Down in the Flood

I learned first-hand that El Nino is no joke.

On my way home, to Gualala, Mendocino County, after a long week of work in the Bay Area, I drove west along the only route still open during one of the worst storms. It was mid-afternoon, and I thought I can handle nearly anything in my 4-wheel drive Toyota 4Runner. I wasn't fearless, but I wasn't exactly worried. I had driven through the Russian River area during the height of the previous week's storm, and at night, when the river crested at the bridge itself and Guerneville was under water. That time, there were cops all over the roads, guarding the houses that had been evacuated. But this time it was daylight, and I was happy with myself for leaving town early.

The trip started with a fender-bender on Hwy. 101. As traffic came to a halt due to a flood at the Marin-Sonoma border, the guy behind me slammed into me. My rear bumper was hanging on by a few bolts. In the driving rain we exchanged information, then got back into the line of traffic. So much for my El Nino accident, I thought. Lots of good luck ahead.

Between Petaluma and Valley Ford, I came upon the first major flood in the road. I gingerly inched my way through the water, which lapped against the running boards of my 4Runner. No problem.

The second flood was a bit deeper, in Bloomfield, but still not too deep. However, it was running faster. I wasn't sure if this meant it would get deeper, or if it would run off more quickly if I waited. The sky was still crying fiercely. I went on through it.

The third flood, about half a mile from Valley Ford on Hwy. 1, was much deeper. There was already a van stuck in the middle, and several cars waiting at the edge for something to happen. I asked one of the drivers if he thought the water would go down. "It will probably go up first," he said, noting that in another hour, the nearby ocean would be at high tide.

The car in front was empty. "Those folks, their car is a rental," said the other driver. "They tried to go through but couldn't make it. A pickup truck came along and pulled it out with a rope. They just left it here," he said, pointing to the dripping car, "with the water in it and everything, took everything they owned, and left in the pickup truck. They're just gonna call Hertz and tell 'em to come pick it up!" Everyone laughed at that.

In a little while, a large pickup truck swirled its way through the flood from the other side, making waves. The water was up nearly to its headlights, but the truck made it through and stopped on our side. We all gathered around the old, gray-bearded driver of the truck to ask questions. "Deepest I ever saw it in all my years," he said, with a farmer's way of understatement. By the look of the watermark on the side of the truck, it looked far too deep for most cars. The local truck driver said there was another road, perhaps higher and dry, on the other side of the ridge, a "loop road" as he called it. But he hadn't tried it in a long time -- another understatement, as I would find out.

The rain stopped, and for a moment, the sun came out. A beautiful rainbow had formed and we all stopped talking to look. It was gorgeous, a perfect arc, with one end seemingly near Petaluma and the other on Hwy. 1 to the south, where the loop road was supposed to be.

I decided to try loop road at the end of the rainbow. The others were reluctant, as they didn't know the territory. But the flood on the road to Petaluma, behind us, was probably rising. The only open route was south along Hwy. 1, which was the same route to reach the loop road. One of the other drivers said that Hwy. 1 south was closed at Tomales, and that we must therefore be trapped in this area. Rather than stay trapped, I drove south on Hwy. 1. As I left, the rain started up again, in earnest. I had to cross a bridge that was already under water, with the water flowing swiftly. There was no doubt in my mind that once I had crossed this bridge, there was no turning back. There was only whatever was ahead, which eventually would be the town of Tomales.

Then I found the loop road, the one that would take me to Valley Ford, and I turned into it. The road was indeed much higher, running along the foot of a ridge separating it from the flooded valley of Hwy. 1. It then descended into another valley, flanked on the east side by a ranch leading up the ridge, and on the west by a completely flooded field, in which there must have been another overflowing creek, bottled up into this field by the western ridge. Presently I came upon another flooded section. It was as deep as the one in Bloomfield, more and less, and I drove through it.

Around the bend, near the bottom of the valley, was another, far deeper flood. I did not want to drive back through what I had already gone through, only to remain trapped. But there was no one around. I waited for a while, perhaps 15 minutes. Still no one, and I just knew that the flood behind me was probably deeper now. I still had at least another half-hour before the crest of the ocean's high tide.

So I inched the 4Runner into the flood, hoping it wouldn't stall. Halfway through the water started running a bit faster. I couldn't tell how deep it was in front of me, but I kept going. About three-quarters of the way through, nearly all the way to the north side, the water was just about at my headlights, halfway up my doors. Just then, the engine sputtered and stopped.

Oh shit. As the car stopped, water started leaking, then pouring. In a matter of seconds it was up to my seat.

There are times when you wish you could hit a reverse button, select Undo, or something. The panic rises in your throat. You say "oh shit" many, many times. Everything is suddenly very real. You know your very life is threatened. All in a matter of seconds.

I tried starting the car again, but it was hopeless. I reached behind to the back seat and found water. My only warm coat, which had been on the floor in front of the back seat, was now soaking in very cold water thick with pasture runoff.

I quickly grabbed my wallet, which was already wet, out of the coat. Leaving the car's electrical system on, I opened the sun roof. It was still raining, and my pants and shoes were soaked, but the rain was warmer than the water beneath me. I looked around. The ranch seemed deserted. No one for miles. Stuck in near-freezing water. Daylight waning. The road was so small, it was highly likely that the residents had already evacuated and no one had thought to put in a "road closed" sign.

Then I remembered my stuff in the trunk of the 4Runner. A hatchback design, the trunk was really like a truck bed, but raised higher than the floors of the car itself. I crawled back to look at my stuff, which included a suitcase with some clothes, a bag of paperwork, a bag of cassettes and CDs, and a laptop computer, and a blanket. All were still dry! Way to go Toyota! The trunk was not leaking, even if the whole world was coming down on me.

I sat up on the roof of the car. It was quiet, only the sound of rushing water and rain, the wind through the trees up on the ridge. It was a beautiful view from the top of car, surrounded by water in the flooded valley, caught in the full force of nature. I sat there for a half an hour, shivering. The water rose to about two inches above the seats, and I kept thinking of how stupid I had been to even try this.

If you go down in the flood it's gonna be your fault.
Oh pretty mama, ain't you gonna miss your best friend now?

-- Bob Dylan, "Down in the Flood"

So there I sat, in the rain, cold flood waters swirling about me, nothing but high tide to look forward to, and no one around. I now had a deep appreciation for the landscape, for water, for all of nature around me. I was transfixed for a while, no longer in fear so much as in awe.

Eventually I heard a motor growl. A car was approaching from the south side from which I had started, now three-quarters of flood away from me. Too far, I thought, for them to help me. I stood on the roof and waved. The car stopped, and a woman got out. I could barely hear her yelling. I yelled back to call for some help. I need help!!

She drove back out the way she had come. She would probably get stuck trying to get out, I thought. Besides, where could she go for help? The ranch seemed deserted, and the roads were closed all around us.

Once again I was alone. Thinking of how stupid I was for trying to go through this flood when no one was around to watch. How dumb it was to try to make it all the way home on a day like this, when I could have just stopped for the night and stayed in a Petaluma motel. How incredibly ignorant I was for not seeing the mileage marker sign ahead, nearly submerged entirely in the water, which would have given me a clue as to the flood's depth.

A loud fluttering noise startled me, as a huge flock of birds suddenly took flight from the trees on the ridge. Then, a short while later, a pickup truck appeared around a bend in the road ahead of me, coming from the north, the direction of Valley Ford. It reached the edge of the flood and stopped, and the driver got out and yelled. "Are you OK?"

"No!" I yelled back. "I'm stuck, I'm freezing, and I need to get my stuff out!" I was ready to abandon ship, but not my meager possessions.

The driver yelled back that it was too deep. Even though he was much closer from this end, I'd have to have my 4Runner pulled out from behind, through what looked like a football field's length of flooded road.

"That's my ranch," he yelled. "I'm gonna go around, see if I can find some rope that's long enough." Then he paused and yelled again, "It's gonna take me a while, about half an hour. Can you hold out?"

I yelled back yes. But as the truck turned around and drove off, I thought, how the hell is he going to get around? As I waited, it got colder and darker.

And then, another car, on the south side. It was the woman again. She got out and waved, and I could barely hear her yell. Something about the Highway Patrol. I waved back. She got back in her car, turned around, and left. So I now knew that the Highway Patrol knew about me. Surely they would come quickly.

Another pickup truck, this one a small Nissan camper, came up behind her. It, too, stopped at the edge. Then it started to inch its way into the water. I was elated. Someone was actually coming to pull me out! As I watched, the Nissan pulled up slowly, then steered to the left of me. What was the driver doing? As it came closer, the young man driving looked up at me on my roof and just smiled. And continued by! It made little waves that lapped up against my 4Runner's windows. I couldn't believe it. He went a bit further, into the deepest part of the flood, trying to make it. Then his engine conked out. It was suddenly quiet again. And I thought, which is more foolish, the fool who tries this and fails, or the following fool?

I waited. He didn't come out of his Nissan. He must have the same amount of water inside his truck as I had, but he didn't have a sun roof to use to climb out.

After a while, the pickup truck driven by the ranch owner showed up on the south side. His daughter stood watching as he ran up to the house and came down with a spool of rope. When he got to the edge, he yelled, "You're going to have to get wet!"

I scrambled back inside my 4Runner, checked the trunk (still dry), and put my wallet on top of the still-dry blanket and suitcase. Then I sat down in the cold, cold water, and opened the driver door. The water outside was the same height -- up to my waist standing up, above my chest sitting down. I quickly stood up in the water. It was freezing! And it was filled with mud, clods of cow dung, fertilizer, pesticides, who knows what else.

I shut the door, which caused a lot of water to swish around inside. And I started the long march, wading in waist-deep water, to the south side.

He handed me the rope, holding one end. "Wrap it around your rear bumper," he said, "And I'll pull you out real slowly. Just sit in your car and steer in a straight line." I was filled with gratitude as I took the rope.

I started wading back to the 4Runner, and then I remembered the dangling bumper from the previous fender-bender. Shit. Nothing else to use, and the rope's not long enough. Still, I pushed on, reached the car, and started to try to thread the rope through the back of the bumper. I had to stoop, and go under the underwater bumper, as I twisted my arm underneath and tried to grab at the rope. Several tries later my little finger grabbed the end, and I manipulated it out, and with freezing fingers made several ordinary knots. Knots! What did I know about knots? Absolutely nothing.

I got back into the cold, sloshing seat of the 4Runner and took it out of gear. I heard the rope go taut. The 4Runner started to move backward. The bumper was holding! Way to go Toyota again!

The locking steering wheel kept me from steering at all. I quickly put in the key and unlocked it, but I still could only barely steer. But I kept going backwards, slowly, out of the flood. He finally pulled me all the way out.

Stepping from the 4Runner, dripping wet, teeth chattering and body shivering, I was absolutely ecstatic. While the ranch owner who saved me untied the knots, I took stock inside. The trunk was still dry. I got in the front seat and tried to start it again, but nothing happened. The ranch owner, who introduced himself as Chris, looked under the hood. "The distributor cap is sealed, so it's probably still dry. Maybe your battery is dead." He then went to get jumper cables and pull his truck up. We tried a jump, but to no avail.

The ranch owner's wife came out with three kids, handing me a towel and an extra pair of socks. I showed her my suitcase full of dry clothes, and she laughed. How much luckier could I possibly be? The Highway Patrol car arrived right at that moment. We arranged for a tow truck, and I went up to the ranch house to change. The family looked on in wonder as I went dripping to their bathroom. One of the children squealed, oh look, another car is trying to cross the flood! The family stood at the edge of the porch watching, surrounded by toys, pets, clothes, rusty appliances, household goods. The last outpost of civilization in a natural world gone wild.

Another pickup pulled up, and a burly fellow in dirty overalls lugged wood into the ranch house from the truck bed. He was clearly a fun-loving, drinking, Marlboro-smoking cowboy, and Chris's wife was also clearly annoyed with him. I could hear all kinds of arguments going on about this and that while I changed.

The argument shifted to whether the cowboy would try to get through the flood. "Don't be an asshole," I heard her say to the cowboy. "Chris, don't you dare try to pull him out if he goes in there!" But Chris wasn't paying much attention. He was busy arranging a tow truck for me, then running off to check on a newborn calf that he said had been born that very morning, out in a corner of his ranch in a driving rainstorm.

The next thing I hear, she's screaming at the cowboy, who'd taken off into the flood. He got nearly all the way to the other side before his engine also conked out. I could hear him cursing out there in the darkness, and Chris's wife at the edge on this side, still yelling at him.

He wasn't out there long before a tow truck showed up on the other side to help him and the Nissan driver who had passed me and who was still stuck inside his car. Meanwhile, the tow truck that Chris had arranged showed up on this side to help me. Eventually the cowboy came back, dripping from head to toe, talking about how his engine died and how the Nissan driver was bawling and losing it. "Man, the guy was a mess," he said, smoking a cigarette that he had somehow kept dry during his ordeal.

Chris offered to give me a ride behind the tow truck to the garage in Tomales, and then on to Valley Ford through the other, longer route that most people don't know about. "It goes out from Tomales toward Dillon Beach, and then you double back on the other road at the fork..." I didn't know what he was talking about, but he could put me on the north side of the flood, in Valley Ford, where the road was passable all the way home. My wife could drive down to pick me up, and not have to go through any floods. Of course, she might still have mud slides and downed trees to contend with in her 2-hour drive south, but it was worth I try. So I called her and she packed up the kids and started down.

As we were getting into Chris's truck, his wife came out. She had been so sweet and generous with me, even though I was the reason for Chris's having to leave. But she was upset about the cowboy. "Don't you give that fool a ride!" she yelled. Chris calmly looked back at her and smiled, and asked her if she could feed the calves. "Make sure you check that new one, and give her mother extra feed."

We went off to Tomales, where I learned that the engine had sucked up water and was finished. $5,000 for a new engine. The garage mechanic was sympathetic; he'd seen five such cases that day. "The water just gets sucked in," he said. "You have to go real slow through a flood, 'cause if water gets in the engine, it doesn't compress, it just screws everything up. Then of course, some other shit was in the water, and it gunked up something and threw a rod. That hole," he pointed to a spot were oil was leaking in large drops," that means the engine's gone."

We stood around a while, talking the easy talk of cars and engines, how certain cars can seize up like that in only two feet of water, due to the placement of the air filters. How Toyota 4Runners are built the same way as Toyota trucks. How I could have almost made it through. They knew a lot more than I did about cars, about accidents, about incidents involving floods.

On the way out, they talked about the most exciting event to happen so far during this El Nino season -- a few weeks back, a tanker filled with milk from the local dairies tried to go through another flood, and fell off the road, flipping its cab. The driver was fine, but when the large diesel tow truck showed up, it refused to go into the water. It turns out that diesel engines can seize up a lot easier than regular engines. "Call me when the flood goes down," the tow driver told them, and left. "That's what they'll do," said Chris, "I've seen 'em do it. The tow truck shows up and says, hey, I can't get stuck in that flood. Just wait until it goes down, then I'll tow your car. Meanwhile, everything in the car gets wet."

"So why did the tanker try to get through?" asked the cowboy.

"Road's too tight for him to get around," answered Chris. "Y'know, they send them out expecting them to get through, no matter what. That's what they're paid to do."

"He must have lost his job, then," grinned the cowboy, lighting up another smoke.

"No, in fact, he's still driving for 'em. I seen him yesterday." The conversation went on like that for a while. That poor tanker driver was stuck there at the ranch, keeping Chris's family awake, from 8 in the morning until 3 the next morning.

After a long ride nearly to Dillon Beach and then back along the ridge, we reached a point where we could just barely see down into the valley where I had been stranded. A beautiful puddle in the green hills, absolutely bucolic and pristine. Inviting, to a degree. A valley that happened to be home for some really good people who are willing to help people in trouble.

Chris dropped me and the cowboy off in the lonely, windswept town of Valley Ford just as the only store was closing. The cowboy walked off to a trailer near the gas station, where he probably lived. I never did find out why he pissed off Chris's wife so much.

I arranged my luggage outside the store under an awning, the only place where there was any light, and I managed to grab hot coffee and a sandwich just before they closed. Chris was concerned that my wife might not make it. "Here's my phone number, just call me if she doesn't show up, and I'll come and get ya." I tried to give him some money, "just to reimburse you for gas," but he shrugged it off, shook his head. "Take care," he said, and he drove off to check on his calves.

As the store owner left, he asked me if I was OK. I said yes, and told him about Chris and his family, and how nice they were to me. "Yeah, there are a lot of good people living around here," he said. Then he also told me about the milk tanker incident. Apparently it was a well known story in those parts. He had the details down, right to the part about the reluctant tow-truck driver. That milk tanker had certainly made an impression. Then he tipped his hat, locked up the store, and went home.

Two hours later, my wife and kids showed up to rescue me. They hugged me and turned the heat on, full blast. I talked and drove and talked and talked all the way home.

-- Tony Bove, Feb. 21, 1998

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Copyright © 1998 by Tony Bove