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Truck on a Gravel Bar
How did it get there?
The day before, intense thunderstorms pounded the southern mountains of West Virginia and the area surrounding the Cherry River. Water rushed off the steep mountainsides, down into the valley’s ancient watershed, washing all the rocks, pebbles, stones, and boulders in the waterways.
The downpours and the thunder came and went all afternoon, which at home would turn the creeks and rivers into coffee with extra cream, but in the mountains, the mud had all been washed out eons prior, and the rising water turned white with rapids, bubbles, and foam.
That night inside my tent on top of the mountain, I could still hear the roaring river below, a constant background rumbling much like the sound of ocean waves beating the shore but intensified by urgency and fury.
We had heard of a nearby waterfall and swimming hole, and the next day, after a lazy morning, set out to find this blissful spot of natural slides, running rapids, but near still pools. On our way, we passed a shirtless man, walking the side of the road with a gas can, a local pillbilly (a term created by big pharma who peddled more prescriptions in the area than the population times ten), or meth head, or other form of addict.
The mountain region we chose for our vacation had drug-induced problem, just as many other dying rural towns. Our local friend’s cabin had been broken into more than once, and local contractors knew to lock up their materials, tools, and supplies at night. Amongst the signs of attempted renaissances, fresh paint, and tourism traps, signs of previous prosperity grew decrepit, dusty, and decayed.
But we were on vacation, seeking a natural wonder, so we made cracks about him (no pun intended) and we missed the gravel road down to the river. No matter – a quick U-turn and track back, and we were off-road and within a short distance, had reached our destination. The waterfall roared from the rains the night before, and as the road descended to the water’s edge, we spied the man with the gas can, and his older, red Ford truck out on the gravel bar in the river.
We were disappointed by his presence, hoping for privacy and a bit intimidated by his shirtless, toothless appearance. But I was also confused. Four-wheel drive truck or not, I was unable to determine exactly how he got his truck onto the gravel bar. Yes, the short road led right down to the river, but several large rocks protruded from the ground and interrupted the drive, certainly placed to bust an oil pan or two, perhaps even bend a tie rod. Between these cockeyed challenges and the gravel bar was a low washout, just as likely to tip a truck onto its headlights than out onto the gravel bar, where his truck sat perpendicular to the path of the road.
Our vehicle would clearly block him in, and the turnaround space was extremely tight. Our driver asked him if he would need out soon, and he noted that it might take him a while to get his truck started.
The river was raging from the previous day’s rains, and clearly the current would keep us from any leisurely swim. The natural slides were hidden beneath white waters, and I feared my small dog would fall in and instantly whisked downstream like a cork only to be smashed against the large boulders below.
The girls and I wandered the gravel bar around the man and his truck, seeking riverside treasures of interesting rocks and stones as he put gas in his gas tank and tinkered under the hood. And I still could not fathom how the truck got where it was.
I watched him without being obvious. He had no visible needle marks, no shakes, no gritting his teeth. His truck bed was full, jumper cables on top of the covered collection of whatever was underneath, and he had a “Fuck Heroin” bumper sticker on his back window.
My curiosity got the best of me. I gathered my dog in my arms (he’s small and blind, but quite scary when threatened), lit a cigarette, and initiated conversation.
“Heck of a place to break down,” I said.
“Yeah,” he replied. “It’s been a rough couple of days.”
“How did your truck end up here?” I asked.
“I was trying to start it by popping the clutch, and it rolled here.”
“Oh geez,” I said, still not quite satisfied by the answer, since there were no oil leaks or bent tie rod ends, or dents around the front bumper or grill.
He asked for a cigarette, and I handed him two. As I lit the one he put to his lips, I said quietly, “Were you here all night?” He nodded.
“So, what,” I said, with my continued near-whisper. “Did you get shit faced last night and pull over to sleep it off?”
“Nah,” he said. “I just needed to take a moment.”
Whatever the hell that meant.
I still could not vision that experience leaving the truck in the current predicament. His truck was not lined up with the path of the road, popping a clutch would not start a truck with an empty gas tank, and none of his current attempts to start the truck mattered with a dead battery.
And yet, he seemed to be taking it all in stride, working diligently to start the truck, which clearly (to me) wasn’t going to happen. I spied the jumper cables, but there truly was no way to get our vehicle close enough to make use of them.
But, he tried again, and in the attempt, water shot out of his muffler.
And that’s when it hit me. He was there, last night, after a day of intermittent pounding thunderstorms. His truck was aligned with the current of the water, which would have been several feet higher from the heavy rains. I looked again at the side of his truck, and only then noticed the soft, delicate line of flotsam crumbs about halfway up the sides of the truck bed.
“You spent the night IN the river,” I said aloud. He nodded. “Yes.”
I examined the situation with new eyes. He had rolled into the swollen waters with enough force to “float” the truck over the oil pan busters, over the now-shallow wash, and out onto the gravel bar. The currents were enough to turn the truck sideways on the bar, but not enough to wash it off into the rapids and downstream into the giant boulders.
Had his truck bed not been full, had it rained another inch of rain, had his truck entered the water just a few more feet to the right…
“You know, this is going to sound really insensitive and strange given your current predicament,” I said, “but do you have any idea how fucking lucky you are?”
He gave me a lame smile. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“That being said,” I continued, “This truck isn’t going to start anytime soon, if ever. You need to unload the bed and anything else you want to save before the storms come in again this afternoon.”
I could tell he wasn’t ready to accept the truck as a total loss. Admittedly, it looked okay. But I knew it would not be okay. We offered him the use of a phone to call someone, and he declined. He could have the truck towed up out of there, but not without damage, and it still would not run. But he wasn’t there yet. He was not giving up. And perhaps he had no one to call anyway. Perhaps the truck was all he had, and everything he owned was in it.
At that point, I was ready to leave. There would be no swimming in the swift currents, and no river treasures while the water levels were still high. And there was no saving or helping this guy.
We left him there around 1 p.m., and by 5:30, the mountains were washed hard again by another deluge of rain. Currents ran from our mountaintop gathering into the valleys below. Around nine, I lay down in my tent and listened to the background roar of the nearby waterfall in the valley down below.
I fell asleep to the sound, wondering about the current predicament of a red Ford truck. I pictured it downstream, nose down in the waters, the cab beneath the foaming white, the bed slammed against a river boulder, bottom exposed, the currents spinning the back tires.
As it could have been the night before.