I VIOLATED ONE OF MY OWN RULES: Stay off loose dirt and sand. But, you know, there were other tire tracks, so I followed. Like a good sheep. Or lemming.

Most of the boondocking spots outside the south entrance to Joshua Tree National Park were taken or too close together, so I hunted for less likely spots. And ended up stuck about a van length from hard pack. The driver side got buried to the hub, the bottom of the shock absorber was scraping, and the differential was touching the ground. Sigh.

Fortunately, I carry an honest-to-goodness shovel. I started digging. And digging. I couldn’t get the shovel under the differential. I dug by hand. I jabbed at the ground with my tire iron and pried up a large stone. This was going to take a while, but I had all day.

There was enough room under the passenger side of the axle to slip the scissor jack in. It seems counterintuitive to jack up the high side, but it gave me more room to dig around the differential.

Back on the driver side there was still no room under the axle for the jack, and jacking the chassis would raise the wheel last of all as it sagged on the spring. Hmmm, the spring… I dug out a spot under the leaf spring large enough for the jack and a flat rock to set it on. Thousands of cranks of the jack later, I had the tire high enough to fit some flat stones underneath. I laid more stones along the bottom of the exit ramp I had dug. Good thing there were rocks mixed in the gritty sand.

As I was executing my inelegant desperation engineering, I kept thinking about how open differentials work. They transfer power to the wheel with the least traction. Since the van was leaning towards the driver side, that should mean less traction on the passenger side. That wasn’t the wheel that needed power if I had any hope of driving out of the hole.

But weight and traction bias must have been sufficiently in my favor. The driver side tire slipped a little, caught traction on the stones and, as you can see, I got out.

So, a shovel, my nomad friends. And some work gloves. And some patience. And perseverance. And the wisdom to recognize and avoid soft ground in the first place. And to not put too much faith in the tracks of others.