Part the First: Getting There is Half the Fun
In which I learn that, contrary to popular sentiment, a lack of communication on somebody else's part may, indeed, constitute an emergency on mine.
I wrote the following about ten months ago, a little after the events depicted occured. I wil be heading back out on this project soon, and so it seemed appropriate to post this now, and post the rest of the story as I have a chance to write it.
I returned from the field and wandered in to my hotel room in Napa. I turned on my computer and opened my email. Seeing one from my boss, I opened it and read the following:
I need you to take over a project in the Sierra Nevada.
Come back to the office on Monday.
T-Bone is not my boss's real name, which is good, as were that his real name it would suggest that he was a velvet-garbed pimp and my career little but a lie. I wrote back to him:
I'll be happy to do the work. Send me maps, crew
roster, and other information so that I can prepare
The next day, when I returned from the field to my hotel room (in all of its spit-on-the-wall-and-strange-stains-in-the-bathroom glory), after dodging a guy in the parking lot who wanted me to sell him drugs (why he thought I was a dealer is beyond me - I'm often mistaken for a cop, but only twice in my life has someone taken me for a dealer), I recieved the following email:
I'll fill you in on Monday, and give you the information
...and with that, I figured things were settled and ready to go. When I returned to the office the following Monday, T-Bone had prepared a box of materials for me to read before going out to the field.
The plan was this: a crew was heading out to the forest the following morning (Tuesday) from our Central Valley office to work a 10-day rotation on an excavation. I would go to join them in the field and work on the excavation until Friday, when that project was slated to finish. Starting Saturday, I would take the crew and we would work on the survey through Thursday of the next week, completing that project and finishing the 10-day rotation. Perfect, save time on both projects by transferring from one to the other...
...except that there had been miscomunication between offices, and the crew was not on a 10-day rotation and available to work. When I called the office of the other field director, I found out that he had headed for the field on that (Monday) morning, indicating that his crew would be working a five-day week (M-F) rather than a 10-day rotation (Tuesday through the following Thursday). I immediately set to work finding a field crew for my project, an effort I kept at until the following day.
On Tuesday afternoon, my boss approached me and announced that a member of the other crew had become sick and had to leave. It was now (allegedly) arranged that I would go out and replace this crew member, and then take over the crew. And with that in mind, I made preparations to leave.
Now, this project was in a fairly remote location, the nearest town with a hotel was a 2-hour drive away (actually, there was a town with a hotel that was closer, but the hotel only allowed people who were in town for weddings to make reservations - no I'm not making this up - so the field crew were persona non-grata). As a result, we had to camp at a site near the excavation project.
So, as the crew would not have been prepared for a full 10-day rotation, I had to go out and buy food for the crew, buy camping supplies that I would need, rent a truck, and make arrangements to get a satellite phone from our client (in case of emergencies) and a GPS unit from our Central Valley office.
Come Wednesday, I had a truck laden with canned goods and camping supplies, and was on my way to our Central Valley office to pick up the GPS unit. I arived, got the unit, and went through a tutorial on how to use it with our GIS guy (good guy, by the way). Then I drove another hour to the office of our client, where I picked up the satellite phone. After one last stop-off for some gear that I had forgotten, I was on my way into the mountains.
The roads wound up steep cliff walls like a snake fleeing from Samuel L. Jackson. The views were beautiful, and I was beginning to feel pretty good about things, though I was still uneasy about the likelyhood that the crew would stay on for my project.
Two hours into the mountains, I took a wrong turn. No big deal, I realized the wrong turn almost immediately, and seeing that the road shoulders were covered in gravel, a quick turn-around seemed relatively easy...until my truck stopped moving and I smelled burning rubber.
You see, the gravel covered the shoulder in a relatively thin layer, under which lay a thick layer of powdery silt, and my truck was stuck and literally burning rubber as I tried to pull out of it.
Okay, I thought to myself, I am a member of the species Homo sapien. I have an upright gait, opposable thumbs, and binocular vision. I am a member of the species who has built cathedrals and skyscrapers, launched men into space, composed symphonies, and produced the Furbie. I am even considered a particularly bright and competent member of this species. Surely, I can get a truck out from this mess!
Oh, how I paid for this hubris.
First I tried rocking the truck out of the silt, driving slightly forward, and then shifting into reverse, trying to build momentum to get out of the hole I had dug for my back tire. While I succeeded in moving forward, every attempt to reverse resulted in the initially small back-tire whole becoming a trench. Okay, this wasn't going to work.
Next, I tried to put all of the food, camping gear, and anything else I had in the bed of the truck in order to place more weight on the back tires, which were the ones that had become stuck. I then pulled the floor mats out of the cab and placed them under the rear tires to provide more traction. I then climbed back into the cab of the truck and began easing on the accelerator in order to try to pull out gently. I looked out the window and down the just in time to see the floor mat under the driver's side tire get shot towards the front of the truck. While admittedly rather cool to watch, this did little to improve my mood.
I opened the door, stepped out again, and looked around.
I saw several small (10 centimeter dimater and smaller) logs lying around, and had an epiphany. I pulled some of the logs to the rear of the truck, propped them under the tire, thinking that this would help provide the traction needed to get me out. After managing to put scorch marks on the logs without ever moving the truck, I got out of the cab again and looked around. I spent about half an hour looking for anything else that I could shove under the tire to provide traction, and pondering any method that I might be able to use to get the truck out. After thirty minutes, I had nothing, and consulted my map. Five miles to the campground...well, I had walked farther under worse circumstances, so this would be okay.
And then I remembered the satellite phone. I opened the box, pulled out the phone, turned it on, and waited for a signal...
...now, some day you may meet someone who will attempt to tell you that satellite phones work fine in steep canyons within coniferous forests. When this person tells this to you, punch them in the face, and tell them that Armstrong sent ya'...
...anyway, the phone would occassionally get a signal just long enough for me to dial the number for the ranger station, only to lose the signal again just as the phone began ringing. I walked the five miles to the campground cursing the Roman god of satellite phones the entire way.
Finally, I arrived at the campground. The crew greeted me, and then told me that another employee of my company had been out to the site earlier in the day to inform them that I was coming, which left them confused as they had more than enough people to perform the task at hand.
"Well, I was told that you would be joining me for a survey starting on Saturday."
"Really?" asked the crew supervisor, "who told you that?"
"Well, none of us are available. We have all been assigned to different projects for next week. You should have taken some initiative and called me." The supervisor folded his arms, looking satisfied.
"I did call. You weren't answering your phone."
"oh, well, yeah, that's a problem, I'll give you that."
At about this moment, one of the field technicians, who I will call Ed, simply because I can't think of a better psuedonym for him, began laughing. He walked up, clapped me on the shoulder, looked me in the eye, and in between guffaws said "man, you got the T-Bone special! Thing about the T-Bone special is that it's like blue cheese - you might eventually get to where you like the flavor, but it's a shock the first time you have it."
The other field tech, who I will call Bender because I am having even more difficulty coming up with a psuedonym for him than I was for Ed, shook his head in sympathy. "Where's your truck?" he asked.
I told them the story of how the gods of roadside problems proved to me that I was but a mortal man. Without another word, the crew piled into a truck, got me in, and we headed out to where the truck was stuck.
Once at the site of the roadside travesty, we tried placing the logs under the tires again, but this time the field techs all got into the bed of the truck and sat directly over the stuck wheel. With this added weight, I managed to get the truck out. And with that, we headed back to camp.
Once we returned, Bender opened up a cooler and pulled out a large piece of fresh salmon. "Hey, Matt, you like salmon?"
I responded in the affirmative.
"Well, this piece probably needs to be eaten tonight, and you've had a tough day. Give it a try."
With that, he handed it over. I coated the salmon in a bit of salt and pepper, wrapped it in aluminum foil, and placed it on a grill immediately over the camp fire. About thirty minutes later, I had one of the best pieces of salmon that I have ever consumed.
I then sat near the campfire inflating my air mattress, with my breath as I had neglected to get the air pump that would have made this matter so much easier. In between jokes about me having experience with this due to my long line of inflatable girlfriends, the mattress began to take shape, and I could see a symbol of a decent night's sleep on the ground in front of me.
Now, here's the thing about field work in remote locations - how good or bad it is depends on who you are working with. If you are with people who annoy you, it's a bad scene. I was lucky this night, these three were good folks. They were clearly trying to enjoy themselves, and were more than happy to allow a fellow such as myself to be involved or be aloof as I saw fit. If they were doing something, they didn't insist that I join them, but they made it known that I was welcome. In other words, these three really were a class act, and after the day I had been having, their company was especially welcome.
After dinner, we sat about the fire, trading stories, talking about projects we had worked on, and generally just relaxing. After the sun had gone down, Ed said "I think it's time for the entertainment."
"The entertainment?" Bender looked at him, trying to figure out what the hell Ed was talking about.
"Yeah, the entertainment." And with that, Ed disappeared into his tent and emerged a few minutes later with a miniature disco ball and a small light mounted on a headband. He hung the disco ball from the branch of a nearby tree. He then put the headband-mounted light on, turned it on, and shone it on the disco ball while turning the ball with his hand and singing Bee-Gee's songs. Before long, we were all joining in a rousing chorus of "Stayin' Alive" (no, I had not previously known that it could be sung in a rousing manner either).
"It's kind of like television" Bender called out, "only less stupid and with fewer episodes of Survivor."
After a time, even the vast entertainment value of the disco ball was exhausted, and we all began to turn in to bed. I crawled into my sleeping bag, lay down on my air mattress, and lay back waiting for insomnia to take its hold.
I checked my watch on occassion, and I lay there for about an hour and a half before I finally started to drift off. No sooner had this happened than a loud buzzing noise began to eminate from nearby, and the walls of my tent shook. Ed was snoring. No, Ed wasn't snoring, Ed was SNORING LIKE A FUCKING BUZZSAW!
Now, don't get me wrong, I am fully convinced that Ed is a great guy, I'm glad to have met him and had a chance to work with him, but I will never share a hotel room with the guy. His snoring could be harnassed and used as a weapon of mass destruction.
I lay there for a while, thinking to myself "okay, he's got to turn over or shift position eventually, and then the snoring will probably stop." But he never moved and the snoring kept going. Then I thought to myself "okay, after a little while, this will become white noise, you'll be able to ignore it, and you'll get to sleep."
After waiting for two hours for the snoring to become white noise, I climbed out of my tent and went to my truck. I climbed in the cab, reclined the chair, and settled in to get some sleep. I began to doze off after about fourty-five minutes, but something, I don't know what, caused me to jerk awake, and I wasn't able to so much as doze for the next hour. After a time, I figured I should just go back to the tent, surely Ed must have moved by now. He may still be snoring, but not as badly as he had been.
If anything, his volume had increased.
I stood there for a few minutes, pondering what to do. Finally, it dawned on me. I pulled my air mattress out of the tent, went back to the truck, moved all of the assorted food and equipment to one side of the bed of the truck, put my air mattress inside, put on my jacket and secured the hood around my head (tempuratures were getting down into the 30's at night around there), climbed onto the mattress, pulled my sleeping bag on, and, around 4 am, finally drifted off to sleep.
Coming soon, Part the Second, in which our hero's descent into true madness begins! Stay Tuned!