Our 4×4 truck camper was losing traction going up a shale section of road in the Inyo Mountains. Pres had driven us many miles through a steep canyon with breathtaking views of the Sierras across the Owens Valley from where we planned to camp to celebrate our 44th wedding anniversary.
Pres tried to back up the truck to find better traction when the shale gave way and we slid off the road picking up speed heading backward and sideways. I was hoping the truck would get some footing knowing Pres was doing everything he could.
The rig then rolled onto the driver’s side and I braced for us to continue rolling down the rocky slope. However, the rig stayed put on its side as it came to rest. Pres quickly strained to reach and turn off the truck ignition. We looked at each other to see if either of us was hurt. I was securely hanging from the passenger side by the seatbelt. Our belongings in the cab had all crashed onto the driver’s side in a heap, but nothing hurt us while hurtling by.
Just then we heard Pres’s phone ring. What!? Thank you God, we have cell reception in this remote wilderness! It took a minute to find the phone and we missed the call but were so relieved to know we could call for help.
Stuck inside the wreck
We did not know if the truck was stable and were concerned that it might start sliding again. We could hear the water in our 20-gallon holding tank gurgling out.
Our first challenge was how to get me out of my seatbelt without my body slamming into Pres. I could not find a good foothold and rolled down my window to hang onto the door frame. There was no way I would be able to open the heavy door away from me.
Pres braced his arms up to help me and I wiggled to take the pressure off of my seatbelt so that it would release. I popped out slipping into the back seat behind Pres. We looked around to see if we could climb out one of the passenger side windows, now above our heads which would mean shifting our full weight that could start us rolling again. Pres decided our best route of escape was to kick out the windshield. He was only wearing slippers to keep his foot comfortable from a bad laceration to his big toe just a few days before.
The windshield gave way after several of his strong kicks into it and he quickly squeezed past the broken glass. He grabbed the broken edge to make more room for me to get out and in the process cut his hand making it bleed. He could have used a floor mat to protect his hand, but adrenaline was in gear and Pres wanted me out fast. Otherwise, we had no serious injuries.
Once safely out of the truck we could see that a sturdy pine tree had stopped our rig from rolling further down the mountain. The hard side Alaskan camper roof had slammed into the trunk.
I felt shaky but after looking at our wreck I was gratefully impressed that we had been saved from what could have been death or serious injuries.
Stay or walk out?
It was about 6:00 in the evening and we faced darkness descending in a few short hours. We quickly reached into the cab to grab a few essentials that could be carried for walking the road back. Wallets, cellphones, water, oranges, hats and jackets. Pres changed into his hiking boots that I rummaged for and he started down the steep roadway.
Pres informed me he would walk the road heading back to look for a good turn around area for a possible rescue vehicle, as well as to call for help as it was too far for me to walk the 6 miles back to Cerro Gordo in the high elevation and expect to get there before nightfall.
I did not want to leave our truck in case we had to spend the night. Staying with the truck meant food, water, and sleeping bags. I walked a short way from the truck to rest in some shade as the sunshine was pretty warm. Down in the valley below temperatures were in the 90s, but the higher elevation gave us cooler temps. A soft breeze came through the pines and brushed my face. I smiled at this reminder of our Creator’s presence with us. I spoke a quiet “thank you!” and sang the song, “Waymaker” in grateful response.
Pres called to me to start walking out as he had reached the 911 dispatcher, who declared a CHP officer was on his way to rescue us. My legs were shaky on the loose shale and I concentrated on my footing. The steep trail seemed to go either straight up or straight down. I slipped and fell hard on my bum but got up, shook myself off, and was glad to only get a scrape.
I met up with Pres and he encouraged me to continue walking out as far as we could to aid our rescuers. I noticed and picked up a cool looking rock that reminded me of a geode. As I turned it over in my hands for closer inspection I showed it to Pres. Not wanting the extra weight I dropped it back on the trail.
We would lose cell reception when descending and needed to walk out to where we had seen a very large turn around with no confusion of trail intersections that would give us a good overlook with reception.
Pres needed to go ahead as there was no place for him to sit without back pain. His sciatic was grabbing and both of our bodies were protesting to remind us we are seniors in our sixties now. I took frequent rests to catch my breath as asthma reminded me of the higher elevation.
Shadows deepened on the mountain. I turned to watch the sun descending over the majestic Sierra snowcapped peaks, picking out Mt. Whitney. Beauty encompassed me as my pace quickened to find Pres and a resting place before it got too dark to walk any further.
Pres and I kept our phones off to save battery. The dispatcher asked Pres to check in later. When he called the dispatcher informed us that the CHP did not have a 4×4 vehicle available to reach us and advised to possibly prepare for spending the night on the mountain.
At this point, I was exhausted knowing it was too far to go back to our truck. I was wearing short capri pants and the temperature was dropping. We had also drunk most of our water and eaten our oranges. I had visions of mountain lions or bears stalking our scent as we would have to be exposed out in the open. I started to chide myself with why had we left our truck and started to feel angry and anxious.
Miracles all around
Then, I reminded myself of the miracle of our situation. A tree stopped our truck from rolling off the mountain and we both had walked away with no serious injuries. We may have to spend a miserable night, but in the long run, we would survive. I made a deliberate choice to stop those negative thoughts and to instead focus on the gift of having each other on this day of our 44th wedding anniversary.
“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” T.S. Eliot
Pres called to check in again later, letting the dispatcher know I was not physically able to continue walking out. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Rangers had been contacted for our search and rescue. The Rangers had to drive 70 miles from Ridgecrest and were equipped with a Utility Terrain Vehicle (UTV) they would haul to a staging area. By this time it was 8:30, growing darker as arrangements were in the works. The dispatcher assured us we would not be left overnight on the mountain top. My heart was thrilled with quiet peace, knowing we would be rescued.
However, we were concerned for our rescuers to be driving over rough road with sheer cliff exposures on such a dark night. We prayed together for God’s protection over these heroes as we did not want anyone to die over our mistake.
From our rocky perch we could see the distant lights of Keeler and scattered mining operations. The stars were spectacular with no moon. I picked out the Big Dipper and was in awe of the celestial showcase overhead. Pres started to softly sing an old familiar hymn and I joined him singing harmony as we raised our voices together in celebration and thankfulness.
The night air grew colder as we watched with anticipation for headlights to appear on the mountain road. Finally, we could see lights far below, hoping it was the Rangers. Again we saw lights lifting our spirits. Many minutes later lights flooded a large slope as they moved in closer now at almost 11:00 pm.
Rangers to the rescue
Hearing the growling motor of the UTV getting closer, we left our perch to walk down to a large turn around area. Using our cell phones as flashlights we shone them through our clear water bottles to work as lanterns for our rescuers to better see us.
Seeing our lights, the UTV driver slowed to make a sweeping turnaround and stop. In front of us was a 4 seater dune buggy looking vehicle from which 2 large men wearing helmets emerged. Their shirts were marked “Police” and they looked equipped to take on any danger that the Inyo Mountain range could offer.
We were warmly introduced to Jim and Jason, BLM Rangers to the rescue! They kindly questioned us to be sure we were not seriously injured and asked where our wreck was located, stating they expected to find us still a few more miles up the road.
I was never so happy to climb into a backseat and quickly learned how to buckle a 5 point harness. The Rangers used a Garmin Overlander with an OnX Hunt app to locate us. Pres and I had just purchased an Overlander GPS for this trip and had been frustrated learning to use it, so I was especially interested in seeing our route as BLM Chief Jim Watson drove us out.
Jeff, the CHP officer was waiting in his black and white SUV to meet us. He was ready to drive us to the hospital if we required medical attention. We assured him we were okay and just wanted a place to rest and find a rental car as we were now stranded. We thanked our rescuers for giving us the best anniversary present ever!!
Jeff drove us down the steep mountain dirt road and informed us that there were no car rentals in Lone Pine, the nearest town. He explained that Ridgecrest or Bishop would be the closet, both a good 70 miles or more away.
Hitchhike to Ridgecrest
Knowing that the Rangers would be returning to Ridgecrest we asked if we could hitch a ride there with them. Jeff radioed with our question and the Rangers waited for us at the bottom of the Cerro Gordo road where they loaded up their ATV to trailer back. Jim was hauling the trailer in a large pickup truck with a backseat and volunteered to take us.
We enjoyed getting to know more about our hero and new friend on the drive into Ridgecrest. There Jim dropped us off at the Clarion Inn where we checked in at 2 a.m. We discovered that Avis car rental was located on the premises, so we were all set.
My surprise gift
I held Pres’ jacket while he was checking us in and asked why it felt so heavy. I reached into the sagging pocket to find my dear man had picked up the geode looking rock I liked and carried it all the way back for me to have. This rock sits front and center in our bookcase as a lasting memento of God’s provision during our anniversary adventure.
Who are the Rangers?
Before this trip, we did not even know the Bureau of Land Management has Rangers to police and protect our public lands. The BLM police force oversees vast areas of wilderness and is equipped for search and rescue. Read more about the Rangers.
From the bottom of our hearts, we are so grateful to be safe and well thanks to the men and women who work hard to serve and protect. We have enjoyed exploring the backcountry for over 40 years, with this being our 1st wreck. Thanks to our rescue, we will have more years to explore and enjoy our public lands.
An unsecured firearm
When Jim dropped us off at the Inn he gave us his business card in case we needed anything before heading home. Our achy bodies enjoyed a shower and getting some sleep. We didn’t have anything except for the clothes on our backs so the next morning I walked across to the Walgreens to get bandages for Pres’ cuts, pain reliever, toothbrushes, bottled water…….$100 bucks later I filled 1 shopping bag full to get us by.
We were delighted to have hot coffee and a hearty breakfast at Kristy’s Restaurant as we had not eaten anything since breakfast the day before except for the oranges we carried to eat after the mountain accident.
Before heading home I decided to check in with Jim to see if he had any connections for someone to take us back to the wreck to retrieve a few of our belongings, most importantly an heirloom pistol, my camera loaded with photos, and my bible that was given to me by my hubby 30 years prior.
Jim explained that we could not leave an unsecured weapon on site, so he would send 2 officers to take us back to our decommissioned truck camper. I had relegated myself to having to leave everything in our little home on wheels behind. We were thrilled at the prospect of at least recovering some of our valuables.
Even though he was off-duty on this hot Saturday, Jim offered to meet us to go over the details. When he opened the door to his big red truck I spied his wife in the passenger seat. The night of our rescue I had asked Jim to also tell his wife thank you from us for his going out so late at night to rescue us. I jumped into the freshly vacated driver’s seat to introduce myself and to personally thank her and tell her about the hero she married.
Julie’s beautiful blue eyes danced at my story as she quickly related how her own big guy had gotten his truck stuck in the snow. She pulled off her headscarf to reveal her beautiful bare head and shared her personal battle with breast cancer. She too is a special hero! We held hands and prayed for healing and strength to return to her body. I felt honored to meet this warrior who has also served in the Army, where she met her Jim.
Ranger escort back into the Inyos
Early Sunday morning, on Father’s Day, Jason and Brandon met us at the Cerro Gordo road and loaned us each a helmet and gloves for the trek into the Inyo Mountains. Pres rode with Jason in a smaller UTV to lead the way with Brandon driving me in the rig we had been rescued in. It was already getting hot on this beautiful, clear morning.
In the daylight, we could see where the historic American hotel had burned to the ground just a week or so before in the ghost town of Cerro Gordo mine. The dust was thick sometimes blocking our view of the UTV in front of us. We headed up the mountain showing me how far we still would have had to walk out if the Rangers had not come to our aid.
My heart felt sick when we saw our beloved rig lying over on its side. Pres and Jason saw fresh tire tracks, knowing someone had driven by our broken truck camper. The Rangers secured the truck with a big tow strap to a nearby tree before allowing us to explore the cab. We were happy to find our pistol, still in its place, and handed it over to Jason for safekeeping.
We then found many of our belongings that we were allowed to have packed into the UTVs to take back. I was sad not to find my camera which I had purposefully left in a corner inside the truck cab in hopes I might get it back. Our brand new air compressor, my camera, and Pres’ shaving kit were all missing. We were left to assume that the tire tracks belonged to some folks who decided to take the easy to reach valuables.
Regardless, we were grateful to get anything at all back. Pres removed the propane tanks and camper battery. I was amazed at what we were able to retrieve and take back in the small vehicles that brought us up.
Despite the sad circumstances, I was having the adventure of a lifetime with my 1st ride in a UTV driven by a handsome young Ranger. I found out his mother and I are about the same age. The two men were patient, kind, and professional in taking care of us two senior citizens in their charge.
We loaded up our rented car and headed for home with grateful hearts for the BLM Rangers. On the drive back we got a phone call out of Lone Pine asking if we needed a tow. We laughed and replied that our rig was not in any place a tow truck could reach.
Jim, the caller from Miller Towing then went on to say it was his guys that had made those fresh tire tracks and had come across our ruined rig. They had picked up the items we found missing and had them in safekeeping for us! Yay, another blessing!! Jim went on to say how the folks at Miller Towing knew they could extract our rig and would be happy to work with our insurance.
*Update – After waiting for Miller almost 2 months, they informed us they could not get to our rig until “maybe October” so, Wolfpack Towing and the SNORR group came to the rescue.
Well, the ending to this story just keeps getting better! Thank you Jim, Jason and Brandon of BLM. Thank you Jeff from the California Highway Patrol. Thank you to the dispatchers fielding our SOS calls. Thank you to the Daily Independent and The News Review of Ridgecrest for publishing our story to honor the Rangers who rescued us. We are currently waiting for a crew to get our rig out…yet another adventure to tell.
Would you survive if your rig gets broken down in the wilderness? We certainly did not do all the right things and thank God for the intervention of the BLM Rangers.
We should have taken and carried our 2-way radios to be able to talk to each other when separated when cell reception dropped or to save our phone batteries. Many places would not have had cell phone reception, what then? We had a Garmin GPS but it is not set up with a subscription to send out an SOS message.
We carry a 1st aid kit, but it was not in the cab with us – so not much help if we had been seriously injured. In retrospect, we should keep “emergency” backpacks ready to go in the truck cab.
“Someone once told me if you can’t be an example then be a warning.” – Holley Gerth
Our tools were not available as the truck was laying on the side where our toolbox and spare tire are. The camper door could not be opened as the frame twisted just enough that we could not unlock the door. Inside is where our sleeping bags, majority of our food, lanterns, cooking items, etc. are kept that would be needed for survival. This causes me to rethink how we pack should we have to remain with the wrecked truck overnight or several days.
Are you physically fit enough to hike out? We have had to hike away from our vehicle more than once, but as I’ve gotten older I have more limitations. Elevation can sap your strength more so than under normal walking conditions. After many hours of riding in the truck earlier that day, I wanted to remove my hiking boots but thought better of it while on a backroad. If I had been barefoot or wearing flip flops I hate to think of what may have transpired.
When you have done this type of camping long enough, it is simply a matter of when a major mishap will happen. We were prepared to spend many days in the backcountry, but WITH our rig intact. So, take some time beforehand to plan how you could better handle a wreck or disabled vehicle in the wilderness. With that said, attitude and faith are what keeps us going. Can I get an “amen?”
After getting my camera back I found this video I had recorded just a few minutes before our accident: