The Field Job Where Everything Went Wrong

I don’t know why, but as I worked outside on Thursday, I had a sudden urge to listen to Phil Collins.

It was my second day in the field, and I still had three wells to sample.  Three wells out of FIVE.  I should have finished on Wednesday, but I’d encountered a slight problem when I’d arrived to the site on Wednesday morning.

I’d had an ominous feeling driving to the site that morning.  Something was going to go wrong, I knew it.  I’d frantically checked in my backseat at red lights to make sure I didn’t forget the pump or bottles for the metals samples, and DID I REMEMBER THE WATER LEVEL METER?  The equipment was all there, safely ensconced in the backseat, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this field job was not going to be as easy as it appeared on paper – sampling just a handful of wells with a peristaltic pump.  In the groundwater sampling world, this pump is super easy to operate – you don’t have to ease it down any wells, which can get heavy; there’s no equipment decontamination, which gets annoying, AND it’s battery operated.  I had been expecting to finish that afternoon and then spend a comfortable evening reclining at a restaurant, eating seafood to reward myself for my hard work.

As I drove up to the site that morning, I got out of my car and then stopped at the gate.  “Uh oh.” I said. And I stared.  The grass onsite had grown up to the height of my knees, even up to my waist in some areas.


And the sad thing is, I saw this coming.  The last time I was out at the site, in September, I thought, “Hmm.  The grass is growing taller.” And then I promptly forgot about the grass until my project manager sent an email about mowing the site.  Grass is usually mowed during semiannual events in January and July.  I’d been out at the site last November 2012 for some unrelated work, and there had been no problem driving around it, four months post-mowing.  But we’d hardly received any rain last year.  This year, it rained much more frequently.

I frantically emailed my project manager and requested that the site be mowed next week, because, um, the grass may have grown a little tall.  She contacted the mower, who regretfully declined.  He would never turn us down, he explained, but he was in the middle of a big job and wouldn’t be finished by next week.  “Will you be okay?” she asked.  “I’ll be fine,” I said.  I had expected to drive at least halfway through the site, where there is a little staging area.  I’ve had to park there and carry my equipment to the wells before whenever the field was too muddy to drive on, and it didn’t set me behind schedule too much.  She gave me some knee-high steel-toed boots in case I’d have to walk through high grass.

But I’d had no idea the grass would be that overgrown.  I bit my lip.  The wells were located about a quarter mile away from the gate.  Carrying the equipment would require multiple trips, which would be time-consuming and be exhausting.  I needed to drive my truck as far as I could. My instinct told me this was a bad idea, and I envisioned my rental truck catching on fire.

I drove for about thirty seconds through the high grass before stopping. The grass was still high and it made me nervous.  I got out of the truck to check on the conditions.  There was a funny smell. I’m not saying it smelled like smoke.  But it didn’t smell right.

I knew then that I would have to carry everything.

I took my equipment out of the truck and then called my project manager.  These projects for this particular client typically have a fairly prescriptive budget – you have to stay within the hours you are budgeted unless you have a really good reason not to.  I knew I was going to blow the budget if I had to carry everything.  I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t being overly cautious, somehow – she has tons of experience in the field, and though I’m not a relative novice anymore (at least with groundwater sampling), she has years of experience over mine

But my project manager agreed with me, and even consulted the health and safety officer just to make sure. I nervously mentioned I’d already driven through the high grass for a bit and still needed to back out.  There would be minimal chances of my truck catching on fire, since it wasn’t August and I wouldn’t be idling the vehicle. But driving it any further into the site wouldn’t be a good option.

I got the car and tried to turn the truck around, but the path was too narrow; grass was overgrown everywhere, making it impossible for me to reverse with ease.  Finally, I looked in the rear view mirror.  The best option was to drive my truck in reverse, through a gate with fairly narrow clearance.  I had a false start, then gave myself a pep talk.  “You just gotta do it, Jenny,” I said firmly.

I put the truck in reverse, put my foot on the gas, and then steered the truck back through the high grass and the gate without ever touching it.

I’m not gonna lie – I felt like a badass after that.

But then it was back to the real world – having to carry everything.  It took me an hour, but I finally hauled my equipment to the site.  I began my normal duties – calibrating equipment, measuring water levels.  I began setting up at a well before I noticed that one of my pieces of equipment was missing something.  It was such a small piece of  the equipment that it was not unreasonable for me to have not realized that the environmental suppliers had forgotten to send it to me. I’m not going to bore everyone with details, but essentially, the equipment was still operable, but I would have to improvise some things.

This is not a big deal now, but then I was tired and hungry and already frustrated by the day’s increasingly bleak work output.  “GODDAMN IT, I AM GOING TO LUNCH,” I announced with a huff.

That night, I rested my sore limbs at a restaurant. I usually do not eat out when I’m by myself; I get lazy. But I’d been looking forward to a good meal. I brought my book and relaxed as I ate.  It was an enjoyable meal and very soothing.

The next day, my muscles were sore in a way I hadn’t experienced since I’d trained for the marathon.

I’d started the day off cheerfully.  It was then that I’d had that impulse to listen to Phil Collins as I was lugging equipment back to the site. I felt silly but accomplished.  Field work is some of the most frustrating work I’ve had to do, but it’s also the most rewarding, if that makes sense.  I grew up not believing in myself or my capabilities.  I saw myself as weak, as flighty, as someone who couldn’t trust herself. It’s so much easier to trust other people than it is to trust myself.  When I first started field work, I would feel lost when these situations arose.

I still get frustrated, especially if it’s not something I’ve dealt with before, but I’ve come to find that there’s always a solution.  The job may be a lot messier, and it may not be by the book, but you can get it done.  As for me? I’m okay.  I’m not saying I know how to handle every situation that comes my way.  But I’ve found that I’m a lot tougher than I initially gave myself credit for.  I can lug my equipment through tall grass in steel-toed boots, even though it’s exhausting.  I can open a 55-gallon drum with a crowbar.  I’m not an expert in groundwater sampling but I know enough about it to troubleshoot if something’s going on.

I do okay.

These kinds of field jobs – the ones where something go impossibly wrong, no matter how much you prepare – are going to happen.  What matters is your attitude.  If you bitch and complain about it incessantly, then you’re going to have an even shittier day.  But if you view it as an adventure, a good workout, and an excuse to listen to cheesy music as you work, then you’re much better off.  You may just get a funny story out of it.




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