We all sometimes find ourselves in a situation where we just feel stuck. In relation to volunteer work, sometimes we might feel stuck with feeling overwhelmed that there is too much to learn or do or fix. We might feel stuck behind red tape, behind paperwork or permits, or behind inequitable systems. We might feel stuck with exhaustion, compassion fatigue, or too little time. Sometimes we might also find ourselves feeling literally stuck in a smoking Jeep Wrangler in loose sand in a damp wash nowhere near a paved road in a hot summer desert. Funnily enough, my not-an-expert advice for how to get unstuck from any of these situations is roughly the same.
I volunteer for the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection. As a Desert Monitor for this organization I trek out to a handful of remote wildlife field cameras once a month. Getting to my assigned set of cameras and getting back has proved to be the most difficult part of this role. My personal vehicle happens to be a 2012 Jeep Wrangler that is an ace at off-road work. Having this vehicle allowed me the unique privilege to volunteer to monitor cameras that were in some of the hardest spots to access by foot. All of my cameras can be reached by hiking, but driving several miles down a nearby dirt service road allows me to get much closer and service more sites and more cameras on each outing.
In late August I set out with two other volunteers to check on the cameras. I was joined by fellow Pima County Master Naturalist Josh Skattum, who is my most frequent volunteering buddy and is used to bouncing around in my Jeep and getting lost in the desert with me, and guest volunteer for the Coalition Kevin Krumwiede. Fellow Tucsonans know that we had a fabulous monsoon season with heavy rain. The rain was wonderful for our desert but bad for our cameras. It ripped many of them off of their mountings and washed them away in floodwaters. On this particular day we were heading out with Kevin’s fleet of metal detectors to see if we could recover any lost cameras (we didn’t). The dirt road was the worst I’ve ever seen. It was washed out and rocky with newly cut ravines, flowing water, and loose areas of fine gravel. We had a big shovel with us and determined that with a little digging and rearranging of rocks here and there we could get out to our cameras and back — and we almost did.
We had to go down a steep bank in the road down into a wash early on in the trek. The Jeep handled it fine despite scraping a little bit on the steep grade. The rest of the road was rough, but doable. We made it out to all of our locations, and made it back to the big wash. My Jeep is a manual transmission and I could feel that it seemed to be working a little harder than usual to get up and over the steeper bits, but I wasn’t worried. When we reached the steep bank I just went for it and almost made it to the top before stalling and sliding back down into soft sand and a few inches of running water. Kevin and Josh got out of the car to try to guide me up the bank. I revved it again and got about halfway up before my tires started spinning in the bank’s mud and I slid back down. We tried this several more times, taking turns digging out the bank with the shovel and strategically placing large rocks. The car kept making it mostly up before getting stuck or stalling out and slipping back down. I still wasn’t worried until smoke started to leak out from under the hood. Eventually we all had to concede that we were truly stuck.
So what do you do when you’re stuck?
The most important thing we were prepared with was gallons of drinking water. It was about 100F out at the time this was occurring — which isn’t that bad for Tucson in August — but isn’t great. Because we had access to water and shade we weren’t in any immediate danger. We also had a first aid kit, an emergency roadside kit, and of course our trusty shovel.
All volunteer organizations should help you prepare for issues that might arise in your role. You should ensure that you have access to people within your organization and outside of it that can answer questions or lend a helping hand. Through the Arizona Master Naturalist community I have been able to build up a network of contacts for any sort of question I might have in relation to naturalist work or most anything else. This network helps me feel prepared for any adventure!
And while that’s cute advice and all, I’d like to reiterate that the actual most important thing you need to be prepared for volunteering in Arizona is water. Even if you’re volunteering on a couch in the air conditioning — ALWAYS BRING WATER.
I suppose step 1.5 would be to not panic. That’s easier said than done, I know, but remind yourself that you are prepared and have support for the next steps. When the three of us realized how stuck in the mud we were we stopped trying to drive up the river bank and started talking through a plan. Our first idea was to look for another way out of the wash. We pulled up satellite images on our phone using Google Maps and saw that there appeared to be another exit around the bend. Josh walked ahead to scope it out and confirmed that there was another way out — so off we went! The hood was consistently smoking and we struggled and spun a bit in the mud but we successfully drove to the other exit point. Josh stayed outside of the car and talked us through navigating around debris and up the much gentler bank. Success! We were out of the wash!
Volunteering very often includes working in teams for good reason. Even if you feel that group projects aren’t your thing, teamwork is critical to success. Students in the Pima County Master Naturalist classes work together in teams on a number of activities. We are taught teamwork skills that translate to many situations (like getting your car stuck). Whenever you feel stuck, look to your team! Work together to make a plan that best addresses the issue.
Also never go into the desert alone! Always bring a hiking buddy or fieldwork friend.
We got the Jeep out of the wash and back on the dirt road, woohoo! We made it to within a measly 0.2 miles of the main, paved road before the smoke started to worsen. We had a steep hill to climb and about halfway up my trusty Jeep just stopped going forward. No amount of revving the engine would make it budge. Turns out, I had burnt out my clutch. Oops. We were in a safe location now that we were out of the wash, but unfortunately we also now had a car that needed a tow. If the situation worsens, call for more help! We called around and discovered that you need to be within 30 feet of a paved road to get towed by most tow trucks. We were farther than that and down a steep hill. Hot, hungry, and only 0.2 miles from a real road, we decided to ditch the Jeep and call for a ride home. My boyfriend Aidan saved the day by arriving with snacks and icy water to drive everyone back to our meet-up point in town. We all went back to our own homes to rest, but I still had a car abandoned out in the desert, so I had more calls to make.
When a mishap occurs while volunteering, reach out to your organization! I sent an email describing my predicament to Jessica Moreno, the Conservation Science Director for the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection and my go-to contact for everything relating to monitoring these cameras. I asked Jessica if she had any ideas for how to get the Jeep unstuck, and she delivered! Jessica and her husband dropped everything to borrow a pick-up truck from a family member and meet me back out in the desert. Together we tied my jeep to the truck and they towed me up the hill and out to the main road (in the rain, might I add). Now within regular towing distance, I was able to call a tow truck to arrive and tow me to a garage. A few days and one clutch-replacement later, and my Jeep was back in action.
Being open to calling for help and accepting help can be tough, but ultimately it’s what will get you unstuck! So many people had to help me get my Jeep unstuck and it is humbling to know that I needed every one of them. Once I was hit with the bill to replace the clutch I had to reach out for even more help from family members. Being part of a volunteering team means that everyone needs to help each other, and in my experience everyone wants to help each other! If any of my fellow teammates ever need my help in return, I will be there with my trusty shovel to help dig them a path.
While no one likes getting stuck, pushing through it can lead to better changes that benefit everyone. A few days ago I went back out into the field with my shiny new clutch and Aidan as my volunteering buddy. We were prepared to hike the entire journey assuming that the road was still impassable, but I screamed in delight when I saw what had happened to the site: someone had fixed the road!!! A giant earthmover was parked nearby and had come through and smoothed the entire road to fix all of the damage that had been done by the monsoons. The steep bank had been smoothed out and boards had been installed to make crossing the shallow water safer. I would like to believe that the mess of tire tracks and dig marks I left had something to do with this repair. Perhaps instead the story shared by the Coalition or by the multiple towing and repair companies involved made it back to the keepers of that dirt road. If you see a problem, say something! It just might get fixed. The more we work together to help each other through muddy situations the more we can fix the entire path so that fewer people get stuck. Go team!