It is hard to know where to start or what to say to convey the utter absurdity that was hitch 11. As I sit writing, it is day 10. We have four people with varying degrees of sickness, 2 girls bleeding, the truck in the shop….and this is a GOOD day!
I suppose it all started long ago with events we didn’t even consciously realize were leading us towards chaos but concretely, it started over break when the truck decided to SQUEAK! Jared took the truck to the shop only to find out that the absence of our broken tail pipe had caused the E-brake cable to melt, causing the E break to not fully disengage. Clearly, this had to be fixed. However, this posed the problem of no work truck for me to do the group shopping, and more importantly, no work truck to get us into the field. Peter was conveniently in NM with Jamie searching for our new residence and traipsing around our soon to be work sites. So, the phone calls began.
Jared gallantly took the lead and eventually relayed the verdict that the admin truck was only 2 + hrs away at the Ontario Airport and that we could bring that truck into the field. This however, pushed our departure back a day and started what would be a very common theme of losing people and time on the project from hell.
This project was a post and cable fence. It sounds harmless enough, but allow me to share more details: 1) no one on our crew was anywhere above beginner on the topic of post and cable. 2) We had to coordinate receiving all of our supplies from the BLM interns. 3) There were a massive amount of heavy (40-100 lbs!) and bulky supplies including a generator, a jackhammer and an auger that had to be transported daily to and from the site, not to mention cement and bollards. 4) This particular fence was over a dune, which made it nearly inaccessible to a loaded down Dodge. 5) The fence was BIG! 6) As I mentioned above, we were never a fully functional group of 6 at work, and there were numerous events that caused us to lose valuable work hours.
While in hindsight it seems clear that we should not have even attempted this fence, this was not evident from the get-go and so, after finding a perfect campsite that Dawn expertly backed the trailer into, we got to work Sunday evening (3/4 of a day late) fully believing that Peter would join us the next day, the interns would bring our supplies and the nice round holes we dug would soon be filled with bollards. Rather than let us keep our spirits high for at least 24 hours, the powers that be sent us a night of wind, rain and very little sleep.
We awoke the next morning groggy and bleary eyed to the discovery that a rodent had been in our trailer nibbling on our snacks, fruit, etc. With bins cleaned and breakfast put away, we set off for the worksite. En route, however, the lunch cooler which was balanced atop bollards opened up sending a glass hummus jar to an untimely death…well, ****! Dawn and Michael heroically took on the task of cleaning up the mess so we could continue on. We were able to work for a couple hours before meeting the interns to show them where to drop supplies.
The first part went smooth although it turned out the bollards were square and not round and they would need to come back the next day with installment #2. Then, while graciously following us to our worksite to drop off some supplies, they managed to get stuck which put us back another good hour of work and also led to a near injury. We also learned that Peter would be waiting to hear about our Dodge and his ETA in the field was unknown. This led us to feel it necessary to take the time after a late workday to drive to Blythe and fill up the dodge and the generator with fuel. While two people did that, the remaining 3 tried to “rodent proof” the trailer and make dinner. All in all, there was no rest for the weary.
Day four of hitch began with a debriefing of Michael’s continuing lack of appetite and stomach problems, Jared officially shifting from “off” to sick and not able to work and the discovery that whatever this rodent was, it was still in the trailer and not deterred by the measures taken to remove food from it’s reach. It still managed to get at some fruit, and then shifted over to plastic containers. Dawn, Sam, Michael and I managed to get in a full day’s work, including overtime, but at this point, it was fast becoming clear that what had once seemed a manageable project, was fast becoming impossible.
Day five dawned and while Michael was finally feeling a bit better, Jared was still down for the count. We drove out to the jobsite (Dawn was fast becoming a master of the dunes) and then Dawn and Michael soon turned around to make a second trip to get more tools. Sam and I plugged away on the cursed fence and after a while heard a truck approaching. We were expecting both Dawn and Michael and Jamie and Katie (the BLM interns). Then we heard a loud noise and saw no truck crest the dune…hmmmm. After a while, Michael comes walking over the dune to tell us that there was “breaking news” and we could probably stop what we were doing. So, we went up the hill to find Dawn on one of many phone calls with Peter, Katie and Jamie patiently waiting on their tailgate and the admin dodge sitting quiet and suspect in the sand.
Turns out that as Michael and Dawn made their approach over the extremely rutted out sand, they found the limit of the drive shaft. So, the drive shaft was now broken, we didn’t have the tools to take it off and had a bunch of heavy tools on the other side of the dune. What an amazing stroke of luck that the interns were there and could shuttle us and our gear back to camp where we would await Peter, our newly repaired Dodge and further instruction.
Back at camp, I opened the side door of the trailer to grab a change of clothes and caught a glimpse of a rodent of unusual size (known to some as a very fat wood rat) climbing out of the tent bin and over the water cooler. Well, fruit and snacks are one thing, but tents and backpacks were on a whole other level so I called everyone over to unload the trailer and put an end to the rat once and for all. Talk about a team building exercise! We will never forget Michael prying under the water cooler with pick-mattock handle and broom to try and scare the rat out while Dawn stood poised, shovel in hand to dole out justice. For as fat as he was, the rat was surprisingly nimble and it took a while to finally trap him against the wall. Once there, we still couldn’t get him and as we tried, he scurried down and away. Michael yelled to Dawn to scoop him out of the trailer, Dawn tried only to find that he was turning around to head back under the water cooler and so WHACK! the shovel came down on his abdomen! Jared and I called out surprised and impressed congratulations while poor Sam stood, camera in hand looking shocked and slightly traumatized! The fact that the rat was not actually dead increased the trauma and it had to be scooped out before Michael delivered the final blow to the dome. Wow!
The rest of the afternoon provided us with some very needed down time. I gave my HawCo presentation and we all sat around and started to process the events of the last few days. We officially decided that we were receiving some sort of sign when Dawn took a trip to the rocket box and discovered that the branch next to her was actually smoking! Yup, I’m telling you, things were just ridiculous =) Michael, Dawn and I also played a pretty epic game of bocce, which Dawn claims to have won…debatable! Thus concluded our one mellow afternoon. Peter arrived much later at 11, and day five officially ended.
On day six, for the first time, all six of us rose and prepared for a day of work. This was not a straightforward day of work on the fence however as the first priority was to somehow get the broken dodge out of the backcountry. The plan was to remove the drive shaft and drive/tow the car out to the highway. This meant that first Jared and Peter spent some time under the truck only to find that the tools Peter had brought out were inadequate. After some discussion, Jared and Michael headed off to Blythe in search of tools that were more suited. Their quest was successful (and included ice cream sandwiches!) and Michael was able to remove the broken drive shaft---YAY! The next phase left Dawn, Michael and I on the fence while Sam, Jared and Peter began the arduous process of towing, getting stuck, shoveling, towing, getting stuck, shoveling…you get the idea. It was 6pm by the time they made it back to the worksite. The relief that the truck did not need to be towed was palpable, but everyone was thoroughly exhausted and Sam was fast catching a nasty bug. We headed into Blythe for a needed meal out at Lalo’s and to drop the admin truck off at highway patrol.
All of the glitches, stresses and fatigue of the first six days finally boiled up and over on day 7. Really, its genuinely amazing that we did not kill each other through personal frustration or through work related miscommunications. First off, we exited the Dodge at the site only to find that the newly fixed tailpipe had detached and was resting on the E brake cable. Michael and Jared removed it but the knowledge that the truck was again broken seemed ironically fitting to this hitch of horrors. Peter decided that we would use the truck for one restock run and to exit the site and that was all. After Jared went through the 3 bags of cement we had at the jobsite, he and I went back to camp to grab more cement, more water, cement, gravel and the cable. We made it back, but barely. As we thought through our day, we realized that bringing the cable was altogether way too ambitious, but also knew that Jen would not want us to leave it at the site. Peter called her, and it turned out, she didn’t want us to leave anything at the site including not only the cable but any extra bollards. Stuck between a rock (not being supposed to leave anything at the site) and a hard place (not wanting to fully break our dodge shuttling materials back to camp) we kicked work up a notch, hoping to get as many bollards secured as possible and to do something with the blasted cable. Sam was at the height of her sickness and after realizing that simply holding a post steady took way too much effort resigned herself to a day of drifting in and out of consciousness under the truck. Jared, meanwhile, was functioning but still sick. No one was even near their A game and the tension was palpable.
It didn’t help that around 3pm a group of OHVers arrived atop the dunes drinking beer, laughing and enjoying their Friday afternoon as they mused over just how long this fence might last in the sand. Let’s just say it was not a moment to ask any of us for positive statement about our job!
Probably against our better judgment, we worked through the heat, fatigue, stress and many miscommunications to finish the fence at 7:30pm. We had another near injury that only luck helped us avoid and I don’t even think there was a huge sense of accomplishment when the thing was finally done. We were all just relieved to finally be leaving that god-forsaken site! Back at camp, some people had dinner while others just curled up with their aches, pains and fatigue for a restless night of sleep.
Peter and Jared up early the next day to go get the admin truck and Trimble the worksite. The rest of us awoke a half hour later to pack up camp and await the return of the truck. Michael and I both had sore throats that progressed into full on sickness as the day wore on. Sam was feeling slightly better as was Jared but they were both still under the weather. We finally made it home around 12:30 and didn’t complete post-hitch until 7 pm. What with 4 people being sick and the feeling that the last week had been a month, we decide that we are not up for our scheduled LNT training with Jamie and Darren the next morning.
Finally a good decision that would not be changed even with hindsight! Alana and Michael woke up feeling worse even if Sam and Jared did feel slightly better. Rather than do LNT Sam and Dawn took care of errands, Jared worked on fixing the white tent (the zipper had been splitting) with limited help from Michael and I and Dawn also worked on bureaucratic nightmares surrounding the long since stolen trailer license plate. In the afternoon Jamie came over for a safety talk, not as a reprimand but more as a reassurance that we are still doing some things right. He also suggested routes of communication and safety dialogue to establish that can hold strong and carry us through even the most stressful situations with less room for disaster and reminded us that at the end of the day, we are much more important than any project! He left and we moved on to naps and the preparation of a delicious dinner of pizza and salad. After dinner, Peter decided that the only thing he would demand of his crew the next day was that we all complete our Americorps timesheets.
And so, the madness ends!