Tail Lamp | The Joy of Getting Stuck

Opening Photo: The author getting stuck in Antarctica (brrr). Photo by Chris Collard.

Oh, I remember the first time I got stuck in the dirt. But the very first time I found a vehicle unmovable was the night my dad gave me my car when I got my license. I wrecked that Honda Accord within two minutes of taking the wheel, attempting to make my way to the Baskin Robbins on Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles. It is all a bit foggy, though the memory of excessive speed, being 17 years old, and water being present in a turn comes to mind. Just like wrecking that Honda in a New York minute, I desperately wanted to blame the universe and countless other excuses for my later misadventure. The truth is, we get stuck because sometimes we just screw up. But I have started to enjoy the hilarity and humanity of my screw-ups, which brings me back to that fateful night of my first stuck when I discovered the limits of my mighty 1989 Isuzu Amigo.

The details are somewhat vague due to the 25 years that have transpired since, but the whole event started with me driving down Highway 101 to a pullout just east of Woodland Hills, California. Back then, there was a little two-track that left the highway to disappear into the jungle. Well, my active imagination wanted it to be a jungle, inspired by reading an article on the Camel Trophy earlier that week (that article ultimately put me on the path to Overland Journal). I was determined to bash through the bush like explorers of old, the sound of semis and Harley Davidsons on the nearby road serving as the soundtrack. This story does require a bit of context, mostly my complete lack of experience with anything off-pavement. I had traded in what was left of that old Honda and purchased a 1989 Isuzu Amigo. The salesman at the corner dealership in Van Nuys convinced me that 2WD was just as good as 4WD because it had big tires. Well, of course. He had me drive it over an abandoned railroad track to prove his point, and even that was a challenge, as I had no clue how to drive a manual transmission—at all.

Back in the Woodland Hills jungle, I blasted through a humongous mud pit at about Mach 3 and continued through the foothills until I came to a locked gate. No problem, I thought, reversing my course to start my expedition back to the interstate. All was good until the mud hole of death presented itself anew. Sure, I could drive around, but would a Camel Trophy hopeful skirt such a gem? Selecting first gear, I attacked the mud again, and again, and again in a spirited series of intentional forays. Thinking, just one more time, I tried an even deeper section and then everything came to a tirespinning, engine-revving, desperate stop. Forward? Nope. Back? Nope. And being 19 years old, I had absolutely nothing helpful in the vehicle: no shovel, no traction mats, nothing— except for the window curtains that the boss for my door-todoor salesman job had just entrusted me to get dry-cleaned.

I engaged my inner MacGyver (this was 1992 by the way) and shoved, pushed, and otherwise packed those heavy drapes under my rear tires. Feeling confident, I entered my cockpit and channeled the Land Rover gods. Slowly taking up the clutch—no, dumping the clutch—the mighty Amigo lurched forward about 2 inches and spun furiously, pulling the curtains around the tires and through the mud until they resembled a Midwesterner’s first vacation to the Everglades. Now, I was good and truly stuck, and my utter incompetence precluded me from trying anything useful like airing down, using the floor mats, or even digging with my hands. Thus began the walk of shame up to the highway and the convenient Caltrans call box, glowing like a yellow sentinel. I could, of course, have called my dad, but what kid ever does that? Instead, I phoned a friend that had a Jeep, the seemingly unstoppable 1989 YJ that would be my savior. Within a few hours, the ordeal was over, and I had learned some things. Okay, I was 19 years old, so I had actually learned nothing, except never to use my boss’ drapes as MaxTrax.

Fast forward a few decades later, and my ability to get randomly and thoroughly stuck continued, including immobilizing our FZJ80 Land Cruiser on the beach in Baja, at night, with a rising tide, only a few hundred meters from Alfonsina’s restaurant. I remember that most of my travel companions were eating dinner, and I needed to run out to the beach camp and pick something up. The tires were already aired down a bit, and the hubs were locked (it had a parttime conversion), so I shifted into four high and proceeded out onto the beach, momentum carrying just to the high water mark and then—stuck. Thoroughly confused as to why this mighty beast wasn’t crawling forward, I selected low range and locked all of the differentials. Again, progress went downward, not forward. I got out and realized that only the rear tires had really dug, though the hubs were locked, and everything was properly selected. I was going nowhere, and the lapping waves were threatening the pinnacle overland vehicle. With nothing to winch to, I started another walk of shame to the restaurant only to be greeted by a chorus of “What?” followed by uncontrolled laughter. I couldn’t help but join in the frivolity, even while my friend Mike winched me out with his Earth- Roamer; it was in that instant I realized that there is much joy to be had in the business of getting stuck.

Since those two incidents, I have relished getting stuck on every continent, and I look back with fondness on those unintentional boggings. After ditching my ego, I have decided that getting stuck is sort of awesome, and have embraced the times when it happens. With that change in perspective, driving a stock or near-stock vehicle becomes so much more lively. There is the challenge of doing more with less, and learning how to solve the problem when gravity wins the day. Now, many 4WD experts will tell you that the first thing you need to do when you get mired is to do a detailed stuck assessment— I say malarkey. The first thing on the agenda should be to give your camera to a friend and pose with a giant and thoroughly enthusiastic grin.


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Scott is the publisher and co-founder of Expedition Portal and Overland Journal. His travels by 4WD and adventure motorcycle span all seven continents and include three circumnavigations of the globe. His polar travels include two vehicle crossings of Antarctica and the first long-axis crossing of Greenland. He lives in Prescott, Arizona