Disaster at Chaco!

I planned an adventure at Chaco Canyon during the Autumn Equinox.  Chaco is a complex of Ancestral Pueblo cities with many features aligned to astronomical features.  City walls are aligned to the sun at the Equinox.  The plan was to set up a tent at the campground, watch the sunrise on the day of the Equinox, do some hiking and bike riding while visiting archeological sites, and participate in activities.  None of this happened due to the even more exciting Adventure that took precedence.

It was a cloudy day when I started the trip near Albuquerque. In the Four Corners area, an unusual weather pattern had caused rain all day, with more rain forecast that night.

I had not been tent camping in years.  I prepared for the trip by finding and setting up the tent in the family room.  I’m older now, and the prospect of sleeping on the ground does not appeal, so I invested in a camp cot, and actually slept in the tent a couple nights just to be sure
I had everything I needed.

Most of the time arroyos don't have a drop of water in them. When the conditions are right, arroyos can become raging rivers.

Fortunately all the camping equipment was stored in boxes and not much had gone missing over the years since it had been last used.  Unfortunately, it was sized for a family of four.  When the boxes were packed into the Trailblazer, it was stuffed to the gills.  Obviously some downsizing is needed.

Most of the road is sand, but there is at least one patch of clay that I found when coming over this hill. Note the different color toward the top of this little rise.

It was raining off and on as I started the trip to the Four Corners.  My hope was that the clouds would go away overnight and there would be clear skies for the sunrise at the Equinox the next morning.  That is what happened, though it did me no good.

The clay in the road was saturated from all-day rain. There was a film of water on the surface that made this patch of road as slick as black ice.

It had been raining all day in Indian Country, and water was flowing in the arroyos.  I’ve always been amazed by the size of the arroyos that occur everywhere in New Mexico, given the small amount of rainfall in this area.  Though there have been heavy rainfalls during my residence in New Mexico, I have usually been in my house and have not seen the arroyos flowing in person.  So I stopped and took some photos of arroyos with water flowing in them.

Paramedics showed up about an hour after the accident. They had nothing to do since I wasn't hurt, but they stayed around until I was on my way. I shared my snacks with them as they had not brought any food.

The stops took some time, and I was a little anxious about the time of my arrival at the park, so I was traveling a little faster than I should have been.  (The GPS track showed about 35 mph.)  The road was sand, but quite wide and mostly not washboarded.  It had been raining all day, but that did not cause a problem except for some small ruts in the road.

My bike was mounted on the back of the SUV. It seemed to be OK even after the rollover. The fire engine showed up shortly after the ambulance arrived.

Cresting a small rise, I hit a patch of clay in the road.  Unlike sand, clay is very slippery when wet.  Due to the rain all day, the gray clay was saturated with water, and due to the light drizzle at the time, there was a light sheen of water on the surface.  The Trailblazer immediately began to hydroplane across the slippery muck.  The front wheels hit a rut that turned the front end to the right, and before I knew it I was sliding across the road sideways!  In slow motion I could see disaster looming as the Trailblazer slid toward the ditch at the side of the road.  There was nothing to be done as the wheels had no traction and were turned 90 degrees to the direction of travel.  As the car slid into the ditch, the left side wheels dug into the soft sand in the shoulder, and the vehicle’s momentum, acting on the high center of gravity, slowly turned the SUV over on its roof.

From the accident to arriving in Bloomfield took about five hours. At least there was a beautiful sunset at the close of the day.

I found myself hanging upside down from the seat-belt, like a side of beef in a butcher shop, with food and ice from the cooler raining down onto me.  My first thought was, “nothing’s broken”, then as the blood rushed to my head, “I should have ordered that gadget from the infomercial, that cuts seat belts and knocks out windows”.  Instead, I just reached around and released the catch on the safety belt, and it popped right open, dropping me a few inches onto the steering wheel.  Things were looking better after I turned myself right side up.

Almost immediately there came a thunderous pounding on the side of the car.  “The doors are locked!  Unlock the doors!  I can’t open the door!”  I chose to ignore the good samaritan while looking for a way to extricate myself.  Amazingly the airbags had not deployed and the electric windows worked.  At least it sounded like the windows were working but the driver’s side window I was trying to open was not moving.  At last I figured it out – I was operating the rear window!  After that it was easy enough to crawl out.

the rescue ambulance slid off the road into the ditch and had to be rescued in turn by the tow truck.

I had no cell service to call for help.  A couple stopped on their way back from the park – they could not get in because the road was closed due to flooding – and I asked them to call the police and my insurance agent when they got to an area with reception.  An hour later paramedics arrived with an ambulance, followed by a fire engine.  When they saw me walking around they called off the rest of the rescue.  Two hours after that the police arrived, and an hour later the tow truck.  The towing company had to wait for the 4WD truck to return from a call.

By morning the clouds were gone and the people at Chaco had a perfect view of sunrise at the Autumn Equinox. I, on the other hand, had a soft bed and warm room at this Best Western in Bloomfield.

I felt a little bit of schadenfreude when the ambulance slid off the road into the ditch on that same patch of clay that had caused my grief.  After pulling out the ambulance, it was my turn and before long the Trailblazer was loaded onto the tow truck and we were on the way to Bloomfield.  The driver recommended the Best Western so that’s where I stayed for the next two days.

My Trailblazer was towed to this yard in Bloomfield. The insurance adjuster assesed it as a total loss. I had to rent a car in Farmington to get back home.

The next challenge was to try to get a rental car.  One car rental company was sold out until next week, another did not answer, and a third transferred me to their national office in New Jersey.  The operator finally gave me a local number to call, but it was the same number that had gotten me to her in the first place!  It took a day to get a car reserved, then a taxi came out from Farmington to pick me up in Bloomfield and deliver me to the airport in Farmington.  While I was trying to arrange for transportation, I took a walk out to the towing company’s yard and picked up my cell phone charger so I could continue making phone calls and surfing the internet.  The iPhone turned out to be quite a help.  The Best Western had a snappy Wi-Fi which I used to shop for a replacement vehicle online.

I know that angels were watching over me during this incident.  Despite rolling the car, I had no bumps, bruises, or injuries.  Looking at the car, I saw that the windshield was cracked from an impact, from the inside.  It was probably the folded camp cot that acted like a battering ram.  It could easily have hit me in the head.  My insurance agent insisted I see a doctor right away, so I did, and the doc confirmed no injuries.  My shoulder did begin to hurt about a week later where I had hung from the safety belt, but a week after that it was completely back to normal.

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4 thoughts on “Disaster at Chaco!

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  2. I have been on that road when it shook both the mirror off the door and the microwave from its roost in my travel trailer. Unless recently graded, much of the road goes washboard in a hurry. Wouldn’t it have been nice if there was a road sign showing a car slipping in that mud? That warning could have saved your roof. Putting it up would be a whole lot cheaper than sending the fire department up the same treacherous road. If it rains the next time I am approaching Chaco Canyon, your words and photos will be on my mind. Cheers, Moab Jim

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