My husband Russ and I recently celebrated our 11th anniversary. We decided to leave the kid and the dog with grandma and head up into the Beartooth Mountains for a four-wheeling adventure to mark the date. We couldn’t remember the last time we had loaded only one machine into the bed of the truck, and we were looking forward to a fun day exploring together.
We parked at a camp spot and ate lunch before loading up the Polaris wheeler for our trip. As we started out on the dirt trail, we noticed another ATV stopped on the path up ahead. The driver was looking at something off to the side, so we pulled up behind him and noticed a whitetail doe drinking from the stream below. We introduced ourselves. Our new friend, Burke, was visiting from Minnesota; he comes out to Wyoming every summer to spend a few weeks in the mountains. We decided to continue our trek together in case either of us had any problems, and it’s a good thing we did. Our magically planned anniversary trip was about to become one of the most disastrous adventures we’ve experienced.
About a mile up the trail we hit our first stream crossing. Massive amounts of snow melt had made this creek impassable weeks before, and now we saw that the water had carved out a new path that was unfamiliar to us. Undeterred, we headed across what looked like the best route, but halfway across we bogged down in a deep spot and the indicator light blinked on; the machine was overheating. As the cold water hit the hot engine, steam poured from the sides of the ATV. We limped across to the other bank in low gear and four-wheel drive, and Russ jumped off to see what damage had been done.
Burke saw our rocky passage and took a different path across the stream with no difficulty. By the time he stopped beside us, Russ had turned off our machine and was removing the seat and checking belts and valves to see what could be salvaged. We had just started and already we might have had to call it a day. So much for our anniversary four-wheeling adventure! We talked about our options and what might have gone wrong with the wheeler as Russ continued to examine the innards of the ATV. With our fingers crossed and the engine cooled down, we restarted the Polaris and decided to ford the water again using a different path and possibly head back to the truck.
On this trip, the wheeler performed perfectly, and as we continued down the trail, we decided that we might be OK to continue, especially now that we had another person with us. We turned onto a different path and headed up into the tree line, stopping to snap pictures of several gorgeous waterfalls along the way. As we crawled up a particularly steep spot, we turned a corner, and there in the road was a massive downed tree, at least 40 feet long and too heavy to move. The high sides of the trail prevented us from going around it, so our only option was to turn around and head back down the mountain. Strike two of our trip. I was beginning to wonder if we had been unknowingly doomed from the beginning.
Because the four-wheeler was running somewhat smoothly again, we decided to reattempt crossing the creek, avoiding our previous route. We sloshed across with ease and the machine didn’t even sputter, so we continued down the trail. We rode on for miles, passing through heavy evergreens and ground cover lush from the melting snow. Traffic on the trails was practically non-existent, and we almost felt like we were in a prehistoric landscape.
We arrived at the final water crossing before the trail headed up a maze of switchbacks, and Burke decided to call it a day. Russ and I waved goodbye as we forded the churning waters and continued. As we climbed, the temperature dropped noticeably, and I began to regret leaving my sweatshirt at home. Angry dark clouds started to roll in. Sure enough, as we crested the next hill, it began to rain. In the beginning, the drops felt strangely warm, but as we turned and headed back down the mountain into the wind, the light drizzle became a steady downpour. Goosebumps studded my arms and I hid my numb fingers, clenching them tightly under the back of Russ’s hoodie.
We got back to the truck in record time, and Russ helped me climb in before loading the four-wheeler. He strapped down the ramps onto the lowered tailgate and began the steep climb into the bed of the pickup. Sitting in the passenger seat, I turned to watch his progress out of the back windshield, so I saw the exact moment when the ramps slipped on the wet metal and the ATV started to slowly flip over backward, with Russ aboard.
I turned and reached for the handle of the door before I remembered that my wheelchair wasn’t just outside, but in the back of the truck. I opened the door and yelled for Russ, and to my relief, he reassured me that he was OK. Fortunately, the wheeler’s back tires had hit the ground and the front wheels had snagged on the tailgate, which was now bent beneath the machine. We each took a deep, thankful breath and surveyed the damage. At this point, there wasn’t anything to do but get the four-wheeler into the truck. The tailgate was already bent, so we hooked the front ATV winch onto a hook in the bed of the truck and slowly pulled the Polaris back into it. With a few slams, the tailgate caught and closed, and Russ slid in behind the driver’s seat.
Soaking wet, freezing, and still shaky from the near accident, we looked at each other and grinned. We had a busted tailgate and four-wheeler that wasn’t running as consistently as we would like, and our journey had been cut short by a downed tree and nasty weather. All in all, from the outside, it would seem like a failed day. But despite all the mishaps, we had enjoyed the time together. It’s definitely an anniversary that we won’t forget anytime soon.
Ashlee Lundvall writes a blog titled "Redefining Life," that follows her rise from a debilitating injury as a teenager to Ms. Wheelchair USA in 2013. Her first book, "A Redefined Life," was released in February of 2016, and she was recently invited to join the National Pro Staff for Mossy Oak and the NRA’s Disabled Shooting Sports committee, and is on the President's Council for Sports, Fitness & Nutrition. Ashlee is also the recipient of the 2017 SCI Foundation Pathfinder Award. Ashlee truly shines as a keynote speaker at outdoor industry and disability related events and conferences. She is passionate about mentoring newly injured patients, and loves to pass on her love for adapted outdoor recreation! View all posts by Ashlee Lundvall