The Secret to Treading Quicksand

Quicksand!In a word: DON’T!

It’s not a good idea and it doesn’t work. Yes, I speak from experience.

My brief attempt at treading quicksand happened during my doodlebugging days.

Seismic survey blast

“Fire in the hole!”

“Doodlebugging” refers to seismic survey work, a key part of oil & gas exploration. Seismologists probe the underground composition of the earth, looking for the structures most likely to harbor oil and/or gas.

That’s the “why” — the “how” is simple: lay out a long cable with geophones (seismic detectors) to measure seismic activity, then drill deep holes along the line to drop dynamite into, blow those charges up, and measure the underground echoes to create a seismograph depicting layers of sub-strata of the earth’s upper surface. Geophysicists, such as my dad was, can then read and interpret those seismographs to guide further exploration.

Doodlebuggers at workIn practice, this means the seismologists draw a line on a map, then a survey team marks that route on the ground, and then grunt workers like me crawl on, over and through anything on that line to lay down the main cable, plant geophones, and then retrieve the cable to move it further down the line. That basically means you cross fields, prairies, roads, swamps, marshes, ponds, lakes, and — well, quicksand, as it turned out one morning.

I was carrying a 70-pound cable towards the east bank of the Brazos River to hook up with the cable laid across the bottom of the river by a boat. As I approached the river, my steps grew more difficult as my feet sank into the mud. It seemed like regular mud at first, so I didn’t really pay much mind until it was about calf-deep. Pulling one foot up meant putting more weight and pressure on the other, so that one would sink lower, so soon the muck was up to my knees. I momentarily made the mistake of reaching a hand down to push myself up but it simply sank a couple of inches below the surface, so I pulled it back out as I realized what I had gotten into.

My secret weapon was prior knowledge about quicksand. The subject had fascinated me as a child (as it had many others my age), and some of the most horrific nightmares I had involved getting sucked down into the ground. So I had read up on it quite a bit as a kid, and discovered quicksand is basically liquified sand or mud caused by underground water moving under sand or mud particles, rendering them more frictionless, making it unsuitable for holding heavy objects.

I also had read about getting OUT of quicksand, so I went into action. First, I jettisoned the cable, tossing it back towards the clumps of grass skirting this stretch of quicksand. Then, I lay back onto the quicksand. This sounds counter-intuitive, but the articles I’d read urged you to act as if floating on water. Sure enough, I did not sink down any by laying on my back, and instead could slowly lift one leg at a time to lie on the surface as well. Once I had both legs up, I proceeded to roll over to where the growing grass indicated more solid ground and got up. Angrily, I stalked back to the truck where Dave the driver sat.

“You got a lotta goddam nerve sending me into quicksand without even telling me!”
“Would you have gone in there if I did?”
“That’s why I didn’t tell you — somebody’s gotta do it.”
Right then we heard a racket from near where I’d just been stuck. “That’s probably Tito — we sent him in after you.”

Sure enough, the screams I could hear were mixed English and Spanish, indicating not just that Tito was yelling but he was panicking. I ran back to find Tito stuck up to his thighs and thrashing around wildly and screaming obscenities as one of the older crew guys stood about 15 feet away from him saying, ‘Now, Tito…you just got to calm down. Stop throwing your body around like that, boy, you’ll just sink faster — Tito, you’re not doing yourself any good doing that.”

“Well, you’re not doing him any good either!” I said and stepped past him, yes, back into the quicksand, and reached a hand to Tito. Together we worked our way out of the muck and back onto solid ground.

So take it from me — treading quicksand is NOT recommended, not in the literal sense certainly, but also not metaphorically. Sometimes we find ourselves struggling with a difficulty and somehow just managing to make it worse with everything we do. We think if we can just keep struggling, somehow, we’ll break though — when sometimes, we’re really just treading quicksand.

Disentangle yourself carefully — here’s an expert to show you how:


Next time, watch where you’re stepping!



About bullersbackporch

I am a native Austinite, a high-tech Luddite, lover of music, movies and stories and a born trainer-explainer.
This entry was posted in Buller, Learning, life & death and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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