Sunday, September 8, 2013

Finding the High Ground...Literally.

The High Desert is an interesting place right now.  Apparently this is "monsoon season."  I'll buy that, considering that I've seen more rain here in the afternoons in the past couple weeks than you see the rest of the far.  Probably more rain in one day than we see here the rest of the year...and thus sets the stage for yesterday's debacle.

I knew it was probably going to rain in the early afternoon, and I wanted to beat the heat, so I took off for Joshua Tree National Park fairly early to get my run in; just a 16-miler yesterday, which is significantly shorter than what I've been doing on the weekends. 

I started the run with a "quick" 4 mile round trip jaunt up and down Ryan Mountain, to get a quick 1k feet of vertical in, since the trail I would run next was relatively flat (only about 6-700' vertical over 12 miles).  After a quick trip up and down the mountain, I headed out to the California Riding and Hiking Trail to do an out and back of 12 miles total.

When I started out on that trail, it was beautiful; sunny, only a few puffy white clouds in the sky, a slight breeze, and about 80 degrees.  It was about 5 miles out that a storm cloud popped out of nowhere to my northwest, but it didn't look like it would come anywhere near me.  I hit the turn-around point, and headed back.  Unfortunately, the storm cloud grew, and followed me.  At about 6.5 miles in, and still 5.5 miles from my car, the rain hit.  This rain was that kind that had HUGE drops that would sting when they hit the skin. 

I knew the high propensity for flash floods in this high desert region, so I pushed on before the weather got too bad to try to avoid such a scenario.  Then the hail came.  Hail?  Really?  It's September in the desert, and I was suddenly getting pelted with marble size hail.  I found a boulder nearby to seek cover from temporarily, but once I was out of the rain and hail, I knew I couldn't stay long.  The problem, was that I was in a tank top and running shorts, soaking wet, and the temperature (I would later find out) had dropped down to the low 50s with the onset of this front. 

Once I started shivering, I knew, rain or shine, I had to keep moving.  I pushed through the last few miles of driving rain and got back to my car.  I started driving from the parking lot, but here's the thing; this parking lot is on a dirt the desert....during a torrential rain storm. 

Release the flood waters.

Not my picture, but this is how I remember it in my head.

I got to a point in the road, where I knew my car was not going to make it any further, the water was just moving too quickly, it was too high, and the road was washing out.  I figured the smart thing to do would be to back up to where I came from, as it was fairly high ground, and just wait the storm out.  No dice.  Within the few minutes it took me to make that decision, the road behind me had flooded as well. 

I sat in my car for probably 20 minutes, getting very nervous, and hoping the rain would stop, and the waters would recede.  The longer I sat there, the higher the water got, and the harder it rained.  By now, I had realized that the rushing water was creeping up my tires. 

I knew I wasn't far from the main road, where there was bound to be traffic, but I couldn't see it, and I knew they couldn't see me.  I sat debating whether or not to stay in the car, or to get out and make a break for the road before I got stuck where I was at. 

I made my choice.  I had to succumbed to the fact that I was probably going to lose the car to a flash flood, but that's what insurance is for, right?  I grabbed what I thought was important:  my wallet, my car keys, and my cell phone (not that the phone really made a difference, because there is no reception inside the park). 

Just then, by pure luck, I saw the flashing code lights of a Park Ranger's vehicle out on the main road.  It gave me something to shoot for, and I surmised it couldn't be more than a half mile away.  The problem?  In these rushing waters, it was probably going to be the longest walk of my life. 

I made my break for it, and took off splashing through the water.  At first, it wasn't that deep.  It was moving fast, and washing out the dirt road, but it was only up to around my ankles.  Then it got deeper, and deeper, and at it's deepest point it was up to my waist.  It's not like these were calm waters either, a kayak'er would have loved to have been out on this newly formed rushing river. 

Again, not my picture, but when I took off from my car, this is how it felt. 

I pushed through the water, moving slowly, but deliberately, and managed not to fall completely over in the water.  It was cold, though, like icy cold.  I got out of the other side of the most flooded area, and made my way up to the ranger's SUV.  He apparently didn't see me, because I spooked him a little bit when I walked up next to his window. 

I explained what happened, and got in his vehicle and waited out the storm.  Glad he had his heater on, because I was freezing.  We chatted for a bit, he made some tension reducing comments like "Maybe you will get a new car out of the deal."  Which I would be all about...except that is the new car I just got. 

I hung out in his car and watched flood waters engulf what seemed like the entire park.  Then the rain stopped, and the sun came back out (typical here) like nothing ever happened.  The waters started going down, and I told the ranger (Dylan) that I was going to head back to my car, and see what the damage was.  I left him my name, and told him that if I didn't come back up, it's because I was going to try and drive the car out because it wasn't destroyed.  If my wife called the ranger station, they could tell her I was OK, but I would probably be a little late. 

How I expected to find my car when I got back to it.

He gave me an emergency blanket "just in case" and said if I didn't think I would be able to get out, to just come back to the road, and they would call me a tow truck.  I made my way back to the car, and was pleasantly surprised!  Apparently Italian cars (Fiat) have superior door seals.  From the water line, it looked like it had made it just above the bottom of my doors, and about half way up the tires.  I got it, and dry as could be (at least until I sat down and drenched it all with my wet clothes).  She started right up and was good to go, so I blasted the heat, and waited for the rest of the water to go down. 

The rain had ended, and the flood waters were going down slowly but surely, so I just waited it out.  After about an hour, I could start making my way up the road to the pavement, and managed to get back on solid ground.  I waved to Dylan as I drove by, and made my way out of the park.  It was a lucky day.

Before one of the 6 people who probably read this freak out, yes, I realize it is stupid to take a small car into a flood plain in the desert during monsoon season.  However, keep in mind, I've become familiar with the weather patterns in the area, and even the park service agreed that this particular storm was kind of a fluke in the rapidity of it's onset, and the earliness in the day that it started.  Point being, it was unexpected for everyone.  I was by no means the only vehicle/driver put in a sketchy situation yesterday, but I may have been the luckiest.  I know the rangers and the Search and Rescue teams were very busy. 

Thanks to the Park Rangers (Dylan in particular) for giving me a warm vehicle to hang out in on the high ground while I waited it out.  And thank you Mother Nature, for reminding me who's boss, and for not destroying my little car!

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