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It Took a Village - How I Got Stuck Off-Roading and Unstuck my Thinking

Last weekend, I went off-roading, and even though I had no intention of thinking about business, life, or lessons, I ended up with one of the strongest business lessons of my life, and I couldn’t wait to share it with all of you. Here are the details.

I bought a Jeep, a pretty ridiculous Jeep, because I like extremes and my wife wouldn’t let me park a monster truck in the driveway. She said, “sure” to a Jeep, so I sought out the biggest Jeep I could find – a Jeep Wrangler (JK) Rubicon customized to the hilt by American Expedition Vehicles, better known as AEV. Their JK 350 package included everything I was looking for – a big lift, big wheels, big tires, a big snorkel (air intake), a big jack, big extra fuel tank, big roof rack, big heat reduction hood, a big winch … big everything. I found the loophole in my wife’s approval, and I took advantage of it.

“But the kids can’t even get in it, it’s too high,” she said. “No problem, I’ll buy stirrups,” I replied. And so I did. And it was good.

Stirrups, so the kids can get in

Then I added stuff. I wanted to go anywhere, do anything with this vehicle, because … who wouldn’t want to go anywhere and do anything? So I added a second battery, a light bar, rock lights under the frame, cameras on all four sides wired into my navigation system, angled spot lights, an onboard air compressor, an air tank, air hoses, air tools, a new tool kit, an inclinometer, a first aid kit, a VHF handheld radio, and about 50 other little things. Everything to be ready for anything.

Now, if you’ve read my blog before, or if you’ve noticed the self-assigned title of “Optimist” on my LinkedIn profile, you might have noticed that I’m usually supremely confident that things are going to work out. My first time off-roading, however, knowing very well I was a novice, I decided to take extra care and cover all my bases with even more of the best equipment I could get. I bought special gloves, flashlights, a snatch block, shackles, chains, straps, an axe, a fire extinguisher, a pull pal (thing you can stick into the ground to create your own winch point in case there aren’t any trees around), and a big shovel that hangs off the back.

Of course, all of this wouldn’t fit, so I bought a storage container to keep everything on the roof rack. Any guesses what my wife said then? “My friends keep asking me where you’re going with that luggage rack on the roof,” she said. “No problem, I’ll go off-roading,” I replied. And so I did. And my first time was Saturday.

I went with a good friend who had a similarly tricked-out off-road vehicle, a Toyota Tacoma TRD Off Road. He found this amazing place about 45 minutes away that had all sorts of fun obstacles, and to make it a family affair, we each told our wives that the other wife wanted her to go, and we all set out on an expedition of sorts. It was amazing, and the equipment we invested so heavily in really paid off. We went up and down crazy inclines, got almost-stuck traversing old tractor tires buried in the ground, and crawled through a rock garden. We giggled like children while our wives took Dramamine and it was very good. Amazing time. Here’s a picture.

Tacoma and Jeep

So we head out, go hang out at my treehouse (that’s for another story), and retell tales of how great our day was. On the way out, my buddy says, “you know, we never really got to use a lot of our recovery gear” and I said [fatal flaw warning], “you’re right! But I have a little pond here on the property.” So we drove down to it with my wife at my side. “I don’t think this is a good idea,” she said. “No problem, I can do it,” I replied. And so I did. And that was 6:54pm.

[6:54 PM + 3 seconds]

It didn’t take long before I realized I was in trouble. Even though I was in 4-low, had my front and rear lockers engaged, and my big mud terrain tires, I literally couldn’t move an inch. The engine was buried up to the headlights, but still running thanks to the elevated snorkel air intake. I couldn’t open the driver’s side door without letting water pour in, and my wife was saying, “you're an idiot …” as she crawled out the passenger side onto the shoreline shaking her head.

I was a little excited about this at first. My buddy got out his recovery gear, I crawled out the passenger side and got mine out from that roof rack, and we used our “you’ll never need that” shovels to dig out the front winch shackle from the mud under the water. We tried a few things – connecting a snatch strap to his truck and pulling (no dice), connecting my winch to his rear recovery point (I just dragged him toward me), going backwards instead of forwards (just as bad), and more. Nada.

The water didn't seem too deep

[7:42 PM]

By this point, I’m starting to get worried. So I called a friend with more experience. He was at a party with his wife, but he suggested using a tree-saver strap and winching myself out. Doh, of course, “I’ll try that,” I said. After all, the winch and line are rated for twice the weight of my Jeep, and that tree isn’t going anywhere. And so I tried. And then my winch line snapped.

[8:11 PM]

Now I’m a little less calm. I called my brother, he had our kids and was on his way back to our house to drop them off, but I reached him at just the right time to divert him and his Ford F150 to help out. I called my more-experienced-friend again, knowing he was at a party with his wife, and told him the deal. He suggested I call a tow truck, or he could have a friend pull me out with his bulldozer the next day. As thoughts of leaving my newish Jeep under water all night flashed through my mind, I thanked him for the idea and quickly called a tow truck. Money will fix anything, right?

Not exactly. When I called the closest tow company, here’s how that conversation went:

[8:51 PM]

Jeff: “Hi, I need a tow truck.”

Tow guy: “Sure, where are you?”

Jeff: “Not far from you. I’m stuck in a pond, and I can’t seem to pull myself out.”

Tow guy: “A what? A pond?”

Jeff: “Yes, not that deep, though. It’s on my own property, just a few feet deep, I can’t get any traction, and I need a little help getting out.”

Tow guy: “There’s no way I’m touching that. I’m out.”

Jeff: “What? Oh, okay, thanks anyway.”

Tow guy: <click>

That didn’t go well. I’m not prone to panic, so I didn’t lose my cool or anything, but I was definitely worried this wasn’t going to end well. The Optimist’s optimism was waning.

My brother arrived, though, so I still had a chance. We connected his truck to my buddy’s truck, and my buddy’s truck to my Jeep, and we PULLED.


We found some old T1-11 boards, like plywood sheets, and shoved them under the wheels. We tried again.


I finally called my more-experienced-friend again, and he heard the desperation in my voice. He left his thing, picked up his brother in law, and brought his truck.

[9:16 PM]

We worked together. Three friends plus my brother gave up their Saturday night, despite the admonishing looks from various wives, and finally, it all came together. We ended up (dangerously, perhaps, but by necessity) using static tow straps as snatch straps, which basically means driving really fast to take up the slack and letting a strap that’s not supposed to be elastic stretch beyond normal use. That super-tug didn’t end up pulling my bumper off (good), didn’t end up damaging anyone else’s truck (good), and did end up giving my Jeep enough of a jerk to pull me the couple feet I needed for my tires to find more solid ground.

Hugs, high fives, cheers, amazing, sun going down, just in time … we did it.

So what’s the strong business lesson here? I couldn’t stop thinking about how, despite the investments I’d made in equipment, despite the strong will and optimistic attitude, and despite having the financial resources, I could not solve this problem on my own. I might still be in that pond if it wasn’t for the other people around me.

Sometimes, business types like us speak of teamwork and, in so doing, extol the virtues of “working together,” “getting on the same side of the table,” and “there’s no I in team.” It all seems so logical, so innocent, and perhaps so easy. Until you find yourself up to your knees in rancid pond water wondering if, or how, you’re ever going to fix this one. It’s times like this, knowing you have surrounded yourself with talented, selfless, and willing people, that the real meaning of teamwork hit home for me.

Thank you, team. Now let’s go take that hill [together.]

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