It was a cold night on San Joaquin Ridge. I sat behind the wheel, staying warm and killing time until I grew tired enough to inflate the mattress and try to get some sleep. At the back of my mind was the challenge I would face at sunrise: attempting to descend this rocky, four-wheel drive road with an engine that had tilted 30° and was liable to start scraping the ground if any more bolts sheared off. Needless to say, it was going to require a substantial degree of caution and a heavy foot on the brake pedal.
I had only been in possession of a lopsided Jeep engine for a few hours. While searching for a high-altitude campsite with a sunset view of the spiky Minaret peaks, two bolts that held the engine in place sheared off completely. The gear stick had suddenly tilted to the right as well, eliminating access to the fifth and reverse gears. Too many years of rough riding on off-highway roads had taken its toll. Luckily, I was only about ten miles away from a mechanic in Mammoth Lakes, but the first few miles tomorrow morning were going be tough, especially for a vehicle on the mechanical equivalent of life support.
The situation could have been worse. The last time my engine mounts failed, I was ten miles up a sandy wash in a narrow canyon on the outskirts of Joshua Tree National Park, far from anywhere. My friend Aurora and I had mistakenly thought we were driving up a seldom-used park entrance through Hardoo Canyon, but when the sandy trail ended abruptly in a bulldozed embankment, our navigational skills became questionable. Suppressing both Aurora’s warnings and my own better instincts, I hit the gas and followed some tire tracks up and over the embankment. We made it. But five seconds later there came a horrible grinding noise from the engine, and the gear stick shuddered violently. I quickly shut the motor off and hopped out of the vehicle.