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On Mistakes Made

Twenty minutes can make a pretty big difference. The problem is that you don't always know how bad your decisions are until you experience their consequences.

Such principles were presented to me in stark relief at the beginning of this summer when I was scouting out a location for our annual wilderness survival camp out.

I had recently learned that there was a canyon nearby that wasn't super-high in elevation and had access to water. It was on BLM land. Score.

I didn't have to be to work until 11am, so I decided I'd wake up early, drive to the canyon and check it out. I arrived at 7am to a dirt road inside the canyon that led to the spot I'd located on Google Maps. I was in my Expedition, so the road wasn't a problem until I reached this rocky section that looked like someone had scraped all the dirt part of the road off. I'd seen this at scout camps where rocks filled in gaps in the trail. Very bumpy, but manageable.  It took about 30 seconds to cross.

After about a 1/4-mile more, I made it to what appeared to be the end of the trail. There was another field of rocks, this time much larger, and no apparent trail on the other side. I stopped the car and got out.

I walked another 1/8 of a mile and found the water source. This was a very cool area to do a survival camp! I was pumped because I knew the boys were going to have a great experience here.

I hurried back to my car. It was a little after 7:30am at this point.

I started my car and considered how to get out. The road in was too narrow to turn around in and there were a but of level-looking rocks in front of me. While the rocky field probably wasn't a road, I thought, "I'm in my Expedition, I'll be fine". I pulled forward to turn the car around.

It turned out that the field was not so level.  There were a lot of rocks around and the car would occasionally kick back at me. I would turn or give it gas as I thought necessary, but I was starting to sense that I was in trouble. After about 30 seconds, I hear a metal CLUNK, and I was stuck.

Now, these rocks were not all that big, so I was more confused than anything, but I hopped out to see what was wrong. It seemed like it would be something simple; I even left the car running.

I looked under the car, and lo, I was somehow high-centered on a rock. A big rock about 5 feet around. I had just walked across these rocks minutes before; they weren't that big. What happened?

Upon closer inspection, the car was leaning ever so slightly on this big rock and looked like it had dented the metal casing around the gas tank.

I began to get a little nervous.

For a few minutes, I pulled small rocks out of the way to see how big the rock was that I was stuck on. I pulled out one special rock and water started to seep around the rocks nearby it. The light started to come on.

I was in a river bed.

The reason I'd become high-centered was because my car had pushed the rocks down around it and exposed this larger rock. With just the right circumstances of the minor sinkage and the big rock, I was now super-stuck in the middle of a canyon.

Of course at this point I was reminded that I had no cell phone reception and was around a 3-hour walk to get cell phone reception. I decided to try fixing this ordeal on my own.

My entire vehicle was on top of the rocks, so I didn't feel comfortable using the jack. The riverbed went downhill perpendicular to my vehicle with the big rock being on the downhill side, so it was precarious to be pulling rocks out; while it was a bit of a long shot, pulling out the wrong rock could send my vehicle toppling over me.

Still, I very carefully began to pull more rocks from around this big rock.  Rocks are not forgiving to skin, and are not always very quick to come out. Sometimes, I had to go meta and pull rocks out to pull other rocks out to finally pull a rock out next to the big rock.  My hands quickly became muddy and raw, and after 30 minutes, they ached. My body felt tired from the physical and emotional exertion.

Occasionally, I'd give the rock a tug to see if it would budge. The ground that I crouched and eventually sat on was slightly lower than the rock and the car. This lent itself to digging at the foundation of the rock but not really to pulling at it since it made me hang precariously over a downward plane. (Nothing like hitting your head on a bunch of other rocks after heaving a rock out that is now rolling over top of you!)

However, after a long ordeal, the rock came lose and rolled down the river bed 1-2 feet and then stopped. The car leaned a little bit more to the driver's side (downhill), but I was free. Phew.

I got back into the car and decided that a river bed was not the place to try and turn around. I put the car into reverse to try and get back out. Due to the ordeal, I was nearly perpendicular to the road, but due to my concern now about the river bed combined with the plenitude of trees, I wasn't in a position to turn while backing up. My plan was to back my car onto solid ground, and then carefully reorient myself with some point turns until I was parallel to the road again.

This might not have been a great plan, but I was rather frazzled at this point. The space was very tight, and I still had stark images of being stuck here for hours in my mind. At one point, my determination to turn around without getting my entire car back onto the river bed caused me to push too hard against a tree and I shattered my rear windshield.

I have never been so close to cursing in my life. I said about every flip, frick, and marshmallow word I could think of.

After I had my say, I stopped to think. The patch of solid ground was too small to turn the car on. I figured I was going to have to get onto completely onto the rocks in order to have enough room to back up. I scouted out the rocks and found what seemed to be a good path. I pulled forward more carefully this time.

The river bed had more to throw at me though.  I sunk again, and I got stuck again.

At this point, I was a bit panicked. I had just spent somewhere around an hour getting just to this point. How many more rocks was I going to get stuck on top of? What happens when its one that I can't get out from under my vehicle. I started having this recurring image in my mind of some grouchy authoritarian complaining to me about having to haul my sorry butt and my sorry vehicle out of the canyon, cuz .

Was there no way out of this short of hiking down the canyon and expending an exorbitant amount of money to get some guy to swear at me for being an idiot and haul my car out of this mess?

(In fact as I type this, even months later, I still feel that same zing of nervous adrenaline and same pit in my stomach.)

This time, luckily, the car was in a less precarious spot. The back axle was over solid ground. Excellent, I can use the jack. I pulled out the jack and very carefully jacked up the car. This rock was probably about 50% bigger than the last one, though a different shape; instead of being mostly round, it was more like the top of a very big mushroom. There was no way to move it, especially after I'd expended so much energy removing the last rock. I looked at my hands and they were shaking. I took a break and ate some of my lunch.

I said a prayer, which included several apologies for being an idiot. After a few minutes, I felt better and went to the task of digging this rock out. Rock by little rock, I removed the foundation from under this huge rock. I will not admit how many times I found half of my body under the vehicle in order to get the right angle for this or that rock. Another 30 minutes pass, and finally, the rock tumbles away. I remove the jack and get back into the car.

Another prayer. I carefully give the car some gas. It doesn't budge. I give a little more, and it doesn't budge. What's wrong now?

There are no rocks anywhere under the car; I have at least 8 inches of clearance everywhere.

Then I check behind the axle. Rock number three.

This one was on the trail and was just high enough that when I was going it reverse, the axle couldn't clear it. There was also a small metal bar on the other side of this rock. (I looked at diagrams online, but couldn't locate one that showed me what this bar is for.) I wasn't precisely high centered, but I still wasn't going to be able to move without moving this rock.

How did this rock get in between my axle and this other bar? Probably when I removed rock #2, the car settled just enough to settle around rock #3.

I don't think it is perception; I'm certain this rock was the biggest of them all.

I began to feel my will slip away. I was out of energy. I figured the dirt would be hard and packed and that digging would not be much of an option. In my mind, I was working on the best way to explain my situation to my wife, my employer, and whatever individuals in the city I was going to have to call to get this all worked out.

While I waited for my mind to work, I went and picked up the glass from the accident. There was glass everywhere, but at least it was something that I could detect progress on. I tossed it all into the back of the car and mechanically pulled out the jack to lift the car back up.

About that time it occurred to me that I could use the jack screw to break up the soil and perhaps leverage the rock out the ground. It's worth a try.

I ate some more lunch, now with hopelessly dirt-caked hands, and came back. Picking with the screw was followed by digging with my hands. Pick, dig, pick, dig.

The rock was too far underneath for me to effectively tug with my hands, so I would periodically push with my legs. Of course, the rock was blocked by the rear driver-side tire, so I was going to have to pull it slightly up the trail in order to push it out of the way. Miraculously, after 20 minutes of picking, digging, and kicking, I was able to pull the rock the few inches necessary, and then shove it out of the way with one final blow.

I was completely paranoid at this point. I stood up, and I scouted every nook and cranny under my vehicle as well as about 5 feet around it. I still needed to go straight another 10 feet in order to be at the right angle to back myself back onto the trail.

I said another prayer. I carefully drove forward two feet.  Then, I stopped and checked under the car.  No problem. I drove another two foot and checked again.  Still okay.  Drive two feet, check, drive two feet check. I got to the point where I needed to be and put the car in reverse. I kept checking every two feet until all four wheels were on solid ground.

I was out.

I carefully backed down the trail about 200 yards. It was narrow and difficult driving to make sure I didn't run into any trees or anything else.  After 200 years, I saw something that I ought to have noticed on my way up:  A turn-around spot.

I used it.

Eventually, I reached the other small rock patch. I drove with much whiter knuckles and much less confidence than I had the first time through. I prayed again. I was through.

I stopped the car and checked the clock. It was 10:00am. It had taken me 2-1/2 hours to get out; I had a busted rear windshield, a dented undercarriage, and a damaged pride, but I was going to be okay. I prayed.


I was once told that all failures are good when you learn from them. Now that I look back, I still get the jibbies when I think about it in a lot of detail, but I did learn a few things:

1. Always take a buddy.
2. Always tell someone when you should be back so they can realize something is wrong early on.
3. Cars aren't invincible, especially their windshields
4. Take breaks and stay calm
5. A shower feels really nice after wallowing and scraping in a river bed for 2-1/2 hours
6. Don't wear nice shoes when going to explore a scout camp site.

Oh, and:

7. Don't ever complain to your scoutmaster that something is too hard! He's probably been through a lot worse!


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