Obvious Choices

Ok, here's a story I thought might amuse those of you living in nice clean (sort of) suburbia, or even those who prefer dirty cities. Last year, during my West Virginia stint, I worked with a guy named Bill - a really wry sort of fellow who's been known to sign a note "Wild Willy." When Brandon (my 6'2", 230 lb tech) and I showed up in White Sulphur Springs, WV to carry out our grouse chick collaring assignment, Bill was kind enough to show us around the study area.

Our turf is Greenbrier Mountain, a 3800 ft. behemoth with steep rocky hillsides, a nice view of the Greenbrier River, and a pretty good network of roads, thanks to the logging company that owns the tract. We navigate the slopes using little yellow signs on the roads, called GPS stations, which mark known locations on the mountain. These stations are vital in the oh-so-accurate radio telemetry we use to "find" our grouse.

Bill took us out to show us where the hens were nesting on the study site, since we'd need to find them to collar their chicks. We followed him around the twisting roads, stopping every once in a while to listen for birds with radio collars or to take note of bright orange flagging marking the treacherously steep path to a nest.

On a pass by GPS station 66, Wild Willy stopped to point out a little road going up into the woods. "That's how you get to the top of the mountain," he said. "It's an old jeep road - pretty windy." Brandon and I drove state-issued Fords and Chevys last year, a little larger and not quite as maneuverable as your average Jeep.

"I don't know if your trucks would make it, but it's a hell of a lot shorter than the drive around to the other side, " Bill said. Looking at a map, I could see that he was right - it takes at least 30 minutes to drive the rocky, winding roads to the other side and then it's a nice haul to the top that sometimes requires 4-wheel drive.

Nonetheless, I heeded Bill's warning last year and opted not to risk getting stuck between some trees by taking the jeep road. We were only here for three weeks anyway and there wasn't a lot of time for experimenting.

This year, our guide is Marvin, a man who likes to dress in camouflage gear from head to toe for his forays into the study area. From my observations, he rarely leaves his bright blue truck, preferring to hold the antenna out the window to "locate" the radio-collared grouse, so I haven't yet figured out his attire. Still, he's a nice guy - works the late shifts at Walmart and has a little dog you could probably fit in your pocket that sometimes comes along for the bumpy ride on Greenbrier Mountain.

Just last week, as we followed Marvin from one side of the mountain to the other, we cruised past GPS station 66. Marvin pulled over and pointed out the jeep road, which had fresh tracks through the dark mud. Turkey season was still in when we arrived and the road was probably being used by hunters trying to get the gobbler up on the ridge (Brandon, an avid turkey hunter, had already pointed out the male's "strut path" just off the old logging road that we sometimes use to find grouse on top of the ridge).

"Now this road is a nice shortcut to the top," Marvin noted, "but it gets kind of muddy. I think you could take your trucks through there. I got stuck in a huge mud hole up there last year and then found out that my 4-wheel drive didn't work. I had a reporter in the truck with me and he couldn't even open his door!" Sounds like quite a story!

Marvin's little blue truck is not as massive as the Ford F150s that Brandon and I are driving this year. Also, I was sure that the 4-wheel drive in my truck would work. A state agency would never let someone take a faulty truck to another state for a study on a mountain.

"Hmm," I thought, "I might want to try that road this year. I bet my truck could make it through that puddle. It sits a lot higher than Marvin's truck."

Five days and four inches of rain later, Brandon and I were out on the site finding grouse. We brought both trucks so that we could split up the work, but we only had one key to the gates that lead us back to civilization. We came in the north entrance at 9:45am and arranged to meet at the south gate around 11:15. I thought I was giving a conservative estimate of how long it'd take me to find my hens, but I was wrong.

Around 11:05, I found myself at the top of the mountain, staring down the jeep road that could put me half an hour closer to meeting Brandon. If I went around the mountain instead, it'd take me at least 45 minutes to get there. Taking the jeep road would cut

that trip down to a quarter of an hour. It was obvious to me that the most logical option was to take the road. Hell, if it looked impassable, I could always back out of there and then take the other route to the south gate.

I shifted into 4-wheel drive (it worked!) and started into the trees. I had to watch my mirrors - they were awfully close to being whacked by the saplings along the edge. But I was "truckin'," and excited, for a minute….

Then I came to a split. To my left, a narrow turn - my truck wouldn't fit through there. To the right, a puddle - looked about 2 feet deep, and there were new tracks on the other side. Somebody had gone through this puddle successfully. I didn't see any signs of them getting stuck.

So, again, I made the obvious choice and went to the right. I proceeded with caution, turning into the puddle. With two wheels in, my truck said, "No," and the wheels started to spin. I threw it into reverse - no go. Remembering some of Brandon's tactics from minor "stuck" incidents in the past, I decided to stick something under the wheels for traction. Stepping out of the truck, I saw that my front axle was buried in water (and possibly mud) - worse on the right side than the left.

I needed big rocks, but there were none in sight. I found a few downed tree limbs and feebly attempted to wedge them under the truck's wheels. Of course, the water was so deep that the wood just floated to the top. Bigger limbs did the same thing and I realized that I wasn't getting anywhere.

I checked my watch. Already 11:12. Time to go, I thought. I grabbed my cell phone and my field book (which had phone numbers for Wild Willy and Marvin, should I ever get an ounce of reception on my phone), locked the truck, and took off.

On my way down the road, I noted another hairy turn beside what looked to be a deep puddle. Should have tried the turn, I thought. At 11:14 I hit GPS station 66 (wow, that really would have saved me a lot of time!) and started running. That didn't last long…I'm a long way from running condition, though the hills here are making me a little stronger. So, I alternated walking and running til I came to a landmark I knew well - GPS station 74.

When my reliable Ford broke down last year, I studied the map for a shortcut. GPS 74 was it - a flat and easy link through the woods and over the creek to GPS station 7 on the other side. I had a vague recollection of crawling on my hands and knees through a thicket of rhododendron, but mostly I remembered a brief and pleasant walk. The hell with the rhodo - if I got to GPS 7, I'd be just a few minutes from the gate where I knew Brandon was waiting.

So, I headed back into the woods. It was still a relatively flat (thank god landscape doesn't change much) funnel right down to the creek. The ground was full of big rocks and blueberry bushes. If you're ever in White Sulphur Springs, WV in late July, I'd recommend a trip up the mountain to pick some blueberries. It'd be fun…

The blueberry understory changed to a rhododendron tangle as I approached the creek and I squatted down to contemplate the crossing. The bank was very muddy and the water was high where it should have been a trickle. Most of the streams around here are very rocky, and you can step across with ease. I could only see one rock however, and it was covered by about two feet of water. Before I could figure out the most obvious option here, however, my right foot slipped down the bank and I was immersed in water up to my knee. So, with no time for decisions, I placed my left foot on the rock and I was out (albeit a little wet)!

There was the road! I rushed up the bank - good old GPS 7 to my right - and started running the last 1/8 mile to the gate. It wasn't long til my herpetological instincts kicked in, though, and I was stooping to inspect one of several red-spotted newt efts on the road. These juvenile newts are a bright orangey red and they hang out on land for a year or two before going back to water to breed and eat for the rest of their adult lives. Kind of like going to Europe for a summer before getting into a boring job, I guess. Anyhow, the red efts stood out on the road and I paused a few times to move them off to the side (wouldn't want anyone to squash them). It didn't take me long to figure out that I could be moving silly adolescent newts all day, so I had to stop. Once I picked up my pace, I saw the gate, and Brandon's truck, up ahead.

"Truck break down again?" Brandon asked as I gave him a sheepish look.

"Nope, I got stuck on that jeep road," I explained.

"I was going to go back to try to find you in two minutes," he said. It was 11:58. It had taken me about 45 minutes to get to Brandon anyway. Obviously, I'd made a poor decision.

Brandon shrugged off my stupid move, saying, "Found a ringneck snake over here. I threw him a millipede, but I think that scared him off."

Since we've been in West Virginia, we've seen many more snakes, turtles, frogs, lizards, and salamanders (collectively called herps) than anything else. My enthusiasm for the critters has caught on and Brandon is constantly on the lookout for snakes and the like. In fact, he later asked if I'd written his ringneck down in my field book, as I do with all of the dead snakes and live box turtles we see on the road.

After a brief, but futile search for the little ringneck snake (they average about 12 inches), we began backing up the road in Brandon's truck. Conveniently, I'd forgotten the gate key and there was no place to turn around. Brandon had to stop once to rest his neck and I apologized for my lack of foresight as I grubbed through his truck, looking for something to eat.

To my surprise, the trip back to the head of the jeep road took about 30 minutes, meaning I'd moved fast (yes, it was pretty much all downhill) as I'd hiked to the gate. We stopped a couple of times to pick up really big rocks, which we heaved into the bed of Brandon's Ford. When I said I thought we might need more rocks than we had, Brandon's response was "Oh boy," which he delivered in a singsong sort of tone.

We pulled into the jeep road, but not too far. I cautioned Brandon that the road ahead was not nice. Of course, this meant we had to carry our rocks to my truck. I grabbed a large, a medium, and a small rock and hefted them to one shoulder. Seconds later, fearing a permanent state of lopsidedness, I had to shift the rocks to both hands, using my stomach as a third hand. The two-minute breeze walk from my truck to GPS 66 turned into a nightmare hike when done in reverse with sixty pounds of rocks in hand. I cheered silently when my truck came into view and threw my rocks to the ground, as Brandon had done just minutes before, when I reached the truck.

Brandon was already wedging rocks under the front tires and large branches under the back tires. I began to shove my own rocks under the back of the front left tire, kicking them into place. After a few minutes of careful rock placement, we were ready to go.

Brandon jumped into the back of the truck and I hopped in the driver's seat. I put my truck in reverse and released the parking brake.

"Should I floor it?"

"Nah, take it easy first and see how it goes," Brandon replied.

I took my foot off the brake and steadily, but slowly pressed the gas. I leaned out the window for a faceful of spitting mud as the front tires spun hopelessly. Brandon was jumping up and down in the back to give the rear wheels some more traction. We (the truck, Brandon, and me) weren't going anywhere.

"Ok, give 'er hell," Brandon advised. I pressed the gas even harder, but the truck refused to move backwards. I threw the truck into park, put the parking brake on again and jumped out.

Brandon and I both walked around, kicking the rocks under the tires and shoving the sticks in further. I felt pretty useless with my limited knowledge of getting trucks unstuck. Brandon said the tires were getting more buried, so I grabbed a stick and started digging beside one of the rear wheels.

"Should I go get more rocks from your truck?" I asked, hoping the answer would be "no."

"No…(yay!), lets just try it again."

We resumed our positions and I went straight for the floorboard with the gas pedal, while Brandon rocked the truck. Still, we went nowhere. Surprise…

I looked back at Brandon and said, "Now what?"

"Why don't you try going forward?"

"Forward? I'll just get stuck more. Of course, I can't be anymore stuck than this, can I?" I thought it through for a second. "Where should I steer to?"

"Just aim for the break between the trees there." This was the quickest way out of the mud puddle short of going in reverse, which was obviously not an option.

"Ok, if you're sure…" I said hesitantly.

"Give 'er hell," was his reply.

So I did. Magically the truck started to move and I pressed the gas harder. Within seconds, I was in and out of the puddle, stopped on a narrow path between some small trees.

"Whoo-hoo!" I hooted, looking in my rearview mirror as I raised my arms in victory. But, Brandon was not in the view from the mirror. Uh-oh. I stuck my head out the window to see him rising up from behind the truck, completely covered in mud!

"Jesus!" he yelled, as he shook the mud from his hands and his head. "You sure gave her hell, alright! You got any water in there? Give me a little water so I can wash this mud off my face."

"Hold on," I replied, as I bowled over in hysterics. I reached into my truck and grabbed my camera.

"Just a little water, here."

"One second - I've got to take your picture first," I said and I aimed the camera and got most of his muddy figure as he walked toward me. Then I picked up the water bottle from the seat and poured a little in his hands.

"Give me a little more." I poured a bit more water out, still laughing hard.

I was dismayed to find that to extricate my truck from the narrow spot in which it was wedged, I had to run over a small tree. Realizing that I could never make it all the way down the jeep road, I was forced to turn my truck around, with much guidance from Brandon, to point it back in the direction I came. We bent in the mirrors (should have thought of that earlier!) and I scraped through the path on the other side of the mud puddle. You know, the one I obviously couldn't make it through the first time?

Well, I made it. Brandon met me on the other side of the mountain after taking a dip in a stream to wash off. I took the longer, drier, 45-minute trip to the other side, as I will do from now on!

When I relayed the story to Marvin the next week, he just smiled and handed me the article written by the newspaper reporter who was riding with him the day he got stuck. Apparently, they actually made it through the puddle, just by rocking the truck. No 4-wheel drive! Maybe I could have made it through there….

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