I have sand in my butt crack.
And a few other places despite the fact that I was pulled from the beach almost a week ago. My being dragged from a sandy grave came as the result of my first ever overland adventure.
What follows are a few of the “highlights” from that fateful trip.
My 17-year-old son Barrett and I arrive at the 130,434-acre Padre Island National Seashore just outside Corpus Christi, Texas early Friday morning. This area is billed by the park service as, “The Longest Stretch of Undeveloped Barrier Island in the World” and features 60 miles of completely rugged and dangerous beach that is 4 x 4 only accessible. Visitors are warned that the drive is extremely hazardous, that, “Large barrels washed onto the beach may contain hazardous waste,” that, “Sharp objects (e.g. nails, fish spines, medical waste) may be on the beach” along with, “Hazardous waste, illegal drugs, unexploded ordnance, etc.” and that the area could also harbor mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus. Barrett and I laugh at the danger and turn our fully stocked and made-adventure-ready 4 x 4 2012 Toyota FJ Cruiser onto the beach.
The first five miles of beach is supposedly maintained yet littered with plastic, trash, shells, and tourists. The latter range from what appear to be homeless fishing for something to eat to families looking to stay cool in the surf to senior citizens looking to stretch retirement dollars by living in an RV or travel trailer on the beach. Seeing this, Barrett asks if we’re on the right beach. “This doesn’t look like some unexplored beach,” he mumbles. I assure him we are in for an adventure and speed past these good folks to Mile Marker 5.
Barrett and I pause to read the warnings at Mile Marker 5. We make special notice of the sections that read, “Driving conditions change on a regular basis. Beware of tides, soft sand and debris,” “Please report sea turtles that are on the beach,” and “Smuggling and or illegal entry is common in this area due to the proximity of the international border. Report suspicious persons and / or activities to the National Park Service.”
Somehow, my son and I completely miss the top warning that reads, “Towing services are very expensive!”
Despite the lack of any beach maintenance past Mile Marker 5, Barrett and I run into a few people on the beach. Some are driving cars; others are in huge trucks with tall step-up roof racks outfitted for fishing far offshore. We call to these as we drive by asking if they’ve had any luck. Most answer with jokes: “I’m getting sunburned,” “Catching lots of mosquito bites,” and, “I’m just here to drink beer.” Barrett and I laugh and drive on.
Barrett studies the trash as we drive over a never-ending supply of it. He wonders aloud about the abundance of single shoes. “I’ve counted 20 so far! Is everyone on this island running around in just one shoe?”
By Mile Marker 10 the number of people has thinned considerably. We can see no one on the beach before us. We stop to examine and take pictures of a washed up buoy of some kind. It is rusted and covered in graffiti.
Just past Mile Marker 15, we come to the skeletal remains of a whitetail just above the tide line. The carcass smells of rot and decay, is swarming with flies, and its bones show signs of having been gnawed upon. I realize that this is the first time I’ve ever seen a deer on a beach and my mind wanders through all the possibilities of how this came to be. Did it come from the dunes? Wash up on shore from someplace else? Did someone dump it there?
Barrett interrupts my thoughts. “Here’s another single shoe! What the hell man!”
The drive so far has been relatively easy with my only needing to put the vehicle into four-wheel drive twice. It’s low tide and we are able to drive along the wet sand with ease. It’s almost 100 degrees and the beach is sweltering and smells of saltwater, dead fish, and garbage. The dunes beyond are vivid green but fogged over with clouds of insects. The beach itself is littered with a multitude of birds. We watch hills of sandpipers, screeches of gulls, and squadrons of pelicans hunt the shallow surf for food. They ignore us for the most part as we drive by.
We spot a dead turtle just past Mile Marker 20. It’s a land turtle of some sort and is bleached ivory by who knows how long in the sun. I’m taking a picture of it when I hear, “Here’s another God damn single shoe!”
We’ve not seen anyone in hours and yet evidence of man is littered upon the beach in long piles of garbage, plastic, fishing line and nets, construction hardhats, and, yes, single shoes. In most places the garbage swallows fields of shells. Birds and crabs rummage through all this in search of food or shelter from the boiling heat.
Just past Mile Marker 30 we see two whitetails at the edge of the dune. The buck is a nice one and in velvet. I stare and the sparse vegetation beyond where they stand and wonder what the duo eat.
Mile Marker 45 is covered in hard hats. Dozens are tied or bolted to the pole the marker stands upon. “Somebody ought to do that with shoes,” my son offers.
Mile Marker 50 is covered in plastic dolls. All are naked and warped from time in the sun. Most are eyeless. I ask my son to go get a picture of the marker. He responds, “Hell no! That’s creepy as shit!”
We are almost to Mile Marker 55 when the beach changes dramatically. The area between the water and the dunes becomes narrower. It becomes impossible to drive next to the water. I aim the FJ up toward the dunes and continue in four-wheel drive along the loose sand. The bottom suddenly drops out from under the vehicle. We are up to the floorboards on loose sand. I gun the engine in an attempt to continue forward.
We are sunk.
Barrett and I get out to inspect the damage. Sand pours in through our open doors.
All four tires are off the ground. The vehicle sits on a dorsal fin of sand.
We shove a set of X-Bull recovery tracks under the tires.
The tires still don’t touch.
Barrett grabs a shovel and I have him dig a four-foot-deep hole some 40 feet before the vehicle. We unspool a length of cable from the winch at the front of the truck, wrap it around a five-gallon bucket filled with sand, and bury it in the hole. I engage the winch, the truck shifts slightly, then watch to see the five-gallon bucket swim under the sand like the monster in the Kevin Bacon movie Tremors.
Barrett digs out the hole once more. We try winching the FJ out by burying one of the X-Bull recovery tracks only to see the winch rip it through the sand as well.
Night falls quickly.
Mosquitoes storm the beach.
Barrett and I break out our tent and portable grill. We have a quick steak dinner then climb into the shelter of the tent to sleep.
Barrett and I awake at 5:45 the next morning.
We dig out from under the truck for 45 minutes. Despite the fact that I’m wearing gloves, I cut my hand on buried glass in two places. Barrett and I unload the trailer then push it to about 40 yards before the FJ. We load the trailer up except for two heavy ice chests that we wedge in front of the tires. I hook the cable onto the trailer and start the winch. The FJ fails to budge. Instead, the winch pulls the trailer towards us, driving the two coolers into the sand in the process. A look of dread washes over Barrett’s face. He points out to me that we haven’t seen sign of anyone since morning yesterday and that we have no cell service. I assure him that we are fine and remind him that we have plenty of food and water (and thank God I have plenty of beer) and that Ranger’s patrol the beach on a regular basis.
We move the trailer and try again to no avail.
The FJ is stuck on an upswing of sand and there is no way we are getting ourself out.
Not at least with the materials that we have.
We keep trying when we suddenly hear the sharp whine of a small engine. We turn to see a Park Ranger in an UTV fishtailing all over the sand towards us. He comes to a stop far from the truck and walks toward us. He is covered from head to toe in a small mesh mosquito suit and wearing a COVID mask.
“Are y’all ok?” He asks.
I tell him we’re fine but stuck.
“Do y’all need any medical attention? Water?” He continues.
I tell him again that we are fine. Just stuck.
A huge smile breaks across the Ranger’s face. He is beaming beneath his skeeter veil.
“Have you seen any sea turtles?” He asks.
“No. Just a bunch of single shoes,” Barrett replies. “What’s up with that?”
The Ranger offers his theories on lost shoes then comes to look at our sand-submerged vehicle. His assessment is that we are stuck and not going anywhere. I ask him our options. He explains that he hasn’t seen anyone else on the beach for more than 20 miles so getting help from someone else is out of the question. He adds that federal vehicles are not allowed to help remove stranded persons.
“So, I need to call for a tow?” I ask.
“That’s gonna cost A LOT!” the Ranger replies.
I tell the Ranger that I see no other way out.
He agrees and calls dispatch on his radio. He asks whoever is on the other end to call for a tow. Dispatch replies that they will call for a tow and that it should reach us in about four hours. I look at my watch. It’s 8:15. The Ranger asks again if I need anything more. I tell him we don’t then watch as he drives off toward the end of the island to look for turtles.
Barrett is relived someone is coming. I tell him if a tow arrives just after noon, we will still have plenty of time to make the end of the island to spearfish the jetties. He confesses that he isn’t so sure he still wants to do that. He says he thinks we are way in over our head and that we don’t know what we’re doing. I remind him that the Ranger said we hit a really bad spot and that it was just a matter of dumb luck – not skill.
“Yeah, but you and I have a lot of dumb luck on these trips dad.”
Barrett and I take down the tent and set up a sun shelter. We cook a pound of bacon and watch the small waves break over the beach. The Ranger returns and stops by to see how we’re doing.
“Looks like y’all are doing ok,” he offers.
I tell him we are.
“Y’all see any sea turtles while I was gone?” He asks.
I tell him we haven’t then ask about the tow. He calls dispatch on his radio, and they tell him once more that the tow was called. The Ranger adds that, as we are technically in an emergency situation, we are allowed to climb the dunes in search of a cell signal. He says the signal is weak at best but that if we climb high enough we’ll get one. We thank the Ranger and watch him drive off toward headquarters.
For the next three hours, Barrett and I fish, swim, and enjoy being stranded miles from anyone else. We make some sandwiches and make plans for what to do after the tow arrives. I tell him we should get the trailer ready as that will save time. Barrett starts work on that while I haul the two five-gallon gas tanks to the vehicle with the intention of topping off the FJ. I lug the cans through the sand and open the first not realizing that the 100-degree sun has expanded the can. I twist the cap and gas sprays out all over my hands and into my cuts. I scream. Barrett laughs his ass off at my girl-like screech.
Noon comes and goes with no tow truck in sight.
One o’clock comes and goes with no tow truck in sight.
Two o’clock comes and goes with no tow truck in sight.
I climb the dunes to get a signal. I call the park headquarters and leave a message explaining who I am, where I’m stranded, and that I want to know the name of the tow company called. I do this every 20 minutes for the next hour. At three I give up and start calling towing companies. All tell me that there is only one towing company that has the legal right to operate on the island. I call this company only to hear that they’ve never been called by the Park Service. I explain my situation and tell the tow agent everything I’ve tried to get out. He says I won’t and that I need to be towed. I tell him where I am.
He shoots back, “That’ll run you $1,400 cash.”
“I don’t have that much cash on me!”
“Credit card fee is $175. Take it or leave it.”
I take it knowing that I’m screwed and have no other way out. I give the man my credit card number and he tells me to be ready when he gets there as he isn’t in the mood to stand around in the heat. I hang up with him to see that I have a voicemail. The message is from Officer Jones of the Park Service. He asks that I call him. I do. He answers on the second ring. I tell him who I am and he asks if my son and I are ok.
“Do you need medical treatment?”
“Do you have plenty of water?”
“Have you seen any sea turtles?”
Officer Jones continues with a long apology about a tow not being called. He tells me, “We dropped the ball and your tow was never called.” I tell him I understand it’s not the Park Service’s job to call a tow but that I was told one had been called. Officer Jones apologies again. He says he knows of a Facebook Group called 361 Off-Road Rescue that might be able to help me. I tell him I have already called for a tow. He asks how much I’m paying. I tell him.
“OUCH!” He says.
He tells me that he knows the towing company and that they will not refund my money. I tell him I understand and he apologizes again for not offering to help me sooner. I say that I understand, and he ends the call by asking me to call him if I need anything else or happen to see a sea turtle.
I decide at that moment, God as my witness, to never report seeing a sea turtle.
Furthermore, if I do see one I might through a single shoe at it.
Our tow arrives a little after six. The driver is in some huge vehicle that looks to have just driven off the set of some Mad Max movie. The driver is bald with a mullet, has little in the way of teeth, and wears a t-shirt that appears to have been washed with a cheese grater given the number of tiny holes in it.
“Y’all the ones stuck?” He asks in some odd cadence.
“What the hell did he say?” Barrett asks.
I explain that we are and tell him how we got stuck.
“You know of anything I could have done differently, so as not to get stuck?” I ask.
“You don’t wanna know,” the man mumbles.
I assure him I do.
“Don’t drive a damn Toyota!” The man cackles. “Sorry. But dat’s the truth.”
“What the hell did he say?” Barrett asks.
The man tells me he knows what he’s doing as he used to drive for NASCAR then quickly pulls my vehicle from its sandy grave. I tell him my son is spent and that he is a little unsure of our ability to get out of any further trouble. I ask him if we can follow him back down the beach to the park entrance.
“I guess but I ain’t towing you out again. This ain’t a two’fer service.”
“What the hell did he say?” Barrett asks for a third time.
I tell Mr. NASCAR I understand and to please give us a few minutes to get our trailer hooked up.
“You best hurry,” Mr. NASCAR barks.
Barrett and I hook up the trailer and follow Mr. NASCAR down the beach at a 40-mph clip.
“Guess he doesn’t believe in the 15-mph speed limit,” Barrett offers. “And how the hell did you understand him? He was speaking some kind of crazy mumble language.”
“I used to teach public school, remember? I speak all that crap.”
We hit the parking lot around 10:30.
Mr. NASCAR pulls next to me.
“You need to follow me on paved road or can you figure that out for yourself?”
“God Bless you sir,” I offer.
Mr. NASCAR frowns at my kind words and speeds away.
Barrett and I check into the first motel we come to. It is a rat hole. The clerk asks If I need to inspect the room before paying for it. I tell him as long as it has a bed and a shower, I’ll be fine.
“You look exhausted,” the clerk offers. “And burnt to a crisp. Are you and your son ok?”
I give him a brief rundown of our ordeal.
“You went almost all the way to the end of the island? Did you see any sea turtles?”
Our room is disgusting. There is sand on the floor, a live roach in the bathtub, and a gap under the door to the parking lot big enough for a possum to waddle through. I down several beers while Barrett showers then shower myself. We each fall asleep around 12:30. I awake to something on my neck shortly thereafter. I swat it with my hand. It turns to mush. I go to the bathroom to see that I just flattened a roach on my neck. I wash my hands then return to bed.
“Yeah, what’s up Bear?”
“I had a really good time these past few days.”
“Uh huh. It was an adventure just like you said…just not the one we wanted.”
I smile and go to sleep.
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