks, 2. cut the engine, 3. get the car back to the campground, and 4. find reception to call my dad.
With the engine off, we all loaded into the car and began our unpowered retreat to the dunes. At first we moved well. Being that we were in a wash, leaving a slot canyon, the grade leaned in our favor. The going got rough when the road got level and soft; about two miles from camp we sank into the sand. The only way the car would reach its destination now was at the end of a rope tied to a four-wheel drive, and the only way we were going to get one of those was for me to trot down the road until I found one.
It’s always nice to slow down and experience a place on foot, and I’ve come to find that the best experiences come when running about four to six miles per hour. The deep sand was annoying, but the scenery was extraordinary. The dunes rose 700 feet to my left and jagged mountains, colored like a Harley Davidson jacket, completed the embrace to my right. If not for the emergency I would have preferred more time.
Time wasn’t on my side, but luck was. At the campground I found a group of guys who had been our neighbors the night before. I explained our plight and they eagerly agreed to assist. Their T100, old climbing rope, and Jan’s knots won out against the sand. Ely, the Toyota’s driver, performed expertly, keeping his speed low and easing power onto the rope. As we prepared for the pull, he had admitted he was still young to driving off-road; I think he earned his ‘heroic save’ merit badge.
With the Escape safely back to firm ground, and a pit toilet, I climbed back into Ely’s truck and we went cell hunting. Between all members of our party we had four cell carriers at our disposal, and AT&T won (maybe about 5 miles out). I had to tell my dad about the cracked oil pan twice before he realized I wasn’t joking. I laid out my plan for a roadside repair. He would gather a tool kit and jack, drive my truck 300 miles to meet us, and we would repair or replace the pan in the morning. The plan was lofty, and we wouldn’t be able to communicate again until he arrived, but we were both old veterans at extracting Leporidae from our nether regions. We’d figure it out.
The Waiting is the Hardest Part
Almost immediately after setting it in motion I began to doubt the reality of my repair-in-place plan. There was virtually no chance anyone would have the part in stock, and if the pan couldn’t be replaced I would need to find a shop that could repair it. The boys enjoyed an extra day on the dunes, and their joy bolstered me against despair. At 2:30 I went out for a run to “get reception and call my dad”, knowing full well I couldn’t cover enough ground before dark. In any case the run occupied my mind and killed time.
All through dinner I stared through the darkness to the north. After the food was all packed away, the fire had died, and my family was tucked away, I remained transfixed on the formless void of the night. Then, what I wanted, an unnatural glow over an alluvial hill became a pair of point lights. They drew closer and my spirits lifted. I greeted my father and directed him to a tent Jan had erected for him. I retired to my own tent and slept peacefully, knowing I wouldn’t be sleeping here a third night.
My phone’s alarm went off at 4:45, normal for a Monday. I was already a quarter-hour into disassembling my car and it was freezing. I didn’t have a thermometer, but judging by the rate at which my water bottle froze, I’d have to say it was below 20°F. I could only hold a wrench for about 10 minutes before I had to stand up and move around to warm my hands. Progress was slow but steady; then it seized. Or should I say I found that three exhausted bolts were seized. I broke one and the other two refused to move. That was it. The pan couldn’t come out until the exhaust did, and the exhaust wasn’t going to come out. Plan A moved beyond the veil at 6:00 AM on December 5th, 2016.
On Second Thought
With no time to waste my father and I began to discuss our next move. Clearly we needed to get the car out of here. Hastily, we settled on pulling the Escape with my pickup; but we didn’t have a strap for that. Naturally, the salvation of this new plan B was for my dad to drive into town and buy a strap. So, with little deliberation, we loaded the boys into the warm truck, with their grandfather, and sent them on. Jan and I just needed to break camp, reassemble the car, and wait.
It didn’t take long for Jan and me to finished our part of the plan. So again, we wallowed in the infinite possibility space of waiting. It wasn’t long before we climbed the dunes to stare north again. We were up there for about an hour before we heard the first jet. Perhaps five miles away flying closer to the valley floor than we sat, was an Air Force fighter plane. We were so transfixed by the maneuver that we didn’t notice the second jet until it was a few dozen yards away climbing directly overhead. We saw a total of five jets that day, but none was as awesome as the first two.
Around noon the novelty of the dunes stopped being enough to keep the demons at bay. Lunch was a good attempt, but not quite. So, like before, we struck out on foot. It turns out pessimism is lazy. Every mile saw a greater attrition of hopelessness, as sound solutions precipitated. Just before turning around we concluded that the best way to extract our vehicle was to rent a U-Haul van with an auto transport trailer. If my dad returned with a rope we would turn it down and proceed with the U-Haul solution in the morning. Janet told the breeze that she would kiss my father if he returned with such a rig.
We returned to camp about half an hour after dark. Three new families had arrived and pitched tents. Jan set to our sleeping accommodations and I prepared our cold dinner. A couple crackers into our meal I saw light in the distance. At first it was just headlights, but then I swore I could make out marker lights. Yes, they were definitely marker lights; on the cab and corners of a box. And, there was definitely a trailer. I thought, “there’s only one person, within a thousand miles of here, crazy enough to drive that rig down this road”. The surge of excitement was palpable. We weren’t pulling the car into town, we were going home.
Janet, true to her word, gave my father a big wet kiss.
Success Not As Planned
My father recounted how, that morning, as he drove north from the campground, a nagging voice began to grow louder and louder. Every bounce and jostle, every tight turn and every steep down grade fed the voice, until it was his only thought. Flat towing an Escape with a Ranger, using a rope, was so stupid an idea as to be criminal. He felt terrible changing the plan without being able to tell us, but none of use could afford the time lost if he looped back.
He purposefully drove to the Big Pine U-Haul dealer. He was told there were no truck/trailer combinations in town; he’d have to go to Bishop. Again, in Bishop he was told his princess was in another castle. This time, however, the clerk went the extra mile and called around to find the equipment. My father could find the appropriate rig in Ridgecrest, 135 miles south. After a couple more hours teaching his grandchildren what perseverance means, my father was driving a moving van towing a Ford Ranger on an auto transport trailer.
The rig towed beautifully. That is until a CHP officer signalled my father to pull over and told him one of the trailer tires was coming apart. Now, I like to imagine my father standing on the side of the road, staring at the trailer with a truck on it…at the trailer, then the truck…then the trailer tire, then the truck tire…they’re pretty close to the same. He verified the wheel bolt pattern, with a piece of scrap paper; they were the same. With that, and an hour’s detour for a star wrench, he was on the road again, running the spare from my pickup…I love my father.
Salvation Isn’t Easy
My dad was done driving that moving van, and said as much. So, with the Escape strapped down and everyone in their preferred vehicle, I took command of the towing rig and we set out for home. The road to Big Pine was a mix of horrors. The first ten miles had such heavy washboard, one would suspect the ribs were mechanically installed by sinister park rangers. The best I could do was 10 miles per hour, and very often 5 was too much. The next several miles weren’t too bad, just a mix of dirt and paved straight grades. Then, finally, the road turned into a narrow windy strip of tarmac; every turn, left or right, I was forced to cross the centerline, just to stay on the road. Of course that wasn’t a problem, since we were completely alone.
Perhaps ten miles outside Big Pine, in my dad’s headlights, an unexpected form began to coalesce. “I swear that looks like tires, but why are they on the top?…oh God, that truck is on its roof”. A white Toyota pick-up lay fully across the road, the contents of its bed strewn a hundred feet in either direction, and its cab crushed halfway through the window glass. I grabbed the flashlights we had in the van and my father and I quickly approached the wreck, calling out for survivors. We received no reply. As we got closer, the driver’s left knee and arm came into view. The knee was elevated, as in a fetal position, and the arm reached out the open window, hand pinned under the roof. We called again and I reached for his wrist. There was no life in his veins and his skin was as cold as the air that frosted my breath.
This was clearly no place for children, and we needed to call 911. Jan wordlessly moved both our boys to my pickup and my father beat feet to cell service. Jan and I were left to search the surrounding area for any passengers. There were none; not in the cab, not among the debris and not along the shoulder. This man died alone.
The police arrived about 45 minutes after we found the wreck. I gave my report and we were ushered around the scene. Our journey home continued, like so many through-the-night journeys before it; ending, at home, a couple hours past dawn.
While searching the crash for signs of life, I happened upon a book lying open. I spared a glance and saw the chapter heading, “Does God Love You?”. I have never been able to knowingly adopt any belief, but I have the utmost respect for people’s quest for meaning. It consoled my numbed heart to think this stranger had spent his final days in the aching beauty of Death Valley actively searching for meaning.