Disaster on Cuyama Peak: How I Nearly Destroyed My Van Alone in the Wilderness

So up I went, and I made it. The view was one of the most stunning I’ve ever witnessed. Panoramic expanses of mountain ranges in every direction, tens of miles out; it was the highest peak in the region and I stood above it all. In my joy, I wrote on a piece of scrap wood on the fire tower “Marsha and Tori made it here. We’ll keep making it.” I called my friend that night and told her that the drive down was going to be difficult, but even if something bad happened, I legitimately thought the view was worth it, and I had proved to myself I could accomplish whatever I wanted by making it to the peak.

But that’s the part of burning the candle at both ends that’s easy. If my van had gone off one of the many cliffs that lined the trail and my existence ended then and there, I’d be done, dusting my hands off and eternally unbothered by the legacy I’d leave. It’s a cop-out, but it’s a cop-out I fooled myself into thinking I was brave for looking in the eye and accepting. 

I drove down without a single fear the next morning. It was tricky, but it was easier than the drive up last night had been, and the sense of hubris that had gripped me since Los Angeles overtook me. I confidently guided Marsha down, deftly dodging rocks left and right, hugging canyon walls to coax her over washed-out sections of trail, and generally feeling like a badass. I had tamed a mountain, and the first truly challenging one yet. My sense of worth, as warped as it is, was telling me that I was hot shit. 

Pride cometh before the fall, and hubris cometh before the giant goddamn rock. Minutes later, I slammed something off a boulder I didn’t see. Marsha’s rear axle leaped into the air as the worst mechanical crunching sound I’d ever heard reverberated through the cabin. Did I break her, finally? She landed back on all four wheels and kept driving. No oil lamp illuminated on the dash. No trail of differential fluid behind me. Vicki, chill out a little.  

But the rock did a solid job; one more dip in the road and its handiwork was fully revealed. The van was clearly and horrifically broken, the sound of metal on rock clanging through the still air as I fruitlessly tried to surge her forward. She wouldn’t go. This was a different feeling than back in Tucson, where I had an obvious escape route; this trail was remote, the failure immediate and potentially catastrophic. At the top of the mountain, chained to the long-abandoned fire tower, there was a notebook in a metal lockbox. The last person to have been here biked up to the peak in mid-June. It was now early July. Marsha had to get down; there was no help coming.

The damage was apparent when I stepped out to investigate. With an assist from good old iron oxide, I had smashed the frame and broken a critical suspension component. The worst rust on the van was mostly relegated to one place: the driver side trailing arm front bracket, mounted to the unibody. The design, I’ve since learned, is horrifically bad, more or less doomed to trap dirt, moisture, salt and any other corrosive agent within it. That bracket murders many Hiaces long before the drivetrain is near its final breaths. Marsha had succumbed to the same problem, and now my trailing arm was embedded an inch deep in the dirt. That’s what was stopping the van from moving.

Despite this, I had no fear. This is what I signed up for. The nearest human being was probably fifteen miles away; If I could survive, this was going to be on me, and I relished the challenge. I still had signal so I called a friend, self-destructive impulses not quite that crippling, and told them my dilemma. If I didn’t call back by about 5:00 pm, maybe send up a park ranger. I’d be fine until then. I didn’t have any ratchet straps, or rope, or anything at all structurally strong enough to bind a control arm to a frame, but I’d think of something. I would fix this.

And think of something I did. I am, as I hope is clear by now, very adventurous. When I wrote about Second Puberty, there was an unspoken part of the journey that I was afraid to mention out loud, lest I scare off my readership. Since transition, I have had many incredible experiences where I felt I could finally enjoy the sensation of being intimate because my body finally does not disgust me. It is truly the most truly adolescent part of Second Puberty, but it’s also something I want to explore in a way I never dared the first time. Because I am so far removed from any traditional idea of love or relationships or stability, I packed a suitcase explicitly for Fun Adult Stuff. 

The suitcase is a small airplane carry-on. I jokingly dubbed it the Suitcase of Sin. I won’t bore or titillate you with details of exactly what it contains, but it does hold a lot of cuffs. When all you have is a broken trailing arm, everything looks like a ratchet strap. So I grabbed an engine hoist chain—which I will assure you was solely there for non-engine-hoist reasons—and a padlock and some handcuffs, and got to work raising the trailing arm out of the dirt so I could make it down the mountain. And it seemed to work. The way the suspension geometry pushed weight on the various chains and padlocks was unclear to me, but after a quick and successful test run of about 50 feet, I decided this was my best shot. 

All I had to do was make a quick stop halfway down to add some leg irons to the kinky repair job. From there, the remainder of the 12 miles down Cuyama (and I’m ashamed to admit the rest of the 15 miles to a gas station where I could send a tow truck) went so smoothly you could forget that my van was held together with literal bondage toys. Thank God I had the hard kinks and sprung for the good stuff. A few hours later, the tow truck deposited Marsha at World Famous 4×4 in Burbank, a renowned off-road shop my editor-in-chief found for me that relishes a challenge. He picked me up in his 1988 K5 Blazer—you saw it here yesterday, cruising in the LA River—and I crashed at his house for a few days while the shop tried to figure out if the van was fixable.

Radwood was rapidly approaching and I still had a completely destroyed vehicle, one I had no knowledge or skills to fix myself. But Los Angeles’ hubris infected me once again. Yeah. They’d fix it. I was unbothered; sure, it sucks it broke, but I would figure it out! I’m the lady that defeated Cuyama Peak in a van held together with shackles. Radwood was the next big event on my itinerary after the Mercedes speech. It was the only other hard date I had to make. I’d get there.

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