28. A Most Dangerous Game

by H. W. Moss

The craze for large gas guzzling passenger trucks, more often referred to as sport utility vehicles or SUV’s, has reached a critical point in America: Those who have them are at odds with those who hate them.

There is some logic to owning one if you regularly travel off road. My brother Kioren, for example, appraises farm land and requires a four wheel drive vehicle to access the perimeter in order to view every square foot of the property he is hired to assign a value. Conditions are sometimes so bad he has actually been stuck in the mud on occasion. But that’s another story.

I am not sure the logic of a 29-year-old soccer mother with two children strapped in the back riding around town picking up groceries, visiting the pediatrician or attending PTA meetings in a 6,000 pound machine. That’s part of the IRS definition of an SUV. It must weigh a minimum of 6,000 pounds. The IRS does not classify an SUV as a passenger vehicle.

You might think having a four wheel drive SUV would exempt you from using chains when it snows.

“Even if you have a Hummer and can go up a glacier, you’re required to carry chains,” according to a spokesperson at the California Highway Patrol.

I am told chains are not required in any state except California because, drivers from other states patiently explain, Californians do not know how to drive on ice. If you go into a slide on ice you regain traction by turning the vehicle’s steering wheel in the direction of the slide, no brakes and no accelerating. This is not only counter intuitive, it sounds just plain wrong.

However, if this advice is correct, the same should hold true when you lose traction on a sand dune. Sliding down a sand dune ought to be very much like sliding around on an icy road. Turn the wheel toward the slide and don’t hit the brakes or accelerate.

Thanksgiving weekend, my brother and two of our cousins decided to go off road in San Luis Obispo County along the California coast. This was my second off road adventure. The previous Christmas I had gone into the mountains above SLO in treacherous terrain with the same two cousins, Brian and Reece. We forded streams, climbed hills, bounced along a single dirt lane in an otherwise pristine forest environment. It was exhilarating and exciting, moderately dangerous although more damage was done to Brian’s new Tacoma truck which is now somewhat dented.

Reece was not yet 21 but has taken many similar testosterone inspired adventures. He has driven where I would have said you could only hike and this time he directed us to Oceano Dunes, a state park and recreation area south of Pismo which we entered at a place called Grover Beach. These dunes are within the 15,000 acre Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Complex just south of San Luis and the previous year 1.5 million people visited the area.

So there we were, a mini caravan comprised of the Toyota Tacoma leading the Ford Explorer with plenty of similar vehicles entering and exiting the park. We were perhaps a hundred yards from the sea shore when Reece halted us and said, “Time to deflate the tires.”

Brian and my brother knocked the air down in all the tires from 32 psi to a mere ten, effectively making the vehicles non-road worthy, but much more adapted to coastline driving. I pointed out that if they had a Hummer they could change the tire air pressure, up or down, without getting out of the cab. The “air suspension package” as it is known is an additional $1,175 added on to the H 2 base price of $49,000.

There are 280 state park units under the aegis of California’s Department of Park and Recreation, according to spokesman Joe Rosato in Sacramento. That includes museums, state parks, preservation areas, recreation areas, 1,100 miles of coastline and six vehicular recreation areas including Oceano Dunes, covering all told about 90,000 acres. The department offers off road adventure packets.

The park at Oceano covers approximately 2.5 miles of coast and is the only public place in California where you are allowed to drive along the shore and on sand dunes. Rosato said more than a million visitors come to the dunes every year where the entrance fee is four dollars for one day of use. We entered at Grover Beach although there is another entrance down the highway in Oceano.

In addition to SUV’s and four wheel drive trucks, the dunes were crawling with All Terrain Vehicles or ATV’s, “quads” which look like small four wheel tractors, sand rails which have four wheels and a metal cage but no body, and numerous two wheel dirt bikes. Three wheelers are illegal and Hummers abound.

Waves lapped at our wheels as we rode firm wet sand paralleling the Pacific.

There were four lanes of traffic, two in each direction, going slow, doing about eight miles per hour. But the most astonishing thing was the children, some as young as seven or eight years old wearing helmets and leather gauntlets, who wove in and out of these lanes or along beside our SUV, on miniature motorized two and four wheel cycles that dodged fishermen with lines in the water who continually waved the youngsters away.

We followed the shore for approximately a mile and passed campsites every one of which had some type of dune rider, many with a half dozen of all types, parked nearby.

Traffic became congested at a fresh water stream flowing into the ocean as everyone attempted to ford it. Some drivers deliberately chose the worst possible place to cross and a black Hummer with a gold design on its side straddled the bank, rear tires in the stream, front seeking traction on the embankment above. It appeared stuck, but I later saw it careening around the sand dunes.

We turned inland and again came to a halt. Surveying the windswept sandy hills that looked like a scene straight out of “Lawrence of Arabia,” Kioren stood beside his Explorer and gestured expansively in an all encompassing embrace that took in the coastline for miles in either direction and said, “You’re looking at the bane of the Sierra Club.”

In fact, The Sierra Club is opposed to driving on any beach which they say endangers the wildlife. To that end they filed a lawsuit against the state years ago which was settled in June, 2003, basically in the park service’s favor. Rosato said the state park response to their argument is these areas are managed.

“If it wasn’t for the management, these species would disappear,” he said.

Reece gave us a quick course in dune driving saying there were two things to keep in mind. First, when going up a hill, do not stop. Otherwise, you’ll roll backward or simply get stuck. Second, climb to the top of a dune and look down before driving down. Otherwise, you might run into someone coming up the other side or find the vertical face too steep for judicious descent.

A constant bee hive buzzing sound emanated from the two-cycle engines of the motorbikes. They rode in packs, each rider wearing special garments and a helmet, their faces often covered by protective plastic which gave them the appearance of alien creatures in an alien landscape.

There were no dividing lines or traffic lanes to separate motorcycle, sand rail, truck or SUV from one another and you could drive anywhere you wanted in any direction until you came to a fence. It was quite liberating in that respect, being able to drive left, right or straight ahead at your whim, in circles if you wished, and not follow any specific course.

There are few rules to dune driving, although the paramount one is “Be Careful.” Highway speeds are never reached, but it is possible for two vehicles traveling at 30 mph to collide. That’s a 60 mile per hour crash.

We led for a while until Kioren relinquished the position to Reece driving Brian’s truck.

Much of the dunes are soft and shifting, but parallel to fenced off areas the road is somewhat compact from more consistent and frequent use. Kioren and I exchanged observations about the surreal nature of the landscape and the drivers as Reece drove up an incline and came to an abrupt halt.

Perhaps following too closely behind, Kioren did not stop for fear of becoming mired, so he made a sharp left which took us toward the top of a 40 foot tall dune.

The top was peaked. No other vehicles had driven that particular dune which turned out to be sensible on their part. The dune was a little too steep, its crest too sharply angled to make driving up or down in a four wheeler easy. Even a bike rider could spill head over heels.

But we were committed and, with no choice in the mater, we breached the crest and started down the other side.

That was when I realized how dangerously steep the slope Reece had stopped to survey.

A sand dune only holds together until its inclined plane reaches 32 degrees, then it falls apart from wind and gravity. The incline on the opposite side seemed greater than the one we just ascended and very nearly approached the 32 degree threshold.

The instant the hood of the Explorer shot over the top I found myself looking straight down, almost vertically, into a narrow valley bordered on the other side by another sand dune.

There was no way to stop at the top, so we began our descent. Although we had straight ahead momentum, I immediately felt the SUV begin pitching to the left and my inner ear told me we were about to roll. At the same time the vehicle’s three ton mass pulled us down the dune face to the right. Kioren was no longer in control and began frantically spinning the steering wheel. Out of the corner of my eye he appeared to be turning it to the left which would have been dead wrong according to my ice driving friends. I was certain Kioren had not taken his foot off the gas pedal and gunned the engine hoping to regain traction and get us out onto a straight path.

It was a fast slide downhill to the left and at the same time a glide to the right. Out the passenger window I suddenly realized we were heading directly toward a stalled grey Honda at the base of the valley. If Kioren did not regain control immediately, we were going to run right smack into that SUV.

My eyes grew large with surprise and fear as I realized one of the Honda’s passengers was a blond wisp of a child, perhaps twelve, standing on the driver’s side in the sand just inside the open door. She stared at me as we continued our uncontrolled glide and I remember thinking she should jump out of the way or all 6,000 pounds of Explorer was going to slam into that door and decapitate her.

Kioren fought for control. He spun the wheel and, although we were no longer in danger of tipping over, we still had no traction. We continued our sliding glide down to the right and I had the dismal impression there was no way we could possibly miss the girl as her face drifted within six inches of mine.

She returned a blank stare as if she had not yet come to understand the immediacy of the danger she was in, a deer caught in the headlights, as our SUV slipped closer to crushing her.

We were going to kill that girl and there was no way to avoid it.

Then the Explorer’s tires found enough grip and we shot away to the left of the Honda and began climbing the dune opposite which we crested and only then did Kioren stop at the top to survey what had just happened.

No doubt about it, we had very nearly killed that child. Kioren attributed the fact that we did not to his driving skills. I harbored no such illusion. It was pure dumb luck and I believe his turning the steering wheel in what was probably the wrong direction is actually what saved the child.

On the other hand, we both agreed, the Honda had no business being there. And where was the driver? There was an adult woman in the front passenger seat, joined now by the girl who took the seat behind the steering wheel, but it was doubtful either had been driving when the vehicle got stuck. They should have been out of their car and up on top of the dune waving their arms to tell anyone else who might climb the other side that there was a stuck truck below. Instead, they were waiting at the bottom for the driver to return.

The incident was observed by several other dune riders. One volunteered to go down and ask the woman what the trouble was while another took his truck to the top and parked above the Honda. This prevented anyone else from making the same maneuver Kioren had. Frankly, the women and the girl should have done something like that in the first place.

Turns out the male driver of the Honda had gone for help. He left his cell phone with the woman so she had no way to tell him how six of us went down and pushed while a seventh drove their Honda out of its trap.

Every year for the past four years there have been fatalities at Oceano Dunes. The numbers were low, only one per year in 2000 and 2001, then two the following year. But there were five killed in 2003 including four males, one of which was a nine-year-old, and a female age 52.

I have no intention of going dune riding again any time soon. But I admit it was fun.

(2003)