True Life Adventure Turning Into a Nightmare in the Dark Forest


Out of Gas

After being part-time gold miners for more than 15 years, my husband Bill and I had the opportunity to move to Happy Camp, California, in 1987. We jumped at the chance; this was a longtime dream come true for us. We had been spending our summers mining in the area for a number of years, and there was nowhere else on earth we’d rather live!

Although our southern California home was in a relatively small town when we were young, we were inevitably caught in the urban sprawl that moved ever eastward from Los Angeles. The “culture shock” of moving to a town of less than 1,000 people that was two hours away from “city” shopping took some getting used to, but we thought we’d adapted to it long ago.

However, coming home from a shopping trip recently, we ran out of gas. In our 39 years of marriage, this was a first. The gas gauge is something Bill watches closely, because he loves to wait until he is down to the last delicious drop or two before he fills the tank. After he fills’er up, he always proudly says “Well, I had’er down to less than a gallon,” or whatever. He’s in some kind of contest to see who can let the tank run lowest without running out, only he’s not playing with anyone else.

Driving along our winding river road is a real treat any time of year, but the beginning of each season is especially beautiful. Spring was just beginning to spread her magic wand, and the bright green of new foliage, literally hundreds of waterfalls cascading down the mountainsides to tumble into the river, dog-wood in bloom, wisps of mist clinging to the rich green of pine and fir, and the fresh grass on the roadsides looking as polished as a golf green presented a picture postcard around each curve of the road. It was spattering rain off and on as we started up the far side of Cade Mountain, ten miles from town, and I could just make out the “35 mile an hour” curve sign ahead when we began slowing down.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Why are you slowing down?” Very quietly and calmly, Bill said, “We’re out of gas.” “What?” I asked, thinking I must not be hearing him right.

“We’re out of gas,” he repeated in that same calm, quiet voice (it was very unlike him).

Running out of gas is a larger problem for us than most, because we live in the country and our two-hour trip is through largely uninhabited forest. It had just turned full dark, and we had removed the flashlight from the truck two days before to replace the batteries and hadn’t returned it.

I was still trying to absorb what he’d told me. Then, suddenly, as we slowly rounded a curve, and he pumped the pedal, the truck came to life and he floored the gas pedal. “What are you doing?” I squeaked, as I grabbed for the handle above the door. Thrown from side to side, we lurched along, going alternately fast as gasoline fed to the carburetor, and slowing as the tilt of the roadbed discontinued the feed.

Now approaching the “25 mile an hour” curve sign, we had already taken the 35 mile curve at 50, and our speed was not lessening. “Leave me alone,” he said grimly. “I know what I’m doing.” I began a reply, but stopped abruptly; we’d both already noticed that we were rapidly losing speed, again. Our spurt of gas was gone, and we searched both sides of the road quickly for a turnout. Suddenly, a turnout took on an entirely new perspective.

The headlights finally picked one out on the opposite side of the road, and he spun the wheel hard, saying he wanted the truck pointing downhill, to give us gas to start it again.

As we came to rest, we sat in the darkness for a moment. Then the prospect of walking all the way to town crept in, much as the blackness of the night seeped into the cab of the truck, there on the mountain in complete silence.

“How far is it back to the last house?” I inquired quietly, back in the grips of a panic situation. “Too far,” he said. “If we coasted all the way to the bottom, it would still be miles further than walking to town from here. But if we can just get to the top, we can coast all the way to town.”

“We’ll never make it to the top”, I said. “There are still several curves, and hardly any turnouts! And, it’s a lot steeper from here on.”

This speech made him angry again; and with just a hint of desperation in his voice, he said “Don’t tell me that! I know we can make it to the top!” Now, to really appreciate that statement, you would have to know Bill. To simply say he is pessimistic is much too optimistic. He’s the original “doom and gloom” guy.

“I’m going to rock the truck,” Bill said as he got out. I waited inside while he rocked it back and forth a number of times. When he’d re-entered, the headlights lit up the dark night as he tried the motor again. It started, but the truck wouldn’t move. We’d come to rest in a little “dip,” and it couldn’t get over the top; it just “putt- putted.”

After going through the rocking-thing allover again, he said “We’re going to have to push it up this little hill to get it level. All the gas is running to your side.” Although he didn’t say any more, I knew the thought was there; this was not going to be easy, since I am a complete weakling. And, he’s pretty much right. He’s been telling me for 39 years that his next wife is going to be strong! I couldn’t remember the last time I’d pushed a car and didn’t even want to try. We had a distance of about 12 feet to go, in sparse grass and that slimy, red clay-mud that slips so easily.

Our first attempt, pushing from each side, was a complete failure. Bill then went to the rear of the truck, and we rocked it front-to-back first, giving it all we had and it actually started moving. Struggling and straining, we moved forward several feet. Then a wheel fell into a hole and we stopped to rest. We climbed inside, as it was growing colder. Suddenly, several cars approached, heading uphill. I hit the emergency flasher button, but after the third vehicle passed us without slowing down, I realized that with our headlights shining directly at the oncoming cars, they couldn’t see us, or our vehicle, in the dark–0nly our head lights. It was likely someone from town. But if they couldn’t see that it was someone they knew, they would keep going, and they did. It seemed very quiet each time I turned the flashers off, and we were left in the dark with only an echo of the sound the passerby’s had made.

Our next attempt at getting out of the “hole” did not go well. We rested, and after two more tries, we finally reached level ground with only minor injuries and some mud splatters.

Bill rocked the truck again, started it, and it roared to life! He spun it around onto the highway, and we were suddenly careening up the mountainside like a bucking bronco! It would momentarily die; but as the road slanted, come to life again. We rocketed around a couple of curves, bucking and lurching, but the truck began sputtering her last gasps of gasoline now as the road grew steeper. Luckily, a small wide spot just large enough for the truck appeared on the right, and Bill guided her inside as she rolled to a stop.

This was it. We both knew it. With no room to maneuver and the truck on a steep incline, she’d given us every drop of gasoline she had to give. We sat in the dark silence for a moment. Then, “Lock up your side of the truck-I’m going to lock the back,” Bill said as he opened his door. I gathered up things to take, and put the rest behind the seat. How long would it take to walk five miles? As he came back up to the cab, Bill said “You know, it’s still early. We might stand a better chance of getting a ride to town if we’re near the truck.” That sounded good to me. I wasn’t exactly jumping for joy at the thought of walking to town now that the bears were out again. And it was so dark; I’d step on a skunk before seeing it. I checked my watch-it was just 7:30 p.m. We decided to have a cigarette; and if no one came before we finished, we were on our way.

I leaned against the truck as our situation really began to sink in. Just then, headlights appeared around the curve below us, and another vehicle-no, two of them, rushed out of the darkness. I ran to the back of the truck, stood directly in their headlights, and waved my arms in a distress signal. It worked! The first vehicle slowed to a stop above us. As Bill walked to the driver’s window, I suddenly wondered if I’d been smart-who knew who this might be? Then I heard “Hello!” and recognized the voice as that of Gary Wright, a friend. What luck! And, of all things, he had a five-gallon gas can he’d just filled in town! I didn’t realize just how concerned I’d been until then, and my legs began trembling. I leaned against the truck gratefully as they chatted, filling the tank with five big gallons of gasoline. After many thanks, we stowed his can to refill in the morning, and were on our way. We were silent with our thoughts for the rest of the ride down to the welcome lights of town and home.

Our relief at having the situation resolved was shared with the knowledge that we’d easily learned a very valuable lesson about living in the country. There are always tradeoffs-things you must give up to live in an area, wherever it may be. We consider ourselves so lucky to live where we are that we’d give much more than what’s necessary for all the rewards of living here.