What would you do if your entire world and worldly possessions sat on the edge of a muddy abyss? Jorge and Jessica Gonzalez of Live Work Wander share through words and illustration one of the most harrowing moments of their life on the road.
Words by Jorge Gonzalez
Illustrations by Jessica Gonzalez
Memorial Day Mud Hole
There are experiences that once felt take on a phenomenology all their own, quite distinct from the typical internal firings of the mind. Memory is such a strange thing, inhabiting a thick soup of swirling, blurry mental images mixed with odd, spicy sensations. As if by simple recall, the hairs on the back of your neck become electric, the pace of your blood quickens, thickening into heavy plasma as your heart remembers the acute sensation of panic, adrenaline, and focused action all filtering into ventricles and atriums and all those other bits in your chest. The scalp warms and tingles, lips purse tightly, your abdomen numbs, breaths are shorter, and all at once you recall that this feeling is only familiar because of its proximity to a mental picture of an event in which you very much felt completely alive.
In such psychosomatic sensations, you are immediately transported to the event in question as if living it again in that moment even if you’re just sitting, as I am, on a couch in suburban Colorado attempting to piece together this story from a patchwork of mental sparks and a tingling scalp.
The meadow that morning was vibrating with the scent of blossoming wild flowers, their names a mystery to me, weaving their incense in the open spaces, smelling as fresh and familiar as the moist dirt in which they grew. Underneath a deep cyan sky we did our calisthenics and yoga at sunrise, you know, to get the blood flowing and to hold age at bay with its attendant slowing metabolism forcing that familiar Sponge-Bob-Dad-Bod to take amorphous shape.
We’d recently made it to Wyoming in hopes of finally exploring an area that had, at that point in our travels, eluded our touch, and we camped just off Forest Road 870 in Medicine Bow National Forest. It was a camp spot which if I’m honest, was poorly chosen as our Syncro’s aggressive all-terrains carved a path in the soft green growth of the meadow, in a place that isn’t for camping but for allowing our Mother to grow wild. That is to say, meadows are for Her and not for our four wheel drives. Take care to not follow our example.
For years we’d passed through Wyoming promising ourselves to delve into its wind and range where once the mighty bison roamed and the Cheyenne people settled; to explore those parts of its backcountry that don’t bear the names Teton or Yellowstone or Beartooth. Much of the area in the south is underrated, as if forgotten simply for being in the shadow of such titanic locales in the north west of the state.
But there’s something about Medicine Bow, about the name, that moves us deeply. According to the Wyoming State Parks website, the story behind the name is thought to have originated from the Amerindian tribes that called the area home. They
“…found mountain mahogany in one of the mountain valleys from which bows of exceptional quality were made. It became the custom of friendly tribes to assemble there annually and construct their weapons. At these assemblies, there were ceremonial powwows for the cure of disease which, in the hybrid speech that developed between the Indians and the early settlers, was known as ‘making medicine.’ Eventually, the settlers associated the terms ‘making–medicine’ and ‘making–bow’…”
The name Medicine Bow National Forest—later appropriated by the Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service—denotes the forests which happen to be in the watershed created by spring snow melts. Its name and etymology strikes a chord in our hearts that beckons us to set foot in that forest or better yet, to traverse its myriad road networks in our Volkswagen Syncro and camp among its aspens and pines, to listen to its birds sing between the gentle rustle of leaves dancing in the still cool spring breeze.
Returning then to that beautiful morning in the forest, the sun barely having crested above the still snowy ranges in the distant edges of the scene. Our goal there was one of exploration as always but also to skirt around a closed section of HWY 70 that, if we could navigate the forest road network system properly, would spit us out on the other side of the closure giving us open tarmac that lead to our ultimate goal of getting nearer to Medicine Bow Peak. So with a rough plan in hand, we set off to see if we could get around the closure just by navigating on backcountry forest roads.
Pulling away from our camp and leaving the meadow, the forest enveloped us, our Syncro and its whining turbo a loud reminder to the surrounding wilderness that at some point, civilization always defaces the quiet calm that rests in the space between trees. In the spring snow melt, mud puddle after mud puddle pushed and pulled our Syncro in various directions, its tail swinging out in some especially deep sections, thick brown water splashing up the sides of the van and sometimes flying into our open windows. In the rear of the van, Petunya our schnauzer rested sleepily even while the van tossed and trundled in ever deepening puddles and over fallen logs that themselves lay sleepily across our path. Linus, our little 7lbs dachshund, sat up, yawning from time to time no doubt wondering when lunch would be served and how best to weasel his way into either my arms or Jessica’s. But Jessica’s were busy with a steering wheel and gear shifter, and mine were busy attempting to hold our camera steady to log the adventure. Sorry, Linus. Not sorry.
Mud sucks. No really. It sucks. Literally. It pulls you to where it wants and then it almost seems to inhale you, locking you in its mushy jaws before inexplicably deciding to spit you out in the opposite place you intended. The New York Times has quoted Mud as saying:
“Hey, you may want to go left, but I’m gonna make you go right because I Am Mud and F*ck You.”
Fake news? Maybe, maybe not. I’m sure someone on Twitter has 240 characters to set us all straight.
Measures can be taken to mitigate mud’s stubbornness like airing down tires to 15psi or lower, having a nice set of 35” muddies or larger, a gas guzzling supercharger, chromoly everything, and maybe having a winch on board. You know, big boy stuff; the kind of goodies mall crawlers are made of. But let’s be real, our Syncro was our home and as such it was set up to maximize all-terrain travel in mild environments, not mud terrain travel in back country Wyoming at the start of the snow melt when literally everything is saturated in water. The road beneath our Goodyear Duratracs was a thick, earthen milkshake, but with adventure afoot, May the Mud be Damned™.
For all the nastiness and stickiness of the mud however, we were having a good time challenging ourselves on the track; learning the Syncro’s responses to inputs and learning from each other the value of willful difficulties taken on together. Jessica—being the expert driver and navigator that she is—sat resolute in her captain’s chair driving through pond-sized mud puddles sideways, her focus never leaving the goal to which we’d set ourselves.
Just under two miles in, we were faced with what looked like a deep puddle. To the left of it was a bypass that had been created by locals who knew better than to traverse that particular mud hole. Not wanting to press the adventure any harder than absolutely necessary, I walked to the edge of the hole, assessed it was too deep to cross and pointed out the bypass to Jessica.
Not only did we not want to chance the deeper crossing for fear of getting stuck, we also had to keep in mind that were we to get into too deep of a water crossing, our Syncro would lose throttle response. The engine conversion on our van had a drive-by-wire system installed but the sensor that sent throttle application to the ECU was not water tight. Thus, if the sensor found itself in water much deeper than a foot or so, the Syncro would lose all throttle response and she’d be, ahem, dead in the water. With that in the back of our minds, we saw fit to not take the apparently deep water puddle and opted instead to head left and through the bypass road created by the locals. Mud, being the bitch she is, had other plans for us.
After assessing the mud hole, I made my way back to the Syncro and explained the route and our angle of approach to the bypass around the the deep puddle. The sun was now higher, clouds covering huge swaths of blue sky, birds were chirping making the sweet sounds of spring, and a light breeze filled our Syncro. We both stared down the barrel of experience and saw that the path led between 2 aspen trees and then into a smooth bypass. All we had to do was approach at speed, miss the mud hole and trees and we’d be on our way in no time.
With granny gear engaged—the VW Syncro does not have a low range transfer case so VW’s engineers instead opted for a compromise with a kind of torquey-er gear setup in the gearbox allowing the Syncro to harness more torque for situations like these—the Syncro center knob pulled to indicate our front differential with a solid shaft was active, and our rear locker locked to maximize forward momentum in the event one rear tire gets bogged, Jessica feathered the throttle and set off towards the bypass.
We try to live by the maxim: “Drive as slow as possible and as fast as necessary.” As we slowly approached the angle to climb onto and then into the bypass section of road, the amount of throttle Jessica applied at the outset was insufficient. In this instance, Jessica, though being the better off-road driver of us, didn’t heed the “as fast necessary” conditional of the maxim.
Approaching the lip of the bypass without enough throttle, the mud on the lip grabbed our front tires and sucked us to the right toward the mud pool. The rear lockers, usually great to have on when in the mud to maximize traction and forward momentum, worked against us in this instance by pushing the vehicle quickly forward in the direction that the mud was sucking the front of the van.
“Oh shit.” I exclaimed as it became clear that the amount of throttle wasn’t going to be enough to get us over the lip.
“Oh shit!” I yelled as the engine stuttered under the lack of throttle and the excess of deep mud. The bouncing of the Syncro in that short space throwing us and our dogs around the cabin because we were traversing deep ruts at a 90º angle.
“Oh my god, SHIT!” The Syncro was facing 90º away from our intended route. The engine stalled. The van stopped. We sat perched precariously on the edge of the deep pool of muddy snow melt; the passenger side submerged, the driver side hanging on for dear life to the lip of the embankment. The mud pulled us further toward the deep watery brown pool. Out of my window I could see the thick saucy soup of cold water and mud staring me in the face, like a witch beckoning our Syncro to enter her brew.
“Shit. SHIT!” I exclaimed.
“It’s alright. It’s alright.” Came Jessica’s voice of focus and calmness. Water was beginning to fill the back of the van where sat my computer and hard drives. At that moment, the Syncro’s inclinometer read a reasonable 27º off camber and we could feel the van slowly sliding deeper into the mud puddle, lazily angling further off-camber as the witch in the mud pulled us closer.
“It’s alright.” She breathlessly repeated over and over. Like a flash she jumped in the back of the van and pulled my computer and hard drives to safety. Petunya, now wide awake, was looking around in bewildered bemusement at why her humans were all in a fluster. Linus was aloof as always, probably wondering when lunch would be served and that it better not be delayed by whatever the hell was happening at the moment.
With the van slipping further off camber, making my way out was more a careful climb up to an escape hatch than a simple exit of a vehicle. Sucking in my dad bod as I squeezed passed the steering wheel, gingerly opening the door to minimize movement in the van, I managed to squish out of the driver’s door which was now looking as if it were more parallel to the sky than to the ground. Once outside the van, I set my camera down to capture whatever was to transpire next all the while cussing and distressed. My scalp tingling, my heart pounding through my chest, my blood rushing as if it wanted to burst the veins that carry it from heart to head to feet and back. Time stood still. My belly numbed, a clear indication of my body sending blood to extremities that now needed the extra kick of adrenaline-addled-plasma.
Inside the van, Jessica had the pups ready for me to pull to safety. The van slid further. Our inclinometer went from reading 27º at the outset of the situation to now showing 30º off camber. The passenger side of the Syncro was now in over a foot of ice cold brown water slowly seeping in through the door jambs and filling up our living area. If there was to be a roll over and if our home were to find itself on its side in deep muddy water, ensuring our little family was safe was the first priority. I stood outside ready to receive Petunya first. Jessica moved slowly and deliberately as the van continued its slide, now 32º off camber, and she deftly handed me my sweet Petunya and then little Linus through the rear drivers side window of the van. I set them down and off they went to explore the forest no doubt thinking this was where we’d be camping for the evening. I can’t say the thought did not also cross my mind.
Next came the computers, hard drives, and then some bedding. If we were going to be stuck out here and if the Syncro finished the roll, we’d definitely want something to keep us warm in case rescue was slow in coming or if the situation worsened in some way. Just then, rain began to fall on us. Thick drops poured down splashing on newly animated green leaves; a rush of water making the ground wetter, the mud hole deeper. Thirty four degrees now. We could hear the suspension creaking and the mud popping and smacking as if chewing peanut butter.
Jess climbed out of the van and we turned to getting out our recovery straps. We had 2 ARB winch extension lines and one tow strap along with a number of shackles. In that moment, I remembered a story a fellow Syncro owner had told me about how he righted his rolled van in Baja by running a tow strap through the driver’s window and out the first rear side window using the b-pillar as an attachment point. Feverishly Jessica and I ran one of our winch extension straps through the windows as described and fastened the other end of the strap to a thick aspen tree a few feet away. The Syncro slowly creaked further off camber: 34.5º and then she stopped. The strap somewhat taut.
With the Syncro now safe from rolling and the witch in the puddle retreating from her beckoning spell, Jessica and I embraced, catching our breath, and shaking out the adrenaline that was yet left in our aching veins.
“I just didn’t give it enough throttle to get over this bank here.” She explained. “I took my foot off because I didn’t want to inadvertently slide into this tree and instead of avoiding the tree we slid into this mud. I’m so so sorry.” She sat with her thoughts quietly playing back the event in her head. Jessica isn’t one to dwell, to let the calamity of circumstance defeat her iron will.
And so we began to attempt to devise a plan as to what we could do next. Backing up wouldn’t be possible as any movement would likely roll the rig. We couldn’t drive forward and down and then out of the mud pool because of the throttle sensor issue. We had three options: attempt self-recovery with our hi-lift jack; walk five miles back to civilization to get help; or use our Garmin InReach to call for help.
We attempted option one first: use the hi-lift as a winch to pull the van backwards. I removed the hi-lift from the front of the van which required that I enter the puddle, and that was when we learned of the true depth of this “puddle.” The water in some places reached up to my waist. Fully 3.5ft deep and the mud at the bottom of the puddle was doing everything it could to rip my feet from my ankles. There was no way even if we’d attempted to hit this mud hole in the very middle that we would’ve ever made it out. Never mind the throttle issue. That mud was too thick and too deep for our 30” all-terrain tires to adequately manage.
With the hi-lift removed and my underbits frozen from their dip in the cold snow melt water, I attempted to use the hi-lift, tow strap, and extra winch extension strap to extract our Syncro from the hole. It was a completely futile effort. The tow strap stretched too much under load making the actual distance we could pull the van backwards with the hi-lift before it ran out of notches a whopping 1.5 inches of distance. Fail.
As we stood further assessing our predicament and resolving to use our Garmin InReach to call for help, an older married couple appeared on their mountain bikes coming from the direction in which we were heading.
“Uh oh. What on earth got into to think you could go on this road?” He asked probably wondering why anyone would take a camper van on such a muddy track. We explained our route, that our van was four wheel drive, and explained how we were attempting to climb onto the bypass when he interrupted;
“Well, be glad you didn’t get past this hole. It only gets much much worse ahead, and down there few, if any, vehicles will be willing to come rescue you.” Speaking of rescue, he told us that if the InReach didn’t work for us, that he’d come back with his tractor and pull us out. He gave us a way to reach him and he set off towards his home some 5 miles away to see about getting help out to us.
Using the Earthmate app to connect our phone to the Garmin InReach device, Jessica wrote to our friends in Fort Collins:
“This is Jessica. SOS. We are stuck nearly tipped over on a FR in the western part of Medicine Bow NF.
Need you to contact someone maybe from emergency services or forest service nearby here.
We are both ok and dogs ok. Need someone with winch.
Attempting self recovery with our hi-lift and tow straps but not sure if it will be enough.”
A response came quickly:
“Got coordinates, looking for help.”
Thirty minutes later came another response:
“Help is en route.”
The debacle had started at around 0930hrs and at 1343hrs help arrived. A blue dually Dodge pickup with a flatbed came slowly down the trail towards us. Driving it was a woman named Megan, and along side her was her husband Brian – a sheriffs deputy – their daughter Siobhan, Rod – a friend of the family –, and Jacques the mountain bike guy we’d met a few hours earlier. Finally Jess and I could catch our breath a bit.
As the recovery effort got underway, I asked Brian if he came down that road often and he answered that he only ever comes down this way to rescue people. It seems even the locals avoid this stretch of road in the early spring. We both felt less idiotic knowing that we had endeavored to tackle a stretch of road that unbeknownst to us was more difficult and hazardous than we’d anticipated.
We attached the Syncro to the blue dually with our tow strap while re-attaching the 2 ARB winch extension straps to trees to keep the van from tipping over as the recovery progressed. The dually slowly pulled the Syncro back, inch by nerve racking inch. After being pulled back about 8 inches, the rear wheel of the van came completely off the ground, our inclinometer now reaching 43º off camber. We repositioned one extension strap to keep the van from rolling while the other extension strap was attached to the hi-lift jack on both ends to keep the strap taut and prevent the rig from sliding laterally. This is pretty hard to describe so I won’t attempt to go into more detail other than to say the recovery itself took more than 30 minutes to complete. At one point, both driver side tires were many inches off the ground and all that kept the van from rolling were those extension straps we’d fastened to the van. I will forever be grateful we had those on board as I’m not sure how in the hell we would’ve gotten Ripley the Syncro unfucked from that particular situation without them.
As the dually pulled, it too got stuck in another deep puddle necessitating the use of our Maxtrax to get the Dodge unstuck. Once unstuck, the recovery proceeded until finally our Syncro was back on level ground. My heart slowed, my clenched fist loosened, my ears relaxed and my scalp cooled. I could feel my knees bend a bit and breath returned normally to me at that moment.
For more than 4 hours our home — the only home we have in the world having 4 years earlier forsaken the middle class picket fence and 9-5 life for an existence made of travel and adventure — was precariously perched on a mud bank slowly sliding into a deep puddle of brown, slurry water. The years of effort and work and love we’d poured into that van were at risk of severe setbacks if the van had rolled.
We’ve played this series of events back in our minds a thousand times. If Jessica had opted at the moment when the slide began to mash the throttle thus catapulting us further in the direction of the deep puddle, there is no doubt in my mind our Syncro would’ve ended up on her side. If we hadn’t acted as quickly as we did in removing our precious dogs and our computers before quickly fastening the van to a tree, she would have rolled. If we hadn’t had the equipment on board that we did: the straps, the shackles, the Maxtrax, the hi-lift jack, rescue would have been nearly impossible. In fact, I don’t know how we could’ve avoided a roll without many of those items. It was Jessica’s calm reasoning and my preplanning and research in the event something like this ever happened, that prevented this situation from being much worse.
When I recall this story, when my heart’s pace quickens and my scalp lights afire, when my palms start to sweat again, I am thankful that the situation went exactly as it did. The thoughts of how much worse it could have been all cycle in my head as I play this story back. The one thing I never find myself wishing for is that we hadn’t attempted it. I do wish we’d had a winch on board, and ironically enough, when this whole thing happened, we had a Warn Zeon 10-S winch in the mail being shipped to us in Jackson, Wyoming. Since this debacle, we have had a winch on board each rig we’ve owned and never once needed it.
After the rescue that day, the family that pulled us out of the mud invited us to their ranch to take care of any mechanical issues the van may have had, to clean all our gear that had been inundated on the passenger side of the van, and to take a shower to wash off all the mud we’d gotten stuck to our skin during the debacle. They even invited us to share in a Memorial Day cookout. Oh, I didn’t mention that this happened on Memorial Day 2017. It was a day our minds and bodies will not soon forget.