Or, What would Lewis and Clark have said?
I had been spending quite a bit of time this winter indoors, so while a warming trend held, I treated myself to a day in the field to visit and monitor the state of various central Illinois nature preserves. One site that I had neglected for a couple of years was the 172-acre Letcher Basin Land and Water Reserve, on the Mackinaw River bottomlands in Woodford County.
With snow only recently melted, the ground was wet, but when the gravel ended on the county road, the road surface turned soft and slightly muddy. Over the years, I had learned to respect a muddy road, and so I gingerly proceeded, knowing that stopping on a muddy road is sometimes the worst thing a person can do. When the road led straight down the river bluff, I was tempted to turn around. But the wheels maintained traction, and so I proceeded onward. At the dead end, I parked on slightly higher ground. I would deal with getting back up the bluff road later; I wasn’t worried…much, and prepared for my hike. I had a four-wheel drive truck, after all, not like that infamous afternoon in Montana years ago.
The year was 1997, and I took my new Dodge minivan for a test drive out West. While in Montana, I wanted to camp along the upper Missouri River, along the National Wild and Scenic section, upstream of the large reservoirs of the Dakotas, to where the river resembled, more than any other stretch, what Lewis and Clark first saw in 1805.
At the Wild and Scenic Rivers visitor’s center in Fort Benton, I explained my intentions to the young National Park Service ranger, whose demeanor and bouncy enthusiasm suggested a certain degree of naivety. But I carefully and seriously listened to her detailed directions to an “awesome” campsite that hardly anyone knew about, where it would be very quiet and secluded: just the river and me. She waved good-bye and said, “Have fun.” I said, “Okay,” and I was on my way.
The park ranger’s directions were accurate in every detail; she had obviously been to the area many times, and I felt bad because I thought that such a young person would be inexperienced and not really know what she was talking about. After about a half mile, the gravel ended, but the road’s surface was solid and dry. Before heading to the camp site, I parked off to the side and climbed the bluff for a view of the Missouri River valley, and it was just as I had imagined. How great this night would be, I remember thinking: just the river and me. For the hour or so that I spend on the bluff top, no other vehicles came down the road. It was another good sign.
Delaying no longer, then, I drove onward, as the road hugged the base of the river bluff, looking for a side trail, as described by the park ranger, that was wide enough to drive on, and that would lead to a lower lying area (the camp site) next to the river. After continuing on for only a short time, I found the trail, and saw that it followed a steep incline of about ten feet before leveling out in a small grove of scattered cottonwood trees. Caution kept me from driving on the trail down the drop off. I was not used to what types of conditions my new minivan could handle, but the steep drop off looked challenging for any vehicle under any circumstances. So I parked along the roadside next to the bluff, and walked down to the camp site to investigate the possibilities.
It would be primitive camping, indeed. But I had plenty of water and food, and all of my camping gear. I was ready. I imagined a perfect night with only the sounds of the flowing river, wind in the trees, owls and coyotes calling. And then I felt the first drops of rain.
I had no idea of the forecast and did not think to ask the park ranger, who also did not think to provide that information. It could be one storm cloud followed by clear skies or the beginnings of a day or more with heavy rain. As the rain’s intensity increased, I reluctantly gave up the idea of camping. Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery would have been disgusted. I felt wimpy. So I started the minivan‘s engine and waited. Would the rain stop? That did not look likely, and I was so glad that I chose not to drive down the steep trail, now an incline of slippery mud, to the low-lying camp site. Why hadn’t the park ranger cautioned me against doing that? As the rain continued, I slipped the van into drive, and feeling glum, recalled a motel on the edge of town.
Immediately the van’s front wheels (front-wheel drive) began losing traction. I noticed the road was slick as I walked back to the van, but I had never experienced anything like this. It’s called Missouri gumbo: clay with unique mineral characteristics that make it hard as pavement when dry, but extremely slippery, to a biblical degree, with even a small amount of water. As I drove forward, the van slipped and slid from one side of the road to the other, just barely under my control. On a slight rise in the road, the front wheels could gain no traction, sending mud flying onto the windshield, with the van eventually sliding backward and to the side of the road. The river was not far beyond, and if it had not been for a slight shoulder along the road, the van would have slid directly into the river. What I needed was momentum. So I drove in reverse for about 100 feet, and started forward, making it almost to the top of the rise, wheels spinning furiously, before sliding back down along the road’s shoulder. Then I backed up further than 100 feet for even more momentum. On the third try, the van, with wheels spinning all the while, crept inch by inch to the top of the slight rise, on the left side of the road. How fortunate, I thought in panic, that no vehicles came from the other direction.
But now that I was moving, I would not stop for any reason! When the road rose in small hillocks along the base of the river bluff, I increased my speed, and bounced from one side of the road to the other like a bumper car. Then the road finally became gravel, and the white-knuckle drive of terror was over.
At least I had learned the capabilities of my minivan. The fact that I have not been stuck or stranded on unpaved roads since that day almost twenty years ago indicates to me that I learned my lesson well. And I guess I have my well-wishing, smiling park ranger to thank for that. In fact, I had no problems driving out of the Letcher Basin Reserve on my recent visit, but I did put the truck into four-wheel drive just as a precaution. And I had a cell phone if that did not work. I’m not sure what Lewis and Clark would have thought of that.
[For a link to another story from the same trip out West, called Days with Pelicans and Bison on the Prairie, click here.]
[To read chapter 26, called Ties, from the book Side Channels that relates another story from the same trip, click here.]