July 02, 2009

A Last Resort

When I moved to New York City, all of my friends back home told me to be careful. Tim taught me to hold my key in my fist as I walked down the street, so I could use it as a knife if someone attacked me. Still, my wallet was stolen twice, I was punched on the subway, and I was sent to the emergency room with abdominal pains, all pretty much within the first couple of years in the city.

Not to mention the guys that were rough with me and all the names I've been called by the guys I've rejected. And the job that I was forced to leave.

Out here in the California desert, I haven't succumbed to many of the potential perils that face me here. Sure, I skinned my knee on the Amboy Crater. I scratched my leg on a rock during a hike in Joshua Tree. I've gotten a little sunburned. But no rattlesnakes have bitten me, no lightning has struck me and boiled my sap, no floods have washed me away, no winds have blown me away. All in all, I've gotten off pretty easy.

I thought today would be the end of that.

Today I drove back up to Mojave National Preserve to go deeper into the park than I had when I toured Mitchell Caverns and meandered towards Kelso Dunes. I stopped into Kelso Depot to check out the newly-restored railroad station, and asked the ranger for advice about what else to see. She gave me explicit instructions as to how to get to the Cima cinder cones (like the Amboy Crater) and the hiking trail to the lava tube, assuring me that my 2WD car and I by myself would be fine if we followed her instructions exactly.

Unfortunately, she didn't warn me about the parking area.

I drove up to and hiked the site without a hitch. I descended the stairs into the lava tube, looked at the dark crawl space, and opted not to do the "crab walk" that the ranger recommended and instead turn around and leave. When I got back to my car, really burning from the short volcanic walk, I shifted into reverse. And hit something. And couldn't move.

I hopped out of the car and inspected a pile of rocks that I had rumbled into. It didn't look so bad so I cleared most of them away and tried to drive again. My wheels spun on their own, spinning the loose dirt below into a blinding funnel cloud on the right side of my car. This couldn't be good.
I got back out and cleared more rocks. I tried using one of them to shovel away some of the sand that had built up around my front-right wheel. When that proved to be ineffectual, I used my manicured hands.

And I tried again. Reverse. Drive. Nothing made the car move.

I started to think about every TV show and every movie I'd seen where someone gets stuck in mud or snow. I put the car in Neutral and tried pushing it forward, pushing it backward. You hear these stories about an adrenaline rush giving a mother enough strength to lift a car off her child. I don't think it's true. I was pretty panicked and I couldn't budge the damn machine.

And then I did the worst thing you could possibly do: I gunned it.

Golden brown dirt sprayed all over my windshield, into the wiper gutter, onto the roof, and down the driver's side window.

But nothing moved other than the dirt.

I looked at the wheel and realized I'd burrowed so far into the dirt that I'd hit its compacted under layer, halfway to rock, immoveable by my delicate city hands. I started to cry.

I checked my cell phone: no signal.

I looked around and listened: no cars.

It was at least six miles back to the main road. I was certain to expire in that heat - even before noon - if I tried to walk it.

I cried some more and gasped out loud, "What am I going to do?"

Dirty hands on hips left light brown prints on my light blue t-shirt.

If I had been with someone, I probably would have been the calm one, the one making all the suggestions, the one saying we were going to be all right. But alone, I didn't feel all right.

The National Parks Service tells you all the time about how many people die out in the desert, but I was determined not to be one of those people. I got back in the car, whose interior was now smattered with brown handprints and a good all-over dusting. I turned the car on once again. As a last resort, I turned the wheel all the way in the other direction. And I felt something move.

Drunk with the feeling of rescue, I shifted into Reverse and barrelled backwards, over one of the rocks I couldn't remove. I was sobbing by now.

I left the dirt covering my forearms, hands and face, buried underneath my nails, until I could return down the dirt road to the main road - and therefore, in my mind, to safety. Desperation became relief. Tragedy faded into minor mishap, a close call.

It seems so silly now that something so innocuous and unassuming as a pile of volcanic rock could threaten me so. But sometimes it's those small obstacles in your blind spot that get you the worst.

Lucky for me, I kept trying. I didn't give up and wait in my car to be discovered, or walk away from it in hopes of finding help, surely dying of exposure in either scenario. I used up every last resort idea I had until something worked, because I believed that something would work.

I wish now I'd thought to take a photo of that buried wheel so I could remember it, analyze it, study it for the next time I get stuck in something. I guess if that happens, I'll just have to keep trying until something works.

For more photos of Mojave National Preserve, click here.

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