I was alone, and I was scared. My pickup, stuck on the edge of the road in snow-soaked mud, was tilting 30 degrees toward the downhill side. Three aspens were all that kept it from going over the edge. The road itself clung to the side of a mountain; below it was an abyss. There was no way I could get myself out of this mess, and I had passed but one vehicle all day. "Welcome to September in Northeast Nevada," I thought.
I had never been this much in need of rescue before, and I felt vulnerable. Once I had run off an icy, snowy road in Quebec, but there were others around, and it was not a matter of personal safety. After a lifetime of self-sufficiency, I needed a Good Samaritan, and for me it wasn't a pleasant feeling.
The scene was unfolding 8,500 feet up in the Jarbidge Mountains, 46 miles from a paved road and 12 miles south from the town of Jarbidge and its 80 souls. I had spent the day in the mountains researching a long-distance hike planned for the next summer and had been driving down from Bear Creek Summit when the incident happened. One minute I was in the middle of the road, going forward at perhaps eight mph, and the next I was going sideways toward the road's edge despite all attempts not to. Evidently the mud and gravel had become super saturated by heavy snow-melt and gave way under my 6,000-pound '95 Toyota. I came to rest three inches from a small grove of aspens growing out of the lip of the road.
I struggled to get out of the truck, the uphill tilt of the door made it quite heavy, and surveyed my near-catastrophe. I walked down the road to an open spot to try my cell phone. Nothing. Returning, my size-14 boots had gained twice their weight in mud.
It was 2 p.m., about three hours from sundown. I decided to spend the night there, on the theory that you stay put when in trouble. Tomorrow I would worry about getting the truck out, perhaps by walking to Jarbidge for help.
But where would I spend the night? It was predicted to be 27 degrees that night in Elko, 3,000 feet below and 100 miles south of my truck, where my warm motel bed waited. It would probably be zero degrees here, so I obviously needed shelter.
Basically I had two bad choices. A three-season tent and sleeping bag sat in the truck, but the road was the only level spot for miles around. That meant sleeping in the tent in the middle of the road, with only the soft muck to anchor it against the gusting wind.
Then there was the truck. I would be warmer and more comfortable in my sleeping bag in the cab (the bed was tilting too much to sleep there), but would the damn thing stay on the road?
Fear and altitude do funny things to the mind. My thoughts were jumbled, and I seemed to be thinking in slow motion. I even laughed at myself a couple of times. I unloaded gear from the truck bed in case the vehicle went over while putting my sleeping bag in the cab, thinking I might have to spend the night in it.
The gear unloaded, I made a cup of coffee on my camp stove and summoned the courage to get back in the truck -- but ever so gently, not wanting to disturb its fragile equilibrium. I began transcribing the 63 messages on my tape recorder from that day¹s research into my journal. At least it kept my mind occupied. The tape contained many notations of landmarks along my drive, allowing me to pinpoint exactly where I was on the U.S. Forest Service map. That made me feel better, although it confirmed I was a long way from anywhere.
I decided to make a reconnoiter before nightfall. I walked uphill toward the 8,600-foot Coon Creek Pass to get maximum visibility. I could feel the temperature dropping as I walked, which had the positive effect of making the mud a little firmer although not enough to anchor the tent. In shadowy areas where no sun had reached, there was still deep snow.
From just below the pass the scene was beautiful but lonely. Nothing moved. The entire canyon looked like a tapestry in the golden light of the setting sun. The wet snow held fast to the trees, creating intricate patterns on the branches of the conifers as they marched up the mountainside toward the 10,000-foot spine of the Jarbidge Mountains.
Dinner plans occupied my mind on the way back to the truck, and I laughed at myself when I thought I heard voices.
"OK, Dalton, now you're really losing it," I thought as the voices got louder. "No, you¹re not. Those are people!"
"Hey," I screamed at the top of my lungs.
"I'd say you're in a bit o' trouble," came a voice.
I yelled, "Am I glad to hear you guys."
"I'll bet you are. You've got a lot of gear out here on the open road."
"Frankly, I wasn't expecting company."
As I rounded the last bend, I could see what looked like a couple of Fidel Castros, complete with camouflage jackets and pants, long, gray beards, and military-style caps. They had driven up from below in a red truck. It was the same vehicle I had seen earlier.
My initial uncertainty as to whether they intended to help or hurt was resolved when the slimmer of the two Fidels observed, "The first thing we gotta do is get that mud out from around those downhill tires. I"ll get my shovel."
After a few minutes of panting and shoveling they had removed most of the mud. Then we discussed towing options, or, I should say they discussed options, and I listened. My two rescuers seemed to know what they were doing.
"I'd much rather tow it out from the rear to avoid that gap in the trees in front of his truck," Slim Fidel said. "That's where we could lose it."
"I think it'll be OK going forward. Besides it'll be easier for him to control."
"Easy for you to say – you're going to be standing on the road. If he goes over, so do I."
All of us gazed past the trees down into the canyon. It would be a long way down.
"OK, let's go forward," Slim said. "I'll go position my truck and get the chain hooked up."
As he did that, plump Fidel coached me.
"You don't want to put any power on your wheels at all. You'll just spin your tires and make the truck slicker and easier to pull both of you over the edge. You just steer toward where he's pullin' ya, and I'll stay beside your truck."
"Yeah, and watch both of us disappear," I thought.
"I think I'm going to take a piss so I don't scare it outta myself," Slim Fidel announced once his truck was in position.
Sweat beaded on my brow as I climbed into my truck.
When I was ready, Plump Fidel gave a thumbs-up to his friend, and Slim rolled forward. His tires spun in the mud, and for a moment I thought we weren't going anywhere.
Then, his tires got traction. My truck lunged forward, but it was headed toward the gap beyond the trees and not where he was towing it or where I was steering it.
I imagined going down the ravine. How many times would I bounce? How many times would it hurt before it didn't hurt any more? Survival was not an option.
Finally, after lot of praying on my part, my front wheels found their purchase in the mud and led us away from the precipice. I breathed.
"Yahoooo!" Plump Fidel yelled outside my window as I followed Slim's vehicle down the center of the road. He pulled me a long way before he stopped.
"Hey, podner, we did it," Slim Fidel said to me as we high-fived beside our trucks.
"I can't tell you how grateful I am," I said. "Spending the night out here was very low on my priority list."
"Well, we better be getting back to our huntin'," Plump Fidel said as he turned toward their truck.
"You guys got any use for a case of beer? I asked, remembering the provisions behind my seat.
"You're a lifesaver," Slim said, looking like he wanted to kiss me. "We're running pretty low, and there's not too many liquor stores out here."
"We've been up here huntin' for two weeks after working hard all summer, and we've been a bit thirsty," said his pal.
I didn't ask what they had been doing. I was content to shake hands, exchange first names, and hear where they were camped in case I ran into more trouble. I mumbled a few prayers of thanksgiving as I collected my muddy belongings and loaded them in my now-level truck.
Driving down the mountain, I realized the significance of what had just happened. Not only had a couple of strangers helped me out of a nasty jam, but one had risked his life and limb in the process. Slim was more than a Good Samaritan. I felt very humble.
Back in my warm motel bed in Elko, I wondered why on earth it hadn't occurred to me to get a professional to extricate the truck instead of trying such a risky stunt. My two friends would have given me a ride to Jarbidge, where there surely would have been a tow truck. I also laughed at myself one last time. After all I had been through in this rugged and beautiful wilderness, I couldn't wait to go back.
And I wanted to find the two Fidels and buy them dinner.
John Dalton is a San Jose writer and frequent Nevada explorer.