December 19, 2020
I stepped out of the truck very early in the morning before the sun was up as a gentle cold wind blew. In the otherwise near-total darkness, I saw in the distance what looked like a tall leaning mast with red and white lights on it.
Christmas lights? In the dessert? Maybe an RV? Puzzled, I got the binoculars. The lights were from cars many miles away descending and ascending a long hill on the interstate highway we’d come in on.
We’d camped not far from the Mojave Kelso Sand Dunes and at first light we left our camp and drove down a highway for a half an hour until the turn-off to the dunes. A sandy washboard road led a few miles to a small parking lot. Along the way we passed a Prius that had turned off the road and made it about ten feet before getting stuck. A tent was nearby. I made a mental note to check on them on the way back. A mile farther, another small car was even more stuck where they had turned off the road. It seemed to be a thing.
The sun had not yet risen when we parked to hike toward the dunes but it was just inching its way up and lit a sliver of the distant mountains in a magenta light. The cold breeze was still blowing and the soft sand was fine and growing deeper as we walked, making the going slow and difficult.
We eventually looked at each other knowing that we weren’t going to climb the four-hundred-foot dunes a couple of miles in the distance before coffee and breakfast.
Back at the truck, we dumped the sand out of our boots then drove back down the sandy road. We passed the small car that was stuck in the sand, but no one was in it or nearby so we kept going.
The residents of the Prius, however, were already out of their tent frantically waving us down. The young couple (she from San Diego, he from Delaware) said they had been looking for a place to camp the night before and pulled off the road, immediately getting hopelessly stuck in the deep sand. They’d set up their tent and hoped someone would come by.
Several people had come by the night before, but none with 4wd. Ha! This would be our chance to finally use our recovery gear. But to get to it, I needed to unload a few things and partially pull out the 4×8 sheet of plywood that our bed (and everything else) rested on in the back to access the gear.
As we chatted with the fraught couple, I got out our folding shovel and handed it to the guy. He’d obviously not done much digging so I took over. It was quickly obvious a shovel wasn’t going to get them out as the front wheels had dug their car in deep. So, I got out the tow strap and two big shackles, one for the meaty hooks on the front of the truck—and quickly found out that Priuses have delicate and very small places to attach very small hooks. The shackles would stand up to retrieving a dump truck, but were way too big for this car.
The couple looked forlorn. I thought for a minute and looked through the truck for some rope to attach the shackle to the Prius’ recovery slot. All I had was 1/16-inch parachute cord. I cut about 20 feet and wrapped it around itself four times and fed it through the shackle to the Prius’ slot and tied it off to the strap. I figured it should be roughly equivalent to quarter-inch line, which had a breaking strength of well over 1,000 pounds. I positioned the truck so I could attach the other end of the strap to the truck’s hook, engaged 4wd and backed up as I instructed the guy to reverse. The car popped out as the girl excitedly jumped up and down crying “thank you! thank you!” I think she was afraid they’d be stranded in the desert for a very long time. While I put away the gear, Susan chatted with her about their luck that we had come by—explaining that I usually have the tools to fix things and, when I don’t, I usually can jury-rig something that will work instead. I have lots of experience on old sailboats in remote places to thank for that.
By now, we were craving coffee and food, so we drove a half hour on the empty road and headed towards the interstate and home. We figured we stop at a rest area or picnic spot to make breakfast along the way, but the only rest area en route through the desert was closed. We weren’t particularly disappointed since it was still cold and windy.
Nearly two hours later we finally reached civilization in the form of Barstow, CA—a small crossroads town located where two interstate highways, I-15 and I-40, intersect. The interstates lead southwest to Los Angeles, northeast to Las Vegas, northwest to Bakersfield, and east to Needles and Flagstaff.
Two transcontinental railroads bring many tons of freight through Barstow as well and we saw a dozen moving trains in the short time we were there. It seemed the reason the town existed was to be a transportation hub.
Given its prime location for travelers along the interstates, Barstow boasted many gas stations and fast food drive-throughs. Exactly what we needed. When we made our first stop, at a gas station, we stepped out of the truck into very welcome warm air.
Afterwards, we went to drive-throughs at a Starbucks for Susan’s coffee and at the strangest McDonalds ever for my breakfast—it was a fake train station with multiple train cars serving as the dining areas.
Leaving Barstow, we headed toward Bakersfield and then home. The drive was long and both of us were feeling a little low with Christmas looming and, for the first time, we’d be spending it without any of our kids, grandkids, siblings, or other family members.
Once we were home, Susan decided to sweeten the days ahead by baking an assortment of holiday cookies—most of which we delivered to neighbors and friends. Of course, we kept plenty for own stash too. And I surprised Susan with two dozen roses. Christmas might not be so tough after all. And we could look back on the wonderfully adventurous week we’d managed to have notwithstanding (or because of?) the constraints of the pandemic, snowy trails, and cold nights in the desert. 2020 was almost over but we already had plenty of ideas for 2021.