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Worst-Case Scenarios

Rear View
Posted October 1, 2005

Four Wheeler editors' worst-ever stucks - and how they made it back.

Contrary to popular belief (and the way we portray ourselves in the magazine, backcountry superheroes that we are), we do get stuck on the trail. And many times for us, as for you, getting stuck - and unstuck - is all part of the fun of four-wheeling.

And then there are times when we really get stuck. And broken. With no spare parts. In the middle of nowhere. In the Third World. Are we still having fun?What follows here are but a sliver of the worst-case recollections of past and present FW editors, as well as those of some of our favorite contributors.

Ned Bacon
The worst case ever
My Worst 'Wheeling Case Ever can be spelled with three letters: O-B-O. Obo is a village in the Central African Re-public (CAR). I once spent three and a half hellish weeks there.

In 1980 I crossed the African continent from Johannesburg to London in a 5-ton 4x4 Bedford Truck. There were 21 of us on that adventure and it took six months. We had adventures that could fill this magazine for a year, but the events surrounding Obo were some of the worst.

Crossing the border from Sudan into CAR, we were accused of attempted murder, which is another long story. Suffice to say, we got off and were escorted into CAR at gunpoint with a warning never to return to Sudan! Not 10 miles into the new country, on a horribly rutted, muddy track that passed for the main road through CAR, we attempted to climb a steep, rocky hill. With a loud snap, the rear axle ceased functioning. Upon disassembly, in the middle of the road, in sweltering heat and relentless flies, we discovered the spider gears and crosspin had grenaded, taking the carrier with them. The nearest town capable of producing any parts was Nairobi, Kenya, which lay over 1,000 miles behind us - through Sudan. Ahead lay the roughest 400 miles (read: four-wheel drive required) of our 17,000-mile odyssey. Sixty miles up this track lay the village of Obo, the nearest "civilization." We spent three days covering those 60 miles. Without a winch, we block-and-tackled, pushed and shoved, cussed and sweated that monster, front-wheel-drive-only truck over muddy ruts and washed-out log bridges. When we got to Obo, the news was good and bad.

The good news was there was a mission near Obo that had a shortwave radio which could reach Nairobi. The bad news was the supply plane came once every other month - and it was three weeks out. Waiting in Africa is a way of life, but waiting in Obo was a test of life. We ordered our parts via the shortwave, and with no confirmation that they would show up, settled in for the wait. We were almost out of food, and the natives weren't sharing what little they had. We lived on manioc leaves and mango bread, which we made from the mangos that fell from every tree, and rancid flour full of maggots and weevils. We bought the flour in the village in a 110-pound sack, which we carried on our backs the three miles to our camp. The bread was baked in a sacrificed diesel drum, cut in two by hand with a cold chisel.

Noontime temps hovered around 110 degrees F. It rained so hard every afternoon, you could soap up and take a shower in the downpour, which was wonderful - not so much for washing away the sweat but for driving away the flies for a while. The bad part about the rain was it brought out the mosquitoes. Several of us (including me) came down with malaria months later. The worst part was sitting around with nothing to do, feeling hungry, itching and nursing oozing sores and lumps we'd received from all the no-see-'em's that fed on us.

When the plane was due to arrive, we were given machetes by the missionaries and told we could help cut the runway so the plane could land! The jungle grows a lot in two months. A new carrier was on the plane, and we joyfully set it up using a hacksaw blade and a sparkplug feeler gauge to measure backlash, and mustard to run a pattern check. Over the next two months, before we finally made it to Europe, we endured many more ups and downs and bad scenarios. But all agreed that Obo in the rearview mirror was a highlight of the trip.

Willy Worthy
No substitute for horsepower
We were heading for a diving location off the Baja coast that looked promising - well, at least on the aerial photo I had obtained. "We" were my wife, three teenage daughters, a large Labrador, and yours truly. All in our 1987 Cherokee with a trailer in tow that had a week's worth of camping and diving gear inside. The "road" went from bad to worse, then to nothing more than a cattle trail. Committed to a steep winding climb out of an arroyo, we were halfway up when one of the 31-spline Ford 9-inch axles made that dreaded "snap" sound, and forward motion stopped. Luckily, it had broken just at the end of the spline area, so the shaft was still supported inside the Detroit Locker. However, we were now in a bad situation. A tow strap and assorted ropes wrapped around numerous mesquite bushes gave the winch just enough grab (support, assistance) to allow upward motion with the help of four females pushing on the Jeep.

Then, 20 feet from the top, we ran out of bushes to make another pull to. Now the situation had gone from bad to definitely very bad. Even if we had another vehicle with us, the narrow trail would not have let it get past us in order to offer assistance. Backing down with the trailer was not an option due to the condition of the trail. It was at least 35 miles to the nearest ranch, so a "walk-out" wasn't feasible, at least not at this time. We considered many solutions that even included unhooking the trailer and letting it crash into the arroyo, 100 feet below, and then try to either back down or continue up the hill.

Our last-ditch effort was to somehow make enough of a depression in the hard packed adobe soil to bury our spare tire as a winch anchor. Four hours of laborious digging hadn't accomplished much, when just like out of a movie, four mounted cowboys came riding out of the west. Seems that they were out looking for stray cattle and just happened upon us. Believe it or not, they lassoed the ARB bumper and again, with the girls pushing, the horses pulling, and one front and one rear tire driving, we made it to the top. After a shared early dinner with our rescuers, along with a gift bottle of tequila and a bunch of "muchas gracias," we headed off along a flat mesa in search of lobster, abalone, and fish.

And yes, we drove 500 miles home with that broken axle still in place.

Sue Mead
A doorslammer on a 4x4 trail
I've floated down a river in a vehicle on more than one occasion, hung a wheel off a cliff more than twice, and had bears show up for a remote trail dinner while wheelin' in the wilds, but the worst stuck I ever experienced was prerunning a 4x4 trail out of Palmer, Alaska, for a Jeep Jamboree I was organizing for Mark A. Smith. A late snowmelt meant that my local guides hadn't been able to do their homework. Flying in a week early to "take command," I grabbed local guide Diane Gustafson, along with a Hi-Lift jack, shotgun, chainsaw, cell phone, and some minor provisions, and we set off to check out some trails in a rental Grand Cherokee. (All the guys were working and had their rigs with them!)

We were 12 miles from the nearest road on the Ptarmigan Trail, when I approached a wide, but everyday-looking mud puddle. Navigate to the high side, throttle slow and steady, steer slightly uphill, I reasoned. It was the noise that the chassis made when it slid sideways and settled at an odd angle in the water that alarmed me. Keep your wits, I thought, and try some of your old tricks! Saw the wheel from side to side, forward- and reverse-rock the Jeep, Diane on the front and back bumpers (jump, Diane, jump!), use the floor carpets under the tires, lift the back end with the Hi-Lift, collect debris to stick under the wheels, and line the gigantic puddle (it was mighty deep!) with as many rocks and branches as you can find ... you know the list.

Our low moment came when Diane climbed onto the roof of the Jeep to enhance cell phone coverage, and left her hand exposed in the open door. Climbing in to give it one more try, I slammed the door onto her fingers. The good news? Her scream scared away any bear within miles. The bad? Having practically swum in the puddle before we extracted ourselves after three hours of work, I was now late to pick up Mark Smith at the Anchorage Airport. Arriving straight from the trail, I will always remember his quizzical look and wry comment: "Well, have we been prerunning the trails?"

Ken Brubaker
Not paying attention
I was going to relate a story about getting hit by a rockslide on a Colorado trail, but that probably happens to everybody. Instead, I'll tell a humbling story that demonstrates that stupid is what stupid does.

Since I live on a farm, 'wheeling is as close as walking out my back door. Never did I imagine that I'd get stuck (and injured) within sight of my living room, but that's what happened several years ago. I had been 'wheeling with friends in the pasture around my house, and we were just about to call it quits. After getting out of my rig to chat with my buddy, I didn't put my seatbelt on to drive back to the house (first mistake). On the way back, I was going way too fast (second mistake), and decided to take a new route through some tall grass (third mistake). Since I wasn't paying attention (fourth mistake), I didn't notice that the tall grass hid a creek with towering banks on either side. My International Scout (some would argue that was my fifth mistake, but I liked that truck) launched like a rocket off the creek bank. For a moment I triumphantly thought that I would actually clear the creek, but no dice. The truck stuffed violently into the rock-hard bank on the other side, almost flipping end over end. The collision threw me face-first into the windshield, which I remember thinking shattered quite easily. But worse, the top of my head was ripped open by the steel clip that held the sun visor. At that point, the truck was nose-down in the creek, spewing antifreeze, with shattered glass and blood everywhere. Not a good way to end a great 'wheeling day. On the upside, I didn't black out until I got back to the house, the ambulance ride was nice, and my friends pulled my annihilated truck out of the creek while I was at the hospital enjoying a CAT scan.

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