An Occurrence at Lee Vining Creek (with apologies to Ambrose Bierce)


Our editorial team has reviewed your Lee Vining Creek story and we regret to inform you that we did not select it for inclusion in an upcoming issue of Overland Journal.

While running into unappreciative recipients to our help on the trail can be an unfortunate reality, we prefer to stay on a positive course, emphasizing the rewards to helping someone on the trail.

We greatly appreciate your interest in working with us and hope to see you submit more stories for consideration.


Aw jeez. That old negativity bugaboo again. I guess that means I’ll have to post the story here.

A true story, actually, that happened in March 2016.


An Occurrence at Lee Vining Creek

I was driving Picnic Grounds Road on the west shore of Mono Lake, heading north — my first time in that particular area. Smooth road, graded, not too much dust. Pleasantly tired. Excellent view. Appropriate music on the stereo. That sort of thing.

It’d been a long day of driving, but a good one. I’d left Sorensen’s on CA88 around 10am and hoped I’d gotten some good red-tailed hawk pics near Gardnerville. Saw a bald eagle, too, but, alas, no pics. I’d found some new (to me), secluded forest service roads at Mono, with some great scenery.

60+ degrees, clear, perfect weather.

I was approaching Lee Vining Creek from the south side, just before it transformed into a small delta leading into Mono Lake.

A sign read “ROAD FLOODED”.

I slowed when I saw a rental camper on a turnout. Straight ahead, just above the creek, a guy was pulling a rope up the road towards me.

The rope was wrapped around the bumper of his pickup…which was stuck in at least a foot and a half of rushing snowmelt in Lee Vining creek.

I rolled my window down. The dude near the camper trotted up. “I was gonna try to pull him out with the camper. But you’ve got a winch…”, pointing at the front of my truck. “He’s been spinning his wheels in there for twenty minutes. I think he’s dug himself into a hole.”

Camper guy was Australian, probably about 65, skinny, in shorts and sandals. His wife stood in the door of the camper, looking doubtful. They didn’t know wheel-spinning dude. They just happened to be hanging out when he tried to cross the creek.

I got out and looked at the guy’s truck. It was an older stock 2WD Ford with a camper shell.

His girlfriend sat in the passenger seat, staring at her cellphone.

The creek was moving fast, with big, loose stones rolling around. It wasn’t exactly white water, but there were riffles. There was no way I would’ve chanced crossing it, even with 4WD.

The guy didn’t look relieved, or smile, or ask if I could winch him out. His face was blank.

I asked him what he’d twisted around the bumper.

“A climbing rope.” He held it out for me to see.

“If you use that, it’s gonna snap, and anyone on either end is gonna end up unhappy. Put it away.” I wasn’t feeling too enthusiastic about wading into snowmelt to feel for places to wrap a recovery strap under the dude’s truck. I turned to camper guy. “If we rope up the bumper, all it’s gonna do is pull his bumper off. Does he have any real anchor points?”

The Australian seemed to know his stuff. And had a high pain threshold. He waded into the freezing water in his sandals and shorts and found a place around the T-bar where we could hook to the winch rope via a strap. It wasn’t optimum, but without scuba gear, we didn’t really have a choice.

I thought about turning around and hooking a tow rope to the rear receiver hitch on my truck, but the graveled slope leading down to the creek was steep. I’d just spin my wheels trying to drag him out.

I chocked the front wheels, yanked up the parking brake, and put the thing in park. I’d draped stuff over the synthetic winch rope in case it cut loose and went flying.

I opened my hood to protect the windshield, told the guy to get behind the wheel, start his truck, put it in neutral and steer straight ahead. I yelled at the Australian guy to get behind my truck.

I gunned my engine and pulsed the winch rope with the remote, all while peeking around the side of the hood. The rope went taut.

I kept clicking the winch control slowly.

My truck’s suspension started moving forward. The back end reared up. The winch motor strained and whined. The wheel chocks dug in.

Nothing happened.

I kept pulsing the winch in short bursts.

Slowly, grudgingly, finally, the guy’s truck budged, then lurched forward from the middle of the creek.

We yelled for him to shift into drive give it some gentle gas.

After about 15 seconds — it seemed much longer — he reached the dry part of the road on our side.

His rear passenger wheel was flat. He emptied a can of Fix-A-Flat into it, then we used my portable compressor that I’d hooked up to my battery.

Flat-tire man got in and rolled the truck forward a few dozen feet, then back, at my urging.

We watched as air mixed with Fix-A-Flat squirted out the valve stem. The tire was flat again within a minute. While spinning his wheels in the creek, a rock had probably knocked the valve stem loose.

He had no jack or tool to lower his spare. We tried using my Nissan jack screw, but it didn’t fit. His spare was flat (of course) but I figured we could fill it with the compressor — if he could get it lowered to the point we could get at the valve.

I gave him some tools to try to jerry-rig lowering the tire. No dice.

He even tried to cut the chain that suspended the spare with some pliers. Didn’t work.

He stood staring at his cellphone for a long while. I assumed he was looking for someone to tow his truck, or fix the spare. But I overheard him tell the Australian, “I’m searching online for people who’ve posted ideas about how to bypass lowering the spare.”

Oh. OK.

He got back under the truck and fiddled with the spare again. Finally, Australian guy pushed him aside, crawled under and felt around the spare. He called me over and I got down on my knees and looked where he was pointing.

He found a three-inch slash in the sidewall he could stick his finger through.

No-spare guy again huddled with his girlfriend and their cellphones.

I retreated to my truck in an attempt to put the backseat back together — I’d ripped all my packed stuff out getting the jack key and wheel chocks. There was also now a mess in my recovery/rescue Tuffbin back in the bed of truck, and I needed to wipe down, dry, and re-spool the winch rope.

It beat standing around watching this guy flail about.

Australian guy came over and helped me get my stuff re-organized. He shook his head and stage-whispered “this person…no manners!”

I had to agree. I’d realized I hadn’t heard so much as a thank-you, or even been on the receiving end of a wan smile.

Finally, flat-spare-creek-stuck dude trudged up and asked if one of us would give him a ride to the Shell station in Lee Vining so he could bring the tire in to be patched.

The Australian immediately shook his head no.

“You don’t have a jack,” I pointed out.

I did, but I was no longer feeling all that benevolent at this point. I’d been there over an hour. Suddenly I felt sunburnt, windblown, thirsty, tired, and hungry. And fed up.

“Just call Shell. They’re 15 minutes away. They’ll come down here, tow your truck in, and fix the spare.”

The guy looked glum and nodded.

I got in my truck. I smiled at the Australian guy and told him “safe travels, mate”, did a three-point turn, and drove away.

On the way back, I stopped at the Shell and gassed up. As I was pulling out, a gentleman in overalls came out of the office and headed past me towards a tow truck. I stopped and rolled down the window.

“You going down to the creek to fix that guy’s spare, by any chance?”

“Yeah. You the one who winched him out?”


“Guy gave me some attitude. Got short with me and demanded I come down there right away because he has to get to work tomorrow.”

“Just out of curiosity…what do you charge for a tow?”

“$160 an hour, including travel time.”

“Another question – does it still count as “paying it forward” when the payee is a sullen, ungrateful little bitch?”

He laughed.