The day that my crew now knows simply as “Thursday” started like any other day. We were scheduled to do monitoring on two long-term range plots northwest of town. The drive out there was going to be about an hour, so we got to the office and headed out right away. Driving to the first plot, we were about 10 minutes away according to our GPS, and we hit a huge ditch in the road that we weren’t confident driving over. We weighed our options and decided to load up our packs and try to hike to it. After about 5 minutes of walking, we reached a tiny road that we realized connected back to the highway and could take us to our plot. Rather than walk 4 miles round trip, we walked back to the truck, hopped in, and made it to our plot via a small two-track road. We finished our protocol, had lunch, and were ready to tackle the next plot.
The second plot we planned to complete that day was only 2 miles away as the crow flies, but of course in order to drive there, we had to drive over an hour on roads with boulders and rock slabs. In the Carlsbad Resource Area, roads are constantly changing and moving because of the oil and gas development, so we had to turn around two times to follow roads that were not on our map. The road that our second plot was allegedly on had completely disappeared, so we took a gamble and followed a road not on our map to get as close as possible to the plot. At this point, it was already 4pm, there was a thunderstorm fast approaching, and we were on an exposed ridge.
Fortunately, we found the plot rebar, collected our data, and were back to the truck before the storm got too close. The road we had been on looped back to highway, so we decided to continue the direction we were going rather than try to drive over the horrible roads we’d already driven on. We messaged our supervisor that we would be late and started making our way back.
Initially, the road seemed great. Not as many rock slabs, easy to follow, and we even saw a javelina (small wild pig) run down a draw right in front of our truck. Once we got about 5 minutes from the highway, we hit a roadblock. In front of us was a 12 inch drop into loose gravel at the bottom of a draw, an uneven hill on the other side. At this point, if we had to turn around, we wouldn’t be back to the office until about 9pm and would have to drive horrible roads in the dark and potentially the rain. We weighed our options, and decided to get out of the truck and see what we could do. As we looked at the draw, before we all decided to get out, my crewmate Alex said, “Snake? Rattlesnake!”. Off the driver’s side corner of the hood, curled up behind a rock, was a beautiful rattlesnake. It uncurled itself and slithered off the road into the bushes, all 4 feet of it disappearing into the brush.
We still didn’t want to turn around, so as my crewmates Alex and Catherine got out and began moving rocks into the draw to lessen the drop, I kept my eyes on the surroundings, making sure the rattlesnake didn’t come back. Before we made the move to drive over the draw and our makeshift road, we noticed a house up on the hill by the draw and noted that if something went horribly wrong, we could go to the house and ask for help. We heard a dog barking, so we knew the home was inhabited. Then we started the truck. Apparently my crew has secret roadbuilding skills, because our truck made it through the draw and we continued down the road toward the highway. Then we saw a gate.
I got out of the truck to open the gate, which was unlocked and blocking the county road we were on that went through to the highway. As I walked up to the gate, I heard an engine start. Up drove a man in an ATV. It was perhaps the strangest encounter with a person I’ve ever had. He repeated, “It hasn’t rained out here in 3 years” in a slow Southern drawl about 3 separate times in our conversation. After about a 5 minute talk he drove away and we proceeded through the gate, drove 3 more minutes, and hit the highway. We got back to the office unscathed and only an hour and a half late.
Just about every safety talk they give you at the Carlsbad Field Office came to our minds that day – horrible roads, roads not existing anymore, thunderstorms, rattlesnakes, strange men living in the middle of the desert. We maneuvered around every challenge and ultimately I think our crew became closer because of it. And we went to get ice cream afterwards, so at least we ended the day on a high note.