It sounded simple enough. “I should be back by early evening,” I reasoned to myself. When I was checked out at the local BLM office and issued a radio and signed a bunch of papers, Ron Pierce, the BLM official, casually mentioned that the bus and myself were now the property of the U.S. Government and we could be sent anywhere in the world.
We sort of laughed it off but in the pit of the stomach I knew that could totally happen. I had been in the U.S. Army long enough to know how the government works.
After bouncing around on the maze of roads that exists in the Book Cliffs with the school bus, I finally met up with the 20-person hand crew who were summoned to Utah from the Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho — as abruptly as I was. They were called up to help fight the San Arroyo Fire, which was located near the Utah/Colorado border. But by the time I arrived, plans had changed. We were to spend the night at the Westwater Ranger Station and return to a new adjacent blaze, the Bitter Creek Fire, located eight miles north of I-70 instead of going to San Juan County where four more new fires had started.
At any rate, those few hours on that Wednesday afternoon turned into seven miserable hot, windy days, using a borrowed sleeping bag and no toiletries. I remember my appreciation for those simple little things in life when they weren’t available like cool water, warm food, soft bed and a toothbrush. But it was also surprising how refreshing the water became, how good the MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) tasted and I eventually got a pretty good night’s sleep on the seats of the school bus. But my personal vow back then was to trust my instincts and be better prepared for similar situations in the future.
Just over a week ago, a friend was relating a dilemma he was in of how to get his pickup truck and trailer out of the Dark Canyon area of San Juan County. It seems that he spent a week camping with relatives around the Ruin Park area where they were visiting and photographing the numerous ancient American ruins that are located there. On the last day they decided to take a shortcut out but soon found the road to be rough — like Jeep Safari trails rough. He unhooked the trailer after it became stuck then a short distance later got the pickup stuck so he unloaded the utility vehicle from the trailer and made it to the Needles Outpost where he called for a ride home.
The following Friday four of us, Richard Williams, Rick Wolcott, DeVon Parson and myself in a Jeep and pickup decided to do a “guys day out” and retrieve the abandoned equipment. It would probably take most of the day we thought so we each packed a lunch and a reasonable amount of water.
About four hours into the backcountry we realized that this project might be more than we realized but the owner assured us that it was not much farther. A couple of hours later we started seeing broken trees, vehicle parts and fresh scrape marks on the rocks so we knew we were getting close and decided to stop for lunch.
About an hour later we came upon the trailer and a half mile farther down the trail we found the pickup and after winching them out we got them matched up again only to have them get high centered again several hundred yards down the road. We went through the whole process of winching them out again but this time it was decided to leave the trailer and try to get the pickup out with no more damage than was already done.
By this time it was dark but we trudged wearily on thinking that the trail ahead couldn’t be any worse than what we were already on but it became increasingly difficult to stay on the seldom-used trail with just the headlights so we decided to spend the night somewhere out in Dark Canyon. Most everyone slept in a reclined position in the vehicles but I’ve done that before and instead opted for one of the cots that were still in the abandoned truck.
The next morning we realized that the trail ahead was, indeed, worse than we had already been on so we backtracked seven hours to the pavement where we had turned off the previous day. I’ll save the story of the trailer retrieval for another day.
Looking back I can say that it was a positive experience and everyone remained positive and good-natured throughout the ordeal. But next time a situation like this comes up, I vow to be better prepared.