Avoidable Contact #70: Stuck in the middle (of a desert) with you

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Avoidable Contact Red Ram TLX with bikes and boy in desert
Jack Baruth

The story so far: The author and his 11-year-old son drove to California from Ohio, ending at the Donner Pass. This is normally where the tale ends, whether it’s Pirsig or Simpson or Krakauer … or Alex Roy, whose infamous The Driver rather touchingly concludes by addressing both the issue of traveling West with expectation and the notion of reconnecting with a difficult or distant father. East to West. You never read about anyone coming back East. It would be like ending “Star Wars” by showing everyone lining up for the men’s room after that wonderful ceremony where John Williams has his orchestra playing in some kind of hidden pit and Chewie doesn’t get a medal.

Alas, ours is no fairy-tale world, and we still had 11 days to go. My son John spent the first four of those days putting on a true masterclass in the art of riding injured. Every morning, I would deliver him to camp at Boreal Mountain. He’d ride the ski lift up and the bicycle down until his right arm seized up from pain, at which point he would just lie on the ground cradling that arm until the nausea passed and he could stand up, then he would continue. It never rains in northern California, but on two of the four days the sessions were cut short by lightning on the mountain, and on another a local bear decided to take up station on the trails, calling a halt to the proceedings for the day. John learned one-hander jumps. He placed second in a “high air” contest against teenagers, judged by camp staff. When I showed up with my own bike in the afternoons, he proved capable of leaving me behind in the dry, sandy banked turns. In the evenings he would eat ice cream and play Fortnite while I sat on the deck of our rental condo and read books.

Jack Baruth

When we were together, and I saw him cradling his arm, I told him to shake it off in the sternest tone I could manage. Once I was alone, I paced the floor in teary-eyed panic. I called and texted an old friend again and again, an emergency-room nurse acting as a cross-country mercenary at COVID-19 sites from New York to Texas. I described John’s injuries and all our troubleshooting efforts in a trembling voice. “Probably a tendon, maybe with a bone bruise,” my friend replied. “If he stopped riding for a week, he’d be fine.”

“OK … we can do that in … nine days.” On Friday morning of that week, however, I watched my son struggle with opening a bottle of milk because he couldn’t squeeze the cap. Half of me wanted to send him to the mountain anyway. It’s just pain. I’ve broken close to a hundred bones in four decades and I’m still here. In 2016, I fractured four ribs and my right arm in a skate park crash, sulked for two days, then picked up two podiums in a club-race weekend, having only vomited in my helmet once. In 2015, I snapped off the top of my left tibia at the Glen Helen MX course, lifted the 450cc bike and completed my lap anyway, then waited two-and-a-half hours before going to the hospital because my wife had some conference calls to make and we had good reception on top of the mountain.

As a counterpart to the above toxic-masculine business, I should note that I cried at the end of August Rush and also when Sergeant Tanner sits Brian O’Connor down in The Fast And The Furious and tells him, “There’s all kinds of family, Brian. That’s a choice you’re going to have to make.”

Anyway. There’s a limit to how far you should push an 11-year-old who was born outside the city-state limits of Sparta. We skipped the mountain and hit the road East. Near the end of our day, a few hours outside Las Vegas, we saw a sign marked simply “Big Dune,” pointing to a massive hump visible from miles away.

“It really is a big dune,” John noted.

“Yes it is. Let’s go look at it.” So we pulled off the freeway and headed down a hard-packed sand trail, the Ram frequently putting clear air beneath its front tires as it gamboled along at 25 mph or so. After more than a week of downhill mountain biking we weren’t bothered by the bouncing around. It was a measure of Big Dune’s size that it did not appreciably swell in the windshield as we got closer; it was still pretty far away. You can read a lot about Big Dune here. I wish I’d read that article before pulling off the freeway, because it warns you about getting stuck. Bouncing along at a terrific clip, and still very much with a cyclist’s mentality about the thing, it hadn’t occurred to me that we could get stuck. You can imagine my horror when I realized that the hard-packed sand beneath us had just yielded to much softer sand, with no real warning—at least, not a warning that a complete idiot such as myself would recognize. The next time the Ram settled its front wheels down, it just kind of … came to a halt.

Have you read Deep Survival? If not, you should. It talks about why people die in the wilderness. The number one reason is that they are afraid to just turn around and go back the way they came. There’s a weird sunk-cost fallacy in the human mind which argues against such a course of action. I’m perfectly aware of this very human failing and therefore I immediately resolved that we would reverse out the way we’d come. There was just one problem: it was immediately apparent with a quick recon on foot that only our considerable velocity had carried us as far as we’d already gotten. When I stepped into the sand behind the Ram, my leg disappeared to the calf.

“Why don’t you, ah, go look at the dune,” I told my boy, “and I’ll, ah, look around the truck.” After 20 minutes of sticking my fingers and toes into hot sand to test its consistency, I thought I had a way out. We’d go mid-throttle forward then immediately crank left into a area that was rooted by some bushes. If I damaged any of these bushes, I resolved that I would donate to the Sierra Club or something afterwards. Then I could finish my 180 and cut over to an existing doubletrack created by a few ATVs, which went about a hundred feet in the desired direction before disappearing. At that point, I would make a hard right, crest an extremely soft ridge of sand, and land on what felt like harder ground.

I cursed the Ram’s massive street-cred wheels and smooth-riding tires. They’d carried us through 3500 carefree miles in near-total silence, but right now I wanted to swap them out for so-called “brodozer” running gear. Oh well. What’s the worst case scenario? We’d remain stuck. At which point I’d ride one of our eminently capable bikes back to the freeway, find cell service, call for help, and after some frustrating and expensive effort we would be back on the road. We had 25 gallons of fuel to run the A/C and four gallons of water to drink. There was no actual danger here to anything but my ego. When John returned from his walk and expressed a desire to drive all the way to the dune I grinned and said, “Let’s get out of here, I’m hungry.”

“We had lunch an hour ago.”

“Well … this mentality is how your Dad got to be so fat, you know? Time to drive away.” On my third rocking attempt the Ram broke free and I cheerfully roosted a half-circle between some endangered bushes before settling on the ATV track. Now was the time for speed … but the traction control was reducing this 5.7-liter engine to about an Omni/Horizon’s worth of urgency. I wasn’t quite doing 25 mph when I hit the ridge standing between us and freedom. To my horror, the Ram ground to a halt.

“What’s going on?”

“I, ah, want to look at this tree over here for a minute.” I kept my foot about halfway into the throttle. The traction control bucked and shuddered the rear axle. Nothing happened … then the nose lurched forward a few inches before pitching into the sand again. No matter. This might work. Let the computer think about it. This isn’t one of my old Land Rovers, where you get stuck, then you winch out. First off, we have no winch. Secondly, it has enough brainpower to figure it out. The Mopar boys test these things in dunes all the time. Just let the truck do the work. There was another lurch. Then another. Then we were in motion and accelerating down a pair of deep ruts. I saw a soft-and-sticky-looking bump coming up and I pinned the throttle before hitting it. In the rearview mirror I saw my 50-quart Pelican cooler temporarily file a flight plan to Los Angeles before settling back in the bed with an almighty thump. Then we were on the hardpack and hustling. There was an old Nissan Frontier coming the other way, on 35-inch sand tires, chock-full of young men who had no idea how close they’d been to being able to make fun of someone. They waved and I waved back. Then we were … gone.

On the phone half an hour later, my native-New-Mexican wife was more than a little justifiably agitated at my retelling of this heroic endeavor. “When. Are. You. Going. To. Learn. To. Respect. The. Desert?” she asked, no doubt thinking of a not dissimilar episode seven years ago where my brother and I got involved in some not-entirely-safe-for-work drama in western Utah, and then I spent a week in the hospital with Pneumonia Kuang Grade Mark Eleven or something like that.

“As soon as it comes to Ohio, where I live,” I responded.

From Vegas the next day, we went to the Grand Canyon and a brilliant bike park in St. George, Utah. Street riding in Denver, John crashed again and opened up two long divots on his right leg. I poured rubbing alcohol on them. “This is going to be like the Gom Jabbar in Dune,” I suggested.

“Like the what in whaOWWWWWWW!” After I finished laughing at him, I got back on my bike, promptly slipping a pedal on a jump and opening up a long divot in my own right leg. “Are you going to pour alcohol on that?” John asked.

“Hell no, I’ve had my tetanus shots.”

“So have I!”

“You should have said something.” The odometer on our truck ticked past the 5000 mark somewhere east of Laramie. I made a quick list of Ram Pros and Cons.

Pros: Grace, space, pace, 33-gallon fuel capacity, exceptionally intelligent traction control, good stereo, low interior noise. The most space you can get in a popular-priced rear seat now that Ford’s let go of its Flex and MKT crossovers.

Cons: The “Ram Box” system is not for everyone, because it really cuts down on cargo-bed width. A slightly more all-terrain tire setup wouldn’t go amiss, even at the cost of a little more roughness. The 5.7-liter HEMI is not the equal of GM’s 6.2 V-8 in power or fuel economy, although if you’re coming to this vehicle from a Toyota or Nissan full-sizer it’s gonna feel like you just caught a ride on a space-shuttle booster rocket. The multifunction tailgate, which can be opened barn-door style or dropped like a conventional tailgate, feels flimsy in operation.

Allow me to engage in some heresy for a moment: This truck could easily ride about six inches lower with no harm done to anything except the aggressive ego of some owners. I cannot express how sick I got of lifting Pelican coolers and downhill mountain bikes over my head before putting them in the truck bed. I’m 6-foot-2. This is one area—the only area, probably—where the Nissan Frontier has it all over the Ram 1500 Laramie. You can load it without doing an overhead press. Over the course of two weeks, where you completely load and unload the vehicle every day, this sort of thing adds up.

That being said, I suspect the typical customer for the Ram 1500 rarely puts anything in the bed. It was supplied to us by Chrysler with a clever arrangement of tonneau cover and cargo partitions that made it basically a sedan with a big trunk. Obviously, we left all of that in the garage at home, but most people won’t. Operated with this equipment, the Ram is revealed for what it really is: a ’70s New Yorker or Crown Imperial, made utterly perfect. There’s a lesson to be learned here. Our periodic genuflections to the BMW 528e and the Lexus RX300 aside, most Americans never really changed what we want out of a vehicle. Today’s half-ton trucks are just Caprices and Ninety-Eights and Fairlanes with an extra half-ton’s worth of mass and the all-important truck bed that grants them a pass under our ridiculous fuel-economy laws. You can tow a boat and bring your family with them, just like our parents did with their full-sized wagons. The sole reason you see so many of these and so few Suburbans/Expeditions is simple: the SUV variants of the truck cost 10–15 grand more for basically the same thing, so people just deal with the open bed.

Jack Baruth

Our trip ended with the proverbial whimper; having selected a bike park in Terre Haute, Indiana, as our final stop before home, and having loaded up on ice and bubble-gum tasting inflammatories before arriving, we were met at the facility by a weathered old fellow with a shovel who told us, “Rained last night. The ground’s too wet to ride.” He was right. A little more than three hours later, we fetched up in my driveway. As we always do after any kind of trip, John and I sat down to evaluate our accomplishments and our progression as riders. Fifteen days on the road, covering 6124.3 miles in 104 hours and 23 minutes. An average fuel economy of 19.6 miles per gallon, which is fairly miraculous for a three-ton vehicle. Eleven new bike parks, pump tracks, and skate parks. Just one day where we didn’t ride at all. As I dragged our big lime green Pelican out of the troposphere-height truck bed, I realized that my son was riding circles around the cul-de-sac on his Norco Rampage dirt-jumper.

“Dude. Aren’t you sick of riding your bike?”

“Well, I’m glad to be home for sure, and my arm really hurts, and my legs hurt. But … I also wish we could have made the trip a few days longer.”

“There’s nothing stopping us from going back, you know.”


“Seriously. But not immediately. Right now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go sit in my recliner and look at the wall for a while. Maybe for a whole day. As long as it takes, really.” Wallace Stegner was right; the road to adventure has always led West. I have no doubt we will be on that road again before too long. Again and again, until the day comes when my son takes the road solo in search of his own adventures, no longer stuck with me. It’s hard to envision what happens after then. Maybe it’s just where my road ends.

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