One hates to be overly dramatic about such things, but on a day earlier this summer when Dallas endured a rainstorm of biblical proportions, I nearly died. The Trinity River, like an angry, writhing hydrus, rose up and tried with its muddy coils to extinguish this little light of mine. Experts say that most airplane crashes result not from one mistake but from a series of mistakes, each compounding the effects of the others. So it was on that soggy, near-fatal day.
Mistake No. 1: agreeing to be the wheelman for a woman nicknamed “Spider Monkey.” I was watching the storm through my office window when D Magazine’s staff photographer materialized at my office door and said, “I’m going out to take pictures of the flooding! You have to drive! You’re an awesome driver!” Spider Monkey will try to tell you that she said, “I’m going out to take pictures of the flooding,” and I said, “Can I drive?” But her name is Spider Monkey, so you know she can’t be trusted. Plus, she can’t produce a picture of me saying that, and I have the words right here that prove what happened.
Mistake No. 2: following her directions. After getting some shots of Turtle Creek overflowing its banks, Spider Monkey was just as eager as that normally placid tributary to rush right down to the mighty Trinity. “Let’s get some shots of the river,” she said. “I know where we can get onto the levees. You’re totally amazing behind the wheel!”
I pointed her Toyota Matrix south, dodging fallen tree limbs, navigating flooded underpasses, fighting Spider Monkey for control of the thermostat. Why is it that women insist on turning up the heat in a car to the point where it dries out a man’s eyes? Spider Monkey said her secret access point to the river was on the south levee. We crossed over on the Corinth Street bridge and drove around for about 15 minutes through parts of South Dallas that didn’t look familiar. In a tiny fenced-in front yard of a house the size of a three-car garage, we saw a forlorn horse standing in the downpour. Had the owners cleared this arrangement with Code Compliance? And then, even more surprising, we found an open gate near the I-35 bridge.
Mistake No. 3: driving through that gate.
Mistake No. 4: thinking her Toyota Matrix was an all-terrain vehicle. If you’ve never been on the levees, each is topped by a gravel road. Where the levees meet a bridge, though, that road is forced to run obliquely down the side of the levee and into the river bottom to get under the bridge. If you’ve never driven a Toyota Matrix, it is a small car.
As we approached the Corinth Street bridge, the gravel road—becoming less gravel, more dirt—turned downhill. It was at that point that the Matrix started to fishtail. I said, “Whoa, this road is getting really soft.” Drainage from the bridge overhead created an almost solid curtain of water that made it hard to see the road conditions under the bridge. Spider Monkey turned up the heat. And I drove into a mud bog.
Panic. Swearing. I threw the car in reverse and gunned it. The front wheels sprayed mud everywhere, but we didn’t move. More swearing. We assessed the situation. I said, “We are stuck!” Spider Monkey said, “This car is stuck!” I said, “We are stuck! In this car!” She said, “We are on the inside of a levee that the Army Corps of Engineers has declared unsound, and the river is rising!”
Mistake No. 5: wearing inappropriate shoes. Listen, I hadn’t planned on this perilous excursion. Before I could explain that I couldn’t get my loafers muddy, Spider Monkey hopped out of the car and started trying to push it backward. I worked the throttle. The Matrix made angry noises. Mud flew everywhere. But no movement.
I rolled down the window and offered to take off my loafers and get out and help. “No!” she said. “I’ve got it!” I turned on the air conditioner. Spider Monkey gathered rocks and threw them under the front tires. She strained against the hood while I turned the radio to KERA to see who was on Krys Boyd’s show. And we moved—about 4 feet. Just enough to get us under the water cascading down from the bridge. She later said it felt like she was being waterboarded.
After 20 terrifying minutes, and with a little help from Spider Monkey, I was able to coax the Matrix out of the mud. Once it was moving, I didn’t want to risk getting stuck again, so I gunned it in reverse, all the way back up to the top of the levee. Spider Monkey sprinted after the car, in the rain, her hiking boots heavy with mud, shouting all the way: “You did it! You saved us! You’re the best driver in the whole world! Go, Tim, go!”
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