Christmas Breakdown continued:

Right off the bat we have a problem. The trail is turning right, too sharp for the buggy to turn, so we go straight across some palmetto bushes and then intersect the trail. This is very rough and before we go 300 feet, the log has shifted out of position. We stop, jack up the buggy and reposition the log. This is not a good start, and it is now about 3 o'clock. It gets dark at about 6 o'clock this time of the year. We cross the pine ridge and head south sticking to trails in the pine woods as much as possible. We hit a few soft spots in the first mile and Tony hops off to push us through, barely making it. Because of our fear of getting stuck in mud we are more and more cautious of the trail. Some times we would stop and walk ahead to make sure we could get through. All of this is eating up our daylight.

We now hit a really rocky part of the trail, In some places the rock sticks above the soil so high, that we call those rocks "tombstones". They are usually hidden in tall grass. We are in tombstone territory. Usually you would back up and go around, but we can't back up. Our only choice is to go forward through it. The tires are climbing over the tombstones when "bam" the front bumper hits one hard. I jump off to check and find the front bumper is half busted off. A few pulls up and down and it is completely off. Something else to ride with us on top of the buggy. The exhaust system has been getting louder as we travel in the rough areas. The rough ride is starting to break the muffler support straps. There is nothing to do, but keep going. Before we clear the rocks, a motor mount rips. This we can not ignore, we have to fix it. Fortunately, I carry spare motor mounts and after a half an hour, the mount is replaced. Our daylight is about gone, in an hour the sun will set and then we will not be able to pick our trail in the dark.

Off we go again, the pine areas are now less and less and we have to cross open muddy areas. For the most part we get through them, with Tony and Dom pushing in the worst spots. We are now half way down a trail we call "Dog Track". The main trail is wet but it is firm ground with a few mud holes that can be skirted. One of these holes grabs the buggy. Its more then Tony and Dom can push us out of, so Dom and I switch places. Dom has never driven a buggy before, but we need push more then driving skill. Dom has a heavy throttle foot, but Tony and I manage to push the buggy free. The only casualty is now the exhaust system has broken off. The engine is now running straight pipe, (LOUD, LOUD, LOUD). Its dusk and we are exhausted. Next to us is the last dry ground for miles.

I suggest we stop and spend the night here. If we continue we will eventually get stuck in the dark, the buggy will then be the only dry place to lay down. Its not really big enough for three people to sleep on it. We should rest and get a fresh start in the morning. That's what we decide to do, using the last daylight to gather firewood to keep us warm during the night. We had some lunch meat and bread, so we each had a sandwich for dinner. The cell phone now worked, so we called our families to let them know we would not be back until the next day.

Dom does not like snakes and he is sure one will get him if he sleeps on the ground. He is reluctant to get off the buggy. It doesn't help when something in the dark starts growling. I have heard wild hogs growl before, it sounds like a dog growling, and that's what this sounded like to me. To Dom, it was a bear and he wasn't budging from the buggy. That's where he slept all night. Tony and I got in sleeping bags next to the fire and as exhausted as we were, we were soon asleep.

The next morning we awoke some what rested. I dug out a small pot and using melted ice water, made some instant coffee from two packs I had in my clothes bag. Tony to this day says "that is the best coffee" he ever had. The flavor coming from the unexpected pleasure of having some. I have to admit, it tasted very good to me also. As the sun reached the top of the trees on the horizon, we were off again. The engine roaring without the muffler, a very annoying sound. We were moving again, hopeful that we would reach the hard road by noon. One big obstacle lay in front of us, "Airplane Prairie". This prairie had started drying up, but I knew there were soft spots we really needed 4 wheel drive to get through. I also know once on the other side of it, I could guarantee we would make it the rest of the way. We reached the top of "Airplane Prairie" in about an hour. Now to chose the east side, west side or down the middle. The east side had rocks, providing a better grip, so that was our choice. On we went, Tony pushing when we slipped. Tony and I pushing when we were stuck. Slowly edging down the east edge of the prairie. At times when we seemed to be especially stuck, we took dead tree branches and logs and put them down as something to drive on. Progress was painfully slow and as we reached half way down we were again exhausted. It was now 1 o'clock and the worst half of the prairie was still in front of us. We were defeated.

We didn't want to be in the swamp on Christmas, so it was time to put our tax dollars to work. A cell phone call to the Big Cypress National Preserve ranger station, resulted in a reluctant agreement for them to come get us. Because they did come to get us, I will not go into details of the conversation that got them to come and get us. But, the convincing part, involved leaving a 75 year old man in the swamp without rescue. That seemed to be the difference in them coming to get us or not. We described where we were and they flew a small plane over us to get our GPS location. A few hours latter a Preserve buggy appeared out of the east heading directly for us on GPS.

The ranger treated us well, we loaded our gear on the NPS buggy. We took a last look at our buggy and off we went. The ranger delivered us to the Conservation Club about one hour later. For those of you that have never ridden on a $26,000 swamp buggy, I will let you know, they are very nice. To the best of my ability I will never ride on one again. That ended the rescue of us, but ahead lay the rescue of the Muckin Mercedes. That is another story, that almost ended in disaster also.

this story written by Steve on November 26, 2001
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