My last post was about snow and how one’s attitude about snow can make all the difference when living where snow happens. That post – and being snowbound at home most of the day today after a dump of about nine inches of new snow overnight – got me reminiscing about an encounter that happened over a decade ago. Here’s the story…
It’s July 3, 2008. I’m driving with Maia and Meadow, my two Alaskan Malamutes, into the Payette National Forest for some pre-Independence Day holiday weekend quiet and a nice cool morning run.
Instead, what do we find?
A stranded lawyer.
Damn. They’re everywhere. Lawyers, I mean. Can’t avoid ‘em, even in the wilds of Idaho!
I’m driving on a remote forest service road between my house and Goose Lake, a popular alpine lake with campgrounds. My goal this morning is a trail head on the north end of the lake. I expect to find snow on the trail as it climbs to 8,400 feet, in fact that’s why I chose it, so the girls can stay cool and play in the snow. I’m hoping the ten-mile stretch of narrow, rough and bumpy backcounty dirt road getting us there will be free of snow and downed trees. Since Goose Lake sits at about 6000 feet in elevation, depending on the year deep snow on this road in early July is a real possibility. If the road isn’t clear, we’ll have to turn back and take the long way around.
After driving slowly for seven miles, I discover the road blocked by a vehicle high-centered on a small but deep patch of soft snow spanning the width of the road. I stop well back of the SUV and look around. Not a soul in sight. I have no idea how long the vehicle has been there. An older model SUV, it looked sad and forlorn, abandoned.
I manage to turn my car around and start heading back, disappointed. It’s already 8:00 am and warming up quickly. Approaching the trail head from the long way around will add another hour and several degrees in warming temperatures.
Unwilling to completely waste the drive, I park about a mile downhill from the stuck vehicle and let the girls out. I’m curious how much snow might still be on the road between the snow-bound SUV and Goose Lake, so we start running in that direction. The girls are happy to be out and moving, even if we are on a dirt road rather than a single-track trail.
As we approach the abandoned SUV, all is still quiet. I peek in a window, relieved I don’t see any bodies. (Seriously! You just never know.) Maps and other detritus are spread all over the passenger seat; miscellaneous gear is in the back. Another mile up the road we cross several deeper and wider snow patches, so even if the SUV hadn’t blocked the road, I would have had to turn back before reaching Goose Lake.
The girls and I turn and begin heading back toward my car, with them in the lead, as usual. Suddenly they stop, alerting me to something new or unusual up ahead. We’re nearing the high-centered SUV, and now I see what they did: someone standing next to its now-opened passenger door.
Not knowing who this person is, whether he has any dogs with him, or what sort of mood he might be in, I quickly leash the girls before continuing. [An aside: most of my Idaho neighbors considered me crazy for venturing into the woods unarmed. They think guns are required to defend against wild animals, bears, wolves and cougars in particular. If I had been inclined to pack a weapon, it would have been to protect myself against unpredictable two-legged animals. In any case, having two Malamutes as companions makes the issue of weaponry moot – they are so visually intimidating that no one messes with us, even though I know they wouldn’t hurt anyone unless I was being attacked. I never went into the woods without them.]
As we get closer, I call out a hello, then ask, “Do you have any dogs?” [Another aside: I’ve learned the hard way that other dogs often mistake my Malamutes as threatening and charge us, snarling with teeth bared. Not fun. That’s why this is my first question to this stranger.]
The man smiles and chuckles to himself. He shouts back, “Right now, I wish I had a hundred of them!”
Good; he has a sense of humor. He appears rational and non-threatening, standing calmly by this vehicle. My dogs don’t seem concerned, and they’re good judges of character. I let them off leash and we move closer.
I approach a tall, lean, bespectacled man, with gray hair pulled back into a ponytail and a trimmed beard. I notice he’s wearing…. camouflage waders with suspenders, feet stuffed into heavy leather boots. I don’t know whether to laugh or run.
“How long you been stuck here?” I ask.
“Since 2:00 pm yesterday,” he replies.
About this time, I notice his license plate: Kentucky. “You’re a long way from home,” I offer.
“I have friends in McCall,” he explains. “This is the third year in a row I’ve tried to get to Goose Lake to fish, and I never seem to make it.” He has a quiet, smooth Southern drawl. He’s articulate. There’s no anger or irritation in his voice, just humility. I don’t see any weapons.
“I didn’t think anyone was with the car when I ran by,” I say. In response, he points out his tent a few yards off into the woods.
He explains that his cell phone works, despite the remoteness of the spot. He’s called his friends in McCall, telling them he’s stuck but not to worry, he’ll dig himself out. It’s now obvious that’s what he’s been doing but so far, he hasn’t been successful.
I offer to try pulling him out with my car. As the girls and I run off, I warn it will take ten minutes or so to get to my car. “That’s fine,” he says with a wry smile. “I’m not going anywhere and I’ve got all day.”
I return with my car. And my camera. I say that in return for trying to pull him out of the snow, I want his picture to put in my online newspaper. He smiles and says, “It’s the least I can do.” He willingly gives his name – Rob Littlefield – and says he’s from Louisville. He poses next to his car, sense of humor firmly intact.
“What do you do back in Louisville?” I ask. With the same pause and cautious smile I use when asked what I do for a living, Rob replies, “I’m an attorney.” I let out a loud laugh. He looks surprised until I admit I claim the same occupation. (Although in my case, I often add “recovering” in front of the word attorney.) We compare notes, and discover our legal backgrounds are incredibly similar, Rob being a legal aid attorney.
It’s a very small world.
All efforts to pull Rob’s vehicle from the snow with mine are for naught. The axle is well and truly stuck. That’s when Rob shows me what he’s spent the prior afternoon and evening digging with: a garden trowel. Oh my. We both laugh. I admire his willingness to admit it. I beg him to pose for another photo, this time with the trowel. Again, Rob graciously and with good humor consents. He explains that the waders came in handy for all the digging, but he finally realized, lying under his SUV near the axle, that he’d better stop before the car fell on top of him.
“Thanks for not making me come upon a pinned and dead man in the middle of nowhere,” I say.
Rob promises he’ll call his friends again, although he’s reluctant to ruin their day by making them rescue him. They already have his GPS coordinates. I say that when I get home I’ll see if my neighbor might come back up with his truck, which has a winch. “I’ve got beer in the cooler!” Rob says, incentive for any rescuer. “I just wasn’t in the mood to drink it last night.”
After many laughs, we part with an exchange of email addresses so I can send him the photos and a link to his story in my online newspaper.
Back home, my neighbor Leonard is indeed game to go rescue the guy from Kentucky stuck in the snow. Such adventures make for great knee-slapping stories about “those stupid tourists.” Leonard gathers his ropes and some shovels, picks me up and back into the forest we head. I look forward to getting more photos of Leonard pulling Rob’s SUV out of the snow. It’s a long, slow drive, and by the time we got to the spot, Rob and his vehicle are gone.
Leonard and I aren’t upset. We’d done our good deed for the day (or perhaps even the month), even if we didn’t actually get to perform a rescue. And I’m glad Rob’s SUV is free.
You see? You just never know what you’ll find when you venture into the wilderness! I found a kind and good-natured southern gentleman/lawyer in distress, the last thing I would have expected.
And it doesn’t end there.
I email Rob with the photos and the link to the story. I ask how things went. He responds: I did get unstuck! But it took my friend and his giant Chevy Suburban to do it. It was a long 24 hours but even at its most frustrating, it was better than practicing law. Thanks so much for helping out. And Leonard must be a good man to go hauling up after some boneheaded Kentuckian. It’s one of the things I love about the west besides the scenery. The folks I’ve met are just a pleasure to be around.
Rob adds he enjoyed my story about him, that he forwarded it to several friends before heading out for another Idaho adventure floating the Middle Fork of the Salmon.
Very soon, I start hearing from Rob’s friends. Here’s a sampling.
From Michael: I enjoyed your article about Rob, the Kentucky attorney. He’s a buddy of mine. I received a text message from him the other day saying “now what?” with a photo of his car perched on the snow. Since I was on the beach on the Gulf of Mexico, I couldn’t offer much help. But he’s a resourceful guy. I’ll meet him on the Yellowstone River next week for some trout fishing, gin and good laughs regarding your article. Thanks for sharing the story (and not shooting him!).
My reply to Michael (subject line: “Lawyers don’t shoot lawyers”): As for shooting him? Hell, I’m one of the few in this state who doesn’t carry a gun in the forest. But I have tell you, when I first saw him standing next to his car in those camo waders (do the fish really care?), I leashed my dogs because I wasn’t sure about HIM having a gun and being in a not-so-friendly mood!
From Mike, a journalist with NPR in Minnesota: Nice piece on my wandering pal, Rob Littlefield. He sent a link to your piece over the weekend (subject header: There’s a dang journalist around every corner).
You rendered him to a T. He is (occasionally) rational and harmless; especially to trout. No, that’s a joke. He’s a damn fine angler, when he can find his way to whichever God-forsaken piece of water he’s obsessed with at that moment.
However, I hope you didn’t fall for the old digging-out-with-a-garden-trowel line. He wasn’t digging himself out of the snow. You busted him making margaritas. A couple of decades ago, in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on an early spring day, he lay waste to a truck-sized mound of late season lake ice, not to mention a couple of quarts of Cuervo gold. On that warm Minnesota day the sun shined bright on Rob’s garden trowel.
I can’t explain the camo waders.
Since more than one of Rob’s friends mentioned a gathering in Yellowstone for some fishing, I teasingly sought an invitation. And got one.
We friends of Rob will gather in Yellowstone NP next week for trout and laughs. See you there…
Bring your own camo waders.
I didn’t go. I should have. I was flattered that despite having two strikes against me – being a journalist and an attorney – they still invited me.
The story ends with Rob returning from his Middle Fork trip to find this flurry of emails between me and his buddies. He compliments me on wrangling the invitation to an otherwise – and by tradition – all male gathering and is sorry I won’t be joining them. On his way out of town to Yellowstone, he leaves a nice bottle of Merlot for me to pick up at his hotel, with a note thanking me for the article and resulting fun. He included a $20 bill, gas money for Leonard.
Feature photo: Payette National Forest covered in snow near where this incident occurred.