Back in March, Michael and I left the county in a fever for the wildflowers. The El Nino storms created the perfect conditions for what is known throughout Southern California as the very rare Superbloom.
We packed the camper shell, and set out for Anza Borrega State Park in his brother’s pickup truck. All along the side of the highways, lilies, poppies and desert gold flowers decorated the mountainsides. The colors popped against the sand, painting a colorful portrait that reached out to the horizon. About an hour and a half into our arrival, Michael was calling 911 from the middle of the hot dusty road.
After driving down Pinyon Mountain Road for 3 or 4 miles, the dirt road became harder for the truck’s 2×4 traction as the sand got softer. Lacking any experience on this type of terrain, we jollied along down the road bumping some Anderson. Paak. We were in awe of the land. The Spring sun carried a sweet breeze, lifting the scents of the lavender all across the valley. Bouquets of cacti and wildflowers illuminated the dry plains.
The beauty turned flat, and the lush valley was now in the rear view. The road shifted to a smooth bed off the beaten path. When we pulled off the path to turn around, we landed into a bed of deceptive soft sand.
The song ended abruptly. We were definitely stuck and every minute became a precious note in time. The sun was still in high noon and I knew it would take us at least an hour to get back to the road. We grabbed paper towels, the Infinite Jest, and all the water we had, and said goodbye to the truck in the hole.
While walking on the road I thought about a lot of things, Neil Cassady driving on a dirt road in the 1960s, how much food we had, and what the day could’ve been had we turned around sooner. I was worried, but I wasn’t frantic. Deep down inside I knew we would be laughing about this later – I just didn’t know if we’d be laughing -$400 later.
Walking down the barely visible road.
Taking pictures to remember where we’ve been.
We left breadcrumbs for our trail with pictures on my DSLR, and took portraits of each other amongst the nerves. 40 minutes into the hike, we headed towards the lush valley between the two mountains and received a signal. Hesitating, Michael dialed 911. When the operator answered, we asked to be transferred to the Park Rangers. After ten minutes of transfers across a variety of departments, the best the CHP could do is send out a tow for us. We told them we’d try to get our own tow services, and they gave us their direct line if/when that wouldn’t work out in our favor.
Michael on the phone with 911 operator.
Smiling through the panic.
Feeling helpless, we continued our march towards the main road for better service. The sun was high and the horizon began quivering with heat. Out of the dust, a white Toyota truck appeared on the road. We pleaded to the couple for help, and they offered to try to tow us out. We hopped in the bed of the truck and headed back down the road that we had just trudged for nearly an hour to get out. The ride felt much less bumpy this time, with his truck carving the dirt road with four-wheel drive.
The strangers turned into our angels, who devoted their time and patience into helping us out of the soft sand. With their help and guidance, I began carving the tires out and scuffing my white chucks and digging my manicure into the sand. We harvested rocks and shoved them underneath the tire for traction.
We attached the front of the truck to the back of his truck with ratchet straps and prayed for a miracle. The first time it didn’t work, sinking us further in the sand. We were now determined to get out of this hole. We dug out more sand, shoved more rocks, and this time, took some air out of the back tires. Me and the wife climbed into the bed of the white truck, and closed our eyes as the boys cranked the gas.
Pop! The rubber popped off the tires and we went sailing through the soft sand for about a couple of feet before the straps snapped. We were elated. Knowing our salvation was close, we carved out the tires, cleared a path and continued to try again.
After the third attempt got us too close to turn back, a Toyota Runner decked out in camouflage drives by us on the dirt road. When Michael asked for his assistance with some fresh towing rope, the sunburned bald man looks over at me, and looks back at Michael with a face of contempt. He comes out the car, and hands us a thick and long yellow rope.
“Y’all don’t look like you get stuck much,” he said.
We attached the new rope, and try one last time with the white Toyota truck. Our truck lands in even softer sand, and we determine the only way we can go to get successfully out is back, using the tracks we already built. The gentleman in the camo Toyota Runner strapped the back of our truck to his, and with the car flying in reverse, we landed ourselves back on the main dirt road in Pinyon Mountain. From there we left for Hawk Canyon, and made ourselves at home in the desert.
The fields of wildflowers stretched all the way to the horizon and more. Purple hillsides and yellow valleys. It was a magical introduction to the spring, and Anza-Borrega. We made ourselves at home in the backcountry of Hawk Canyon. We pitched our chairs and decompressed the day over cans of tuna, and an audience of wildflowers.
Hawk Canyon Road.
“Now let me take yours!”
Here are some things we learned about getting stuck in soft sand & backcountry camping in general:
- If you get stuck, determine the grade of the land and see if there’s an incline
- Keep the tires straight
- Move in the only direction your car has traction
- Let some air out of the tires to gain better grip
- Rocks and wood create surface tension
- Keep cool and remain levelheaded: every decision matters
- Use 4-wheel drive so you never get stuck in soft sand
- Always drive with rope
- Do lots of research about the state park and the appropriate roads to travel
- If you have to hike in the desert, bring more water instead of the Infinite Jest