Genesis of Trouble
We started the 33rd day of our family road trip with plans for a casual, 400-plus mile “driving day” from Barstow, California to Sedona, Arizona. We deliberately stayed in Barstow because it is strategically located in the southwestern chin of the picturesque Mojave Desert in California, which I wanted to videotape and photograph.
After consulting our map, we skipped the shorter route that goes east through I-40 and instead chose the more beautiful I-15 road that leads to Los Vegas so we could cut south through Kelbaker Road to the very center of the Mojave.
For the Love of Video
Throughout the trip I’ve been using a special camera to take 160-degree, wide-angle videos of the road atop the PapiMobile so when got to a place in the very middle of the Mojave Desert called Kelso I asked my wife to pull off the road temporarily so I start capturing the video. About 15 feet off the two-lane road, our car began to slip in the powdery sand of the Mojave.
Fearing the vehicle would lose traction, Angela put the Buick Enclave in reverse. The car moved back about five feet before it stopped moving again. My wife then put the car in drive but the front wheels just seemed to be going in circles.
“Stop. Don’t do anything else,” I told Angela. “Let me get off to see what’s happening.”
The four tires were slightly embedded in the sand.
“Put it in reverse and give it some gas,” I told her.
Angela put the car in reverse, stepping on the pedal to see if by going faster in reverse it would dislodge from the sand, propelling the car out of the small hole it was stuck in. As soon my wife pressed the gas pedal, the tires began to throw sand around so violently that it looked like smoke was engulfing the front of the vehicle. Instead of moving the car backward, the car’s front tires had buried themselves in the sand deep enought that the car was now tilting forward.
“Here we go again,” said my son Jonathan.
Inventing a Way Out
The first thing you should know about getting stranded in the center of the Mojave Desert is that it’s a very remote place with zero phone reception. Neither of the major wireless carriers we use had any signal and even OnStar, the most reliable tech system you could ever have to rescue you from such a dilemma, was unavailable in the Mojave.
The crazy part of this ordeal is that our car was only a few feet off the road we should have stayed on. We were RIGHT THERE, just 10 or so feet from the road but whatever few cars drove by wouldn’t be able to easily see us because they go by quickly and most of their view is obstructed by bushes and other desert stuff.
With no traction to drive and no phone reception to call for help, my wife and I decided to try to dig the car out of the sand with our children’s plastic beach buckets.
In the midst of a sweltering sun I dug sand out of the right tire of the car while my wife worked on the left. After a couple of minutes I got the smart idea of recruiting my son to continue digging for me so I could search for large rocks. Our escape plan was to dig the car out of the sand and have large rocks serve as pavers for the tires to get the traction they needed to drive in reverse.
The dry heat was beating the bleep out of us as I frantically searched for rocks wearing sandals in an area known for Rattle Snakes and my lips got chapped. My wife and son looked like a mess.
The more I thought about our escape plan, the more I wasn’t sure it would work. It would take about 100 or more good-sized, heavy rocks to create a potentially decent pavement for the car and even then there was no guarantee this would work. I decided to go to the road and see if a car would stop to take us to the nearest town for help. While I did this my wife and son kept digging sand out.
The Good Samaritan
In order not to get run over I got in the middle of the road and began waving at cars from a long distance. I didn’t want them to think I was a hitchhiker so I created a sophisticated two hand wave that showed the sign of stop and see. A couple cars passed right past me until a red 4×4 turned around.
The red truck drove into the sand slowly (I thought he would get stuck) and no sooner had the man looked at what we were trying to do with the sand and the stones that he said, “that ain’t gonna work.”
“Do you have any rope or something so I can pull you out through the back?”
The Good Samaritan looked in his truck and found some nylon cords with hooks, which he promptly put in the back fender area. The plan (this is the fourth escape plan, in case you’re counting) was for him to connect the cable to his truck so he can pull the Enclave out of the sand while we gave the car some gas in reverse.
The Good Samaritan started pulling the PapiMobile while I applied some speed. The car moved back an inch before a giant POP marked the end of this experiment. As I got off to see the car, my wife had the face of horror.
The car not only had not budged an inch but now it had an ugly dent in the trunk door that also created a bullet-looking hole.
Our Good Samaritan was frustrated and even half upset with himself so I decided to thank him and send him on his way. I would seek someone else to drive Angela or me to get help.
Police Come to the Rescue
Minutes after I went back to hitchhiking for help I flagged down a police officer who saw me through his rearview mirror.
The officer smirked knowingly as he saw the mess we had gotten into.
“You’re lucky,” he said. “Some people have died in this desert because they’ve stayed stranded in areas that were far off the highway and they didn’t have enough fluids.”
“I think we need a tower,” I said.
“No, I might be able to get you out of this,” the officer said as he boarded the PapiMobile. “This has happened to me.”
The officer tried to “rock” the car out of the hole by driving forward and backward slowly but immediately realized the wheels had zero traction in both direction. He might as well have driven in the air.
“Ok, you do need a tower.”
The officer radioed for a tow truck and took my wife and kids in the back of his cruiser to the nearby town of Kelso while I applied plenty of lip balm, drank water and waited in the PapiMobile for the tower.
Our Only Hope: A Tow Truck
When our tower arrived, a Hispanic guy named David, he immediately noticed the large Buick magnets we had on the front doors of the car and he me about the PapiBlogger family road trip.
“What we did today is really stupid, right?”, I asked.
David stayed quiet for a second and said, “it’s happened to others. Not that much but it happens. You’re lucky you have great weather today. (It was 103F). It can be 115F and 120F here easily.”
It took the tower about 15 minutes to get the car out and only that long because he had to tie everything carefully and pull it out of the desert slowly.
Now They Tell Us!
If we had stopped in the visitors center at Kelso, as my wife had suggested before we got stuck, we would have found a pamphlet about driving on the desert. The pamphlet had specific tips on what we should have done and it turns out that POINT BY POINT we did the complete OPPOSITE of what we should have done.
The content of this wonderful brochure is today’s Disney Travel Tip of the Day.
Travel Tip of the Day (Dirt Road Driving)
Be sure to carry plenty of drinking water and emergency supplies.
Engage four-wheel drive before entering deep sand or mud.
Don’t gun the engine – this will spin the tires, dig you in deeper, and could bury your vehicle to the frame. Smooth, easy power is better than too much power; use low gearing and just enough throttle to maintain forward movement.
If you detect a loss of traction, turn the steering wheel rapidly from side-to-side – this might help to generate traction.
If your vehicle gets stuck, place solid materials (such as floor matts) under the tire to provide traction.
If you’re really stuck, it’s best to stay with your vehicle. A stationary, stranded vehicle is much easier to locate than a person traveling on foot. Avoid strenuous activity during the heat of the day, stay in the shade of your vehicle.
These two are not in this list but are good to add:
Ensure that your vehicle is in good condition: check tires, oil and gas gauge.
For emergencies, carry tools, tire jack, towrope, extra water and fluids for your vehicle.