Will Walsh

One of my backcountry adventures presented an extreme challenge from an unexpected source. Far beyond the reach of the Department of Homeland Security, I encountered terrorists who caused fear and intimidation as they wreaked their havoc.

On this trip I had been backpacking, “scrambling,” and daydreaming in the Providence Mountains of Mojave National Preserve. I camped at night, and photographed beautiful peaks and canyons during the days.


I broke camp in the afternoon, restored the desert to its pristine state (leaving no trace), and returned to my truck. After a pleasant dinner and evening, I went to sleep in my truck.
The next morning, while enjoying coffee and a PowerBar, I decided to charge my camera and laptop batteries. After plugging an inverter into the truck lighter socket, I turned the ignition key to start the engine. My truck did not responsively purr to life - it coughed, sputtered, backfired, and cursed me unkindly. It chugged for a minute on one cylinder before I turned off the ignition.

My idyllic morning crashed; my heart sank. I sat silently in my dread and gloom for a few minutes before threat analysis kicked in. I had cheated death before, so I would handle this.

Opening the hood revealed nothing unusual. But wait! Where were my spark plug wires? Large sections of spark plug wires were missing. Five wires were cut, so five cylinders couldn’t fire. My anxiety mounted. Smack in the middle of the Mojave, Murphy’s Law had struck. Sabotage!

Mark Twain wrote, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear.” I’ve learned to examine fear to understand its source. It helps me to consciously relax, then calmly assess situations with an open mind.

There was no cell phone service here. The 7IL Ranch, Mitchell Caverns State Natural Preserve, and Hole-In-The-Wall Information Center were all within several hours on foot. I could hike to seek aid, then arrange for a wilderness tow or repair (about a thousand dollars?). I had informed the rangers of my intentions, and the areas I would visit. So, surely the Park Police
would discover me if I simply waited. I had food (about 20 pounds) and water (sixteen gallons) for three months.

I visualized my death in the Mojave. My desiccated carcass would be discovered by the good rancher Howard Blair on one of his inspection trips. He would think, “Another city fool bit the dust, travelin’ alone in the desert.” But he would do whatever needed to be done, as Blairs have done in the Mojave since the 1800's.

In this Flight of the Phoenix moment, repair was the best option. Tools and materials were aboard, so I applied life support to my wounded truck. I learned there is no “wire” in Nissan spark plug wires. A black conductive fiber is coated with blue plastic insulation and covered by a durable black external sheath.

Of course, each spark plug wire must be connected properly so that the cylinders fire in the proper sequence. My wires were missing major sections. Which loose ends to reconnect? Thanks to superior Nissan engineering, the intended cylinder numbers were printed at frequent intervals on the spark plug wires. This avoided more serious engine damage.

Needing conductive wire, I sacrificed a jumper cable to the cause. Its core was pure stranded copper - an adequate temporary substitute. I fashioned copper wire into 5 lengths of twisted copper strands about the thickness of heavy twine. I pushed these about an inch into the center conductor channels of the damaged spark plug wires, thus replacing the missing sections. (Note: Copper non-resistance wire may damage some ignition systems.) Not having plastic tape, I sealed and insulated each makeshift jumper wire with (what else?) duct tape. To my immense relief, the engine turned over and hummed contentedly.

Following the truck repairs, I charged my camera and laptop, secured the camp, restored the area and washed up. I drove on the jeep trail to the Preserve Information Center at Hole-in-the-Wall.


At the Information Center, I impressed a fellow visitor with my survival story. He was amazed as I proudly described my life-threatening incident and the inventive strategies I had employed. To display my creative repairs, I opened the hood, gestured toward my handiwork, and froze. . .

The dreaded terrorists confronted me with hairy faces and piercing black eyes, daring me to retaliate!

They were perched on the radiator mounting bracket - a female desert woodrat (pack rat), and her baby clinging to her back.

Mama rat, with infant hanging on, had stowed away! She and her baby had just endured a rough 45-minute ride of heat, dust, sand, mud, and flying gravel while bouncin’, rockin’ ‘n rollin’ in the engine compartment of my truck.

I could only assume that, during my four-hour repair job, these furries had been under my engine on a skid plate, eager for a snack of duct tape and copper wire. I had been very noisy with tools. I was half inside the engine compartment most of the time. Sweat and colorful language flew everywhere as I pushed, shoved, cut, torqued and taped. They weren't trapped - why did they remain on the parked truck?

And following repairs, why endure the subsequent rough trip away from their home? They had survived a hot, noisy, bouncing ride. Although I drive slowly on jeep and wagon trails, there are inevitable and unavoidable G forces in every direction. I had even slowed and paused several times on the jeep trail. Despite the opportunities to exit, they had remained aboard.

My next challenge was to coax them off my truck. With a trekking pole, I banged the insides of my fender wells like drums. (I would never directly poke or prod a critter.) The queen of the engine compartment was quite agile in evading me - as I moved around the truck, she shifted her location to avoid detection. I the crouching tiger, she the hidden dragon. I was prepared to drive back to her territory, wait until she departed the truck, and then leave her area. (Would this be a Human Release Program?)

Tiring of the hide-and-seek game after 20 minutes, she dropped to the sand and scampered into the surrounding creosote, her baby still clinging as though with Velcro.

I checked in with Preserve staff Christina Mills and Ruby Newton at Hole-in-the-Wall. They listened empathically, and laughed with me.
I recalled the previous night after dinner. I had stargazed, listened to the silence, relished my solitude, then slept in the bed of my truck. It’s rigged with foam for comfortable sleeping; the shell has screened windows. During the night I sensed rather than heard a creature scurry across the ground, followed by the delicate scrabble of sharp little claws climbing up the right front tire. Then, the soft patter of little feet on the frame, chassis and suspension components under and inside the front of the truck. Then a barely audible, but faint and constant gnawing sound. I arose several times to investigate, but observed nothing of note. "These are harmless nocturnal creatures who need to forage," I reasoned, "and not be disturbed." The sounds returned about 3 AM. I banged the inside of my truck bed with a hiking boot; this quieted my visitor, and I had drifted off to sleep.

A Forest Service firefighter later advised me to leave my truck hood up, to discourage rodents (they avoid light). Marmots in national parks understand this. Pack rats in the Mojave National Preserve do not. (Or they do, but casually dismiss this policy.) After all, Mama had remained in my open engine compartment as I made repairs.

After more adventures in California, Nevada and Utah, I arrived home in Brandon, Florida. My field repair had survived about 2000 miles of rain, heat, snow, and mud. Nissan of Brandon replaced my temporary fix; Manny Vargas and his technicians were amused by the duct tape.

I am not doomed to repeat the mistakes of history: never again will a pack rat eat my truck. I have, in DHSspeak, "a new and effective counterterror protocol which proactively mitigates threat and reduces the potential for hostile or destructive acts" against me. Before leaving my vehicle unattended in the Mojave for a few days, I place four WalMart moth cakes in the engine compartment, close the hood, then walk away and have fun. If you try this, be sure to remove and store them in a Ziploc freezer bag before operating your vehicle.

In retrospect, I understand I had invaded Mama’s territory. I suppose my truck was every pack rat’s dream – it was bright, shiny, solid, safe, and protective. Its upscale cafeteria cuisine featured tantalizing and tasty plastic and rubber gourmet selections. A rolling feast had barged in and parked in the front yard, begging to be consumed!

The Mojave Desert is an ecosystem of extremes to which most humans have not adapted. It is not hostile, unfriendly, dangerous, or harsh. It comforts and calms us; it offers profound peace and solitude. I am fascinated and spellbound by its kaleidoscopic color, by each square meter teeming with life, by its harmony of heat, cold, rock, cloud, mesa, mountain and living thing. It abounds with treasures to be explored, discovered, observed, wondered about. . . and quietly reflected upon.

Desert animals are not terrorists. They are creative, intelligent, adaptable and enduring. They live in balance with their neighbors. May we respect and coexist in harmony
with them.

Wikipedia article on the Desert Woodrat (Neotoma lepida): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neotoma_lepida