Rural Road Challenges

Take care when driving on dirt and gravel roads.

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by Clell G. Ballard

People in rural America have one major advantage that urban and suburban dwellers lack. Most of the time, they can easily travel almost anywhere they want to go without encountering traffic congestion. Of course, population centers in rural areas have their heavy traffic but between points on the map, it is smooth sailing. As a person who has driven across the U.S. 21 times, I can testify that not only is this a big country but it has an amazing network of really decent highways. People get used to driving where they live but sometimes aren’t too competent in different situations.

Metropolitan drivers find it humorous that we rural folks are somewhat intimidated by the crush of normal traffic in cities and sometimes dread drives to the city. After returning home from a trip that entailed city driving, the person unused to such an experience often tells his friends of his nerve-racking experience. Fortunately, it is rare that he has any real problem, other than getting lost, but the experience certainly makes an impression on him.

On the other side of the coin, individuals unaccustomed to driving on dirt and gravel roads common in rural areas may find themselves with real travel problems. The adhesion of the tires to the ground is compromised by rough surfaces. Speed must be reduced. Ridges of gravel that build up just outside of heavily traveled tracks can take the unfamiliar by surprise. The car’s front tires can get out into that and, because of extreme drag, the car is jerked violently toward the ditch. If traveling at a good clip, the driver can’t regain control fast enough.

A long, cold night in the mountains

That is exactly what happened in our area to a young man inexperienced with gravel roads. Eventually, he found himself on a narrow gravel road in the mountains. With no map to guide him, he’d made a wrong turn earlier in the day and was headed into the mountains, away from civilization.

Since it was early spring, skies darkened more quickly than the driver expected, but he kept going. He made it over Fleck Summit (elevation 7,348 feet) and was on his way down the other side when he lost control of his 1994 Jeep Cherokee. He couldn’t see that the spot where he ran off the road was high on a hillside with no trees in sight. The Jeep started rolling, and rolled and rolled and rolled. Fortunately, the driver was wearing a seat belt so he was only banged up when the Jeep came to a rest, basically sideways to the hill but up on its wheels.

view of a wrecked jeep from where it veered off the road

There he was, in almost total darkness, unsure of what had happened. Since he didn’t know where he was, he decided to stay with the vehicle until daylight. With all the Jeep’s windows broken out, he quickly learned it was extremely cold up in the mountains. Early spring temperatures were close to freezing and he was afraid he might not survive. To keep warm, he ripped the passenger seat upholstery loose and wrapped it around himself. He pulled the cloth headliner down and used it to block the wind. He and his vehicle were discovered the next morning.

A delicate maneuver

The U.S. Forest Service, on whose land the accident took place, requires removal of damaged vehicles as quickly as possible. The authorities contacted one of our sons who has a roll-back truck and sent him 30 miles into the mountains to the site. He asked his brother to take his winch-equipped Hummer H3 along because getting the wreck out would probably be a tough job.

When they arrived, they saw a totally destroyed Jeep down the road. Gouge marks in the brush revealed that it had rolled at least 20 times down the steep embankment, sometimes end over end. It came to a rest upright about 100 yards from the bottom of the hill.

Retrieval required the Hummer to bash through the brush up the steep incline to get above the wreck. Three of the Jeep’s tires were flat, so the winch cable was attached to keep the wreck stabilized. That made it possible for the flat tires to be replaced with tires brought along for just that purpose. Then the Hummer winch slowly pulled the Jeep around so it faced straight downhill. With the winch hooked to the back, one son steered the Jeep as the Hummer slowly let it roll to the bottom of the hill.

a wrecked jeep

At that point, the Jeep was still about a quarter of a mile from the closest point the roll-back truck could reach. By careful navigation, the Hummer was able to tow the wreck along an extremely narrow track made by four-wheelers. There, the Jeep was loaded and hauled back.

Jeep makes an effective educational display

Like a lot of wrecks my son responds to, the Jeep’s owner never paid for its retrieval and abandoned the vehicle. In such cases, by law the wrecked vehicle’s title is assigned to the towing company. Later, the wrecks are sold for scrap, generating some revenue for the towing company.

A month or so later, the son who retrieved the wreck and I pried open the hood and discovered the battery was smashed and the coil module for the V8 engine was broken loose. A professional mechanic, he said that maybe the coil could be glued back together and, if we had a battery, the engine might run. A battery was obtained, the vital liquids were checked (amazingly they were still full in spite of the roll down the hill) and the V-8 engine not only started, but ran perfectly.

The Jeep has no value beyond mechanical parts. However, the wrecked vehicle is a great testimonial to the Jeep’s construction. In spite of a horrendous situation, it protected the belted driver and maintained its basic configuration as a vehicle.

wrecked jeep being driven in parade promoting seatbelt safety

The Jeep has purposely been kept “as is” and with appropriate messages written on its sides, it is driven in small town parades. It continues to be an outstanding example of what can happen in the spur of the moment to an unsuspecting driver. It is not often that the public sees something like it right in front of them. The smashed wreck driving down the street makes an amazing impact on parade goers and will continue to educate people as to safe driving and seat belt usage. FC


A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email at cballard@northrim.net.

  • Updated on May 23, 2022
  • Originally Published on May 20, 2022
Tagged with: car safety, safety
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