Stuck in the Mud

On February 20th, 2018, 14 students from Empire High School geared up for an adventure into the Ironwood National Monument. Our goal was to explore the natural history and the anthropological significance of the area, but that is far from how this expedition turned out. Instead, we learned how to make the most out of spontaneous obstacles, how to dig a 15-passenger vehicle out of mud, and how this landscape has been affected by overgrazing. It was quite the adventurous day.

It was a brisk morning in vail as co-lead Molly Travis and I picked up the students. Our drive through the Tucson Mountains was beautiful, gaining incredible views of the Tucson valley and the Avra Valley. When we arrived at the first gate of Ironwood National Monument, I turned to the students and said: “we are going to try for the destination, but there is a chance we may get stuck in the mud!” It was intended to be a humorous statement but turned out to be an unfortunate reality in less than ten minutes. Saturated mud and pools of water were scattered down the road, leaving dry and crossable paths in between. As the sun became more intense, surface layers of muddy soil dried, disguising moist pockets of mud as dry areas of passage. This was the Trojan horse that captured our van.

Before we could save ourselves, we began to slide until our van came to an abrupt haul. Not a single tire had traction, and every vibration from the van’s engine wiggled us deeper into the mud. The momentum slid us from an unassuming secret mud spot to a deep pool of dark water, making our situation even worse. With humiliation and laughter, I said “okay, time to push!” to my surprise the student roared with excitement and quickly bounded out of the van. Kids began sinking and sliding around the mud, trying to get a grip and some control, but the entire situation was out of control. This was a perfect lesson in the art of going with the flow, making the best out of a muddy situation, and keeping yourself light-hearted. When adventuring in the outdoors, it is essential that the group remain positive and forward-thinking, even when everything seems to be going wrong.

Together, with our knees in the mud we tried digging out the tires and collected rocks and sticks to place underneath for traction, we tried pushing and rocking and asking the van to move, but we had no success. Every attempt seemed to encourage the mud to eat our van whole. Literally covered in mud almost head to toe, we finally chose plan C, to embark on a desert walk and adventure. A parent was on their way to lend some assistance with a tow cable while the students and co-lead Molly Travis left to explore the surrounding landscape. Their adventure was grand as they discovered a huge cattle pond, mesquite forest, and hundreds of animals remains and tracks. The youth played hide and seek and romped around like coyotes and Javalina.

Meanwhile, I continued to dig and work the van with no progress. The parent showed up with a tow cable, and that seemed to be the saving grace until it ripped in half… twice. For more than an hour, we worked in the mud, trying desperately not to lose the van in the deep murky water. Finally, with persistence and maximum effort we rocked the van forward and backward, and with one last charge forward managed to get the van out safely. The students returned just in time to celebrate, and with huge grins and muddy faces, we made our escape.

It was a valuable lesson for us all. The youth were able to understand that learning is a frame of mind. We learn from our mistakes most of all, and if we can keep a good attitude through difficult situations, the mistakes can also be a time of great fun and adventure. For the Empire High students, they described this as their favorite trip of the semester. Sometimes the most successful experiences are unexpected and unplanned.