Reading these stories is easy. Arm chairing what someone should have done differently or explaining how the situation could have been avoided is natural. All I ask before continuing with this story is that you remember that no person is perfect. What is obvious today was not necessarily on yesterday’s mind.
With Shauna back in our company, the 4 of us, Shauna, Brianna, myself, and Doug, drove back to Doug’s, a spot he likes to call, Spirit Bend. Spirit, because he will tell you he is no angel of anything, not even the trail. Bend, because of his spot on the river bend.
We would spend the evening listening to Shauna tell her stories of what happened over those few stranded days in the mountains. Doug was kind enough to let us stay in one of the Spirit Bend yurts while we figured out where the car was and how we might get it back.
Wrong Side of the Gate
Shauna’s side of this search and rescue story begins on Thursday morning, breaking camp a couple of hours after Brianna and I had left to begin our hiking day. Her drive down Forest Road 1050 was well-graded and free of the giant holes and rocks she had experienced on the previous day. Imagine Shauna’s shock when a locked gate with a ‘Road Closed’ sign greeted her over halfway into the journey to our meet spot at the Cook and Green. She did not know it at the time, but this locked gate was the only thing standing between her and a well-maintained road to where Brianna and I would be waiting.
It’s more than a little amusing that Shauna had no car problems en route to the locked gate. A local DNR officer would later tell us that he has been trying to get that gate removed for years because it does not serve an actual purpose. Locals hate the gate so much that the DNR has shown up to find that the locks and the gate had been cut into half a dozen pieces. Since there are several groups needing access through the gate at any given time, and no real reason for the gate to be there, it is secured by 20 different locks all strung together in a chain. If you have 1 key or 1 combo, you can unlock and open the gate.
For Shauna, trouble struck just 7 miles after the forced turn around at the locked gate. Shauna had pulled the Toyota RAV 4 off to the side of the road for a quick pee break when it happened. She heard the sound of air escaping through flaps of rubber before she saw the two giant slices in the driver’s side rear tire.
Normally, a flat tire can be temporarily fixed by replacing it with a spare. Imagine her surprise when she looked for a spare tire and tire iron and found… an empty compartment.
Something I did not know before this whole experience is that many rental vehicles do not come with spare tires unless you pay extra. This is especially interesting because neither of us was asked if this was an add-on we wanted to pay for when setting up the reservations.
To Stay or To Go
My first question to Shauna upon her return was, “if you had enough cell signal to send us the text about the road closure, why didn’t you go back to that spot and let us know you were stranded?” The short answer is that the spot where she had a cell signal was on the other side of an off-grid town and up a side road she never intended to drive up.
There was no way for her to know that the quickest shortest path to safety would have been to walk back to the gate.
- A left turn out of the gate leads directly to the Cook and Green. Brianna and I would have been gone by the time she would have arrived, but it is a fairly popular road and trailhead.
- A right turn leads to the popular Applegate Reservoir area, a very active recreation spot for both Oregonians and Californians.
Likely, Shauna would not have gone back to the locked gate even if she had known the above to be true. She would have had to walk through the small off-grid town, a non-starter. No people were walking around or visible either of the times she drove through the area. Maybe there were cool people there that would have helped her, but I’m inclined to agree with Shauna’s decision not to go that route, not because I think there is anything wrong with that town, I drove through it 4 times and never saw anything out of the ordinary. Intuition is important in survival situations and she choose to follow hers.
The vehicle was disabled, this is true. What was also true is that the vehicle was filled with over a week’s worth of food, water, and other supplies. Shauna had access to a water filter, tents, and sleeping bags, everything she needed to both survive and be comfortable. If she wanted to have coffee in the morning and a beer at night, she could, because everything was in the vehicle.
Unsure what to do, Shauna packed her hiking bag up with provisions and headed back the way she had come. The walk would take more daylight than was left on that Thursday at around 1pm. Camping in the middle of nowhere is nothing new to any of us who search for the roads less traveled. She set up the hammock between a couple of trees and let the sounds of a completely silent forest rock her to sleep.
Friday morning found Shauna questioning her decision to leave the vehicle, forcing an about-face back to the Toyota for a new plan. The day was forecasted to be above 100 again, having access to air conditioning would help her do things like eat food, which had become almost impossible with all the anxiety rolling around in her head. She would spend the second night in the backseat made into a bed, leaving the car doors open. Whether it was hot flashes or she was on an area of the mountain that retained heat more so than others, a cool breeze helped with getting to sleep.
Shauna left the car again early Saturday morning and was about 7 miles down the road when the helicopter found her. The sounds of chopper blades brought a quick stop to the breakfast she had been preparing, jumping to her feet in hopeful anticipation. The helicopter appeared and disappeared without any recognition of her existence.
What could she possibly do to get search and rescue’s attention if they came back? Rummaging through her backpack, she found an orange towel and began waving it in a circle like a cowgirl at a rodeo. This time the helicopter hovered above her and acknowledged her existence over a loudspeaker, “Remove your sticks from the road and back away.” The sticks they were referring to was a wooden message she had created on the road, “HELP FLAT”.
The helicopter landed long enough for Shauna to jump in for her ride to safety. Search and rescue had not been able to find her car and asked if she could point them to it’s location before they headed back down the mountain. Not only could she point them in the right direction, she had dropped a location pin on her phone for exactly where the car was. The pilots took the phone and followed Apple Maps directly to the Toyota. Both of the men agreed that Shauna had done the right thing by moving away from the car, which was almost entirely covered by trees, and attempting to make a sign in a clearing.
Now that we know what happened to each side of the story over those 3 days, there is still 1 outstanding question – how do you retrieve a disabled vehicle from a remote mountain road in Northern California? We had no idea. Lucky for us, our new friend Doug is basically the Daniel Ocean of Seiad Valley.
There is a scene in the Ocean’s 11 movie where Daniel and Rusty are explaining their plan to rob the casinos,
Saul: I have a question, say we get into the cage, and through the security doors there and down the elevator we can’t move, and past the guards with the guns, and into the vault we can’t open…
Rusty: Without being seen by the cameras.
Danny: Oh yeah, sorry, I forgot to mention that.
Saul: Yeah well, say we do all that… uh… we’re just supposed to walk out of there with $150,000,000 in cash on us, without getting stopped?
Saul: Oh. Okay.
Recovering the vehicle felt a lot like that.
Me: Once we get past the gate we can’t unlock, down the road that cannot be driven, and replace the wheel we have no way of fixing, we just drive the car back down the mountain?
Me: Oh. Cool.
All joking aside, Doug worked miracles. He donated 3 days of his time and truck to us, methodically attacking each of the problems. A local friend, Ed, reached out to the DNR on Saturday and got us a code to unlock the closed gate. On Sunday, Doug and I drove up past the gate we could now unlock and picked up the tire. On Monday, Doug and I rode over to Yreka (pronounced Y-reka) to have the tire fixed before driving another 2.5 hours back up the mountain and re-equipping the Toyota’s missing fourth foot.
Driving the Toyota back across the same road that had sliced Shauna’s tire was nerve-racking. It’s not a mystery as to what sliced through the rubber so easily, bits of sharp shale littered the forest road for .2 of a mile out. My concern wasn’t for the rental car, it was the thought that everything Doug had done for us could be undone by 1 wrong roll of the tire.
I don’t think it’s possible to truly ever repay someone for performing miracles on your behalf, but we tried. Not only was he one of the only people in the world who could have helped us with all of our needs, he also let us stay in his Yurt and hang out in his house the entire time.
Shauna and Brianna stayed back each day to watch the dogs, clean the house and help with random yard work. Doug stays so busy he had not had a chance to clean up ash and dust from the nearby fire from a month ago, so that’s what they focused on.
The thing about hiking that might not be obvious to some is that walking is only part of the adventure. Walking is the excuse I use to open up the door to a new world and experience the unknown. Sure, we have been off trail for 5 days at this point, but what an experience! Without the series of unfortunate events, we would have missed out on all of these crazy experiences, would not have met Doug, and would have had no idea how great the people of Seiad Valley are.
If you do not put anything out into the world, you almost certainly will not get anything back. At the end of all the chaos, Doug took us on a 3-hour whitewater rafting trip in his purple raft. Hard to complain about the last week when there’s nothing to complain about.