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Reading the Mud

Updated: Mar 20, 2021

We were camping in the middle of the hard clay pan of The Playa, an area in the middle of the Black Rock Desert, Nevada about 15 miles wide by 30 miles long, ringed on all sides by forbidding, treeless mountains where nothing lives and where Burning Man is held every year. We were warned that there could be wet spots where it was easy to mire but if we just follow the tracks and go where other people go, we'd be fine. Very low risk unless we behaved recklessly.

We saw others out there in bigger trucks, RV's and even semis with full trailers so we thought, "no problem." We camped for a night, but it was beastly hot. The climax of our visit was when I collected sun-faded tin cans and other detritus of civilization and set up a shooting range. Then, I got out my shotgun and collected Jenny and proceeded to throw some lead across the sands at bottles, cans, and plastic bags draped over tumble weeds, flapping in the wind.

At that moment, we observed a white pick-up truck and a large object in the back racing towards us. I pulled out the binoculars but could not see if the word “ranger” was written on the side.

As the truck approached, we realized that the driver was no ranger, just a man with a porta-potty in the back of a pick-up driving very fast. He asked us if we had seen, "15 crazy men lighting off fireworks and shooting guns," because he'd been ordered to deliver them this restroom. I merely responded that there was one crazy man here, firing guns. He apologized for interrupting our shooting and sped off as quickly as he came.

The next day we decided we couldn't take another 100-degree day in the shade (124 inside my truck with all the windows rolled down, hotter on the exterior surface). We longitudinally bisected The Playa, heading south across the sands, seeing other rigs and camps as we went. Soon, the only town for 100 miles came into view and we knew we were getting close. Then the tires on the 4Runner seemed to lose purchase—or gain more purchase, depending on how you see it. We saw deep ruts were forming in our tracks. Then, the clay was up to the wheel wells in the blink of an eye. We threw it in reverse in all-wheel drive. No go. We got out and dug the muck out of the tires, pushed, rocked the truck, no go.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said.

“Here,” said Jenny, “put some boards under the tires. Maybe we can get some traction.” We tried several configurations of boards, pausing to dig the muck out of the wheel wells with our hands between each attempt. Each handful of dense, compact, wet clay felt like it weighed at least two pounds. The tires continued to slip, like a terrified beached whale, paddling its flippers against the sand.

We looked at each other, covered in clay from knees to toes and from elbows to hands. It was even in our hair, like we were potters who just had some kind of manic episode while working, and it ended badly—albeit cathartically. “Well…” I sighed.

I didn’t have to finish my sentence. “Yeah, I know,” Jenn agreed.

“It’s getting hot,” I observed. “Do you want to hike out now or try to call for help first?”

“How far do you think we are from town?”

“Uhhh…Hmmm,” I said, squinting through the binoculars. I saw buildings floating and shimmering in the haze. I could just make out individual cars outside of buildings. “We’re close, but it’s hard to judge distances in the desert, especially since it’s so flat out here. I’d guess we could be anywhere from 2-6 miles away…maybe…”

“Maybe we should call for help first and see what they say,” said Jenny.

I nodded silently. Already even speaking seemed like an extravagant expenditure of energy, and simply standing still outside the truck was as exhausting as a marathon.

We checked and found we had phone signal, but it was fleeting and feeble. We called 911 to ask how we could get a tow, and the operator said there was "a man named Willie, but he has Sunday off," and then, like a soothsaying oracle "Willie is the only one who can help you." She said she would dispatch a Sheriff’s deputy to find Willie, as he wasn't reachable by telephone. Ever. The operator asked for our coordinates numerous times, patiently talking us through how to wheedle the correct latitude and longitude out of our fickle smartphones, to no effect. "Your dot seems to be coming from a railroad track, " she said. "You aren't sitting on railroad tracks, are you?" No, we said. We could see tracks a mile or two to the east. "Oh...well your pings seem to be coming from there, not where you are. Are you in distress?"

Define distress, I said. "Do you have food and water? Can you breathe?" Yes. "Alright, you aren't in distress as we define it. I'll send the deputy to see if he can see you from the road."

About twenty minutes later we spied what looked like a police SUV in the distance through the rising heat waves and mirages thrown up in front of the binocs. The vehicle appeared to stop. I told the operator I would send up three signal blasts with my twelve gauge. I also had some fireworks I purchased on a nearby Indian reservation. Though I couldn’t be sure "The Pooping Elephant" would be much use in gaining us aid and assistance. The operator told me to leave my gun in the bag. Could the deputy see us? Yes, but he was starting to get stuck and had to turn back. She said he would walk towards us and we should walk towards him. Then, the phone cut out in a hail of angry beeps. A few moments later we saw the deputy drive away.

“That’s that, I guess,” said Jenn. “No rescue huh? No Willie?”

“No Willie…” I whispered with a sad half-smile. “I know the operator said to keep the engine off, but we have a full tank. Let’s turn on the air and just rest for a few minutes before we start packing. It’s still getting hotter. I think it’s going to be a hard hike out.” Jenny nodded and squeezed my hand.

It was now certain. Willie would not free us. And the civil authorities had abandoned us to our fate. What did the emigrants do as they plodded their way through this desert clay, their indolent, overtaxed oxen pulling lackadaisically on their wagon yokes? The pamphlets in our truck gave us no clues, only brief descriptions of the fascinating desert larvae and bacterial mats we were likely to encounter, forming crusts over bits of thin, skeletal, dried weeds. How the cowpunchers that roamed through even built their historic log cabins was beyond me—the nearest source of wood over two inches long being 200 miles south. Would I be forced to utter the famous phrase of the doomed Scott Terra Nova Expedition. "I am just going outside for a walk; I may be a while..."

I remembered being in trouble in other wilderness situations. For me, panic always begins as an icy, metallic taste in the back of my throat. There is a sense of dread and doom that spreads through flesh and bone amorphously like cancer. It’s the knowledge that control is illusory and we are the playthings of chaos. Suddenly we are tiny, delicate sacks of water and flesh precariously held together, as insignificant as ants but without half their endurance.

The world we inhabit every day is a wilderness; we just don’t know it until we go to those hinterlands that people tell us are sealed off from the rest of the world and operate without rules.

People can and do die everywhere—most of them far from any wilderness when their days end—but it’s the notion of dying alone, of dying a wanton death, a needless death, a preventable death (as if death were preventable!)—therein lies the terror of being untethered in wild places. Then, after you lose the trail, after the foot starts to bleed, or the car won’t start, the darkness of other realities begins to descend like demons. A type of dread particular to wilderness survival situations is the experiential understanding that nature doesn’t want to cuddle.

However much you value and want to preserve wild nature, it doesn’t want to preserve you. Nature neither cares for us nor seeks our destruction. It simply is.

There is a tightrope between living in self-imposed denial about the severity of the immediate difficulties you face versus dwelling on them too much. A case could be argued that the worst emergencies to be in were the ones that unfold slowly, where you have time to think, not simply react. We seldom have much control over our reactions. We can train for situations. We can react well or poorly, but either way, reactions are not decisions, just reflexes of a kind, no different than a muscle twitch. Having time to think, however, leaves room to ceaselessly question the wisdom of one’s decisions, past and future. Should we have gone right instead of left? Forward instead of back? Stay with the truck or leave it? All I know is that we called for help and no help was forthcoming.

When all other options are exhausted, the final option is not an option at all, but simply what one must do.

Knowing this makes it easier to act. It’s at least a small comfort, if not cause for outright hope.

We could see the city of Gerlach shimmering in the distance, close enough to touch. We would live! But what was it going to cost to get Raven (the 4Runner) out of this muck? $1000, $5000, $10,000?! I was thinking more about that than the possibility of death. I could always find something to fret about. It was 3:00 PM. We were nearing the apex of the heat of the day. The last thing the 911 operator told us was to not start the car again to conserve gas and battery life. We quickly took inventory and put together a traveling kit. I gutted my backpack of all extraneous items and replaced the void with as much water as I could carry, cell phone and charger, daily medications, a handful of salted almonds—and a book. I decided if I was going to die, I'd rather it be with a book in my hand than not.

The scatter gun would stay with the truck. While it would be cool to walk through the desert with a gun, guns are heavy and what was the point of a signaling device if everyone knew where you were already and no one was coming? Jenny grabbed her water and some other sundries, including her camera.

Weighted down with this baggage, we set out upon the desolate, perfectly flat plain utterly devoid of multicelluar life save ours. A flat surface to hike across in 100-degree heat ought to have been at least a small comfort, but wild nature doesn't dispense tender mercies with ease. What was flat and dry on top, was bottomless and wet below. Our truck figured that out. As soon as we set out, each foot fall sank into the sucking clay, 3-6 inches deep with every step. My sandals quickly loosened, and blisters formed on my feet as I slogged forward under the combined weight of my frame and the extra 50 lbs. on my back. It was untenable, so I resolved to hike barefoot, thinking bare feet could gain more traction than hiking sandals. It was not to be.

The moist clay looked tantalizingly cool, if messy. Surely it would be a relief to have it touch my bare skin, even if it was ultimately an encumbrance to our survival. Didn't rich ladies pay handsomely to put this stuff all over their faces to look young? But no. The mud was blisteringly hot and painful to touch, causing me to hop in the air like a wounded animal. Even the deep mud was scorching. Even moisture itself was a torment to us in the desert. We sucked at the blood-warm water in the hydration bladders in our packs and staggered on.

This was hell on earth.

I thought about the last, weathered sign we saw before driving on to The Playa. It said, "The BLM [Bureau of Land Management] Does Not Supervise or Patrol This Area. Enter At Own Risk." It could not have been clearer if it had said: Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here. There was nothing to see here but a few silhouettes of mountains in the vast distance. Nothing! This place was the void, the ultimate canvass upon which to paint your own reality.

This was one of those rare spaces beyond civilization where there was no law but the law of inevitability—the inevitability that nature is immutable, unknowable, unpredictable.

We stumbled on. The pain in my feet grew. The truck became a black dot on the horizon whenever we turned around, which was less and less often. Turning around took energy, and we had none to spare. The town grew bigger, but no closer. What a joke! What sort of bullshit was this? I wanted my money back. We had to keep moving. Forward, forward with heads bowed. I pulled the brim of my floppy jungle hat further down over my head, avoiding the glare of the sun. It was useless to see what stretched in front of us.

We were attempting to exit infinity and land back into a world with boundaries, with somewhere for the eye to rest upon, for a fence post that the mind could lean against.

We saw cars and trucks speed by on distant Highway 447 to the south. We began to swoon. The muck grew deeper. Finally, we reached some mounds topped by scrub brush and splintered logs jammed into the ground unevenly, connected by sagging strands of rusted barbed wire. Windows and doors came into focus on the tiny trailer homes and rusted cars parked in mass graveyards beside their owners' domiciles. We heard the din of individual air conditioners. Yet the barbed wire and scrub was the final barrier to deliverance. I panicked and hyperventilated. We would never leave here. The gods wouldn't allow it. We collected ourselves, took deep breaths and traversed around the fencing and brush until we came across an opening in the sand that became a rough road that emptied us onto the outskirts of town.

At last, there was no doubt. Survival was imminent!

People peered out their windows at us but made no move to contact us. We paused at the first street corner we'd seen in days to take our bearings. According to the sign post we entered the village on to Diablo Street and now rested at the corner of Sunset Blvd. There was no shade anywhere, only rusty trucks, bloated propane tanks covered in white, peeling paint and numerous signs saying "Keep Out. Private Property. Yes, That Means You."

Apparently, the town had been burned by Burning Man. I had read somewhere that the vast majority of Gerlach's few remaining residents were retirees with internet businesses, and that 25% of their yearly income came from the influx of the 50,000 pilgrims who arrived every August in search of Burning Man, the largest hippie festival on planet Earth. They wanted the hippies' money, it seemed, but not the hippies themselves. It was the classic uneasy relationship between locals and outsiders in any town dependent on tourists for its daily bread.

We wended our way through a spiral of streets and alleys that were labyrinthine for such a tiny town until we arrived at a motel. A middle-aged man exited the motel, which was locked and approached his truck—the first human being we'd seen since exiting The Playa. "Do you know when this motel will open?" we asked. "What does it say on the sign?" he said sarcastically, before giving us a disgusted glance and taking off in a cloud of dust. Next to the motel along the main drag was a closed bar, a coffee house paying homage to Burning

Man, and a few other businesses strewn with homemade sculpture and rusted junk, with no signs of life. A bra hung from a pole, flapping in the wind like a deflated windsock. We made our way to a town park/wayside rest, the only patch of grass we'd seen in a week. The grass was lush and verdant, but there were no signs of cold water anywhere, either for public or private use.

My feet had turned into dried clay blocks. I was willing to commandeer any hose or water spigot I saw to clean off, even at the risk of angering paranoid, unsympathetic property owners. With no water available but what we carried, we lay down in the grass, clinging to the only sliver of shade we could find. A cloud of bees buzzed menacingly in the vines surrounding the town water tower looming behind us. I forgot my epi-pen back in the truck. The adrenaline inside it was probably boiling anyway. We might find a brief respite here, but no peace. If The Playa was Hell, then Gerlach was its capitol city.

Jenny and I discussed where we would sleep that night, unable to even contemplate how we were going to extract Raven the 4Runner from her clay pan prison. I pictured it slowly hardening all around her, turning her into a living statue, strangling her as it tried to do to us, a slow, agonizing version of the punishment one obtains for staring into the eyes of the Gorgon. We laid down in the park only a short time before a large, old Chevy pickup rumbled into the small parking lot. A bearded man in a leather union army civil war hat, and a paisley-patterned bandanna pulled up over his mouth and nose like an Old West highwayman leaned out the window.

"You stuck?" he said over the rumble of his V8 engine.

I approached and said "Are you Willie?"

He said, "Work for 'im. Black 4Runner?"

I nodded. "That's us. Can you get us out?"

He thought about it. "Yeah. Probably. Need to go look at it first. I'll gas up and be right back to get you guys."

Even Hell had a few good angels. Willie's nameless man returned, leaned across the seat and opened a creaky passenger door from inside. After throwing our bags in the back, Jenny got in the middle and I sat on the right. There were no working seat belts. Empty cans of Bud Lite rolled around on the floor. A large set of dusty binoculars rested on the cracked dash. The windows were rolled down as we roared down the 447 on to Soldier Meadow Road, black smoke emanating in puffs from under the hood as Willie's man shifted gears. He was silent, a man of action, not words. He didn't even tell us his name or his fees until we asked.

"I'm James," he shouted out of the corner of his mouth over the revving engine of his truck.

"Nice to meet you," I said. He nodded. It was $100 an hour with $100 minimum. Cash or check. I almost cried with relief that he wasn't talking more money...or heavy equipment. I had pictured fat-tired tractors, bulldozers, construction cranes and the Army Corps of Engineers attempting to build a road to my truck in a gargantuan effort that would result in its own Wikipedia article for posterity—along with complete bankruptcy and destitution for me. I had a knack for imaging the epic, the dire, the worst. Hell was always a reality born more of my thoughts than my circumstances, I recollected. Things were never as bad as they seemed. Cliche but true.

As James drove north along the western edge of the Playa, we saw Raven come in to view in the distance. We now knew the dimensions of "not that far away." According to smartphone apps, we had walked 2.5 miles from Raven to Gerlach. It had taken us three hours to get from Raven to the Gerlach city park. The BLM visitor literature said the pioneers in covered wagons pulled by oxen made better time when crossing The Playa than we did, but maybe they didn't encounter the quagmire we had either. The Oregon Trail sounded like the Autobahn, judging by our rate of travel. When James shot out on to The Playa from a side road, we could see that our commonsense reasoning in heading south towards town had been a miscalculation. The easiest road on and off The Playa was this tiny dirt outlet a few miles north on Soldier Meadow Road. James zoomed across the cracked surface of The Playa giving us a point of view like Luke Skywalker in a land speeder on Tatooine in Star Wars. But there were no Sand People or Jawas here, only bacterial mats and the exoskeletons of vehicles that never made it out of their own private hells.

As James slammed on his brakes and made a 90-degree turn, making a wide arc around Raven, the obvious question was this: how do you know where to drive without getting stuck? The top of the clay pan had a mostly uniform appearance whether wet or dry. "Gotta learn to read the mud," James said. It was also our mistake in thinking The Playa was drier at the south end. "Never completely dries in the south," said James. I confessed that I felt like an idiot and asked how many others end up in our predicament. "About one a week. Had to pull nine cars out over Memorial Day Weekend." What if he couldn't get his truck close enough to Raven to pull her out? "Got a half-mile of cable in back."

James slowed his rig when we got within a football field's length of Raven and began snaking cable from a giant spool in the back of his truck. He refused our offers to help him in his task. "I do this all the time," he said. He attached the cable to Raven's frame and returned to his truck. We threw her in reverse, then neutral as we heard his Chevy’s engine yell like a wooly mammoth in distress. I could hear him grinding his gears as he pressed his beast to give all she had. There was a thud, then another.

Raven rocked back and forth, making angry sounds as she tried to free herself from the sodden earth’s hold on her. The pressure on her shocks, struts and joints caused them to groan. “Come on, buddy, you can do it! Push! Push! Push!” Jenny said, goosing the accelerator and transferring the power to the rear differential with a sweaty, mud-caked hand. Suddenly we were lifting off like a rocket out of the mud, sailing backwards, fishtailing giddily out of control as the raw power of James’ rig torqued us out of the hole we had created.

Once safely clear of the invisible mire, James detached us and told us to follow him as he guided us off The Playa, following an invisible path over the flat clay that only he could see in his mind's eye—a result, no doubt, of years of living on the edge of The Playa and "reading the mud" that was feared even by the local Sheriff's Department.

He led us to a local gas station with a back door flapping open and closed on its hinges with a crooked sign above it that read "Laundromat." James looked up. "This is my office. It's $100." Jenny and I scraped together all the cash we had on hand, and it amounted to the fee James asked and an extra ten dollars. He initially refused the small tip but finally accepted it at our insistence. He was even game enough to pose for a selfie with us, a small piece of proof of both this surreal memory, and the quiet hero of our escape who rendered my ability to document it possible. If I had twice as much cash, I would have gladly handed it over to him. As it was, it was all I could do to keep from weeping tears of relief. "Might want to get a car wash soon. Your tires might shake," said James. “Next town is about 100 miles through them hills. You can make that by nightfall.” He closed the door to the windowless laundromat and mounted the driver’s seat of his old Chevy, disappearing into the late-afternoon desert haze with a nod. I patted Raven’s quarter panel affectionately and got in the truck as we abandoned this desolate outpost for whatever lay over the next unknown horizon. We were ready.

(In order of appearance pictures 1,7,8 & 9 courtesy of Jennifer Preston. All other photos courtesy of the author.)


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