One of the ongoing projects that I worked on as a rodman/chainman was near Hedgesville, West Virginia, known as The Woods. The Woods was a vacation home development in — well, as you may guess — a forested area. There were hundreds of acres of wooded hills being cleared for roads, and the developers wanted to save as many trees as they could or the name of the development wouldn’t make much sense.

To that end, they wanted us to stake the road centerline, and then set slope stakes for the construction of the road. Slope staking (affectionately termed slop staking by me) is a method of obtaining the elevation of the existing ground at the “hinge point,” which is either the top of slope (in a fill section, where the proposed elevation is above the existing elevation) or the ditch line in a cut section (where the proposed elevation is below the existing elevation). It was good training for me, and I soon caught on to doing the math in my head and determining if we needed to move the rod in toward the centerline or out away from the centerline.

The difficult part was carrying the equipment into the remote woods to the proposed areas. The interesting thing that was new for all of us was the use of a magnetic locater to find the old survey control points in the woods. The original surveyor of this land was a partner in the development. He would provide his field notes and a Schonstedt-Heliflux magnetic locator. Every survey crew has something similar these days, but back then (and this seems unimaginable) we didn’t have that technology, and we spent hours digging around in the dirt for metallic survey points.

In order to save some labor and time in carrying the stakes in to the work area for the day, we always wanted our party chief, Bob, to drive the old GMC Suburban in as close as possible.

There was one section of the development which required us to drive across a major drainage swale. I guess the developers hadn’t yet placed a culvert which would eventually be needed, so we just had to ford this small stream when we were experiencing a rainy season. After several strong thunderstorms, this drainage feature became more of swamp than a drainage; it sat stagnate and really smelled like decaying vegetation (imagine rotting celery or potatoes!) The first time we had to venture to the area beyond the swampy bog in the middle of the road, Bob felt is was best to park the truck and walk around it. This meant carrying arm-loads of stakes along with the magnetic locator, instrument, measuring tape, rod, hammer, machete, etc. After a full day with several breaks to hike the quarter-mile back to the truck to get more supplies, we realized we had lost a lot of time.

The next day, we convinced Bob to drive through the “swamp.” It was about twenty to thirty feet across and maybe six inches of water over a mucky base that really went deep (we had no idea how deep yet). We sat in the truck at the top of the hill on the old road bed which sloped down toward the sloppy mess at the bottom. Bob expressed his doubts and concerns and even mentioned the real possibility of getting the truck stuck. I said, “Heck Bob, we get enough speed, we’ll just skip right across this mucky water.” He revved the engine a bit dropped the floor shifter into first gear (first was down but “L” which we called Granny Gear was up – only used for steep hills) and accelerated. We probably hit thirty-five MPH as we splashed into this horrid, mucky water. The truck skidded slightly right and then left as Bob corrected the steering into the skid.

We made it through, but the whole truck was covered with light brown, slimy goop. It stank to high heaven! We were disgusted but happy that we didn’t have to carry all of our equipment and supplies.

When we returned the next day, it was a bit different. I’m still not sure why, but Bob approached the swamp area slowly. We gave some mild encouragement to speed it up, but I guess we didn’t get too excited because we trusted Bob’s judgement. As we started into the edge of the water, he slowed even more and then started to accelerate. We immediately stopped all forward progression. The rear tires dug ruts, and we sunk. Not only was the axle resting on the ground, but the whole frame was sitting on top of the mud.

This was not the first time that I had seen a Suburban stuck in the mud, and I knew this one was worse than the others that I had witnessed. These were two-wheel drive trucks that we used back then. They also had about a half-ton of equipment and supplies. We used 1-inch pipes for property corners and we filled the bin in the tool box every time that we had down time at the office. When these rear-heavy trucks got into mud and the tires started to spin, it would just dig ruts and sink further into them as a result of the weight. We used to say, “These things will dig their own grave.”

We stepped out of the truck up to our knees in muck. Now we knew how deep it was.

“I’ll go get the bulldozer operator to bring his machine down to pull us out,” I said.

Bob said, “No, we can dig this out! Get the shovel and some stakes. We’ll dig trenches back on a slope to dry land and lay stakes in them to drive on. We’ll get it out.”

We dug. We cursed. We dug some more. If you’ve ever dug sloppy muck, you realize this is not easy.

“Okay, now can I go get the bulldozer?” I asked.

Bob said, “No.”

Bob taking notes
Bob taking notes.

I think it was a matter of pride. He didn’t want everyone on the job site to know that he had failed. We worked for an hour and managed to completely bury about 40 stakes into the mud. As soon as we tried to move the truck onto them, the ends sunk into the mud and the tires, which had their treads completely filled with mud, started to spin.

Of course it was fun to watch the smoke show as Bob revved the engine and burned rubber on the wooden stakes! Finally, when I asked for about the fourth time, “Now, can I go for the bulldozer?” Bob, said, “No, I’ll go.”

Off he trod and we sat down under a tree for an extended smoke break. We didn’t try crossing that spot again until it was completely dried. Bob was usually a great driver, but he never would fully answer my inquiries about why he approached that spot in that way. He just said he was concerned about getting stuck.

A version of this article was originally published in the September 2020 issue of POB.