In my previous travelogue I relayed what started out as a fairly mundane first day of travel across the desert and ended in a harrowing “I’m stuck in the desert and I can’t get up” near tragedy. This post is an overly melodramatic and only mildly fictionalized accounting of those hours in Lordsburg, New Mexico.
As I neared the bottom of the valley I saw my opportunity, and none too soon, the sand on the last 20 yards or so had left my car with “no traction warnings” as I slid helplessly in the sand, but at the bottom there was my chance, a fairly wide open spot on what looked like decently packed stone in the wash next to where the road headed sharply back up the other side. I came to a stop. The ground was mostly solid. So far so good. But I was going to have to do a three point turn as quick as possible through that insanely thick sand. I got out plotted my course of action, got back in, breathed heavily and gunned it. I managed to get mostly turned around on the first move. Now all that remained was another 90 degrees as I pulled forward and headed as fast I could into the same 20 yards of loose sand.
I took another deep breath and hit it. Vrroooom, KRKKGGGKKK. I was stopped with a loud dragging scraping noise. I hadn’t moved two feet. I slowly attempted to back up hoping to not dig myself into the sand. Nothing. Forward. Nothing. What the $*x%x?
I chuckled to myself. The thought of getting stuck had repeatedly crossed my mind over the previous dark mile, but I kept telling myself that only happened in the movies. I was not going to get stuck. And there I sat, stuck, and laughing. Unable to move my car, I still refused to believe I was actually in any serious predicament, and casually took a swig of water and ate some potato chips I had picked up at the gas station at that first exit just inside Lordsburg.
In retrospect, I should have thought better of staying in Lordsburg because of that gas station stop. As I entered Lordsburg I needed to use the restroom and wanted to take a moment to review the directions to my “free” campsite. The attendant at the station couldn’t have been anymore displeased to see me. When I asked where the restroom was he just grunted and scowled. Welcome to Lordsburg. I try to not to be judgmental (well not really, but I try not to hold my judgments very long ;) but in this case I came to realize he might have been an accurate ambassador for the town.
I would have asked him for directions and advice on finding my campsite but he was so unpleasant I just paid for my chips and ignored him, looking forward to sitting down in front of my tent with my Smirnoff Ice and having a snack before getting some much needed sleep. While I sat in my car he drug wet floor signs in front of the entrance, locked the doors, and wedged a hand scrawled closed sign into the door that fell down as he turned his back to go run an illegal dog fight in the back room or something. Determined in my clouded haze of sleepiness to find my temporary home, I reread the directions, plotted my course on Google maps, and headed off into the wilds north of Lordsburg.
And a half hour later I found myself stuck 20+ miles out of town.
I stepped out of the car to assess the situation. At worst, I thought, I had scraped a rock, gottenstuck in the loose sand at the bottom of the valley, and would simply need to do a little digging, stick a couple of rocks behind my tire and continue turning around thus freeing myself from the valley.
Walking around the car I could see nothing apparently wrong in the moonlight. I cursed my friend who failed to return my flashlight, but simply pulled out the Pelican 9430 remote area lighting unit from my car. I fired up the LED powerhouse and laughed again. I continued to refuse that the situation was severe despite the fact that my car was grounded atop a boulder sticking out of the ground. No fluids were leaking out, the car appeared to be resting undamaged on the frame, and I had nearly three gallons of water and a carful of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
So in true pioneer spirit I determined to free myself. I quickly planned to jack the car up far enough that I could rock the car and tip the jack over landing my car just free of the rock. At this point I was still finding the whole situation quite humorous talking out loud to myself as if the whole thing were some sort of amusing narrative being shared on my reality show.
I would raise the car a few inches, hunt the surrounding area for largish flat rocks to place under the front and behind the driver side tire, occasionally telling myself with confidence that ‘I could do this’, and repeated the process until I managed to get the car nearly to the extent of the cheap OEM jack’s maximum height some 45 minutes or so later. I was awash in blue light as dawn appeared over the horizon. I concluded that I could probably get a few more inches out of the jack, but before I made even a couple more cranks, I could see the jack starting to move slightly, and not in the direction I wanted it to go. That was it, now or never.
Scrambling quickly to the front of the car, glancing quickly to ensure the car was out of gear and parking break off, I got as good a footing I could achieve in the loose sand, took yet another deep breath, gave the car one small nudge forward to start the car rocking, and then PUSHED with all my might.
The car lurched backwards with two unpleasant resulting sounds. One was a shorter KKGRKsound not unlike the one I heard in the first place, and the second a strange metallic sound. Stepping back to the driver side it was immediately evident that I had bent the jack into an unusable twisted hunk of metal. Damn.
I stared dumbfounded at my car. Despite the unpleasant appearance of the jack I held out hope. Kneeling down and readjusting the light, I discovered that the car had indeed moved a decent distance but had not entirely cleared the rock. However, it looked as though the car was no longer entirely resting on the rock but just touching it. Save the jack breaking one more attempt of the same maneuver would have likely set me free and been a great ego boost.
Now I banked on the rock runway I had built behind my tires where my car now rested to give me enough traction to back out. Though I feared that just my weight getting back in the car would be too much. Before I could do anything though I had to remove the broken jack now firmly wedged in place, which fortunately still turned enough for me to loose it. Now I guessed that the best thing I could do was start the car, put it in reverse, and gun it.
Deep breath, and VVVRROOM…nothing but the sound of spinning tires, flying sand, and the feeling of my car lowering itself back onto the rock.
The car hadn’t moved at all and my rock runway was now tossed out in front the car. At this point I began to finally consider that my situation might be slightly more than a casual inconvenience.
Considering my exertions thus far I took a break for water and a relaxing cigarette while calculating my next move. Perhaps now it was loose enough that I could rock it off. No luck. Checked my cell phone. No service. I couldn’t remember exactly when I had lost service on the way out, but I guessed that it couldn’t have been more than a mile. So now with the early morning light fully upon me I decided gearing up and heading out on my mountain bike to find cell service and locate help was the only realistic solution.
I packed a backpack with a couple of sandwiches, a notebook and pen for notes while calling for help, my wallet, and cellphone. I refilled my water bottles and headed out. On the drive to my current situation between asking myself if this was such a smart idea, I had fantasized about sleeping under the stars, waking up, having brisk ride, and then moving on. Little did I know that was all going to happen excepting the sleeping part.
So I headed out on my ride, marveling at the view, but mostly the condition of the roads. As I began, I felt strong and oblivious to my lack of sleep. With each hill I climbed, I would pull out my cell phone and check…no service. Next hill, no service, and more tired. Next bend, no service, more tired. My checks became fewer and less frequent and concern for my stamina increasing. Finally I made it to the first turn at the county road intersection convinced that this was it, I would call 411, get the number for the police, get a phone number for the local guy who is always pulling visitors out of the desert, and return to my car to sit in air conditioning and relax while help arrived.
It became evident I was going all the way back to the main road. The only saving grace being that the next road was much more level and consisted of fully solid ground if a little wind rutted. Four and a half miles later I arrived back at route 264, about 18 miles from where I started hours before, but now in a far more delirious state.
I pulled out the phone. No Service.
Here I found myself frustrated and exhausted. After a short break, and not feeling quite right, I decided to walk for a bit before getting back on the bike. Less than a mile and who knows how long later I heard a car coming up behind me. This was it. Help had arrived. I turned and began waving. The car didn’t even slow down. I wondered if I hadn’t waved seriously enough, frenetically enough, concerned enough. I was so tired I wondered if I just didn’t want to find help enough.
Now what? I was really beginning to hate Lordsburg. Committed to my cause I climbed back onto the bike with renewed determination imagining the Hallmark Channel true story made-for-tv movie that would be made describing my bravery in the face of death. I passed another mile marker. Check…no service. Another…check…and another…check…another…no service. Frustration at my stupidity growing with every mile marker. Why didn’t I just camp with the cattle on that nice flat spot? Why didn’t I just find a pay campground earlier? Why did I wait till the last minute to try and find hosts on CouchSurfing? Why did I leave on this entire trip with such haste?
A house. There it was, a house, some kind of ranch I hadn’t seen in the dark the night before. Six miles later, exhausted, and really not thinking clearly I sheepishly made my way to the driveway. What time is it? Would they be awake? Would they have a phone? Were they a crazed family of murderers from a Rob Zombie film?
I stopped to rest for a moment while I pondered somehow getting past their locked gate. They clearly weren’t expecting random visitors. I pulled out my phone.
SERVICE! Woohoo! I was saved.
Then I noticed for the first time I was down to one bar of battery, with memories of not charging the phone for the last couple hours of driving, and the painful realization that I must have left Google maps running on the phone constantly attempting to reconnect for data and had completely drained my batteries. It was a pleasant irony that I did not fully appreciate at the time, reaching cell coverage, running out battery, but right in front of a house.
Attempting to maximize whatever use my cell phone might offer before bothering the folks at the ranch I immediately dialed 411, wondering how much that would cost, beating myself up for not adding Google 411 to my contact list, unwilling to dial several guesses before I got it right. I asked for the non-emergency number to the Lordsburg police, wondering if my situation could be considered an emergency to speed things up. I dialed the police station to no avail, endless ringing. They were probably enjoying the dog fights at the gas station.
Yet I stood there dumbfounded and paranoid staring at the locked gate that stood between me and escaping the desert. By then the heat was rising, the sun more direct, and me aware that I wasn’t going to die out there, but beginning to get a sense of what it might feel like had I been a little less prepared.
Then a car appeared on the horizon. This time I wasn’t about to let them pass. I stood in the road waving both arms madly. A little old lady pulled up in a slightly rusted Oldsmobile from a previous decade. The woman nervously stopped a few yards before my position, clearly nervous, cracking her window open.
“Excuse me ma’am, I am a little embarrassed to say this, but I’ve gotten my car stuck over on theBLM land,” with a gesture back where I had come. As I spoke I realized I was far less coherent than I would have liked to deal with this situation, unsure if the words were coming out in complete sentences.
She wringed her hand s on the steering wheel, occasionally throwing them in the air. She spoke slow and nervous, “Well, I don’t know what…I’m late to get this car into the shop. I’m on my way there now. We’ve got to be there fifteen minutes ago. I don’t know what you want me to do.”
“I apologize ma’am but my car is stuck, I don’t know who to call. I tried the police and there was no answer.”
“I don’t know, I mean I’m on my way to the mechanic, and I’m late and I don’t know what I could do.
Seriously? Was she serious? Not exactly the small town helpful attitude I was hoping for. Where were Andy Griffen and Aunt Bea? Exhausted, it took an awkward moment for me to make sense of what was happening. “Mechanic…you are going to a garage? Can I give you my phone number and you can give it to the mechanic. Just tell him my car is stuck and I need him to call me.”
“I don’t know…I guess…” I couldn’t believe it, she was honestly hemming and hawing over something as basic as accepting a piece of paper and handing it to someone, “I’m late and I don’t know what I could do,” despite the fact that I just told her what she could do, “…well alright, but you better hurry up I’m late.”
I scrambled for my backback and notebook like a cast away who discovered fresh water on a deserted island. She accepted the note through her cracked window as if it were a dead animal. “I don’t know what he’s going to do with this, but alright,” now she was having doubts about whether other people would want or care to help me, and as I thought we were done she started up again as if she weren’t going to deliver it, “I don’t know. Aren’t these people home,” pointing at the ranch behind the locked gate that I was beginning to have serious doubts about approaching after this unpleasant experience. But as she made that statement I turned to look at the ranch, and as if on cue an all terrain multi-wheeled vehicle crept down the long driveway with several people in the open cab. Well I’ll be damned.
As the driver unlocked the gate and pulled toward us the woman in the car thrust the piece of paper back at me through the window, “Here give this to them. They might know what to do with it. Them’s the Miller’s and they are good people, you tell ‘em Kate Cooperson says to help you. I don’t know what I’d do with this,” and she drove off obviously grateful to be free of the dirty stranger on the side of the road.
With no other choice I timidly approached the dune buggy like vehicle. In the bench seat sat a man in his mid-forties cowboy hat and casual ranch attire topped off with mirrored sunglasses, next to him a young boy dressed the same but with a bolo tie instead of the sunglasses and a slightly more formal western outfit, and a younger girl who sat in her mother’s lap. The family stared straight ahead avoiding eye contact except for the father.
I explained the situation just as I had to Kate who was pulling away and returning a curt nod and wave from the man with a pleasant smile I wouldn’t have guessed her capable. The man listened, saying nothing, his family staring forward deadpan, taking in every word with a grim seriousness.
He nodded his head slightly as his face contorted in a subtle grimace. “What were you doing out there?” Accusing and matter of fact.
“I was looking for a campsite in a book my sister gave me,” why did I say that? You were just looking for a campsite, regardless of how or why.
“When was that?” As if it somehow made a difference.
“Around 4 in the morning. A real dumb maneuver,” again with too much information, but I noticed I had begun speaking slowly with an accent on top of all else.
The man nodded again this time with a slight smile that could have meant anything. “Well…,” oh no, not again, “I’ve got some stuff to take care of right now,” seriously about to blow me off, “but I guess if you are around when I get back I could maybe help you out.”
“I don’t mean to put you all out. I just need an idea of who to call and my cellphone is dying and I haven’t slept in 24 hours,” rambling and aware of it I had begun to feel like the dirty hippy and possible pedophile the blank stares on the family face in front of me seemed to accuse.
“Well, I guess you could call Mark down at the Chevy place,” in a slow metered pace like there was a metronome clicking off at 60 beats per second in his head, “At least I think it’s still a Chevy dealer, things what they are who knows these days.”
He gave me the number that he knew off the top of his head and then offered his cell number just in case. I thanked them and they pulled away heading down the road in the direction of Kate, the town, and hopefully a tow truck.
As I began to dial the maybe Chevy dealer, I saw that my battery was flashing red and I began to panic. The phone rang several times, “Yep, Mark speaking,” extremely professional in the same slow drawl of Mr. Miller. I began spitting out the entirety of my story for the third time desperation in every broken phrase and description. “I am at mile marker ten…my car is stuck…between two hills out CRA0124 I think…battery running low…unsure of water supply…might be dinosaurs hunting me…”
“Woah, woah, slow down sir. So you say you are where?”
“Out route 264 I believe,” I honestly couldn’t remember exactly and my patience was wearing thin from the anxiety rising in me as fast as my batteries power was falling.
“So you were on your way to Duncan and your car broke down.”
“I don’t know where Dugan is, and no my car is fine, just stuck on a rock out CRA0127 and down CRA014 I think it is, the turnoff from 264 said Fuller road.”
“Woah, I’m trying to figure out exactly where you are so we can find you,” which I thought I was describing fairly accurately, “So you say you are on your way to Deacon?”
I was unsure what was happening, what the man was saying, or how knowing my proximity to Dover mattered, but with every passing second and every woah he said I became more and more stressed out.
“Alright, I’ve got to talk to the boss. I’ll call you back when we’ve figured something out.”
“Sir my phone is dying and I’m not sure how much longer the battery is going to last, I am at mile marker 10 on the 264…”
“Woah, alright, turn your phone off and I’ll call you back in ten minutes exactly.”
So I did. I then realized I had no other time keeping device besides the phone, so I lit a cigarette to time out 5 to 7 minutes before powering the phone back up, hoping beyond hope that it would last. Instead of going back to the main screen the phone came up to an alert for a new voice message. Damnit, the guy had called back way before 10 minutes had elapsed.
His message indicated that it would cost $85 to pull me out and to call him to let him know I wanted to do it. As I dialed the number the phone went blank and I felt defeated. Great. That was it. I was going to die out there. Somewhere around mile marker 12 or 13 I had seen a complete cow skeleton bleached perfect white in the sun almost cartoonish in it’s dimensions and arrangement. I imagined my fate would be similar. The Miller’s driving by bare bones everyday for years to come as they headed out down the road to do whatever it was they did as a family in their 12 wheeled dune buggy tank thing.
I stared into space and then noticed a small stray herd of cattle had appeared across and down the road a hundred yards or so. I recall talking to them a bit, probably about dying or where the nearest wifi spot was when I spotted a vehicle returning up the road from where the Miller’s and Kate had vanished leaving me to die.
It was the Miller’s returned probably from checking up on the other stranded drivers they had found and keep in a shed somewhere. They cruised slowly into view, the boy now standing in the back of the vehicle hanging onto the roll bar and all I could think was how there was no way you could do that in California without getting a ticket. They pulled off the road before they reached me to visit the cattle I had just been talking with. I could hear them in friendly overjoyed voiced, “Hey Bessie. Hey Frankie. How are you? What are you doing,” with lilted tones like you would use with the family pet. Then they headed back towards their ranch. I met them in the road in case they decided to drive by without saying hello.
The family now stared forward, zombie cowboys that wanted to eat my brain, while the father looked at me only slightly less suspicious than before. “Well, did you get a hold of Mark?”
“Yes sir, I sure did, but unfortunately my phone died before we could make arrangements. He said it would be $85 and I should call him back,” attempting to keep the unintentionally affected drawl from my voice.
“$85,” incredulous. “You sure that’s what you want to do?”
What I wanted to do? What I wanted? None of this was what I wanted. What I wanted was to stumble upon the Miller ranch where they would invite me in, offer me a shower and I would step out to discover my very own cowboy outfit with cowboy boots and 10 gallon cowboy hat and they would invite me down to a massive cowboy breakfast and take me horseback riding and maybe do some shooting out on the far side of the ranch where the deer were plentiful and beautiful natives threw themselves at you begging for you to take them away to your steel teepee in the city.
What I wanted to do? What hell kind of question was that? As if Mr. Miller’s weak half offer to help me sounded like a serious one. If you want to help me, say so, and help me.
“Well sir, I’m sure you all have better things to do than worry someone like me. I don’t mind paying, but my phone died and I sure would appreciate it if you all could let me use your phone or if you could just call Mark and let him know that I would like to accept his offer.”
Stoic, Mr. Miller pulled a cellphone from his breast pocket and dialed. “Hey Mark, it’s Larry…Larry…out…yeah Larry. I’ve got that fella here that called you and he wants you to send a guy out. He’s right at the entrance where you turn in…to my place…”
I looked on helpless, the mom broke form and looked directly at me without smiling for at least half a second before Mr. Miller broke in, “They’re gonna send a man out. They’re good people and they will treat you right, well apart from charging you $85.”
Well thank you for making me feel like an idiot and making your offer to help me for me so clear and inviting. Not to mention based on the half of the conversation I could hear I wondered if anybody at the Chevy dealer even knew who this guy was.
“Thank you all very much. I much appreciate your help and hope you find your day well.” And with that they were off in the direction of CRA0127 and my car.
The sun was getting high now and it finally occurred to me that I hadn’t put sunscreen on since Yuma what seemed like a week before. I looked around for shade and headed for my best choice, a spindly bush 3 feet tall, and I plunked myself down like a refugee in the meager approximation of shade. I ate a sandwich and made sure to stay hydrated, wishing I had worn my hat.
Less than a half hour later I watched as a pickup truck zoomed by and then turned around a few hundred yards away. A Mexican fellow pulled up and said, “My boss said you had a dirt bike,” making revving gestures with his hands.
“If I had a dirt bike I would have rode all the way into town,” trying not to sound like a jerk mimicking the revving hand gesture as if that would prove that I was welcome in the local tribe. I threw my bike in the back of the truck and we were off.
Within no time we were down the first dirt road coming up on the storage tank acting as landmark to the crossroad onto CRA0124. The storage tank was actually part of the directions in the free camping book my sister had given me. An hour earlier when I had rolled by on my back I saw that someone had spray painted, ‘you will be missed,’ on the side of the tank. I relayed my thoughts of feeling as though I was in a horror movie when I saw that the first time on my bike. I’m not sure if he was amused or not.
The driver was friendly enough however, he kept telling me how beautiful it was out there, that there was a lake and I would have loved it. Making our way farther and farther out, riding in the pickup truck somehow made the road seem even more ridiculous and treacherous, every clang, crash, bang, and bumping jolt over rocks, divots, deep ruts, wash banks, and small canyons reinforcing how absurd my attempt to drive out there was. But the driver kept saying how I almost made it, you were probably almost there, if you hadn’t stopped there you would have made it, I’ve never seen a car come out this far, you would have loved the lake, we usually park the cars there by the cattle guard and everybody gets into the back of a pickup.
And as my car came into sight, even the massive pickup truck struggled and I wondered if it would even be able to pull me out. But the driver, though casual and mellow, hooked me up with a spanset and chain in no time flat like a real pro. He told me to get in the car start it up and have it in reverse ready to help him as soon it came off the rock.
Seconds and one last awful scraping noise later my car was free and part way up the opposite hill to give some runway before attempting the return trip. He unhooked and drove up to turn around. I gunned it and slipped and slid with my traction system blinking “no traction” off and on.
But I made it past the worst of it, to the top of the biggest hill I would have to contend with. From here it was just a question of whether my suspension could withstand the beating of the remainder of the road. I did my best to choose the best line down the road, better than I did on the way in, plants occasionally scraping down the side of my car as I avoided large ruts and rocks.
And ultimately we made it out and I followed the guy back to the Chevy dealer in town to pay and say thank you. I walked into the lobby of the dealership that appeared somewhat abandoned and pulled myself a glass of water from the dispenser into one of those nifty cone shaped cups when I saw a man smoking behind a parts counter farther back. No one greeted me or even looked at me as best I could tell.
I made my way to the counter and the smoking man, who still didn’t look at me, but mumbled out of the corner of his mouth not holding the dangling cigarette, “This the guy?”
He pushed a piece of paper across the counter toward me. I said hello with no response. I looked down at the paper. As I did so the man started mumbling something that was presumably directed at me.
“It was 11 miles. Yeah. Thought it was 10. Grunt grunt…”
The paper on the counter, the invoice, my bill, had a total of $141. “I’m sorry but you said it would be $85.”
“11 miles, both ways. You said 10.”
Like this guy doesn’t live around here and doesn’t know where route 264 is, that if I am at mile marker 10 I am over 10 miles out of town, that my car wasn’t where I was, that it was farther.
“It’s just that we agreed to $85,” though I began to remember that I never actually agreed to anything, Mr. Miller did it for me, but they could have been in collusion, speaking in code, conspiring to split the money. And he said these were good people. We hadn’t agreed to anything.
“Yeah well, the boss said I had to do this,” still mumbling indirectly and smoking a cigarette he never removed from his mouth. “You want to talk to the boss?”
I reviewed the invoice. Hookup fee $77. Mileage fee $99. Gas surcharge fee $999. Screw the non-local fee $1999. Plus tax. $5. The bill didn’t make any sense. I mean the numbers that were there added up, but I just saw very odd numbers that didn’t seem to apply to anything.
“I’m sorry but I don’t even see with a different mileage how this could have ever come to a total of $85.” The man pulled the paper back across the counter continuing to mumble while scribbling in tiny print more random numbers @ 11 with equal signs pointing at the stuff he had already written.
I was becoming more and more furious exacerbating my already exhausted frustrated frame of mind. I made some more incoherent and steadily more aggressive arguments that this bill made no sense, but never really connected that the number 11 was what made no sense. I know he said 11 miles both ways. But that is absurd. My car was more than 20 miles out. Just getting to me at mile marker 10 was probably 12 miles from the shop. There was no number 11 at any point in my entire escapade, and yet he kept mumbling it and did obscure math in Cuneiform on my invoice to back it up.
Reaching final exhaustion and fearful of what might happen to me in this town if I fully expressed what I thought about the situation I just handed over my credit card, scribbled my signature in violent swirls onto dotted lines the man indicated with shrugs of his cigarette and stormed angrily out the door. I didn’t say thank you. That would show him.
I got into my car furious, now resolved to get out of that town as quickly as possible. As I located a gas station to use the restroom and wash-up a bit, I came across many cheap motels, in fact every motel regardless of how nice or shabby appeared to be in the same $20 to $30 a night price range, but there was no way in hell I was spending another day in this town even if it were free. Finally just before the freeway entrance I found a gas station.
I washed up as best I could for quite some time and sort of stumbled out of the bathroom back through the store back to my car. The rational part of my brain warned me that I shouldn’t be driving. But I responded to myself, “I just need to brush my teeth and I will be fine.” So I pulled out my Sonicare, a water bottle and my toothpaste and proceeded to brush right there in the parking lot like a madman. While brushing I saw the broken jack sitting in my back seat sticking its broken foot out at me and laughing so I yanked it from the front seat and stumbled to the trash can at the entrance to the store and threw it away with a flourish, families staring on wide-eyed as I stumble back to my car spitting and rinsing as I made my back to the car.
All freshened up and unburdened from bad breath, a broken jack, or any new-found healthy relationships I might regret leaving behind, I pulled onto the interstate, turned on cruise control and spent the next two hours loathing everything about Lordsburg.