A version of this story first ran in McCall Chronicle in 2008, an online community newspaper I briefly published before the recession hit and I returned temporarily to Washington to earn a living so I could keep and eventually return to my Meadows Valley home. Deciding to start fresh in 2017 with a magazine-style online publication rather than a newspaper, I changed the name to McCall Digest. Tens years has passed, yet this chance encounter and its silly aftermath still makes me smile. I hope you enjoy the story as well.
It’s the early morning of July 3, 2008 and I’m driving with my two Alaskan Malamutes into the Payette National Forest for some pre-Independence Day holiday weekend quiet and a nice cool trail run.
Instead, what did we find? A stranded lawyer.
Damn. They’re everywhere. Can’t avoid ‘em, even in the wilds of Idaho!
I’m driving on Old Goose Lake Road, a remote forest service road between my house in Meadows Valley and Goose Lake, a popular alpine lake with campgrounds. My goal is the Granite Mountain trail head, on the north end of Goose Lake. I know we’ll find snow on some high, north-facing sections of trail as it climbs to 8200 feet, but I’m hoping the ten-mile stretch of back road getting us there will be open and free of snow. Since Goose Lake sits at about 6000 feet, snow in shady spots in July is a possibility.
I drive carefully on the bumpy, rutted, rocky road for seven miles only to discover it blocked by a vehicle high-centered on a small but deep patch of soft snow spanning the width of the road. Not a soul around. I have no idea how long the vehicle has been there. An older model SUV, it looks sad and forlorn.
I manage to turn my car around and head back, disappointed. It’s already 8:00 am and warming up. It will take much too long to approach the trail head by backtracking to Meadows Valley, then up Highway 55 through Goose Creek Canyon to Brundage Road and the much more heavily-used Goose Lake Road.
Unwilling to completely waste the drive, I park about a mile downhill from the stuck vehicle and let my dogs out. I’m curious how much snow might still be on the road between the snow-bound SUV and the Goose Lake campground, so we start running that direction.
As we approach the SUV, all’s still quiet. I peek in a window and don’t see any bodies. (Seriously; you just never know.) Maps and other detritus are spread all over the passenger seat; miscellaneous gear is in the back. Running another mile up the road, we cross several deeper and wider snow patches. Even if the SUV hadn’t blocked the road, I would have had to turn back before reaching the lake.
As my dogs and I run back toward my car and approach the high-centered SUV, I see someone standing next to its now-opened passenger door.
Not knowing who this person is, whether he has any dogs with him, or what sort of mood he might be in, I quickly leash my dogs before continuing. [An aside: most of my Idaho neighbors consider me crazy for venturing into the woods unarmed, telling me guns are required to defend against wild animals. If I were inclined to pack a weapon, it would have been to protect myself against unpredictable two-legged animals. In any case, having two Malamutes as companions makes the issue of weaponry moot – they are so visually intimidating that no one messes with us – two-legged or four-legged – even though I know they wouldn’t hurt a flea. I never to into the forest without them.]
As we get closer to the man, I call out a hello, asking, “Do you have any dogs?” [Another aside: I’ve learned the hard way that other dogs often mistake my Malamutes for wolves and charge, snarling with teeth bared. Not fun. That’s why this is my first question to this stranger.]
The man chuckled to himself. He shouted back, “Right now, I wish I had a hundred of them!”
Good. He has a sense of humor. He appears rational and non-threatening, standing calmly by this vehicle. My dogs don’t seem concerned and they’re good judges of character so I let them off leash and we move closer.
A tall, lean, bespectacled man, with gray hair pulled back into a ponytail and a trimmed beard, the stranger is wearing…camouflage waders, stuffed into heavy leather boots. I don’t know whether to laugh or run.
“How long you been stuck here?” I ask.
“Since 2:00 pm yesterday,” he replies.
About this time, I notice his license plate: Kentucky. “You’re a long way from home,” I offer.
“I have friends in McCall,” he explains. “This is the third year in a row I’ve tried to get to Goose Lake to fish, and I never seem to make it.” He has a quiet, smooth Southern drawl. He’s articulate. I don’t see any weapons.
“I didn’t think anyone was with the car when I ran by,” I say. He points out his tent a few yards off into the woods.
He explains that his cell phone works, despite the remoteness of the spot. He called his friends in McCall, saying he was stuck but not to worry, he’d dig himself out. It was obvious that’s what he’s been doing, but successfully.
I offer to try pulling him out with my car. My dogs and I run off, warning it will take ten minutes or so to get to it. “That’s fine. I’m not going anywhere and I’ve got all day,” he says with a wry smile.
I return with my car. And my camera. I say that in return for trying to pull him out of the snow, I want his picture to put in my online newspaper. He smiles and says, “It’s the least I can do.” He willingly gives his name – Rob Littlefield – and says he’s from Louisville. He poses next to his car, sense of humor firmly intact.
“What do you do back in Louisville?” I ask. With the same pause and cautious smile I know I employ when asked what I do for a living, Rob replies, “I’m an attorney.” I let out a loud laugh. He looks surprised until I admit I claim the same occupation. (Although in my case, I often add “recovering” in front of the term attorney.) We compare notes, and found our legal backgrounds to be quite similar, Rob being a legal aid attorney, me representing children and vulnerable adults.
It’s a very small world.
All efforts to pull Rob’s vehicle from the snow are for naught. The axle is well and truly stuck. That’s when Rob shows me what he’s spent the prior afternoon and evening digging with: a garden trowel. Oh my. We both laugh. I admire his willingness to admit it. I beg him to pose for another photo, this time with the trowel. Again, Rob graciously and with good humor consents. He notes that the waders came in handy for all that digging, but he finally realized, lying under the car near the axle, that he’d better stop before the car fell on top of him.
“Thanks for not making me come upon a pinned and dead man in the middle of nowhere,” I say.
Rob promises he’ll call his friends again, although he says he’s reluctant to ruin their day by making them rescue him. They already have his GPS coordinates. I say I’ll go home and see if my neighbor might come back up with his truck, which has a winch. “I’ve got beer in the cooler!” Rob says with a chuckle, incentive for any eventual rescuer. “I just wasn’t in the mood to drink it last night.”
After many laughs, we part with an exchange of email addresses so I can send him the photos and he can see his story in my newspaper.
My neighbor, Leonard—born-and-raised in Meadows Valley and a retired logger—is indeed game to go rescue the guy from Kentucky stuck in the snow. Such adventures make for great knee-slapping stories about “those stupid tourists.” Leonard gets his ropes and some shovels, picks me up, and back into the forest we head. I look forward to getting even better photos of Leonard pulling Rob’s SUV out of the snow. It’s a long, slow drive; by the time we get to the spot, Rob and his vehicle are gone.
Leonard and I aren’t upset, though. We feel we’ve done our good deed for the day (or perhaps even the month), even if we didn’t actually get to perform a rescue.
You just never know what you’ll find when you venture out into the forest. I stumbled upon a kind and good-natured southern gentleman/lawyer in distress, the last thing I would have expected.
It didn’t end there.
I email Rob with the photos and a link to the story I’ve written for my online newspaper. He responds: I did get unstuck! But it took my friend Boyce and his giant Chevy Suburban to do it. It was a long 24 hours but even at it’s most frustrating, it was better than practicing law. Thanks so much for helping out. And Leonard must be a good man to go hauling up after some boneheaded Kentuckian. It’s one of the things I love about the west besides the scenery. The folks I’ve met are just a pleasure to be around.
Rob says he enjoyed my story about him, that he forwarded it to many friends as he headed out for another Idaho adventure floating the Middle Fork of the Salmon.
Very soon, I start hearing from Rob’s friends. Here’s a sampling.
From Michael: I enjoyed your article about Rob, the Kentucky attorney. He’s a buddy of mine. I received a text message from him the other day saying “now what?” with a photo of his car perched on the snow. Since I was on the beach on the Gulf of Mexico, I couldn’t offer much help. But he’s a resourceful guy. I’ll meet him on the Yellowstone River next week for some trout fishing, gin and good laughs regarding your article. Thanks for sharing the story (and not shooting him!).
From Mike, a journalist with NPR in Minnesota: Nice piece on my wandering pal, Rob Littlefield. He sent a link to your piece over the weekend (subject header: There’s a dang journalist around every corner).
You rendered him to a T. He is (occasionally) rational and harmless; especially to trout. No, that’s a joke. He’s a damn fine angler, when he can find his way to whichever God-forsaken piece of water he’s obsessed with at that moment.
However, I hope you didn’t fall for the old digging-out-with-a-garden-trowel line. He wasn’t digging himself out of the snow. You busted him making margaritas. A couple of decades ago, in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on an early spring day, he lay waste to a truck-sized mound of late season lake ice, not to mention a couple of quarts of Cuervo gold. On that warm Minnesota day the sun shined bright on Rob’s garden trowel.
I can’t explain the camo waders.
Since more than one of Rob’s friends mentioned a gathering in Yellowstone for some fishing, I teasingly seek an invitation. And get one.
We friends of Rob will gather in Yellowstone NP next week for trout and laughs. See you there…
Bring your own camo waders.
I don’t go. Should have. I’m flattered that despite having two strikes against me – being a journalist and an attorney – they still welcomed me.
The story ends with Rob returning from his Middle Fork trip to find this flurry of emails between me and his buddies. He compliments me on wrangling the invitation to an otherwise – and by tradition – all-male gathering and is sorry I won’t be joining them. On his way out of town to Yellowstone, he leaves a nice bottle of Merlot for me at his hotel, with a note thanking me for the article and resulting fun. He includes a $20 bill, gas money for Leonard.[Cover photo: Goose Lake from Granite Mountain. Photo: Rebecca Wallick.]