The sinking Dutchman

Our plan for the day was to go hike out in the desert somewhere, with Alex and Charon.  But along the way we spotted a dejected man walking along the road with his thumb out. He didn’t look like the typical hitchhiker, but rather like someone whose car had broken down along the road and was walking out for help. So we stopped to get the story.

Turned out he was a European living in San Diego, and he’d bought an old Subaru a few weeks before.  He’d decided to take it out into the desert to try driving on the sandy washes and 4WD roads, but he wasn’t very good at it.  He got a mile or two before crashing into a sandstone wall. According to him, the car was “stuck against a wall.”

Getting a tow truck out to this part of the desert and two miles down a 4WD road is not something you want to do.  Not only might it take a few days to get assistance, the cost of the tow could easily exceed the value of a 1998 Subaru.

dsc_4054.jpg  We took our car out to the accident site and found the car kissing the stone and sunk into deep sand.  It had a mangled front right fender but otherwise was in good condition. We easily freed the car from the deep sand and took a look at the damage. The engine air filter canister was crushed against the tire, making steering impossible.  The front of the car’s frame was bent, and the fender, bumper, and foglight were a total loss.

The nice thing about working on a wrecked car is that you don’t have to be particularly careful about how you remove parts.  Since my toolbag was back at the Airstream, our tools were a Leatherman and the car’s scissors jack.   It’s amazing what you can do with those two items.  Alex cut away big chunks of the plastic inner wheelwell and together we bent the bumper, fender, and air filter canister out of the way.

The tire was still rubbing at this point, so we swapped the wheel for the temporary “donut” spare, which takes less space in the wheelwell, and — ta-da! — the car was sort of drivable.  Our Dutchman backed the car down the wash a few hundred feet, stalling the engine five times and scraping the undamaged side of the car against sandstone as he went. He wasn’t a very good driver.  When we left, he was consulting his maps to figure out how to drive this wreck back to San Diego without exceeding 50 MPH or turning left.

Now, this episode gives me a chance to talk about desert survival.  By making a few simple mistakes, you can turn a simple problem into a life-threatening emergency.  We saw a lot of those mistakes today.  First off, the driver had a couple gallons of water in the car — smart move.  But when he went hiking two miles through the desert to seek help, he didn’t take the water.  He left it in the car!  Needless to say, it doesn’t do any good there.

Second, he wasn’t aware of his location.  When we found him, he was walking east.  In that direction, it was 25 miles to the first services of any kind.  He never would have made it.  If he had headed west, he would have encountered services in less than five miles, and a group of campers in about two miles.  He had maps with him, but he either didn’t consult them before he set out, or he didn’t understand them.  They were also left in the car.

Third, he disregarded a simple idea: stay with the car. The wash he was in was a popular route, on Sunday of a holiday weekend.  Someone was bound to come by in an hour or two.  In fact, while we were there, two other cars came through the spot.  Any of them could have given him a ride to assistance, which would have been a lot wiser than going for a walk in the wrong direction without water.  The car also would provide shelter from the sun if needed.

Fourth, he was inexperienced and driving alone on a 4WD road. Bad idea.

Fifth, he was off-roading in a Subaru Outback.  I’ve owned a couple of Subarus.  The 1998 Outback has a great All-Wheel Drive system, but only 7.3 inches of ground clearance.  That’s not enough for the kind of deep sand and ruts found on these washes.  The key on that sort of road is not just traction, but high clearance.  We go out with 10.9 inches of ground clearance and there are still a lot of sections I won’t attempt.

Saving this guy’s bacon put us an hour behind schedule, but we still had time to drive out on another 4WD road and enjoy lunch high up on a sandstone ledge. An easy mile-long hike followed, up to the Wind Caves that we like to explore.  I think we had a much better day than the soon-to-be-ex-Subaru owner.

Sadly, this is our last day of R&R.  We’ve got to get on the road Monday, but not heading home yet.  Our travels will continue for at least 4-5 more days.


  1. Brett says

    I love the shot of you peering into the car while the owner is looking away, one of those “I cannot bear to watch” moments if I ever saw one :) You lost an hour, but gained unknown good Karma.

  2. Paul Hahn says


    You exemplify the Good Samaritan.

    Thanks for continuing your blog; I always enjoy reading about your travels and experiences.

    btw, my wife and I are planning to attend Alumapalooza. We’re excited to visit the Airstream factory.