Stranded in Death Valley: Epilogue

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First, make sure you read these:

When officer Loggins arrived, it finally felt as though we could breath easy. The worst was behind us and now all we had to do was figure out what to do next. We climbed into the back of his squad car, like so many criminals, only we were being escorted, instead of arrested. There, waiting for us was two gallons of water. As I cracked into one and began fiendishly guzzling, officer Loggins began the drive out. He marveled at the audacity, us attempting this route with a car. His police cruiser handled the dirt road much better than our Camry had.

Beside me, Betsy was beginning to show her fatigue. She was displaying the early signs of heat exhaustion. She became nauseous, her skin flushed, and worst of all, she had stopped sweating. She was in extreme discomfort and curled up into a ball on the seat next to me. I tried my best to keep a steady flow of fluids in her system, but I knew that what she needed most was just a little rest. I had no idea when we would have that luxury. I sent word to my family and friends that our rescue had finally arrived. We tried to reach Betsy’s mother, to no avail.

The officer told us that he would take us to the nearest town, Lone Pine. There he could drop us off at a tow truck company, or at the local McDonalds. I don’t know what I was expecting, but the complete lack of fanfare made me chuckle despite myself. There would be no one there to tell us that they were glad that we were alright. This wasn’t a movie. This was real life and we were going to get dropped at McDonalds. Mind you, this didn’t bother me. I mean, hell, we were gone for only a few hours, and the only reason that people knew we were stranded, was because we had told them. When officer Loggins dropped us off, for his part, he got a handshake (from me), a hug (from Betsy), and a picture with us both. I offered to buy him lunch, but he said that his wife had it waiting for him at home. He went on his way and we went inside the McDonalds to figure things out.

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When we had our wits about us, Betsy had remembered that she had an AAA membership. We kept our fingers crossed that they would come out and tow the vehicle for us, either for free, or for much cheaper than a non-AAA affiliated shop. However, It was a complete pain in the ass to get someone to help us, because we were in CA, but Betsy’s coverage membership was started in MN. When we called the CA office, they told us that we would need to talk to the MN office. When we talked to the MN office, they would transfer us to the CA office. And so it went, until my phone was near to dead. Once we finally got a hold of someone and placed an order, we were contacted by a tow shop. After telling them about our situation, they flat out told us that they wouldn’t come to where we were stuck. So it was back to AAA to get a second company. When the second company refused us as well, I knew that we had no recourse, but to go to the shop that officer Loggins had told us about, Miller’s Towing. He said that they specialize in difficult tows, but are priced accordingly. At this point, it seemed like an unavoidable expense.

A Swiss gentleman, whose name I believe was Feuk (pronounced like the expletive), was sitting by himself at the table next to us and heard me talking to AAA. After I got off of the phone, he asked if I was alright and we got to talking. After hearing our story, he offered to take me back out to our car, and he would try to pull us out with his rental truck. I already knew this plan would fail. Our car was beyond the help of mortal man. I thanked him for the offer, but accepted his offer to drive Betsy and me to Miller’s Towing.

John Miller is no stranger to tough tows. One look at his wall reveals that he has been the hero of many news stories and magazine articles. He’s seen it all and didn’t even flinch when I told him the mess I had gotten us in. Before I could even tell him about it though, he noticed the condition that Betsy was in and rushed to take care of her. He got her a bottle of water and a wet towel to help cool her face. He offered to go to the store and get her a Gatorade. When it came to the actual tow, initially he wanted me to go out to the site with him, either to help, or just to lead him to where the car was stuck. When he assessed that Betsy needed rest, he sent me in his truck to check her into a motel. When I returned with his truck, he told me that he and one of the other workers would go out that evening and retrieve my car, but that I should go back to the hotel and take care of Betsy. I walked about a mile and a half back to the motel and did my best to do just that.

Betsy woke up just long enough to get some food into her that evening, but then went right back to sleep. By the morning, she was feeling 100% better. In the night, I got a call at the motel that they had successfully retrieved my car, but that it looked pretty bad and was stuck far worse than they anticipated. He didn’t give specifics, but told me to prepare for the worst. Stop by in the morning and pick it up though.

John Miller (left)
John Miller (left)

In the morning, I left Betsy sleeping and walked back to Miller’s. They told me that one of the tires was flat and there was significant damage to the car’s body and undercarriage. While the tire was being fitted, they hoisted the car up, so that I could see the damage to the underside. It was hard to look at. The oil pan was smashed in, as well as the gas tank. The rubber had been frayed away from the fuel line (though the hose was still in tact), and every arm, bracket and pipe was worn away and damaged. They bolted the rear bumper back in place and got the car ready to go. It was still in drivable condition, despite the way it looked. The only thing left to do was to pay the bill. On the way to the register, I noticed a t-shirt hanging on the wall, advertising the shop. I asked if they had any more in stock, and John said to me, “hell, when you have a $2000 tow, the least we can do is throw in a shirt.” And that’s how I got my Miller’s Towing shirt.

After a quick carwash, Betsy and I checked out of the motel, had breakfast at a local diner and headed back out on the road. We decided that we weren’t going to let a little hiccup in our journey ruin our entire trip. We modified our plans and headed toward Las Vegas. This road wouldn’t end until we were back in Minnesota, and we still had a music festival to attend in Tennessee (Bonnaroo) in less than a week. That tough little beat up Camry made it all the way home, another nearly 3000 miles after that debacle in Death Valley, 7500 miles in all.

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Whenever I tell people this story, they inevitably ask me if I purchased the optional insurance on the rental car. I have to tell them no, and that consequently I would be held responsible for all of the damage that I did to that poor rental car. That immediately makes me seem like that irresponsible kid, who would rather pay a lot later, than a little more right now. The truth is that I didn’t get the insurance, because I thought I was already covered.

Before we left on our trip. Before we even picked up the rental car, I called my credit card company. I said to them, “I know this might be weird, but I distinctly remember hearing you guys tell me before, that if I ever rented a car, I would be eligible for insurance coverage through you guys. Is that true, or am I making things up again?” To which they told me, “Of course it’s true. You have our emergency benefits package, which covers collision insurance for any rental car you have.” Satisfied and relieved, I checked ‘no’ on the optional insurance box at the rental office.

Fast forward a week or so, and I’m now stuck in the desert. I had just gotten off of the phone with the sheriff’s office and they told me that they were organizing a search and rescue and were going to send someone to get us as soon as they could. After letting my family and friends know that I would hopefully be getting rescued soon, the next call I made was to the car rental office. I let them know about the car. I wanted to know their procedure, just in case the car would no longer be operational and I needed to get it swapped out for a new one. Then, I called my credit card company. Once again they assured me that I was covered and had nothing to worry about. I would be reimbursed for any out of pocket expenses, and all damages to the vehicle would be taken care of by them as well. I was extremely relieved, and with that load off of my chest, I knew, finally, that everything would be ok. The last thing the Capital One representative wanted to do, just to be able to start a claim, was to go through all the terms and conditions. As he listed off each stipulation that might disqualify me from coverage, I answered no, and was pleased with their service. Then came the last condition. It stated that if the operator of the rental vehicle in question had rented or intended to rent the vehicle for more than 15 consecutive days, they would not be eligible for insurance coverage. That meant that even though I was only on day 8 of my trip, the fact that my rental agreement stated that my intent was to rent for 22 days, I did not qualify for insurance coverage and could not file a claim. Basically, I was fucked.

So, I put that shit out of my mind and finished my trip. Now that it is over, and the rental car is returned, I just have to wait for a bill in the mail. The initial estimate from the shop is that repairs will cost upwards of $6000. That doesn’t include the $500 processing fee, and whatever fee they charge for loss of income, while the car was away in the shop. On top of the $2000 I spent on the tow, that’ll leave me around $9000 poorer. I guess good stories cost good money. That must mean that this one is really good. I guess the lesson there is to take the time to make sure that you have insurance covered, somehow, whenever you rent a car.

***POST EDIT*** 10/11/2013

I decided that I needed to conclude this post with a little explanation, because there were more than a few locals, who were dissatisfied with how this post ended. I in no way intended it to sound as though the only lesson that I learned from this ordeal was that you should make sure to have insurance on your rental car when you do dumb things like drive a sedan on an off-road trail, however, that was that the impression that they got. I would like to take a moment to clarify some points, and to interject a few other lessons that were hammered home, throughout a week or so worth of chat-room bickering with these locals.

1. Since I did mention it, I will reiterate: you should make sure that your car is always covered with insurance, but it has (rightly) been pointed out to me, that in this case, my claim would likely have been denied anyway, due to my having left the paved road. That will often times invalidate an insurance claim.

2. There is no substitute for proper planning and preparation. A paper map (and compass) and the advice of locals are a great start, along with ensuring that you have a proper vehicle for your adventure, but provisions, water, and proper equipment are also a definite necessity. I always find packing lists to be invaluable.

3. Know as much as you can about where you are going. Even though our trip spanned more than 15 states and over a hundred sites, there is no reason why I should have been so unprepared for what I was going to deal with in Death Valley (as some have pointed out, the word “death” is in the name. What was I expecting?) The internet would more than Provide all of the requisite information to make sure that I was prepared for that. Make sure to use the resources at your disposal, including chat forums frequented by locals. They may very well be the best resource out there, and it seems that if they can, they might even meet up with you to help you get going in the right direction (though I wouldn’t count on that. They, of course, have lives of their own).

4. Pride is the biggest killer in a situation like this. Even though there is a time for determined perseverance and unrelenting dedication, and sometimes you can steamroll your way to your destination, sometimes you just have to know when the risk outweighs the rewards. You need to know when to pack it up, turn around and find a different way to your destination. ANY situation where you are needlessly putting someone’s life in danger, especially when it is someone besides yourself, you need to be cognizant of the potential consequences. There were a half a dozen times where I should have turned around and found an alternate route to the Racetrack, but I had made up my mind and it almost cost me dearly.

5. Use the technology at your disposal whenever possible, but DO NOT become so reliant on it, that you give it the power to fuck you over. If you do that, then eventually it will. I could easily say that it was the GPS that led me to that horrible road, where all of these things happened, but that would be a cop out. It was my reliance on that technology, and my blind faith in it that led me to that, and it was lucky that I found a cell signal and was able to be rescued by the sheriff’s dept. Technology is meant to be a tool, used in accordance with a little common sense.

6. Always make sure that someone knows where you’re going to be at all times when you are traveling, especially when you are traveling in a place as potentially dangerous as Death Valley. If we really had been stranded for more than just a few hours, no one would have even known that we were missing, because no one knew where we were going or what we were doing. It would have been days before someone thought to wonder about us. That’s a scary thought.

7. What was hammered home by the local guys (and maybe girls???) on some of these boards was the impact that tourists who bumble in and find themselves in these ordeals have on the local residents of these parts. Not only have many these people had to rescue stranded travelers (sometimes on multiple occasions), but sometimes those locals are also put at risk in doing so. If they go out for trips and bring enough provisions for themselves, but then they have to give some to some stranded tourist, or have to use their supplies to help rescue a broken-down vehicle, that means that they don’t have those supplies and provisions for themselves, to use on their trip. This means that they either have to cut their trip short, or take their chances, underprepared and under supplied. Also, the parks are run by the government, who seek to restrict public access to them. Every time an event like mine happens, it is just another brick in the wall that can be used to keep them (and everyone) out. Luckily my event will likely go unnoticed (I suspect). Officer Loggins told me that no police report would be filed as a result of our search and rescue (I guess that’s how insignificant of an event it was to them). However, every stupid decision made out in a place like that has the potential to end in tragedy. I guess what I’m saying is, respect the places you are visiting. This is not a new lesson for me. It’s just the first time that I have been so disrespectful in a place I was visiting. Keep in mind that your actions reach farther than just your own experiences and lives. They affect people you will probably never meet.

8. Finally, the most important lesson that I can share with you that this experience has reinforced for me is that there is no monetary value that you can put on human life. I have no bitterness, nor to I harbor any anger or resentment about the substantial amount of debt that no find myself in, because of this situation. The rental company decided that they didn’t want to fix the car, and so they called it a total loss and sent me a bill for $14,500. I pay them a nominal sum each month and they are satisfied. That added to the $2000 tow bill brings the grand total to $16,500. I would easily have paid double or triple that amount to ensure the safety of my girlfriend and myself… or really of anyone for that matter, be they friend or stranger. Human life is something to be valued. I don’t take that for granted.

All that being said, I still crave adventure and sometimes that means going outside of your comfort zone and putting yourself in situations where you could possibly make a mistake. Sometimes that means throwing caution to the wind and doing something on the spur of the moment. I cherish those moments. All you can do is prepare yourself as best as you can and do what’s in your power to make the right choices. I can guarantee you that if I ever find myself out anywhere near Death Valley, the Lippencott Pass, or Saline Valley in the future, I will be much better prepared to take this place on.

If you want to check out the chat forums I was talking about, you can click the links, here:

Panamint Valley

Saline Preservation

12 Comments Add yours

  1. Joel says:

    “And that’s how I got my Miller’s Towing shirt.”
    I love it! Glad you two made it through all that okay.

  2. Bob McNamara says:

    I have driven the Lippencott Road both up and down many times. I have also had the “pleasure” of meeting the guys from Miller’s Towing… they have truly seen it all! I am a Minnesotan and make a western trek to DV almost every year. I hope you give it another chance, properly equipped and trained. It is an amazing place. The Racetrack is just one of many, many places worth the effort to get to (next time , if your driving a rental, take the long route). Thanks for sharing your story…

  3. Bob McNamara says:

    Hey David, fellow Minnesotan here. I have made the trek to DV over 30 times… my favorite place on earth. I have driven the Lippencott Road many times both up and down, but with the right vehicle and in the daylight. I hope your experience doesn’t turn you off to desert travel. The Racetrack is just one of many, many wonders of DV that are worth the effort to visit, just be properly equipped and supplied. If you go by rental car again, I suggest taking the longer route (although still a somewhat rough road) and know that even if you HAD bought the added insurance it would have been a waste of money, most car rental insurance ends at the end of the pavement (yep, experience talking here)! Thanks for sharing your story….

  4. Michael says:

    Thanks for sharing your story. It will help others! Good luck.

  5. Tom Harvey says:

    A couple of years ago a woman from Las Vegas followed gps instructions across Death Valley NP and wound getting stuck in sand on a little used road in summer. The woman survived, but her young son perished before help arrived.
    About 5 years ago I was coming out of Saline Valley in my Land Rover in fog during a winter storm, and came upon a regular sedan headed north on the Saline Valley road. They asked my about conditions between there and Racetrack and I told them to forget going in that way, but to go the long way around Ubehebe Crater. They were lucky I stopped to chat.

  6. leeG says:

    Sometimes a good adventure has a price. Your price was a bit steep but the event has provided you with a great campfire story for the rest of your life. If you don’t break something now and then you aren’t playing hard enough. Hope to see you on the dirt in DV sometime, CamryKiller.
    :O)
    Lee G

  7. aa says:

    A good story, hopes it helps others! DV is merciless to those who are ill prepared. Sorry about the car bill though 😦

  8. Dave says:

    Wow, just wow. Did it never occur to you to turn round at all??? Clearly the road was not suitable for your car but thiking it’s got to get better just put you and Betsy further and further into danger. Pure good luck saved both your lives, any one of those rocks you bounced over could have turned this into a tail of death..

    1. David Uhr says:

      Well Dave, I thought that I was pretty clear about that throughout the posts. There were several times where I should have turned around, or where I even contemplated it, but stubbornly decided to press ever forward. My hindsight is 20/20, but that’s all inconsequential now, because I don’t have the ability to go back and change those decisions. Perhaps if you were in the same situation as me you would have made different decisions. I hope so, but I guess we have differing opinions as to what saved Betsy and my lives. You can call it luck if you want and you can say that “any one of those rocks that you bounced over” could have killed us, but that’s just a convenient way of saying that something that didn’t happen could have happened, but it didn’t happen, so that must mean that it didn’t happen because of dumb luck. You can believe that if you want, but then every time that you leave the house and you step on a rock and it doesn’t turn your ankle, that means that it was only dumb luck that stayed the rock and left you injury free. I may have exercised extremely poor decision making, but that doesn’t diminish the other parts of the story, at least not in my opinion. It was my driving ability that allowed my to navigate that terrain in a vehicle that was ill-equipped for off-roading (I guess that’s sort of a weird conundrum. it was my ability to navigate that terrain that allowed me to keep driving a pass that was not suitable for cars, thus putting us in more and more danger). It was that same skill that allowed me to back off of a narrow cliff road in pitch black conditions. It was my understanding of basic survival techniques that enabled me to come up with a plan to get us out of the situation that I had put us in. It was that plan that helped us find a cell phone signal. We weren’t lost, wandering around aimlessly in the desert. We were moving in a direction, along a road, stopping for water, food, and to check for cell phone signal and GPS placement. I was able to direct the sheriff’s department to our location, so they could easily find us. Yes, I made poor decisions along the way, and yes I relied too much on technology. Yes, I needlessly put my girlfriend and myself into more and more danger. Yes, any one of those rocks could have killed me… or I could have fallen off of a cliff… or I could have died of exposure… or a wild animal could have come across us and tore us to bits… or we could have gotten bit by a snake… or all of that could have happened, but didn’t, and not merely due to “pure luck” as you put it. But, that’s just my opinion, which I’m entitled to, just as you are to yours. It’s all speculation now anyway. Thanks for your thoughts.

  9. Keith says:

    Interesting story. Glad it worked out okay in the end for you and Betsy. Remember that scars are like tattoos with better stories. You earned it. My only thought is that since you’ve now paid for a somewhat battered Camry, you should be driving it since you say it was still drivable. Someone or something smiled on you (luck, God, karma, whatever it was…it worked). Enjoy your travels, I enjoyed your story-telling.

  10. Bob says:

    Well the closest I can come to that was being stuck at the Jamestown. Bridge in beautiful Rhode Island. My wife in labor and no money to pay the toll We had to pull the seats out of the ( And GET THIS) Unites States Coast Guard pick up truck. I think the toll booth operator was just busting our balls or in my wife’s case was a soon to be very sore vagina.

    Now I might add the 36 hours with no sleep during a search and rescue case I was on. (Yes Search And Rescue) The irony. Then the 17 hour labor my wife had gone through whilst I was public enimy number one during the process of child birth. When your asked to get her some ice, do so . That walk to the ice machine is like going on a stroll through the forest and the birds are singing, you are free, free at last. Even if it’s just for a few minutes . It’s gets better or worse depending on how you look at it. Total cost of child birth .
    $26.50. $1.50 and a piece of lint covered candy for the toll booth operator. $25.00 for food during my wife’s stay at the Newport Navel Hospital in Rhode Island. :0)

  11. johnc says:

    I have had a totaled car before, you can keep it vs giving it up. The company will pay most of it off, and keep a percent. In my case, it was 27% of the amount paid by the insurance company. I kept the car and drove it for years. You could have probably sold the car yourself and recouped some of that $14,500 dollars.

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