An overturned ATV in the Oregon wilderness taught this student the importance of self-reliance

By Alexandra Johnson

The view from the Alexandra Johnson’s ATV crash site on top of a mountain in East Oregon, overlooking the study site. Photo by Alexandra Johnson

Everyone is tested at some point in her life, and this test may define, or redefine, what a person thinks is possible.

My so-called test took place at the top of a mountain in the middle of east Oregon wilderness, which is very cheesy, but I don’t get to decide where these things happen.

Currently, the mountain was upside down, as I lay sprawled in the sagebrush.

I stood up and stared at the ridgeline as the first rays of sunlight softly illuminated the underside of my flipped over ATV lying next to me.

Driving on this technical and challenging terrain was hard enough in the daytime, but in the low light of dawn, I could not see many of the loose rocks and deep crevices as I climbed up the mountain. A large, partially hidden rock had caused my vehicle to lurch, and my thumb to forcefully push the throttle.

Pure instinct drove me to dive off of the bike a second before it reared up on its hind tires, and toppled over backward, collapsing with a loud thud that echoed down into the valley.

I eyed it wearily, contemplating how I could right the ATV without hurting myself or the vehicle.
I gave it a huge tug, confirming that tenacity alone could not lift something that weighed at least five hundred pounds.

I plopped down on a nearby rock and thought back to my week of training before I began this job.

We had all been hired to collect field data on various bird species in Eastern Oregon, and I had never worked in the high desert before.

Because nesting data is so time-sensitive, the days were long and the training period was short. All of the sites we would be working at were remote, and it would not be uncommon to drive 50 miles into a site without seeing another human being.

A mother feeds her hungry calf as Alexandra Johnson hikes through the study area in the East Oregon wilderness.
Photo by Alexandra Johnson

The three team leads explained that there was only one dirt road that ran through the center of each area, and a few pseudo-roads called two-tracks that required the use of an ATV.

We were briefly trained on how to crawl through the barbed wire between cattle pens, how to deal with rattlesnakes, and how to avoid heat exhaustion when the temperatures soared above 105 degrees.

I obtained an Oregon ATV license during that week but had never navigated such rugged terrain before. We had also briefly glossed over ATV trouble-shooting, but “flipping your vehicle and stranding yourself” was not a training module.

I walked back to my backpack and pulled out my phone with a downloaded map of the area.
I tried to gauge exactly how many miles I was from the central road and peered as far as I could into the various valleys below.

I suddenly froze as my eyes fell on the ATV again, and a realization flashed through my head. I should be hysterical right now, experiencing a racing heartbeat, shaky legs, and watery eyes.
After all, I had almost just died.

If I had waited for another second or two to evacuate the ATV, I would have been crushed. If I had failed to dive as far away as I did, I could have been partially pinned. A myriad of other “ifs” flashed through my head, and slowly they began to be replaced with a series of “buts.”

I was alive, but I had absolutely no cell service out here. I was not pinned, but I had no transportation, and I was at least a three-hour car ride away from anyone who could help me. I was not injured, but anything from rattlesnakes to cougars could change that fact as long as I was stuck out here.

The situation was grim at best and there I stood, calmly working through my options.

It was as if both my body and my mind knew a truth that had just bubbled up to my conscious brain.

I could handle this.

I had already faced off against rattlesnakes and bulls out here, and while losing control of the vehicle was scary, it was simply a different kind of obstacle.

As I said it in my head, I somehow knew it to be true. I knew that I was prepared to combat any adversity that I came across out here. I knew that the worst of the ordeal was over, and now I had to move on and adapt to circumstances as they continued to change.

And I knew that I could.

A tiny Brewer’s sparrow begs for food as Alexandra Johnson collects data on the bird’s nest.
Photo by Alexandra Johnson

I retrieved my emergency satellite device and pressed the assistance button. This piece of equipment could not send text, so it was impossible to communicate to anyone what had happened, but at least my team would know that I needed help.

When exactly I would receive that help was a different story and it could be past nightfall before anyone was able to travel all of the ways up here and find me.

That was okay with me. I was going to try to get as much as I could done on foot today, and with one last look back at my ATV, I made my way over the peak of the mountain.

I had walked about a kilometer away from the crash site, when I located the first bird’s nest hidden in an especially prickly sage bush. After retrieving that camera, and one other device from a nearby nest, I was making my way back past the crash site.

As I came up over the top of the mountain again, I saw a small dust cloud all the way down in a nearby valley.

By an amazing stroke of luck, my closest teammate drove through the only spot in the entire study area that had cell reception.

He was alerted that I needed help and was able to get to me in a mere couple of hours.
By some even bigger stroke of luck, he was also over 6 feet tall and built like a linebacker.
He was able to right the ATV after a couple of pushes, and we checked to make sure that the vehicle had not suffered any major damage.

We loaded the vehicle in the back of the pick-up truck, deciding that it was best not to ride it more than absolutely necessary.

As we made our way back to base camp, I found myself feeling relieved, but also strangely disappointed. My survival test had only lasted a mere three hours before it was over, and did not feel much like a test at all.

But as I watched the mountain grow smaller and melt into the horizon, I realized that it had still had a big impact on me. The experience made me realize how far I had come during the course of this job.

Most importantly, my own competency and sense of self-reliance had never truly been tested before; what would I do when things went wrong and I had absolutely no one to help me.
Now I knew, and I felt good.

I liked the answers that I had found out there on the field site that day, and I was already looking forward to getting back out there tomorrow.

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