The main road through the southwestern section of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, turned to mud by a recent storm
“It’s not my call to make. It’s your car,” Brad said. “You have to make the decision.” Cutting through the dirt road we’d been skittering on for several miles was a muddy wash. We might be able to make it across, but we might not.
Utah is famous for roads like this. Hundreds of miles of intermittently maintained dirt roads snake across the southern part of the state, providing access to the hardest to reach natural wonders in the continental US.
Two days ago, an old local named Todd took an interest in our trip when we met him at the Grand Canyon’s north rim. A lifetime resident of southern Utah, he told us that this part of the country might be the most remote stretch in the lower 48 states. He explained that these dusty thoroughfares aren’t for the faint of heart. Gas stations and pockets of cell phone service can be separated by as much as a hundred miles and hours of unpopulated, winding unpaved road. He proudly described his frequent trips through the region as if driving these roads is a right of passage.
The road we were on runs south through the heart of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a huge swath of land in southwest Utah preserved by Bill Clinton in 1996. Ordinarily dry, particularly in the hot summer, it had transformed from dirt to mud over the last few days, during which a big storm floated up from the Pacific and soaked much of the Southwest. To continue our drive, we had to descend a slick hill, power through mud to break into the wash itself, and then plow up another soupy slope to make it safely to the other side.
Near the northwest border of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, most of which is accessible only by dirt roads and is all but empty of humans
Were we to make it through this gauntlet of mush, which didn’t look too bad, we might be able to skid safely along the red dirt road all the way to Grosvenor’s Arch, an incredible rock formation about ten miles away. On the other hand were we to get stuck in the wash, or further on up this crazy road, we’d be miles in every direction from cell phone service and people. It wasn’t so far back to the previous town that we couldn’t walk it in a few hours, but it was a long way. “Let’s do it,” I told Brad. We wanted the experience that Todd had described.
Our adventure didn’t turn out quite as Todd had recounted his own, but it was one to remember. Blasting Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” (could there ever be a more appropriate opportunity for a song like that?) Brad gunned it down the hill.
Despite our enthusiasm, however, the front wheels didn’t even make it into the creek bed. Thick mud sucked up all of our momentum - four whole feet from the hard clay in the bottom of the wash.
It is funny how the factors I discounted most in reaching the decision to try our luck – the lack of cell phone service, distance from the nearest people, and the wet weather – were the first concerns to smash back into the front of my mind in the split second I comprehended our situation. In that moment, I almost freaked out. However, the thought of walking for miles back up the muddy road toward Cannonville, the nearest town, motivated me to battle back that initial wave of panic.
Brad standing in fog - part of the major storm system that moved through the Four Corners region as we passed through - near the edge of a cliff in Bryce Canyon
Brad and I decided to rock the car back and forth – gun it forward, then backward, then forward again, and so on – to see if we could shake loose. No luck. A few rounds of rocking did nothing to free us from the mud. With no phone service and no experience with four wheeling, I hopped out of the car and survey the situation.
The Suburban was stuck in three hundred sixty degrees of mud, and it was deep: up to the bumper in front, up to the running boards on either side (which meant the undercarriage was sitting in mud), and inches from covering the exhaust pipe in the back. The mud was up to my knees and sucking at my feet like a vacuum. I removed my shoes before they were sucked off my feet.
Brad gunned it again so I could observe what was inhibiting our movement. Even as the engine roared, our wheels barely spun. Sitting in more than a foot of Southern Utah’s finest red clay pudding, the tires had nothing to grab onto. We would need to dig our wheels out, and we didn’t have a shovel.
It must have looked ridiculous. Brad bending over next to one wheel, me bent over next to the other, both of us knee-deep in the very thing that should have scared us away in the first place. Our hands were too small and slow to make a big difference, so we started to hug mud with our forearms and strip it away from the car.
After fifteen or twenty minutes of work, we had carved a big pile of mud away. Brad got in and rocked the car again, and after thirty seconds of pedal pushing it (just barely) eased down the bank and into the wash. VICTORY. …sort of. We weren’t stuck anymore, but we weren’t in the clear either. We still had to turn the car around and get it up the same wall of mud that stopped us dead on the way down.
Stuck in the wash; this picture belies the steepness and height of the mud banks we had to climb in order to return to safe ground
One option was to try our luck on the opposite side of the wash. However, even if we made it up without getting stuck, we would still have fifty miles of dirt – no, mud – road between us and the next paved road. Moreover, there was no way to know if conditions would be even worse in a few miles. This time we made the right call: back the way we came.
Another attempt, this time through a different exit point a little farther down the wash, failed immediately. We got stuck again, dug out again, and were about three minutes into contemplating how fucked we were when four people appeared atop the hill in front of us. With the sun at their backs, they looked like angels.
After descending the hill, the leader of the pack came toward us. He had brown teeth and wore a black cowboy hat and a Talladega t-shirt. “You boys got stuck pretty good, eh?” “We got caught coming down the hill, “ I explained. “Dug ourselves out, but we just got stuck again trying to get back out.” A big, nicotine-stained smile spread across his face. “We’ll getcha out.” Our fortunes had turned, and I was giddy with relief.
“Yall from New York eh?” He must have glanced at our license plate. “At least you’re American. The last people we pulled outta here were Austrian. Aus-tree-ah. Hehe. Aint that right boys?” he turned around to face his three compadres. “Oh ya. They were foreign. It’s nice to see some Americans out here. We get a lot of them internationals.” As it turned out, they were all brothers. Three had come from out of town – California, Texas, and further north in Utah – to stay with the oldest brother at a state park close to his Southern Utah ranch.
One of our rescuers surveying the situation; immediately to his left, a section of mud is about to collapse into the wash
As they prepared to walk back up the hill and retrieve their trucks and a chain to tow us, I made self-effacing small talk. “What brought you guys out to this dirt road with the weather like this. You’re clearly not as dumb as we are.” A different brother – he was wearing a tan cowboy hat adorned in front with a strip of beads that spelled out BALDING EAGLE – gave me an enthusiastic and unexpected reply. “Oh hell, this is what we came out for! We pull people out of here all the time. It’s today’s entertainment.” I made the rhetorical equivalent of a bow to him: “Well, we’re sure lucky you came. This will be the last dirt road we ride for awhile.” His eyes lit up. “To hell with that. We get stuck all the time. It’s all part of it. Locals call this place ‘The Tourist Trap.’ It happens to everyone.” I asked politely what their price was. “No price, hehe. Just smile for the camera; this is going up on YouTube.” Fair enough.
Here they were – four brothers, one of their wives, and a woman that looked like she might be their mother – on vacation, driving out to a spot they knew to be impassable in these conditions just to see if any poor saps were in need of a tow … and they did this regularly. Aint that America?
The whole crew: closest to us are the four brothers; further up the hill and on the left are a wife, a son, and the silver-haired matriarch of the group
They instructed us to turn our car so that it faced up the hill and backed two trucks down the hill, one behind the other. It took only a couple of minutes to set up chains – our vehicle attached to the truck closest to the wash, and that truck to the one further up the hill – and they had us on safe ground almost as quickly as we got stuck in the first place. No need for fancy equipment or a tow truck, just a few benevolent strangers equipped with chains and an altruistic attitude (a few thoughts on this latter point below).
About to be dragged out of the wash; the impact visible in the bottom right is from a failed attempt to conquer the mud just before the self-proclaimed redneck rescue squad showed up
Just how lucky we were became clear shortly after we finished up coiling the chains. We were standing around getting to know one another when deluge of water rushed through the wash before our eyes. It was a flash flood, carrying runoff from the recent weather. For all we know, it had been flowing down from the mountains for a day or more. “Hell you boys are lucky. A few more minutes and your car’d be floating down the wash. Only a few hundred yards to the next river. And what’s after that? The Colorado. Dang. Just in time. Well you boys can go home and say you got saved from a flash flood by a bunch of rednecks.”
Lucky seemed like an understatement. I shudder to think about what might have happened to the car (and our possessions inside) – or, worse, to us – had these good people not magically appeared. Really, I get physically uncomfortable thinking about it. Flash floods aren’t a joke, and we would almost certainly have been standing in the wash when the flood began.
Flash flood beginning to fill the wash just after we were pulled out
A weird mix of adrenaline, anxiety, and relief swirling around in my head, I drove behind our rescuers for a few miles until they turned toward the state park where they camp every summer. I honked and waved. We were back on a paved road.
A few more minutes and we were pulling into the parking lot of Cannonville’s main attraction (well, its only attraction, really): a gas station that also serves as a grocery store … and an inn. Covered in mud, I walked inside and explained our story to the lady behind the counter. She granted us permission to wash off with a garden hose in the parking lot, but not without an admonition. “What were you boys thinking going out there after weather like we’ve had? You’re lucky to get pulled outta there.” She was not smiling. I nodded in agreement. After all, she was right. “Pull around back and use the hose out there.”
A few more local guys stopped by the store as we washed the car, as well as our arms and legs. The woman behind the counter must have told them about our ordeal because when we went inside for a snack they started asking us how bad it was down by the wash. “I’m looking to go elk hunting down there. Think I can make it over that first wash?” one asked. We explained the lay of the land at the wash and the recency of the flash flood. We told them it was a bad idea.
Funny, how the tables had turned – totally green just a couple hours before, we were being addressed as if we were knowledgeable. Brad put it well: You don’t learn any lessons by playing it safe. You learn lessons by getting stuck in knee-deep mud.
Near the north edge of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument; you have to see the array of colors, rock formations, and ecosystems in southern Utah to believe it
A lot of people – and not just everyday cynics, but philosophers who have meditated on, and written at length about, the topic – will argue that altruism does not exist. If you give to charity, they say, it’s because giving confers some sort of satisfaction or enjoyment on you. Consider, the self-proclaimed rednecks that towed us out of the Tourist Trap. They did it for fun; they even told us so. They weren’t altruists, they were having a good time (did I mention that they were drinking beer through the whole thing?).
What’s at stake in the argument about whether altruism is possible is this: if we humans are incapable of true, purely selfless (i.e. without a trace of self-interest) action, then our best moments are inseparable from our worst ones. Acts of charity are foundationally the same as acts of murder: they satisfy a desire.
I subscribe to this view and have for quite awhile. Getting bailed out by complete strangers, especially ones who helped out “for fun,” didn’t change that. It did, however, make me wonder whether altruism is absolutely necessary in order for humans to be Good. Separating charity from self-interest always made sense to me, but now I have to ask, why try to rescue charity from human self-interest? People get pure, self-interested enjoyment out of helping other people. What could be more powerful, more Good, than that?
After a crazy day, we camped in Glen Canyon looking down at the Colorado; can’t beat that