A bucket of
Community sees what Ben
|By Kehn Gibson Klamath Courier
Editor Published 10 Nov. 2004
Photos by Pat Ratliff
Standing in the fading light outside his
family's homestead, Ben DuVal pauses for a
moment, leaning against the crutches that have
become a part of his life.
"You know, I have a silver bucket in there," he says, nodding
towards the house. "It's from the town of Malin,
and it's filled with cards, letters, checks,
what ever the townsfolk thought I would need.
'Bucket of love' is painted on the outside."
Ben DuVal loads hay with his new
A strange combination of strength
and humility cross the young DuVal's face as he
looks to the south, where he and his wife Erika hope
to plant 87 acres of alfalfa next year.
"I can never thank them all," he says.
The grandson of homesteader Gaylord DuVal, Ben Duval is
24 years old. Four years ago, he was returning from
a party in Klamath Falls when he flew over a
railroad junction on Yost Road just north of
Tulelake and into a stand of trees.
"I don't remember much about that," Ben said. "I was pretty well
The crash left DuVal without a truck, and a serious scar scripting
his left cheek.
"He has used up three of his lives," Erika says. "That was the
A year later, Ben was working in his shop when an explosion left
him with second- and third-degree burns across his
| "That was No. 2," Erika
said. "I grew up here all my life, and I never
thought I left, you know, an impression on
anybody," Ben said. "I was just running around,
He left an impression on Erika, who before she began teaching at
Henley High School had a job as a pump jockey at Merrilee's Shell station in Merrill.
"He started coming in pretty often," Erika says, her green eyes
smiling. "He bought a lot of $5 gas."
"Well, that's all I needed at the time," Ben says, flushing
slightly. "Nowadays that won't even get me home".
The couple married in December 2002. Erika began teaching at
Henley, while Ben kept working for farmer
Laurence Bagg of Malin
A married man for 11 months, on Nov. 14, 2003 Ben drove Erika's
1989 Dodge flatbed to MacArthur to get it smog
tested for relicensing. At 4:30 that afternoon, he
called Erika to let her know he was coming home.
It was a cold afternoon, a gray sky spitting rain that threatened
to turn to snow as Ben, traveling less than 55 miles
per hour, approached a slight bend on the road known
locally as Lookout Cutoff Road.
The ice-slickened road grabbed the Dodge, flinging it into the
trees on the high side of the bend.
"I remember getting bounced around pretty good," Ben said, then
paused. "It is very hard for me to think of that
The truck came to rest about 100 feet into the forest, the front
end facing the highway. The trees had pummeled the
truck, breaking out the windshield and crushing the
driver's side door.
That impact had mangled Ben's left leg. He also suffered a broken
back in the crash, though at the time the back pain
worried him far less than the bleeding.
"I knew I was hurt pretty good," Ben said. "I thought I might bleed
out, but after a while the bleeding slowed down."
Ben remembers being conscious for some time after the crash, and
feeling a mighty thirst take hold. It had started to
snow, and he quenched his thirst by sweeping the
gathering snow from the dashboard and eating it.
"I could see cars driving by on the road, and even thought of
crawling out the passenger door," Ben said. "I'm
lucky I didn't, because with a broken back I would
have never made it."
Ben found a pile of coats behind the seat, placed there by Erika
so she could take her class out to cut Christmas
boughs. Dragging them over his body, Ben worked to
"I was okay, a little wet maybe," Ben said. "I was worried to death
As darkness fell, the snow quietly coated the white-colored Dodge.
A wife's strength
By 6 p.m., Erika was worried that Ben had not returned. By 9.p.m.,
she and Ben's father, Randy, had left the house to
go looking for Ben.
They drove all the way to MacArthur, Erika said. Finding no sign,
the two retraced their path and drove slowly home.
It was snowing in the hills, the 90 miles of road
filled with dark and foreboding. Randy DuVal said he
was concerned, but not as much as Erika was that
"You know, I've raised three boys, and you learn not to get too
excited too early," Randy said. "She was pretty
concerned, but I kept figuring he would show up."
Erika had a premonition during the search.
"At that very bend I remember telling myself that some rancher
would probably find him," Erika said, her eyes
shading what the premonition suggested about the
condition the rancher might find Ben in. "I knew he
had been in a wreck, but I convinced myself that Ben
was out screwing around."
When asked why, the fire in Erika flashed her strength.
"Because that kept him alive, in spite of what I knew had
happened," Erika said. "Besides, thinking that got
me a few hours of sleep out of the deal."
In the morning, Erika called Randy again, as the two planned to
renew their search. Their plans were interrupted by
a call from Mrs. Maddox.
Two strangers meet
Matt Maddox has managed the Quail Valley Ranch for
years. Among his duties are looking for strays on
the ranch's 5,000 acres, and that job had Maddox
driving along Lookout Cutoff Road early that
Noticing on his first pass through the slight bend that gravel had
been tossed onto the road, Maddox made a mental note
to check the area more closely on his return trip.
"We were out a few cows, and they tend to drift in to the fences
along that stretch when the weather turns bad,"
Maddox told the Klamath Courier. "I didn't know what
the gravel meant. It might have been nothing, it
might have been a cow hit by a car during the night.
A man has to check."
Pulling over at the bend, Maddox began looking around and spotted
a crumpled white Dodge sitting upright a ways back
into the trees.
"My first thought was I was glad I didn't ride it in there," Maddox
said. "I was thinking I hoped the guy they had
hauled out of there was okay when I saw this hand
wave at me through the open windshield."
Getting over his shock, Maddox said he hiked to the truck to find
Ben not only conscious, but solidly so.
"I couldn't believe he was so coherent," Maddox said. "He wanted me
to call his wife, but I told him that I'd better
call 911 first."
In the twenty minutes it took for an ambulance to arrive from Fall
River, one of Maddox's buckaroos arrived and asked
the ranch manager what he was doing.
"I told him I was helping that guy down in the truck," Maddox said.
"He looked around for a few minutes then asked me,
'What truck?' "
Ben had spent nearly 14 hours in the Dodge.
After calling 911, Maddox called his wife at Quail Valley Ranch,
and told her to call Erika at the number Ben had
given him. At about 8 a.m., Erika got the call.
A community responds
It began even before Ben was
admitted to the U.C. Davis Medical Center in
Calls of support came in waves. Family and friends regularly fed
the small cattle herd Ben and Erika had started.
Feed bills disappeared, and Erika found herself
being told not to worry about things like telephone
and power bills.
Erika kept by Ben's side, learning the complicated procedures
practiced by the nurses and doctors, not to do them
herself but to understand what her husband was
The massive damage to Ben's leg was not the issue, it was the
infection that raged in him that continually
threatened to kill him. Finally, Erika made the
decision to allow doctors to amputate Ben's left
"I made the decision and didn't think twice about it," Erika said,
her fire returning. "Ben and I had talked about it,
so I knew he had processed the possibility."
Once the decision had been made, the speed of Ben's recovery was
"amazing," Erika said.
Ben came home to the Basin Feb. 6.
The communities they grew up in matched the spirit of Ben and
Erika. A wedding reception planned for Dec. 18, more
than a month after the crash, became a fundraiser
for the young couple, as caterer Norman Small
donated the food and every attendee paid for their
meal. The last day of business for Papa T's in Malin
before the venerable restaurant changed hands was
spent with customers standing nearly
shoulder-to-shoulder. Every dime earned that day
went towards the couple's mounting medical bills.
And the bills are a mountain. To date, the total is more than $3.5
million, and the bills are still arriving.
Erika said the staff at U.C. Davis took a center role in
negotiating with insurance companies, and Ben said
the numbers on the bottom of the bills are so big he
cannot allow himself to worry.
When spring hit the Basin this year, Laurence and Sarah Bagg bought
a tractor. A new John Deere, it arrived in May and
was outfitted with an expensive accessory equipping
the tractor with hand controls.
"We wanted Ben to be able to do what ever he felt capable of
doing," said Sarah Bagg. "It was a good thing for
both - Ben could do what he wanted, and we could
keep Ben as an employee."
"It felt so good to get out there and work," Ben said. "It is all I
have ever wanted to do, and it felt good to get back
A local implement dealer backed Ben on the purchase of a hay
squeeze this September, allowing Ben to start a
business. Currently, Ben is picking up work with his
long time employer, the Baggs.
"I hope people will call Ben to load their trucks," Sarah Bagg
said. "He is good, and he is fast."
Bagg said a lot of people are watching the DuVals with pride.
"There are very few young couples who want to farm, and Ben and
Erika want to do just that," Bagg said. "Ben's
accident really brought Tulelake, Malin and Merrill
together in many ways."
Meant for each other
Ben and Erika have put a
down payment on the DuVal family homestead, and the
hopes and dreams of a young farming couple are being
manifested in the Tule Lake Basin.
| Erika said she has
never thought of leaving Ben.
"We had goals and plans that, in my mind, we still hadn't
accomplished," Erika said, her fire flashing.
"The thought never crossed my mind, not for a
"Basically I'm fine, I just lost a leg," Ben said. "You just can't
give up, because if you do you are done."
When asked how the experience has changed him, Ben goes silent.
"Do you want to say it, or shall I use girly words?" Erika asks
him. He nods.
"He is more compassionate," Erika says. "He understands people's
situations, and he looks for ways to help."
"I'm a lot more open minded," Ben says. "I have a new awareness of
people, an understanding of what it means when
bad things happen. I've been there. This
community helped me do that."
The couple lock eyes for as moment, not sure how to continue.
"So many people did so many
things to help us," Ben said. "We tried to thank
them all, but we couldn't. Some things were done
without us knowing who the people were, and we will
probably never know."
."People tell me its good for them to see me out working and doing
things," Ben continues. "I thank God I'm here."
A powerful moment passes in the DuVal dining room as Ben looks at
his wife."She is a strong girl," he says softly.
"She is why I didn't give up."
Ben continues a regular regimen of physical therapy, and wanted
to make special note of Luke Klaja of Klamath Falls.
"He understands what my body can do, what I want to
do, and what I'm capable of," Ben said.