You can die in the desert. It’s a dangerous place. That sure seems like an unnecessary thing to say, but it’s a fact easily lost amongst glossy national park brochures, with their condensed text on nature interrupted with tiny pictures of bright flowers popping out of cacti and tiny varmint tracks in the sand. I had one of those brochures stuffed in the car door slot as i rode down a rough, desolate road towards a place called “the racetrack”, named after rocks that seemed to be moving themselves slowly across a dry lake bed.
It was my first trip out of LA with a girl I’d been casually dating. You could say we were “taking it to the next level”. I was in typical character, transfixed by the siren song calling from the most isolated spot in the expanse of Death Valley. I had to go there. 30 miles later the road began to deteriorate significantly. Large washouts. Bigger and bigger stones in the way.
My old Subaru Forester has 7 inches of clearance. She was quickly getting out of her depth. But after multiple trips to Yosemite, Zion, and the Mojave that car and I have built up an understanding. Even when I smashed her transmission pan coming up Marshall Peak (loaded down with 5 men and 5 paragliding setups), she still got us to the top with all the warning lights ablaze and stuck in second gear. My sister teases that it’s a lesbian car. An opinion fueled by her empirical evidence up in Portland, Oregon and exacerbated by the knowledge that A) I bought it from a lesbian and B) the license plate says 4MUF. I’m cool with that. Lesbian, straight, bisexual, polyandrous.. as long as she’s honest with me. The worst thing, in a place like this, is for a vehicle to surprise you. You’ve got to rely on it do what it’s always shown you it could do. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Eventually I got stuck on an ascent, deep down that lonely Death Valley road, but I managed to jiggle out of it. When i got shored up on a stone the second time, I got out and took a hard look around me. The upbeat music blasting from my speakers suddenly warped into something tinny and psychedelic as i fully registered the expanse of barren, bone-dry land that stretched out in every direction around us. We had passed no one on the route up. I had maybe half a gallon of water in the back. No signal on my phone. No one was notified to our location. It’s quite amazing how you can go from a carefree good time to the realization that your life is in grave danger. “We could die out here,” I thought. Perhaps it was the same, anvil heavy presentiment shared by earlier settlers making their way west down similar desert routes, absolutely counting on the existence of a spring or a wagon repair that could not go wrong.
“We’re turning back,” I announced decisively. I entirely loath a retreat. I’d rather trailblaze through treacherous conditions on a hike than return the same way. But there’s a thin line between courage and stupidity, and I was one stuck Subaru away from crossing fully over.
The girl, who had subtly voiced a few doubts on our final climb, wisely refrained from reminding me of her prescience. She had been floating the “turn back” idea for a while, but, sensitive to my ego, she praised my strong command of the situation.
“Never again,” I thought as we retraced our route. I imagined walking those wretched miles with a small quantity of water in my hand, traveling by night, hoping to find someone before the morning sun rose and began to bake the desert once more. Would I bring the girl with me or tell her to wait in the car? Stay inside it at night and under it if the sun came up. Write SOS on the roof with stones. What percentage of our water would I leave her if she did stay? Heavy questions I was happy not to answer. I shook my head in quiet self rebuke. Never again.
The Next Time
In Feburary 2014 we began filming season 3 of the Road Less Traveled. I had a brilliant idea for starting the first episode: Drive a 4x4 through the Mojave desert en route from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. Between the sand dunes, joshua trees, ghost towns, and abandoned mining operations we were sure to have a solid start to the show. I contacted a few auto companies and Toyota came through with a beastly FJ Cruiser SUV. Switching from my Forester felt like jumping off a pony onto a Belgian draft horse, although you could practically see the fuel gauge swing.
The Old Mojave Road is an eagle feather in any off-road enthusiast’s cap. There are tougher routes out there, but few with such a rich blend of history and scenery. The European pioneers came through the road, and long before that Native Americans used it as a route to the sea. The way passes through dramatic canyons, black volcanic cinder cones, a dry lake bed, and the largest Joshua Tree grove in the world. Challenging a vehicle to not cross will be deep ruts, soft sand, deceptively thin baked crust with sinking mud below, the occasional flash flood, and enough isolation to make a hike out a deadly proposition.
As a crew we astutely understood these dangers. For precaution we followed the FJ with a Range Rover recently purchased by Sashi De, our executive producer. We carried a tow rope, heaps of water, and plenty of survival gear. We charted out all the flowing springs in the preserve and always double checked our location.
The trip passed by without incident. We never got stuck once. It was so easy that for the next week in Vegas a recurring theme in conversation was regret for not pushing our loaner 4x4 harder. We played it too safe.*
Several days later our production was coming to a finish. We had one day of filming left a couple hours north of Vegas in a vast stretch of desert containing just a pinch of tiny communities. On the agenda: A ghost town, a legal brothel, and a final standup for the episode where I typically present some wrap up thoughts straight to camera. Ideally this last segment would be shot by sand dunes near the abandoned junction of a place called Rose’s Well.
Perhaps we took too long with the drone shots in the ghost town, or maybe we lingered at the brothel longer than anticipated.** By the time we set out to find those dunes the sun was sagging low over the horizon and shadows were long. Off the two lane country road, a good ten miles or so from the brothel, we swerved onto a primitive dirt road. As I gazed at the drooping sun anxiety swelled up within. If it set we’d have to go back to Vegas and return the next day. If we made it we could wrap the episode then and there. I peeled off the beaten path and drove straight at the dune across the open desert...fast.
As we pulled along the edge of the dune’s sloping sides the sun finally tucked out of view. The crew jumped out with the cameras and set themselves in place. I popped out and did my routine, “Blah blah blah… see you next time on the Road Less Traveled!” We got it! High fives and whoops all around. Invigorated by our last second success, I decided on a victory run up the mountain of sand.
“Hey,” I yelled over my shoulder, “Just come get me up there!”
I was happy as a clam as the FJ approached, plowing up the steep dune. I could see Dante, the cameraman, at the wheel. Our eyes met as the vehicle pulled up to the crest. He was smiling like a kid on his first pony ride. Suddenly the SUV stopped making progress. I could hear the engine revving, see the four tires spinning, and watched as they began to burrowed into the soft sand, bringing the car to rest entirely on its frame.
“Stop Stop Stop” I barked, but it happened so fast.
It was now completely shored up on the sand. We gazed at each other in momentary disorientation as the dim rays of dusk retreated. In 2 minutes it was so dark we couldn’t see your feet.
Again, just as in Death Valley, the gravity of the moment dropped like a lead bomb. There was no preparation for being stuck up on a dune in the dark. No water or food in the car. No flashlights but for our phones, batteries mostly depleted from a full day of work. It was decided we must all get on our bellies and meticulously dig the car frame out of the sand. We might have only one chance to extract it. Further digging attempts would put the Toyota in a sabulous grave. We could soon follow.
After an hour the car was ready. The sand cleared and tumbleweed stuffed under the tires. The keys, burdened with heavy responsibility, changed hands a few times before I took them. With the Sashi and Dante pushing, I eased into reverse and she came out of the sandy chokehold. As with many of our close calls, no filming was done. We were all too concerned with preserving the lives we had made. As we drove back to the warm embrace of civilization we reflected on how quickly a series of rushed decisions led us into the perilous situation. Never again. We would remember that you can die in the desert. It’s a dangerous place.
* The only point of concern was a certain rotten smell that seemed to grow more putrid by the day. Was a dead animal stuck up in the frame somewhere? A little detective work and recollection revealed the culprit: Sashi had placed an open quart of chocolate milk in the styrofoam cooler, wedging it upright in the ice keeping our beer cold. Days later the ice had melted, the quart tipped over, and when the back of the SUV bucked up in the air on the rough road the cooler split like the Liberty Bell. The whole concoction of beer, water, and chocolate milk flooded the back of the vehicle and gear within.
Despite the smell, I sure did enjoy driving our trail-dirty vehicle around Vegas. I finally understood the jacked up 4x4 obsession some men enjoy. When pulling up to a stoplight next to a smaller, cleaner, more soccer-momish SUV I felt like Tommy Lee undressing at an orgy.
** And speaking of orgy.. the friendly ladies gave us an extensive tour of the brothel, pointing out all the spots where they like to "party". Having traveled all over the world I immediately noticed how different the legalized trade appeared, a point I tried to subtly make on the show, although I am not the first to do so on TV or in print.