Saturday, March 17, 2007

Just because a road appears on a map...

Just because a road appears on a map, does not mean that it will always be paved.

Coming to Southern California with plans to visit Disneyland at some point during my stay, I didn't expect to have a white knuckle EEEEEEEE-ticket ride last night in the San Bernadino National Forest, the Cucamonga Wasteland to be exact.

After working all day at the California MEA Conference in Ontario on Friday, I thought it'd be cool to drive a circuit from I-15 up through the mountains to Mt. Baldy and back down into Claremont where I was staying. Since it would be around sunset, I thought this should be a pretty spectacular ride. Leaving the convention center just after five, I encountered pretty heavy traffic through Ontario while trying to work my way over to Sierra Road, where my adventure would begin. I've experience bad traffic, but nothing that would rival this. It took 45 minutes to go one mile. While frustrating that I might miss the best of the sunset, I still expected that it'd be a fun drive at dusk.

I reach Sierra Road at the Interstate and head off toward the town of Lytle Creek. Smooth winding roads are very, very cool for a driving junkie. Its best in a convertible or a performance car, but my rented Saturn VUE was up to the task and we were rolling along at a nice clip. The VUE and I sailed through the town of Lytle Creek along a dried riverbed. Just past Lytle Creek, we hit a stretch of pristine asphalt. Smooth as glass, this is the stuff of dreams for the driving junkie. That would all change very shortly.

Let me back up the story for a moment. Just before hitting the pristine asphalt I passed a sign that should have sent up a red flag - San Bernadino County road maintenance ends here. That would prove to be an understatement a couple of miles further, when the next sign said - Unpaved Road Ahead.

To me, an unpaved road, means its not paved, but cleared of large rocks. A cinder road is what I expected, not an off-road course that would make a Land Rover work hard. It started out as small rocks so I thought okay, a bit more than expected, but not overly difficult to travel, especially for a vehicle with reasonable ground clearance like my VUE. I was rolling along hoping that the pavement would begin again as I came upon two guys in a performance compact with low profile tires. They asked if I might know how to get to a nearby town with access to the interstate. It seems they were trying to get around the backup on the 15. After a quick consultation of my rental car company map, it appeared that they weren't that far from the town so they opted to continue on. At this point, it was getting close to 7 and getting darker by the minute so I wished them well and continued in my pursuit of a paved Mt. Baldy Road.

The road at this point weaves back and forth along the dry riverbed of the Lytle Creek. That's fine if the road is well defined, but this was not the case and as the rocks and ruts got bigger and new trails began to appear in different places along the riverbed. After a near miss with a boulder, I kept going forward because I was more worried about returning over the course that I'd already driven. The unknown that lay ahead combined with the hope that paved road was just around the next bend seemed to be a better bet. In hindsight this makes no sense, but at the time, optimism won out and I forged ahead.

When the automatic headlights finally kicked in and all I could see was the road immediately ahead of me, the adrenaline kicked up a notch and I conceded that this was not going to be good. I hit the OnStar emergency button to get some idea of how much further until I returned to a paved road. After two timed out calls, I began to panic. I was not only in deep, but I was out of range to communicate with the outside world. At this point, I made a pledge to God that if I got out of this in one piece, I would gladly go to Mass on Sunday morning. Miraculously, the OnStar auto-dialer persisted and eventually connected me to an angel named Jocelyn. She asked if I was okay and how she could help.

"Yeah! I need to know where I am and how far until the pavement returns" I responded. She used the VUE's OnStar GPS to determined where I was and what direction I was heading. As her map, like mine, didn't distinguish between paved road and the mule path that I was now on, she put me on hold while calling the National Park Service to figure out how to get me out of there. As I was certain that the paved road must be just ahead, I continued driving while on hold.

It was at the beginning of an uphill climb along a one lane path that I redefined my understanding of being aggressive. It was now dark and there were a pair of headlights coming down my one lane path. I kept moving forward. If someone's going to give, its going to be the couple in the pickup truck. Fortunately the showdown was short lived as they had enough room to back up and get out of the way rather easily. Another miracle that there was someone else out here, so I decided to ask for help from my one lane adversary. He explained that I was only about a mile and a half from the Mount Baldy Lodge, but that the road ahead appeared to been washed out. When a full size 4x4 pickup driven by someone who knew how to drive in these conditions had to backtrack, this was not a good sign for my trusty VUE. My response was simple, please lead me back to paved road, any paved road that gets me back to an interstate. I didn't care if it was in Arizona or Nevada, any interstate would do.

He agreed and after I turned around, we began our journey back. At this point, I'd lost the OnStar signal, but I didn't worry too much since I had a knowledgeable escort. I was feeling better, but I still needed to get back in one piece. Using their taillights as a beacon in the darkness, we trekked back and forth through the dry riverbed. Eventually we came upon the two guys in the sports coupe We waited for them to turn around and our growing caravan continued on its way. Jocelyn called me back to apologize that I'd been cutoff and more importantly to check to see if I was still okay and tell me that a Park Service Ranger was coming up into the valley to assist me and asked if I'd like her to stay on the line. I thanked her again, but explained my encounter with the pickup and that we were on our way back out to Lytle Creek.

As we hit the edge of the smooth pavement, I took a very, very long deep breath. I had lived through the adventure and would be forever grateful to God for connecting me to Jocelyn at OnStar and for finding the couple in the pickup truck. I'd likely still be lost in the wilderness without them. Jocelyn called back one more time just after we'd hit that glorious blacktop. I thanked her again and assured her that my next car and any future rentals would be equipped with OnStar. This one incident convinced me that this indeed is an extraordinary service and peace of mind is worth every penny.

The bottom line in all of this, never trust a map that runs through an area called wilderness. Remember, just because its on a map, doesn't mean that it's paved. And when its not, don't keep going forward, especially when it’s getting dark. I think I'll stick to the suburbs for the rest of my trip. Oh yeah, I'll also be looking for a church for this Sunday morning.

No comments: