When I was nine or ten my dad took me to the top of a towering granite dome in Yosemite and asked me to hold his umbrella while he tried to photograph lightning. My dad was not a stupid man, nor was he an unloving or irresponsible father. But it was the first example in my life of how the behavior of an otherwise rational adult can be altered by the simple act of holding a camera. I used to shake my head at some of the things I observed photographers do, and the get-the-shot-at-all-costs photographer stories I heard. That is, until….
An incoming storm had set up the sky for one of those electric sunsets that photographers come to Mono Lake for: towering clouds, shafting light, glassy water—all that was missing was me and my camera. You see, I’d gotten so caught up in the fabulous fall color in nearby Lundy Canyon that I’d lost track of time and was now rushing to beat the sunset to Mono Lake’s South Tufa. I’d chosen South Tufa because its familiarity meant I could pretty much roll out of my truck and find a shot without a hunt. Plus, I knew a shortcut that would save at least five minutes (and what self-respecting photographer passes an opportunity to take a shortcut?). Unfortunately, I’d become so focused on the goings-on in the sky (photographers rarely watch the road) that I’d missed my shortcut, which was why I was barreling down Highway 395 pondering two options: Continue to 120, or turn around and locate the dirt road shortcut? Neither would ensure a timely arrival at South Tufa.
Then, like a gift from Heaven, an unpaved road veering in the general direction of the lake materialized on my left and I swerved without conscious thought across all four lanes of highway, abruptly enough to send all my gear crashing to the floor behind me. This improvised route, all sagebrush and stone, was new to me, but it soon became clear that not only did the road head in the right direction, its washboard surface smoothed out quite nicely at a fairly brisk 40 mph. Congratulating myself on my truly excellent judgement, I nudged the speedometer even higher and started visualizing the sunset possibilities. Barely slowing for a sharp bend, my foot was already back on the accelerator as I exited the curve, which, it turns out, channeled me like a boat ramp toward the heretofore overlooked (and aptly named) Rush Creek, swift and swollen by recent rain. Traveling at more than 40 miles per hour allowed no more than a fraction of a second for deliberation: Hit the brakes and accept defeat, or accelerate and hope?
There must be a mutation polluting photographers’ gene pool, a “get the shot at all costs” mindset that causes paparazzi to pursue princesses with no regard for life, acclaimed photographic masters to clone full moons and zebras into already lovely images, and hungry landscape photographers to believe that really, really wanting a shot is enough to turn a two-wheel drive Toyota Tacoma into a flying machine.
So. It turns out that Toyotas don’t fly. Nor do they float. Of this I have empirical proof. At 40 miles per hour they do, however, have significant inertia. In this case enough inertia to deliver me to the center of a rushing creek before turning me over to another, more inconvenient, force of nature: gravity. Thus, in water swift enough to nudge a one-and-a-half ton truck several feet downstream, my Tacoma sank like a stone. To the doors. Had it been equipped with four-wheel drive, or even front-wheel drive, I might have been able to gain enough purchase to extricate myself, but rear-wheel drive on a submerged pickup is about as useful as wheels on a boat.
Once I came to a rest I turned off the ignition and sat, feeling quite stupid and thinking, maybe if I just sit here, nobody will ever find out. I’m not sure how long I entertained this fantasy, but frigid creek water tickling my toes finally spurred me to action–if my feet were getting wet, what about all the camera gear on the floor in the back? With (selfless) disregard for my own safety, I dove into the back of the cab and rescued my camera bag from the incoming torrent. After stuffing my cell phone in a pocket, I rolled down my window, scrambled onto the hood, stepped gingerly across to the front fender, and leapt to shore.
Out of harm’s way, I surveyed my surroundings. I was actually on a small island, though the channel in front of me wasn’t nearly as deep and swift as the one that had swallowed my truck. Unlike my truck, the road emerged from the creek and disappeared into the inhospitable landscape. With no cell signal and snow promised for later, I knew rescue would require a hike, perhaps as far as South Tufa (a couple of miles away). For some reason it occurred to me that most carnivorous predators are nocturnal. I eyed the darkening sky and with renewed focus charged forward, traipsing through the rest of the creek without bothering to remove my sandals and socks or roll up my pants.
Fortunately, I only had to trek about a half mile before finding a cell signal. Because this was in the days preceding ubiquitous GPS devices, I had to muster all my descriptive skills before the CHP dispatcher could assure me help was on the way. Somewhat assuaged, and having overdosed on urgency for more than hour, on the walk back I finally allowed myself to slow and appreciate the sunset (which had manifested as advertised), though my enthusiasm for photography had dampened considerably. (And when I heard the coyotes planning dinner, the urgency returned.)
Back at my truck, I sat on a rock and watched the wedge of daylight shrink behind the Sierra. After what seemed much longer than it probably was, a tow truck appeared (I never imagined a tow truck could be so beautiful), parking pretty much where I should have stopped in the first place. The driver got out and surveyed the scene, finally hand-signaling (the roar of the creek drowned his shouts) that he’d need to drive around to the other side to pull me out. I was less than enthusiastic about letting him leave, but there was clearly no way he was going to extricate my truck from way over there, and he seemed to know where he was going.
Relieved that I probably wasn’t going to be left to the coyotes, I decided it might be a good idea to snap a picture of my misfortune. Since I was reluctant to venture back onto the Toytanic to retrieve my tripod and remote-release, I switched to the fastest lens in my bag (f2.8), dialed my camera to ISO 3200, turned on the two-second timer, and plopped my butt onto the sand in front of the truck. With a flashlight clamped between my teeth and the camera firmly pressed to my chest (and one eye out for the tripod police), I fired a couple of frames, hoping one would be sharp enough. (If you look closely, you can see the concentric circles of the flashlight on the hood, as well as footprint.)
The darkness was nearly complete when the tow truck reappeared on my side of the creek, and within five minutes my truck was winched out and draining on dry land. I’d envisioned a long, shame-filled tow truck ride back into Lee Vining, but the tow truck driver suggested I try starting my truck—imagine my surprise when the engine turned over and fired right up. Not only that, when the driver found out I’m a AAA member, he told me there’d be no charge. When I sheepishly suggested that I might just be the stupidest person he’d ever helped, he told that in the spring he’d rescued another driver in a high clearance 4×4 who had tried crossing at the same spot (a photographer no doubt) when the water was high enough to actually turn his truck around. That made me feel marginally better.
I hadn’t driven far when my check-engine light came on, but everything continued to run fine. And anyway, I think three hundred dollars damage to my exhaust system, a saturated carpet, and a few soggy books and magazines is small price to pay for an education and a story.
Oh yeah–the snow started falling before I was done with dinner.