It’s amazing to me how much confidence can be contained in a young, inexperienced male. I was once afflicted by this malady (okay… maybe I still am). In general, that confidence has enabled me to take on large projects I was probably unqualified for and manage to grow and learn enough in the process to succeed while building new skills and converting what was once unwarranted confidence into surety justified by knowledge. Occasionally, however, that confidence has a way of getting the practitioner of it into trouble.
As long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by machinery and vehicles. Anything that was capable of moving under its own power was a source of fascination. This fascination over time grew from lawnmower-powered mini-bikes and go-karts to motorcycles and automobiles. The confidence of youth convinced me I could buy old motorcycles and get them running again. It also convinced me that I could ride them through the wilderness and all through creation without any dangerous consequences. It convinced me that I could find my way back home from wherever the trails led me without extensive study of the land, maps, or terrain. In these regards, I was lucky. Luck favors the prepared, but in these cases, luck favored the bold and stupid.
Looking back, I wonder how I made it through the things I did as a teenager. The fact that I never had a real accident on my motorcycles, never got lost in the desert on my rides and drives, and managed to get my way free from whatever I got tangled in is more a testament to divine providence intervening than it is to my preparation and skill. As I take a mental inventory of the various stories I tell, there is a common thread through them where I get committed to something I could or should have avoided and the story turns around what it took to wriggle my way free of whatever it was that caught me in the first place.
Two short stories from my late teens are illustrative… One of the things I often did to get away and unwind was to climb in my small Chevrolet Luv equipped with noting more than street tires and with no more ground clearance than the average sedan, and make my way to the mountains or deserts to tackle an old mining trail or survey road. I rarely ever thought hard about the isolation of the area I was in, difficulty of obtaining help in the event of an emergency, or mechanical frailty of the truck that was nearly as old as I and not particularly well suited for what I was doing, None of these things prevented me from jumping at the chance to do something that should rightly be considered stupid.
One particular trip out of town my brother Tolon and I decided to drive up Butterfield canyon on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley and take an old mining trail up the side of the canyon looking for a good overlook to view the enormous copper mine that filled the next canyon over. As I wound my way up the canyon looking for likely trails, I found one I had never attempted before and turned off the beaten path, starting the climb up the side of the canyon. Neither Tolon nor I had told anyone where we had planned to go, nor had we any idea what the conditions were like further up the trail. To make it worse, we hadn’t really planned on taking rough trails, expecting only to ride up moderately rough dirt roads. As a result, we didn’t bring the come-along and other tools I usually carried when I thought there were good odds of getting stuck.
As we headed up the trail, things got progressively worse. The trail went from dirt to slate, with loose chunks piled deep over bedrock. The slate was slipping under my tires as I climbed, making it difficult to get enough traction to maintain control. In spite of the worsening conditions, I continued to climb, figuring gravity would make climbing traction a non-issue. If I could climb up, I could certainly come back down. As I crested a ridge, the trail turned to follow it, jogging abruptly downward before rising again and continuing to the top where I expected to find the overlook. No sooner had we started down the trail than I realized I would have almost no traction trying to come back up that particular section. Even a slight tap on the brakes would result in a slide of several feet. There was no apparent way I was going to be able to get enough traction to make it back to the top.
Undeterred, and believing that going forward wouldn’t materially decrease my odds of getting back up that section of trail, I continued up the trail until we ran into a snowbank that hadn’t melted yet. I wasn’t equipped for snow, seeing as how both Tolon and I were wearing nothing more than shorts and sandals. However, there was a set of tracks through the snow that looked like they’d been made by a truck neither wider nor taller than mine, so I got a good run at it and plowed into the snow. Unfortunately, my estimate of the depth was off by at least three inches, and I found myself stuck fast with hard-pack snow holding up every square inch of my truck, one wheel in the front spinning freely, and one in the back doing the same.
Tolon and I looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and got to work. The only tool I had available was a small folding entrenching-tool, and if memory serves, Tolon had the use of it. I had my hands. Using those two limited tools, we spent well over an hour scraping, digging, and pushing snow; completely soaking ourselves and thoroughly freezing every part of our bodies. By the time we got free of the snow bank, we were cold and exhausted.
As we made our way back down the hill, we reached the place where it turned back uphill and was covered in loose slate. One attempt to get a run at the hill was enough to prove that I wouldn’t be able to use momentum and traction to cover that ground. I was at a loss. After a quick look around for things that might help, I saw there was dirt and grass covering the slate on either side of the trail that might provide enough traction if I could get on it. However, there was a problem… both sides of the trail were blocked with saplings and young trees that were squarely in the middle of the area I would have to climb.
I had nothing with which to cut those saplings down, and using my bumper to slowly push them over was hopeless given the slope and poor traction conditions. I decided the only chance I really had was to get a run at it, and try to just knock them over and drag them with me up the hill in one shot. The truck I owned already had a bent bumper from a previous incident with an instructor at my university, and was rusted clear through in several places. The prospect of adding a few new dents didn’t bother me particularly. I backed up the opposite hill as far as I could go, and made a run for the dirt-covered side of the trail. By miracle or mercy, the trees in front of me didn’t have particularly deep roots, and fell over on contact with my bumper. I was able to claw my way to the top of the hill with saplings dragging along under my truck. The new dents and dings were barely noticeable.
Were I wise, I would have learned from this experience and done a better job preparing before jumping into a situation like that. I can’t say I did… at least not at first. It wasn’t until years later that I stocked the toolbox of my truck with things like an ax, shovel, rope, come-along and machete. In addition, the odds of somebody finding me in the place where I got stuck were pretty bad. You’d think I would have learned, but I still have issues with telling folks where I am headed and when I plan on being back because the truth is that when I’m headed for some solitude and exploring, I rarely know the answers to either of those questions.
Another example where overconfidence and underpreparedness nearly cost me dearly was on Stansbury Island. Not too long after the Butterfield canyon episode, I was with my other brother Bryce out on Stansbury Island in the Great Salt Lake. We had been shooting, and decided to explore some of the trails in the area. Unlike the previous episode in the canyon, I had told my parents where I was headed. However, this was before the days when everyone had cell phones, and even had I owned one, the odds of it working that far from civilized society were slim to none. If something went wrong, getting help would mean an 18 mile drive or hike along a deserted dirt road to the small town of Grantsville.
Something to note about Stansbury Island is that it is very much a desert. While it’s surrounded by water, none of it is potable. In fact, the only place I’m aware of with saltier year-round standing water is the Dead Sea. As you drive down the causeway to the island, you pass large evaporation ponds where the Morton Salt Company dries out the lake water to harvest salt. If you want something to drink out there, you have to bring it with you. I hadn’t planned on being there for more than an hour or so, and consequently hadn’t brought much by way of hydration fluids. I might have had a Coke in the cab.
As we tooled along the trails, we found one climbing up the face of a steep hill that looked like an interesting challenge, so I pointed the front bumper that way and started to climb. About the time I lost traction and had to start turning around, I felt the clutch pedal kick back at me. I thought it was unusual, but was more concerned with getting back down the hill without rolling the truck than troubleshooting something I was only partly sure had happened. However, as I rolled to the base of the hill and went to shift gears, it became clear something was wrong. While the shifter switched cleanly between gears, the truck wouldn’t move when I went to let the clutch out.
I got out of the truck and crawled under it, looking into a small inspection port in the bell housing. There were pieces of friction plate everywhere except for where it belonged. The part of the clutch that actually connected the engine to the transmission had disintegrated. I was stuck with no means of connecting power between the engine and the wheels 18 miles from help on an island that was unpopulated and infrequently visited. To make matters worse, Bryce was quite young (I think he was about 10 or 11 at the time) and was starting to panic. With no other options, we started the walk towards Grantsville.
As we walked, Bryce was highly unhappy, claiming that he was sure we were going to die out there and our dead bodies eaten by the millions of sea gulls that called the lake home. It was all I could do to keep him walking. Luckily, only a few miles into the trek we ran across someone who was headed out to the northern tip of the island to shoot off illegal fireworks. They seemed highly irritated when I flagged them down to ask for a ride into Grantsville, from which place I planned to call my dad to come get us and help me tow my truck home. The offer of $20 for gas (all the cash I had at the time) only slightly improved their disposition, but they ultimately agreed. Within two or three hours, my dad had arrived with his van and a tow-strap, we were on our way home, and I was about to start another enterprise I was unprepared for… fixing the clutch on my now broken truck. But… that’s a story for another time.