Stumbling Upon a Lawyer in the Woods
[This is a piece I wrote while living in New Meadows, Idaho. The Payette National Forest was the playground my dogs and I enjoyed, just a quarter mile from our house. I recently had reason to re-read this piece, and thought it would be fun to post here, since the girls do figure in the story, at least in a minor way.]
The summer of 2008, while living in the mountains near McCall, Idaho, I drove my two Malamutes into the Payette National Forest (our backyard, literally) for some pre-Independence Day holiday weekend quiet and a nice cool run.
What did we find? A stranded lawyer.
Damn. They’re everywhere. Can’t avoid ‘em. Even in the wilds of Idaho!
I was driving on a remote forest service road between my house in New Meadows and Goose Lake, a popular alpine lake with campgrounds. My goal that morning was the Granite Mountain trail head, on the north end of Goose Lake. I knew we’d find snow on the trail as it climbs to just over 8000 feet, but I hoped the ten mile stretch of back road getting us there would be open and free of snow. Since Goose Lake sits at about 6000 feet, snow in July is a real possibility.
I drove slowly for seven miles on bumpy, rutted, rocky road, only to find it blocked by a vehicle high-centered on a small but deep patch of soft snow covering the width of the road. Not a soul around. I had no idea how long the vehicle had been there. An older model SUV, it looked sad and forlorn.
I managed to turn my car around and headed back, disappointed. It was already 8:00 am and warming up. It would take much too long to approach the trail head from the other access road.
Unwilling to completely waste the drive, I parked about a mile downhill from the stuck vehicle and let my dogs out. I was curious how much snow might still be on the road between the snow-bound SUV and the Goose Lake campground, so we ran that direction.
As we approached the SUV, all was still quiet. I peeked in a window and didn’t see any bodies. Seriously! You just never know. Maps and other detritus were spread all over the passenger seat; miscellaneous gear was in the back. Running another mile up the road, we crossed several deeper and wider snow patches. Even if the truck hadn’t blocked the road, I would have had to turn back before reaching the lake.
As my dogs and I ran back toward my car and neared the high-centered SUV, I saw someone standing next to its now-opened passenger door.
Not knowing who this person was, whether he had any dogs with him, or what sort of mood he might be in, I quickly leashed my dogs before continuing. [An aside: most of my Idaho neighbors considered me crazy for venturing into the woods unarmed. They think guns are required to defend against wild animals, wolves and cougars in particular. If I had been inclined to pack a weapon, it would have been to protect myself against unpredictable two-legged creatures, not wolves. In any case, having two Malamutes as companions made the issue of weaponry moot – they are so visually intimidating that no one messes with us, even though they wouldn’t hurt a flea. I never went into the woods without them.]
As we got closer, I called 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 was 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 had a sense of humor. He appeared rational, and non-threatening, standing calmly by this vehicle. My dogs didn’t seem concerned. I let them off leash and we moved closer.
A tall, lean, bespectacled man, with gray hair pulled back into a ponytail and a trimmed beard, he was wearing….camouflage waders, stuffed into heavy leather boots. I didn’t know whether to laugh, or run.
“How long you been stuck here?” I asked.
“Since 2:00 pm yesterday,” he replied.
About this time I noticed his license plate: Kentucky. “You’re a long way from home!” I offered.
“I have friends in McCall,” he explained. “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 had a quiet, smooth Southern drawl. He was articulate. Very different than most locals I encountered in the woods. I didn’t see any weapons.
“I didn’t think anyone was with the car when I ran by,” I said. He pointed out his tent a few yards off into the woods.
He explained that his cell phone worked, despite the remoteness of the spot. He’d called his friends in McCall, saying he was stuck but not to worry, he’d dig himself out. It was obvious that was what he’d been doing, but had not been successful.
I offered to try pulling him out with my car. My dogs and I ran off, warning it would take ten minutes or so to get to it. “That’s fine. I’m not going anywhere and I’ve got all day,” he said with a wry smile.
I returned with my car. And my camera. I said that in return for trying to pull him out of the snow, I wanted his picture to put in my online newspaper. He smiled and said, “It’s the least I can do.” He willingly gave his name – Rob Littlefield – and said he was from Louisville. He posed next to his car, sense of humor firmly intact.
“What do you do back in Louisville?” I asked. With the same pause and cautious smile I know I use when asked what I do for a living, Rob replied, “I’m an attorney.” I let out a loud laugh. He looked surprised until I admitted I claim the same occupation. (Although in my case, I often add “recovering” in front of the term attorney.) We compared notes, and found our legal backgrounds to be incredibly similar, Rob being a legal aid attorney.
It’s a very, very small world.
All efforts to pull Rob’s vehicle from the snow were for naught. The axle was well and truly stuck. That’s when Rob showed me what he’d spent the prior afternoon and evening digging with: a garden trowel. Oh my. We both laughed. I admired his willingness to admit it. I begged him to pose for another photo, this time with the trowel. Again, Rob graciously and with good humor consented. He noted 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 said.
Rob promised he would call his friends again, although he said he was reluctant to ruin their day by making them rescue him. They already had his GPS coordinates. I said I’d go home and see if my neighbor might come back up with his truck, which has a winch. (Pretty standard equipment on pickups in this part of Idaho, along with removable snow plow.) “I’ve got beer in the cooler!” Rob said, as incentive for any eventual rescuer. “I just wasn’t in the mood to drink it last night.”
After many laughs, we parted with an exchange of email addresses so I could send him the photos and he could see his story in my newspaper.
My neighbor, Leonard – born-and-raised in New Meadows and a retired logger - was 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” in the local bars. Leonard got his ropes and some shovels, picked me up, and back into the forest we headed. I looked forward to getting even better photos, of Leonard pulling Rob’s SUV out of the snow. It was a long, slow drive; by the time we got to the spot, Rob and his vehicle were gone.
Leonard and I weren’t upset, though. We felt we’d done our good deed for the day (or perhaps 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 wilderness. I found a kind and good-natured southern gentleman/lawyer in distress, the last thing I would have expected.
And it didn’t end there. I emailed Rob with the photos and a link to the story I’d written for my online newspaper. He responded: 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 said he enjoyed my story about him, that he’d forwarded it to many friends as he headed out for another Idaho adventure floating the Middle Fork of the Salmon.
Very soon, I started hearing from Rob’s friends. Here’s a sampling.
From Rob’s friend 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!).
My reply to Michael (subject line: “Lawyers don’t shoot lawyers”): As for shooting him? Hell, I'm one of the few in this state who doesn't carry a gun in the forest. But I gotta tell you, when I first saw him standing next to his car in those camo waders (do the fish really care?), I leashed my dogs 'cause I wasn't sure about HIM having a gun and being in a not-so-friendly mood!
From Rob’s friend 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 sought an invitation. And got 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 didn’t go. Should have. I was flattered that despite having two strikes against me – being a journalist and an attorney – they still welcomed me.
The story ended with Rob returning from his Middle Fork trip to find this flurry of emails between me and his buddies. He complimented me on wrangling the invitation to an otherwise – and by tradition – all male gathering and was sorry I wouldn’t be joining them. On his way out of town to Yellowstone, he left a nice bottle of merlot for me at his hotel, with a note thanking me for the article and resulting fun. He included a $20 bill, gas money for Leonard.
Postscript: A year later, I received an email from Rob, saying he’d be in McCall again and would like to see me. Alas, by then I’d moved back to Seattle.