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Outdoor Tales: Stuck in the New River

February 16, 2002|By Al Kalin, Staff Columnist

We moved into our new house when I was in the sixth grade and it became the launching point for many outdoor adventures.

The house was perched on the edge of the New River Gorge, north of the Cattle Call Arena.

Below the bluff was a pen for our 4-H animals and a switch-back road wound its way down to the bottom. My stepfather gave my mother a brand new Jeep station wagon for our first Christmas in the new home. It was bright red and white and we named it "Old Merry" as in "Merry Christmas."

It wasn't long before my mother allowed me to drive it down to the animal pens and unload the hay, grain and other ingredients used to mix feed for the 4-H steers.

Trips down the hill in Old Merry soon evolved into short trips up and down the river, hunting, fishing and exploring all the wonders available to a young kid. Soon the short trips became long-range exploring trips and that's when I got into trouble.


I was slowly driving through the brush and over sand dunes half a mile north of Keystone Road one Sunday afternoon when the faint trail I was following wound its way through a large colony of ground squirrel dens. As I drove through the area the bottom fell out as their holes collapsed. I was high-centered and stuck.

My mother had taught me how to rock a vehicle back and forth, gaining momentum, to ease my way out of sandy areas, but nothing seemed to work, even though I was in four-wheel drive and had cleared the sand from underneath the Jeep.

Finally I gave up and I fought my way through mesquite and thick stands of arrow weed and climbed the steep bank of the New River Gorge to look for help. I spotted a tractor parked in a grove of eucalyptus trees nearby.

The old Oliver tractor, hooked to a cultivator, started on the first try. I scribbled a quick note, explaining why I had taken the tractor, and anchored it to the cultivator with a rock. With the cultivator and hydraulic hoses disconnected, I headed for home on the tractor.

One of the things my mother really enjoyed was her Sunday afternoon nap. She didn't take it too well when I woke her up and explained what had happened.

"You what?" she exclaimed.

It was a phrase I heard her utter many times over the years.

My mother followed in her car as I drove back to where the cultivator had been disconnected from the tractor. As we neared the spot, we met the farmer looking for his tractor. He was following the tracks down the road in his pickup. My mother made me explain why I had taken his tractor and he finally accepted my apologies when I showed him the note I'd left, still under the rock, on the cultivator.

After helping him hook up the cultivator and thanking him profusely, I climbed in my mother's car and she said, "I hope you realize you'll have to pay him back for borrowing his tractor. Most farmers would have you locked up at the juvenile home by now."

When I pointed out where the Jeep was, she said, "Well, let's drive down and see how bad it's stuck."

"But, but you can't drive down in the river bottom in this car. It's a Cadillac," I croaked.

"Why not?" she answered as we descended to the bottom of the gorge, following a road next to three-falls, a lined concrete ditch that carried excess canal water to the New River.

As far as I knew, my mother had always driven Cadillacs. Usually she drove black ones but this model was a fancy metallic gray 1957 Brougham. It bucked and pitched as we sailed over the rolling dunes, plowing through the waves of sand like a schooner on the sea.

I'd used four-wheel drive to get this far but my mother drove up to the Jeep like she was pulling into the parking lot behind M.O. Kings, the clothing store on Main, in Brawley.

Before the dust had cleared she'd started the Jeep and after rocking it back and forth a few times, it jumped out of the ruts like it had been pushed from underneath. Taking a few laps around me and the Cadillac, she stopped and climbed in her car. "See how easy it is," she said as she drove off over the sand dunes, leaving me standing there, feeling pretty foolish.

I learned a few more lessons in life that afternoon, like how to drive in the sand. My mother told me later that during melon season, she would ride with her father as he checked the harvesting crews in the watermelon fields. She learned to drive by backing her father's car out of the sandy melon fields. It was many years before she got to drive forward.

The next weekend I found the farmer in the same area and presented him with a sack of frozen meat for letting me borrow his tractor.

>> Outdoor Tales writer Al Kalin can be reached on the Internet at

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