Yosemite. Woman. Man. Car. Stuck.
The car’s tires spun fruitlessly in the soft brown silt. One of the back tires hung, suspended, in the air. I pushed hard on the car’s bumper, straining, willing it out of the ditch. Keenon accelerated, but the tires merely groaned, kicking dirt into the air. He stopped, and I peeled myself off the trunk. The summer evening was hot and close, a high of 97 degrees that day and flies whining in the air. But now the sun was dropping low behind the oak trees, the sky turning yellow. No one else was around. Neither of our phones had service. We were about 15 miles outside of Yosemite. It was our wedding day.
If you had asked me on the evening of December 31, 2019, as Keenon and I watched the ball drop, what I’d be doing on July 25, 2020, I would have been pretty confident in my answer. For the past several months, I had engaged a small army of type-A women in the wedding industry to help me plan our summer 2020 wedding. It was to be a lavish (to my standards) Silicon Valley soirée that would wend its way from the yawning Stanford Memorial Church to an intimate evening of outdoor dining, speeches, and dances in the Los Altos hills. I had never dreamed of a large wedding and in fact hated being the center of attention, but it was important to Keenon, and we both had large extended families we loved and wanted to be there. As the planner in the relationship, I threw myself into the task, learning about color theory and cutlery. It takes a certain level of temporary insanity to plan a wedding, putting so much time, effort, and money into one eight hour period, but I was going to execute ours with the determination and focus of a mid-level engineering manager. There were spreadsheets. There were budgets. Every vendor we spoke to wanted to talk to me, as the ultimate “decision maker.” It was all delightfully frivolous yet seemed very high stakes.
Then, the pandemic hit. It struck the Bay Area earlier than much of the country, offices shuttering and the grocery stores packed with panicked shoppers. My family got a strident early warning, when in early March my grandparents were imprisoned for a week in international waters on a coronavirus-afflicted cruise ship. (That’s an entirely different story, culminating in my grandfather being invited onto Fox and Friends to plead for his release to an indifferent and poll-obsessed President Trump. He refused, on principle, preferring to go down with the ship rather than increase Fox’s revenue by 1 cent.) My grandparents were discharged into quarantine on an army base, and our state closed its doors. Keenon and I bought a stationary bike from an exercise outlet, at a marked up price to buy it directly off the floor, in case we were all locked in our houses like Italy. Even as other states continued blithely into spring, mask free, our summer wedding seemed more and more unlikely. In late April, we called it, rescheduling to the summer of 2021.
Four months later our wedding date slouched forward, a vision from an alternate universe where we didn’t cringe when characters on TV shows shook hands and ate in indoor restaurants. We were quarantine-crazy and depressed by the numbing reality of not being able to hug our parents since St. Patrick’s Day. Keenon, the sweet soul that he is, thought of a way to get out of Dodge and honor the date. While I battled through some interminable Zoom call, he quietly planned a weekend trip to Yosemite, reserving an all-wheel drive rental car, and booking a campsite just outside the park. He even woke up at 6am to buy tickets to the park, since the entrance was being metered. It was perfect.
So on Saturday morning, instead of sweating off the last few pounds and sipping champagne with my bridesmaids, I loaded up our rental car with newly minted camping supplies and we set off across the Central Valley. We made it to Yosemite Valley by 2pm and drove another three thousand vertical feet up to Glacier Point, a hack to get stunning views without having to scale all that rock. Rounding the final corner to see that view was like waking up in a Mac background. We sat on the sun-warmed stone and looked and looked at all that granite. It was impossibly bright and gleaming, scraped flat by the inexorable movement of glaciers and nearly devoid of vegetation. In the middle jutted Half Dome, impossibly skinny like a demented mountain out of Dr. Seuss. Perspective was distorted up there. We kept wondering why the lighting was so blue, only to realize that that was the atmosphere tinting the distant trees and rocks like barbeque smoke. Even in the late summer drought, sheets of water from Vernal and Nevada Falls tumbled over the cliffs. The heavy water slapped against the rock at the top, magically becoming lighter and lighter on the way down as the water particles disassociated in the wind. Like a bridal veil, I thought ruefully.
A cumulonimbus cloud we had watched grow all afternoon was turning malevolent, and when distant lightning flashed we took our cue. One last look at Half Dome, and we climbed into the car once more to find our campsite. After driving past it once or twice, some convivial spousal disagreements (“I told you to read the email!”) cross-checking the directions, we found the entrance. It was marked by a chain strung across a dirt road and some thoughtful port-a-potties placed there for campers. I hopped out to unlock the chain, and Keenon steered the car up the road.
All was fine until we reached a particularly steep section of the road, strewn with large gravel chunks and rutted with tire marks. As Keenon pressed the accelerator, the car struggled, slowing and fishtailing. The tires spun but would not get traction.
“It’s four-wheel drive, right?” I said.
“It should be,” said Keenon, mashing his foot on the gas and muttering to the car as men often do with machines. He backed the car down the hill slowly. “Maybe if I get a running start.”
Keenon eased the car forward, speeding up like a runner trying to make it up the ramp. The car made it to the same spot and choked, tires flailing in the gravel. “It’s just digging a hole,” I said. “This isn’t going to work.”
Our campsite was at least 600 feet up the steep slope, and we had packed for car camping, not backpacking. Our gear was heavy and not very portable. Also, it takes Herculean effort to get Keenon up a steep hill with his braces -- I might even have to carry him up on my back.
I was thinking about all of this, distracted, as Keenon backed the car down the hill, aiming for a parking space clearly meant for the lesser vehicles. Only, he wasn’t steering to accommodate the curve of the road, and we were backing into the hillside. “Watch out!” I yelled. He stopped, and the back corner of the car settled into the soft brown dirt. “You need to pull forward,” I said, “you can’t keep going downhill. We’re just driving into the hillside.”
Keenon put the car in gear and drove forward. Tried to drive forward. Only, the car didn’t budge. The wheels spun, digging deeper holes in the earth. “Stop!” I said. “We’re just digging ourselves in.”
I got out of the car to survey the damage. The car was partway wedged into the hillside, one of its back tires covered in dirt. The other back tire spun merrily in the air. The front two tires were buried in twin holes in the earth, having flung away all nearby gravel. When Keenon pressed the gas pedal, only the front tires moved -- the back two were still. I stared at the airborne back tire. “It’s not four-wheel drive,” I said grimly. “They gave us the wrong car.”
I checked the manual to see if there was a mode we needed to change, but alas. This Nissan “Rogue” was worse than even our Prius or Civic, which both had back wheel drive. It was a heavy, blue whale. But at least it had backup cameras and a “sport” mode!
We were well and truly stuck.
As our predicament dawned on me, I proceeded with my standard coping mechanism for such situations, which is to lose my goddamn mind. “We’re stuck,” I wailed. “There’s no way we can get out. We’re going to get eaten by bears and die here. Or be murdered by serial killers. I can’t even call triple A. I want to go home.”
Keenon, calm and cool with a man’s ability to wildly overestimate his faculties, jumped out of the car and began to “work the problem.” He jumped out of the car and began digging in the dirt around the tires with a stick, like, well, an animal. “Look, honey,” he said, “I’m going to dig us a ramp. Hand me some gravel.”
My soul having left my body, I did what he said mutely, dumping gravel under the tires and packing it into the earth. Keenon’s pants were caked in dirt. (“Why would I need a second pair of jeans?” he had said. “It’s only one night.”) We built a gravel-studded path for the buried front tire, hoping to give it some traction so we could crawl our way out. I was dubious about the chances of success for this strategy (the back tire was in the air!!), but hey, I was always bad at physics, and Keenon had been taking a lot of mechanical engineering courses lately.
Keenon got back in the car and I assumed the position at the rear, ready to provide what I’m best at in such situations -- brute strength. “Well, we probably only have one shot,” he said cheerfully. “If this doesn’t work, we’ll just make the hole bigger.”
He eased his foot onto the gas pedal one more time, and I pushed as hard as I could on the butt of that stupid Mom car. In the honeymoon version of the story, the car would have crept forward out of the hole, aided by our force of will and sheer ingenuity. I was really hoping for that version of the story. In reality, the car rocked back and forth, straining for purchase. Dirt flew everywhere. The wheels spun, refusing to catch on the gravel. Keenon stopped accelerating, and the car settled in. The hole surrounding the front tire was even deeper now and the gravel gone.
As I collapsed in disappointment, two figures started up the driveway. It was two young women, one in a long modest dress and the other in denim cut-offs. Keenon waved his arms. “Hey! We need help. Can you ladies help us push?”
They stopped short, surveying our situation with half amusement, half uncertainty. “I would,” the one wearing the dress said. “I really would, but it’s the Sabbath and we’re not supposed to do any work. We’re just out for an evening stroll -- that’s all we’re allowed to do.” She consulted her companion. “Does pushing a car count? Even if it’s to help someone?”
(Sabbath, I thought. But it’s Saturday. Would that make them Orthodox Jews, in rural California? I still don’t know what religious group they belonged to. On further reflection, they may have been Seventh-day Adventists, like Ben Carson. Or cult members).
Eventually they decided their God would forgive them if they helped two stricken city-slickers, and all three of us pushed the back of the car as Keenon accelerated. Even with the strength of three young women in birkenstocks, the car still refused to budge. “Well, thanks anyway,” Keenon said. “We’ll just camp here and I’ll hike down the road tomorrow to borrow a phone. We have all our camping gear anyway.”
As I contemplated our fate, another vehicle made its way up the driveway, like a mirage. It was an ATV. It clearly had four-wheel drive. The driver was tanned and tattooed, with a dirty baseball cap and a lip that curled more the closer he got to our car. When he was flush with our car, he stopped. “You’re stuck,” he said. It was a statement.
Keenon, never embarrassed to ask strangers for favors, asked if he might help tug us out. The driver pointed at the sign on the road that read ‘4x4 only.’ “We told you it’s only all wheel drive. You don’t listen.”
“Oh,” I said, “We read your note, we thought the car had--”
“Yeah, yeah, you thought that. You people. You. Don’t. Listen.” Without another word, he drove off up the hill in his ATV.
The Orthodox Jew or Seventh-day Adventist in the dress gasped. “What a dick,” she said. “Is he just going to leave?”
All four of us watched the ATV as he drove it up the hill, made a wide arcing turn, and drove back down. The driver stopped, facing us. He unspooled a length of cable with a cloth loop on the end, attached to the ATV and clearly meant for this purpose. He looped it around our one good wheel. For good measure, he put tire blocks in front of the ATV’s wheels.
He ordered Keenon back in the car. “Put it in drive, feather light on the pedal,” he said, slowly pulling the cable taut. “And no promises.”
Keenon eased down the accelerator one more time. The car strained. The ATV shuddered against the weight and slid against the tire stops. I ran to the side of the car and pushed as hard as I could. Slowly but surely, the car climbed out of the hole and onto the gravel. The girls cheered. A few more spools of the cable, and we were on solid ground.
I jumped behind the car to guide Keenon back down the hill, and the ATV driver, friendly now with the flush of success, followed. “I can help drive your stuff up the hill if you want to just pull into this driveway.”
“No,” I said, “I think we’re just going to bail.” (Who was going to pull us out if we got stuck again, and everybody left?)
“Are you sure?” he said. “It’s getting dark, and it’s a long way back. Where are you from, anyway?”
“The Bay Area,” we said, and he nodded knowingly. The humiliation was complete. I imagined what we must look like, clueless Silicon Valley kooks who didn’t even know what four-wheel drive was yet thought we were better than rural folk.
Keenon backed all the way down the driveway, and we thanked them profusely, over and over, politely refusing their offers to name other campsites, and hightailed it out of there, tails between our legs. For a minute, Keenon thought he had left his phone in the dirt and wanted to turn back. “Go, just go,” I pleaded, “I’ll buy you another one. Don’t make me go back there.” (We found his phone in the car). We fled the three and a half hours all the way back to the Bay Area, stopping at an In-N-Out in Los Banos for burgers and shakes.
As we drove through the cool, darkening night, passing rows of corn and walnut trees, I told Keenon that he had succeeded in distracting me from thinking about our canceled wedding. It was true, as I sweated and strained with the car at the campsite, I was not thinking about what my wedding dress would have felt like or what my mom’s speech would be or the sound of the organ in the cathedral. And we had gotten to see Yosemite, if only for a few hours. And I loved that Keenon kept his cool and his sense of humor, even if I did want to kill him earlier. It was all just another clause to add to our eventual vows. For better or for worse, for highs and for lows, for promotions, selling companies, or stuck in our own dirt.
You never forget your wedding day, they say. And I never will.