Getting stuck, but living to tell the embarrassing tale

By Jayson Jacoby May 13, 2011 12:45 pm

I’ve gotten my rig stuck probably a dozen times, but never for a good reason.

And that’s even allowing for an especially generous definition of “good reason.”

Forget such legitimate excuses as “I was carrying life-saving serum to diphtheria patients,” or “my passenger just had a heart attack.”

I can’t even make the understandable, albeit silly, claim that I got high-centered on a snowdrift or mired in a mudhole while taking a shortcut because I was late for my kid’s ballgame or a friend’s wedding.

The only commonality in each of my predicaments was my stupidity.

Worse still, in every case I was given ample warning of what was to come, even before my tires began spinning helplessly, like the legs of a turtle flopped onto its shell.

For instance, when a snowbank is taller than you are — presuming you are, like me, an average size adult male — it’s unlikely you’ll be able to plow through it.

Unless you’re driving an Abrams tank. Which I was not.

And still I blundered forward to my fate as though to make it inevitable, a victim not of hubris, as in a Greek tragedy, but of a severe shortage of what a 19th century rancher might have called “horse sense.”

For all my ineptitude, though, I’ve been lucky.

I’m alive, for one thing.

And I’ve never had to survive on snowmelt and convenience store snacks for the better part of two months.

The sum of my punishments is sore feet from having to walk out to the highway a couple times, and the embarrassment of admitting my blunder to my rescuer.

(That role fulfilled most often, and most ably, by my colleague, the eminent photojournalist S. John Collins.)

Anyway, I am reminded most forcefully of my mistakes when I read about people whose errors, though quite similar to my own, end in tragedy rather than annoyance.

The case of Rita and Albert Chretien is the most proximate, both in time and place.

The couple, from British Columbia, Canada, stopped to buy gas and food in Baker City the afternoon of March 19. They were driving from their home to attend a convention in Las Vegas.

Later that day the Chretiens’ two-wheel drive van became stuck on a muddy, and apparently quite remote, Forest Service road in Northern Nevada.

Three days later, Albert Chretien, 59, left the van, hoping to walk to the highway the couple had been driving on and summon help there.

He hasn’t been seen since.

Rita, 56, who stayed with the van, was rescued on May 6 by a couple of hunters.

Commenters have described her survival as “amazing” and “miraculous” and “shocking.”

I can’t quibble with any of those adjectives.

The Chretiens’ plight has so far prompted more questions than answers.

We’ll learn more, I suspect, when Rita Chretien, who has recovered sufficiently that she has returned to British Columbia, speaks publicly.

In the meantime, though, the fragments of fact suggest a sequence that has become familiar, and sadly so, over the past decade in parts of the West infrequently trammeled by people.

The Chretiens had acquired, not long before their trip, a GPS receiver.

The GPS, wondrous device though it is, figures prominently in dozens of episodes that differ only in the details from what befell the Chretiens.

I don’t know whether the couple detoured from a paved two-lane highway onto the muddy backroad at the behest of their GPS unit.

But many other travelers have been led astray in precisely that way.

Some have died as a result.

GPS receivers are at the same time explicitly detailed and utterly devoid of information.

This is a peculiar, and as I mentioned potentially lethal, mix if you also stir in a dollop of sketchy judgment to the mix.

I own a GPS unit and can attest that its database includes pretty much every route that a wheeled vehicle has ever followed.

Trouble is, except for freeways and numbered highways, the thing makes no distinction between a paved road that’s frequently traveled, and a one-lane dirt track that sees considerably more deer traffic than human, and is far better suited to hooves than to all-season radials.

Put another way, with a GPS you can plot what appears to be a feasible driving route from pretty much anyplace to another place.

But the machine is mute about the muddy patch that your two-wheel drive van couldn’t get through even if its motor made 1,000 horsepower instead of 190.

This sort of danger is not limited to drivers who rely on GPS receivers, of course.

The tragedy of the Kim family, perhaps the best known such story in Oregon, involves not a dependence on high-tech electronics but rather on the most basic of navigational aides — a paper map.

In late November 2006 James Kim, his wife and their two daughters tried to drive across the Coast Range on a road shown on their highway map.

Their car bogged down in snow. James Kim tried to hike out for help. He died of hypothermia but his wife and daughters all survived.

I understand how frustrating cases such as the Kims’ and Chretiens’ are.

They seem so unnecessary.

It’s tempting to dismiss such tragedies as exceptions — or worse, to callously brand them as examples of Darwinian selection.

I can’t bring myself round to the latter position.

Perhaps that’s because I have, in a sense, stood in Albert Chretien’s and James Kim’s shoes. I have felt, as I imagine they must have felt, that instant when slight unease becomes the queasy certainty that yes, you’ve screwed up, and maybe quite seriously so.

The obvious solution, I suppose, is that we ought never to venture from the familiar security of the two-lane, fog-striped byway and its comforting signs that agree with the numbers on your map and GPS.

But that seems to me an unsatisfying response, and not merely because it’s statistically invalid — you’re more likely to get killed driving on a highway, certainly, than you are to die because you ventured off the main route and were stranded.

I bristle too at the loss of freedom such a life entails.

Fortunately there is a compromise, I believe, one which greatly reduces the risk to shunpiking travelers but still allows them to indulge in the human instinct to go where few go, to see the side of a mountain forever hidden to most.

The advice is simple: Before you diverge from the “safe” path, make sure you’ve secured a lifeline to it, in the way that alpinists fix ropes to difficult terrain so as to simplify their retreat in case of storm or injury.

Phone a friend or relative and explain your plan. Tell them when to alert police if you haven’t called back.

(Do, in other words, what I have many times failed to do.)

Such a precaution won’t necessarily spare you a night sleeping in your immobilized rig.

But it could very well save your life if the thrill of an unplanned detour devolves into disaster.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.