Friday, August 19, 2011

Shifting sands

August 18—The desert comes in all kinds of “flavors,” depending upon where you are. In Texas, the arid land was punctuated with mesas. In New Mexico, we climbed higher and higher, and the land became dryer and dryer. Somewhere, I think in Arizona, the desert was actually green. The area had had some rain, and green sprouted from the brown soil.
Yuma sits in a desert, but it is also in a valley irrigated by the Colorado River, and surprisingly is a major agricultural center. According to tourist information, it is the iceberg lettuce capital of the world.
Today Jim read about another desert area, not far from here—Imperial Sand Dunes. He wanted to see them.
Having grown up near the Indiana dunes, I didn’t care one way or another if we went to see the dunes, but I didn’t want him to go alone, so we prepared a large thermos of water (just in case), and drove the 15 miles to the dunes.
Once you leave Yuma and cross over into California, the desert takes on a different visage: It becomes even more arid and desolate—in fact, it is the most desolate area I’ve ever seen.
We drove about 15 miles and got off at the first entrance to the Imperial Dunes. No one was there; the visitors’ center was locked. (The area attracts many campers and tourists and ATV drivers—but not in August.) We saw a trailer with a sign “tourist host,” so we stopped and knocked on the door. The host, a fellow in his late 80s, gave Jim a map of the area and then came out to the car to talk with him. His last words were, “If you want to see the plank road, it’s near the end of the paved road. Whatever you do, stay on the pavement. I can’t tell you how many times people come knocking on my door, saying they got stuck in the sand and could I help them.”
Jim assured him we did not intend to drive on the sand.
We tooled down the pavement for several miles. The dunes looked just like dunes should look. Actually, they are somewhat an anomaly in the desert, because most of the desert is hard-packed rocky sand, not the soft, windswept sands of the dunes.
We were looking for the plank road (an actual road made of planks used in the desert in the early 20th century), when suddenly I said, “I think we’ve run out of road.”
Jim didn’t think so, and continued on.
You can guess: Within a few feet, we were stuck in soft sand. As Jim admitted, “That was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done!” I agree.
The tourist host had said that when people get stuck in the sand, he tells them to let the air out of their tires and gives them a shovel to dig their way out. Jim let the air out of the tires, but we didn’t have a shovel. The host’s trailer was several miles back.
Did I mention it was 115 degrees? Fortunately we had water.
Imperial Sand Dunes
We started digging by hand. The problem was that the sand was up to the carriage of the car, and we couldn’t reach far enough to clear a path.
Fortunately the road we were on was in sight of I8, and as Jim was fruitlessly digging, a California Highway Patrol car stopped and came over to see if we needed help. “No,” said Jim. He wasn’t ready to call a tow truck yet. The CHIP car did not have a shovel. The patrolman told us if we didn’t succeed on our own to call 911 and they would send a tow truck.
Dig, drink, rest.
Jim was ready to jack up the car in order to be able to clear out the sand under the carriage when we saw a vehicle approach. It was a U.S. Border Patrol agent. (The U.S./Mexico border was only a few hundred yards away; we could see the fence.) The agent stopped and gave us a shovel. Then he asked if we had a way to tie a tow rope, which he also had in his truck.
It took some doing and another 30 minutes to succeed, but finally Jim and the agent got a rope tied to the car and we got pulled out.
We managed to get back to the paved road safely. If I never go into the desert again, it will be too soon.
Oh, one more thing: On the way back out of the area, we saw the plank road. We didn’t stop.
Until next time,
Your Reluctant RoVer,

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