My historical novels Rebel Puritan and The Reputed Wife, Herodias (Long) Hicks Gardner Porter, colonial New England, travels, and whatever else seizes my fancy...

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Seven Bad Decisions, and We Lived to Tell the Tale

1995 landslide at Zion NP
I have been totally jammed up with decisions about my Rebel Puritan ebook, so while I finish a post about New England witchcraft, here is a travel tale:

Our friend Jerry said we were crazy to take a road trip above the Arctic Circle in the Northwest Territories. “You could have broken down and been stuck for a week.”  Since then I learned that you don’t have to drive 24,000 miles to get stuck.  It can happen much closer to home.

Friday, April 14th 1995:  This was an El Nino year, and southern Utah had 24” of rain by mid-April.  On the 14th we learn that there is a huge landslide at Zion National Park.  A swath 200 yards wide dammed the Virgin River and buried the road.  When the river overtopped the earthslide, it tore out both the blockage and the road.

Smithsonian Butte, Utah
We come to Zion anyway, and head for a favorite primitive campsite on Smithsonian Butte.  It’s beautiful red-rock land, used by mountain bikers and ranchers.  The rugged access road climbs over 1,000’ from the Virgin River, most of it in a half-mile that leaves me holding my breath.  This Horrible Hill is narrow, rocky, and rutted, with a long drop on the passenger side.  Signs warn that the Smithsonian Butte road is impassable when wet.

Solar halo
The evening sky is the color of skim milk, and there are two glowing rings around the sun.  I have never seen two haloes before – or since.  Later I read that a halo is caused by ice crystals in the atmosphere.  Lots of ice; caused by loads of moisture and very cold air aloft.  One halo is a fairly good indicator that rain is on the way.  To me, it is very pretty, and no more than that.  Now I wish I’d taken a photograph.

Saturday:  We are overjoyed to find that hikers can take the temporary road into Zion’s inner canyon today.  Richard and I have never experienced Zion Canyon without constant vehicle noise (though private traffic is largely barred now).  The swollen river’s roar dominates the canyon, and reflects weirdly from roadside boulders.  Warblers, grosbeaks, and flycatchers are migrating, and their songs fill the air when we get away from the river.

Angels Landing
Richard and I promenade down the road, watching Angel’s Landing get closer.  He can't resist climbing to the top of the Landing, so we trade his down coat for my lighter sweatshirt, and off he goes.

At the base of Angel’s Landing I munch my lunch and watch for peregrine falcons.  The clouds are thickening and a few light sprinkles dot the road as I turn back.  A ranger on a bike tells me that I should head back quickly because the temporary road is washing out.  At the landslide I am instructed to stay near the cliff and don’t stop for anything.  It’s another half hour until Richard returns after his 12-mile hike, with a 2,500’ climb thrown in.

The forecast calls for rain over the weekend, but we carry plenty of food and water in our pickup camper, so let it rain!  It’s supposed to turn sunny and warm on Monday and stay that way for the rest of the week.  Believing that optimistic forecast was our 1st bad decision, and we bounce up Horrible Hill to Smithsonian Butte.

About 10:00 pm we hear heavily amplified guitars and drums nearby.  Public lands are often used for target practice or loud parties, but this is the first garage band we’ve heard.  We joke for a while about the Rockville Rockers’ lack of talent, but if we want any sleep we must move.  A couple of miles deeper into the back country we find a level spot.  We can still hear the band, but we get to sleep as the first raindrops patter on the camper roof.

Sunday:  We stay in camp and I write several pages of manuscript for Rebel Puritan.  Despite the forecast of sun on Monday, it begins to rain late in the afternoon and continues most of the evening.  No problem – we stay warm and dry in our little camper.  This proves to be our 2nd bad decision: we didn’t leave when it started raining and we could still get down Horrible Hill.

Doesn't this look like fun?
Monday:  We wake to a surprise: 6” of snow.  I finally get up about 10:00 to build a snowman on the hood.  We spend much of the day under the quilts, working on respective writing projects.  The sky slowly clears and we dry our damp clothes on the hood.  By late afternoon the road is passable, but we decide to stay.  This is our 3rd bad decision, and by evening we know it.  It rains while I cook spaghetti and hot tea, and continues through the night.  Now we are both anxious about getting out tomorrow, because the road surface will be more like Vaseline than mud.  Neither of us get much sleep.

Tuesday:  Though it stops raining before dawn, the sky is choked with by dark clouds.  Richard walks the quarter-mile to the road.  A couple of vehicles go by and he thinks we’ll have no trouble driving.  Now we make our 4th bad decision: we decide to stay put because it’s supposed to be sunny for the rest of the week.

We have a NOAA weather radio, but can’t reach any station.  At 2:00 we idle the engine to charge the battery and listen to the only radio station we can reach; pop rock from St. George.  They have a new forecast – lots of rain and snow.  Really alarmed, we make bad decision #5 and decide to drive without checking the main road again.  We are fooled by the spur where we are parked, which is covered with bits of shale and quite drivable.

There are two ways to go when we get to the byway – Rockville is only 4 miles away, but we have the muddy Hill From Hell to navigate.  Not a great idea without a Sherman Tank.  The road south is a much longer drive – about 15 miles of gentle hills and flat sagebrush before we get to the paved highway – but it’s better than sliding off the Hill.

Our home for three days
We turn south and we fishtail through greasy mud.  Then we reach a dip where water has puddled, and the clay hasn’t dried out at all.  We slide uncontrollably to the low side of the road.  Putting branches under the tires for traction doesn’t help.  We aren’t dug in, but now we are stuck on a bad slant.

Now it’s clear that the “impassable when wet” signs are absolutely true.  The Hill From Hell is only one of the hazards on Smithsonian Butte; the other is fine volcanic clay that covers much of southern Utah.  It absorbs water like crazy and when saturated the locals describe it as axle grease or “slicker ‘n snot.”  At its worst, even 4WD vehicles come to a standstill

A local guy offers to pull us out, but this is our mistake #6.  His own truck can barely move, and he merely drags us 15-20’ further into the bog.  Our back tire slips over the edge of the road just as his improvised tow rope snaps.  Now only a blob of greasy clay the size of a watermelon keeps our truck from sliding down a 3’ embankment.

Our would-be savior offers to drive us out, but we decide to stay.  We have plenty of water and food, and don’t want to leave our truck to be stripped by looters.  He will come back in a couple of days to check on us, but casually mentions that he’s concerned about getting through “The Big Mudhole” ahead.  He will tell the BLM in St. George that we’re here, but there’s not much they can do, short of sending a helicopter.

With a folding Army shovel we dig water diversion channels around the truck.  The clay sticks to our feet in huge clods, and we stagger like drunks on ice skates.  The driving rain and sleet changes to snow; fat Christmas-card flakes which pile up fast.  The St. George pop station gives us another light and fluffy forecast.  A bit of rain today, but beautiful weather will arrive soon.  We also learn that they are selling tickets for a charity baseball game, and apparently don’t want to discourage fans.  We no longer believe the optimistic forecast and I cry while snow builds up on the windshield.

We stuff mud-caked footwear into bags and crawl into the camper, which slants footward at a ridiculous angle.  I build a shelf of laundry and spare clothing so I don’t roll down onto Richard.  We move cautiously, fearful that we could slide further off the road.  However, our last look out reveals stars among patchy clouds, and hope sends us to sleep.

Now this is fun - right?
Wednesday:  Richard finds a rock slab to use as a porch.  We stand on it to take off our boots, and stash our trash under a nearby bush to get it out of the way. Next we get the truck back onto the road.  While I hunt for flat rocks, Richard digs through the churned-up slime to drier, more solid ground. The clay won’t fall off the shovel so he scrapes it onto nearby bushes.  We shove sticks and rocks under the tires, then I drive and Richard pushes.  On the second try we get our rear tires on solid rock.  We build ramps, but only have enough rocks for a couple feet, so we drive, dig out the rocks, build more ramps, and drive again.  Soon we are back on the road and much more level.

Thursday:   It miraculously remains dry all night and we have a sunny morning.  The road is still very boggy where we have walked, but 30 yards ahead the surface is solid.  I tell Richard, “Hey, let’s get out of here now.”  He is oddly reluctant, and I argue that it’s insane to wait any longer.  But Richard’s back is sore, and he fears getting stuck in “The Big Mudhole” we heard about.

He won’t yield, and that’s probably the worst bad decision #7 of this entire debacle.  I wait in the front seat until time to turn the engine on and listen to the radio.  At 11:30 big gray clouds swoop in from the southeast, the ceiling lowers and a few big drips plop onto the windshield.  I grip the steering wheel as I stare ahead at the beckoning road.

The 12:30 forecast is horrifying.  The next major winter storm will get here this afternoon, with very dangerous conditions, especially in the high country – exactly where we are sitting.  The giggly DJ has “lost” the extended forecast but she’s sure the weather will be great on the weekend for the benefit baseball game.

I tearfully tell Richard that we are leaving now.  I can’t stay here another week and we’re getting low on water.  We decide to move a few feet to see how hard it will be to get out of the churned-up mess that surrounds us.  Out comes the shovel for more rock ramp work.  It’s drizzling, and there is heavy rain off to the north and east.

I drive, Richard pushes, and though we slither another inch toward the edge, we gain two feet and the road is getting firmer.  On our second try I find enough rocks to build roadway for both front and back tires.  We gain another three feet, and specially angled ramps move us another foot away from the edge.  Our third set of ramps reach the end of the slimy zone, and Richard cautions me to drive only to the end of the rocks.  However, one of the tires bounces over a rock and the truck lands rolling.  We effortlessly bound twenty feet toward freedom, as though our Ford is also anxious to get out of here.

We whoop in delight, collect shovel and trash stash, and heave the biggest rocks off the road.  I lived in upstate New York where 100” of snow is considered an “easy winter,” so with my bad-road experience, I do the driving.

At the crest of the first hill we look anxiously into the dip, wondering whether we can get through the puddle at the bottom.  Splash through easily, and on to the next dip.  The puddles get bigger but I get more confident, and barely pause for a look at the third dip.  We aren’t sure which is the true Big Mudhole, but it gives us no trouble.  This is getting to be fun!  Still, I am nervous enough that I’m sweating and ask Richard to dry my eyeglasses several times.

The last section of the road crosses a sagebrush plain, and proves to be the most treacherous part.  The truck fishtails like a fire hose with nobody holding it.  We stop at cattle guard with monstrous puddles on both ends.  A slip here could leave us hung up or bashed, and we want a good look before driving over.

4WD truck stops behind us, and the driver promises to pull us out if we get stuck.  There really is a bottom to the ponds on either side of the guard, but I slip and slide worse than ever trying to keep up with our savior.  I don’t want to lose him, no matter what!  Ahead we see the Promised Land; paved highway with cars and trucks rolling along free and easy.

Free at Last!
We finally hit pavement just as it starts pouring.  Behind us the sky is blanked out by hard rain.  If we had delayed another 30 minutes, we’d have been there another week, drinking muddy meltwater from the ditches.

People get stuck on Utah’s back roads all the time, sometimes with fatal outcomes.  While Richard and I were bemired on Smithsonian Butte we were uncomfortable, bored, annoyed, and occasionally frantic, but we were never in serious trouble.

Whenever we travel in the backcountry, we always carry eight gallons of water, enough canned food to last a couple of weeks, and our Army shovel proved invaluable in 1995.  We always have more than enough warm bedding and clothes.  But now Richard and I pay better attention to weather forecasts and don’t believe everything we hear, especially from radio stations trying to sell baseball tickets. 

Photo Credits:

Personal photo collection
Halo -

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