When trips don’t go as planned – stuck in the desert

When trips don’t go as planned – stuck in the desert

It’s one of those life lessons that everyone learns sooner or later: sometimes things don’t go as planned.

Considering last week was one of those weeks when family life and holiday preparations seemed to spiral out of control, making it impossible to stick to my initial writing plan, this seems like the perfect time to write about this particular misadventure.

The day started out like any other. We had visited Meteor Crater the day before and spent the night in Holbrook, Arizona. The plan was to visit Petrified Forest National Park and then head to New Mexico. Originally we had planned to stop in Albuquerque for a few hours before stopping for the night in Santa Fe, but earlier in the trip we met someone who told us that we shouldn’t miss Chaco Culture National Historical Park (also a UNESCO World Heritage Site). We changed our plans and decided to replace the Albuquerque stop with a short visit to Chaco instead. We knew timing would be tight, but we couldn’t miss a must-see attraction, right?

The park website warns you that it can only be accessed by driving on dirt roads. It also warns that the route coming from the south can vary from “very rough to impassable” and that you should call ahead for the latest conditions. I did. They said the roads were OK, so off we went. While writing this post, I noticed that the park’s website now contains the following warning, and I’m wondering if it was there before or if it was a recent addition.

Warning: Some of the local roads recommended by map publishers and services using GPS devised to access Chaco are unsafe for passenger cars. Please use our written directions below to avoid getting lost or stuck.

If the warning was on the website that day, I completely missed it, because I made the mistake of relying on my GPS. Actually, I was using a combination of GPS and website directions. In my defense, these aren’t exactly the clearest directions:

Via Hwy 57(Hwy 14 on some maps): This turnoff is located on Highway 9, 13 miles east of Highway 371, at the former Seven Lakes Trading Post. (20 miles of dirt). Note that the signs directing you to turn off of Hwy 371 onto Highway 9 are missing.

Don’t you just love when people give you directions based on someplace that used to be there? And that signs are missing? My GPS said we were on Chaco Canyon Road and that sounded reasonable to me.

At first, we weren’t overly concerned that we appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. After all, we’d been warned that we would be driving on dirt roads. The desert scenery was pretty.

Dirt road - New Mexico desert

There was no sign of civilization anywhere. My husband was driving while I was taking pictures and enjoying the ride.

New Mexico Desert

We didn’t see any other cars or people, only a few cows here and there.

Cows in the desert

After a while, we realized we’d passed over several cattle guards and started wondering if we were on the right road, but there was nowhere to turn around, so we kept going. If you’re not familiar with cattle guards, check out this post by The Pioneer Woman. She does a good job of explaining what they are and has some great pictures, as well as a great story of her own.

Finally, about eight miles down the road, we reached a gate and couldn’t go any further. Now we were certain we were on the wrong dirt road. We had to turn around.  My husband tried to do a three-point turn. It didn’t work. The car got stuck. It wouldn’t move. Not an inch. Did I mention that we were in the middle of nowhere with no cell phone signal? First, I offered up a silent prayer. Then I got into the driver’s seat while my husband and kids got out to push. They pushed. We got unstuck. But we were still facing the wrong direction. The problem was that there just wasn’t a good place to turn around. The “road” consisted of two well-worn tracks in the dirt/sand. I put the car in reverse and backed up until we found a more level place. We tried to turn around again. We almost did it, but got stuck again. My husband and kids got out to push again. They got us unstuck and I managed to get the car turned around.

We hadn’t given up on the idea of visiting Chaco Culture National Historical Park, but now we were well behind our already tight schedule. I drove back down the eight miles of the wrong dirt road, out to the main road, then found the correct dirt road. Feeling pressed for time, I drove at a faster-than-ideal speed. I knew as we crossed over one of the cattle guards that I should have slowed down more. A couple seconds later, an alert lit up on my dashboard. I asked my husband what it was because I hadn’t seen that one before. He looked it up and found out it was for low tire pressure. I stopped the car. We got out and looked. The right rear tire was completely flat. (We figured out later that the metal pipe on the cattle guard was broken and sharp enough to puncture a tire. I’m sure the speed at which I was driving didn’t help.)

My husband and I assessed the situation. We were in the middle of nowhere. There was no cellular signal, so calling AAA Emergency Roadside Service was an impossibility. We used the GPS to locate the nearest tire shop. It was about 60 miles away. We hadn’t seen people in quite a while and had no reason to think anyone would drive past us anytime soon. We quickly concluded that we needed to put on the spare tire and pray that it lasted until we made it to the tire shop. We also knew that our visit Chaco Culture Park was not going to happen. I might have freaked out had I been alone with the kids, but my husband was calm, cool, and collected. My son’s 16th birthday was less than a week away, so my husband used this as a teaching opportunity. First, my husband showed Connor what to do.

Teaching a teenager to use a jack

Then he let Connor take over.

Jacking up the car

Not a single car drove past us while they changed the tire. However, our situation piqued the curiosity of some horses who wandered over to see what was going on.

Visiting with horses while stuck in the desert

It didn’t take nearly as long as I thought it would to change the tire.

Spare tire

It was now getting late in the day. We had a non-refundable hotel reservation in Santa Fe for the night. Unfortunately, the closest town was in the opposite direction. When we got into cell phone range, we started making phone calls trying to find a tire shop that was still open. We made it to Pep Boys shortly before they closed. (Thank you, God!) While they changed they tire, we grabbed a late dinner. We didn’t get back on the road until around 9:30 p.m. We then had to drive three hours to Santa Fe. It was about 12:30 a.m. when we arrived, emotionally exhausted.

So, that’s the tale of the World Heritage Site we didn’t visit. Maybe someday we’ll make it to Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Our first impression of New Mexico wasn’t good, but we still had two more days. The next day we visited El Rancho de Las Golondrinas and had a wonderful visit and the day after we visited Taos Pueblo. We may have missed a must-see sight, but we made a memory we’ll never forget.

Scroll to Top