Late on New Year's Day, a solo car-camper decides he doesn't want to pay the $10 campground fee. He asks for advice from fellow travelers, who suggest an out-of-the-way canyon on the far side of a nearby dry lake. They assure him of three things: It's a beautiful camping spot, it can't be seen by the park rangers, and the lake bed is completely dry.
The frugal traveler sets out across the lake in his SUV. Feeling his way carefully at first, he soon finds himself doing 50 on the hard salt surface, quickly approaching the lake's center--and low spot. Sun to his back, he fails to see the water glimmering on the surface until it's too late. The SUV decelerates hard and fast as the frame plows its way into the muck. Dusk approaches, and the stuck SUV juts out like a lighthouse in the middle of the not-dry lake. With no escape the weary traveler spends a less-than-comfortable night in a not-so-beautiful spot. Early the next morning, a park ranger comes out to investigate. After a $76 citation for camping in a prohibited area and an hour ride to the nearest pay phone, he's given two numbers. The first is Miller's Towing, 50 miles away in Lone Pine, and the second, a heavy-lift helicopter out of Fresno. The ranger's parting instruction: "Miller is $225 an hour, and the helicopter's $7000 an hour; whichever you choose, your vehicle will be out of that lake bed by tonight."
In his 33 years of recovering vehicles from the most unimaginable situations, John Miller has seen everything--and has never failed to rescue a stuck traveler. With an armada of 15 tow trucks, from a 4WD ATV to "Brutis"--a 17-ton, 1982 HD 6x6 (10WD) military recovery vehicle with a 20,000-pound hydraulic front winch, 45,000-pound rear winch, and 30,000-pound crane--John has the right tool for any job at his disposal. In this case, he loads a Thiokol-tracked Snowcat on the back of a 6WD flatbed wrecker and heads out to the dry lake. Driving the wrecker partway out, he unloads the Snowcat for the trip across the muck and, after a quick winch, has the SUV slowly following the Snowcat back across the lake to terra firma. Total camping cost: $1575 (Miller's seven hours at $225 each) + $76 citation - $10 campground fee savings = $1641.
Everything about Miller Towing is on a large scale. His contract service area covers 17,000 square miles (larger than 10 states) of some of America's most breathtaking yet inhospitable countryside. From the top of the eastern Sierra Nevada range to the western Nevada border, it includes much of Owens, Saline, and Death Valleys, all treacherous places to be stranded. Even the view from his shop is spectacular--it directly faces the 14,495-foot summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states.