I was supposed to leave Sunday. I was actually hoping to leave Saturday. Neither were the case.
At five o’clock Monday morning, I left Fort Lauderdale for Panama City. It would be a couple hours out of the way but I couldn’t come that close and not say hello to my little sister. Within a few hours, I noticed that the truck was starting to run hot. Fantastic. Much of the cooling system had been replaced just eight months ago and I had never noticed it heating up after that, so this was a disappointing start to my months-long road trip. Slowing down brought the temperature down, so I dialed it back to 60 mph and carried on. I had to be in Salt Lake City by Wednesday night, meaning I had forty hours of driving to do in three days. I didn’t have much of a choice.
Cruising along under the speed limit the next day was tedious, but it worked. Eventually I was reminded that I could blast the heat to keep the temperature down, so I switched my method and picked up the pace. I was about to be off-roading in the desert and the last thing I wanted to do was get stuck on the trail, so when I got to Albuquerque late Wednesday morning I stopped at a local Nissan dealership and told them exactly what had been happening. That was a mistake.
Three hours and $120 later, they couldn’t figure out what was causing the truck to run hot. I told them it only happened at speed, but apparently that didn’t register. So instead of fixing what I came in for, they unfixed a problem that had already been fixed and lost the rubber hose that kept my wind deflector from rattling against the roof. Five minutes after I left I took it back and told them to change it back to how it was. They fixed the timing, found my hose and I was on my way.
The next morning we set course for Moab. I had arrived in Salt Lake sometime after 2:00 AM, but managed to get enough sleep to press on. The previous three days had been over twelve hours of driving each, and the next few were not going to give me or the truck a break.
We were off the pavement by mid-afternoon. FINALLY. This trip had been an on-and-off plan for months, and for a while it didn’t seem like it was going to happen. It wasn’t until Griff and I made some official plans that I decided to use this as a starting point to shoot for Alaska. So far that goal seems pretty far out of reach.
Entering the trail from Potash Road, it took us a while to get to the national park boundary. Before we even got there, Griff dumped the bike in the sand and the kill switch got stuck in the “kill” position. Off to a great start.
After disassembling, cleaning, and reassembling the kill switch we were on our way. The DRZ was obviously much faster on the trail than the Xterra, especially when the Xterra was loaded with everyone’s crap that I didn’t want to break, so Bob and I told Griff to go ahead and we’d meet up every once in a while. It seemed unfair to keep him on a leash.
Sometime around eight o’clock we made it to our campsite. The bike was there but the rider was nowhere to be found, so we met our fellow Airport campers who told us he had wandered off toward the canyon a while before. I found him laying on a rock where he’d been waiting for us for over an hour. The sun and moon shared lighting duties as we set up camp, and with that we were in for the night.
As the cool desert night gave way to a warm and sunny morning, we broke camp and continued to move. We had a long day ahead of us; since we were not able to reserve another campsite on the trail, we had to be off that night and find another somewhere in Moab. But the longer the day went, the less we wanted to spend another night camping. The X had been running well, and it seemed like we would easily be back in town by dark. Bob and I would soon realize that we’d be camping on the trail again whether we liked it or not.
I have to admit, I’m not much of an off-roader. I don’t have a problem with it; in fact, I bought this truck specifically so I could tackle some trails when I took my last trip. I just don’t leave the pavement much. This trail seemed pretty easy though. Maybe not easy, just not technically challenging. It is long, and that made it somewhat tedious, but if you know how and when to put your vehicle into four wheel drive it shouldn’t be tough.
And then we got to a section called Hardscrabble Hill.
Hardscrabble is steep, twisty, and full of very fine, soft sand. Most of the trail thus far had been a sightseeing excursion, whereas this required a little more concentration. Again, not overly challenging, but definitely forced you to pay attention to what you were doing.
We began our descent at the end of Hardscrabble, over ninety miles from where we started in Moab. And then we heard the thud.
“That’s not good,” Bob said to me as the truck dropped hard off a ledge and stalled.
We got out to assess the situation and found a very large rock wedged under the passenger lower control arm.
I thought to myself, “Where the hell did that come from? How could I have missed that?”
I’m still not sure exactly how it happened. I must’ve picked a terrible line. That’s the only explanation I can come up with. The front end came down on this ledge and seemingly broke off a very large chunk of it. The truck didn’t look damaged, so we tried to get it off.
Unfortunately, the only tool I had remotely qualified for the job was an ax. I used to joke about the mall-crawlers that drove around with their hi-lift jacks, shovels and Maxtrax always strapped to their rigs, ready to winch their way out of the Starbucks parking lot when necessary. I will be keeping my mouth shut from now on.
“Well this sucks, but no big deal, we saw plenty of rigs pass us on the trail. Someone will come by eventually,” we thought. We got stuck around five o’clock Friday evening, and by dark we were wondering where the hell everybody was.
We “slept” in the front seats that night. We didn’t want to set up camp in the middle of the trail, for fear of someone barreling around a corner and not seeing us until it was too late. Early the next morning a few mountain bikers came across our stuck rig and tried to help, only to have that rock laugh in our faces. We had no cell service, so they offered to alert the park rangers that we were stuck. Still thinking that plenty of Jeeps would be along in the next hour or two, we declined and they were on their way. It wasn’t until the rest of their group came by us later that we took them up on the offer.
We had managed to move the truck twice: jacking, digging under the tires, adding rocks for traction, punching it, digging the other tires in, repeat. The rock moved from the lower control arm to the frame, then from the frame to the rear leaf spring, but all attempts after that were fruitless.
When I did my national park run four years ago, my parents bought me a Spot GPS tracker. I loathed the idea of them keeping track of my every move but it grew on me when I started using it to map out the trip. I never had to use the emergency buttons, and did NOT want to have to use them now. But we were not ready to be stuck for more than a day. We had food and water, and I had tablets to treat water in case we ran out, but it wasn’t looking promising for much longer. We had already been there for over twelve hours and we did not want to be there another twenty-four.
By ten o’clock Saturday morning it was getting hot, and since nobody had passed us except the mountain bikers, we caved. I pushed the non-emergency button. Little did we know (although we had hoped), around that same time Griff had already come across a park ranger who had been alerted to our situation. By 11:30 Brooke was walking up the trail to greet us.
She was walking with her mountain bike because, unbeknownst to us, the trail was washed out a couple miles ahead of where we were stuck. Any thought of fording that wash left my mind when she told us it was forty-four inches deep in some spots. This was where I REALLY started to feel like an idiot. I know better than that. I know that flooding is common in the desert. I know that trails get washed out. I know I should have checked the trail conditions, because we were just learning that the trail had been washed out for weeks and I should have known that before touching the dirt.
So we had two options: wait with the Xterra for a tow, which would take at least six hours, or hope that someone else would come by; or walk to the wash, wade across, and ride back in Brooke’s truck where Griff was waiting. We walked.
At quarter to five the next morning, we were riding with Chris, a local tow yard operator, in his King Ranch F-150 to pull the X out. Since the trail was washed out and there are no shortcuts, we had to go in the long way, and we had to be in and out in a day. It was going to be a long one.
We made it to my truck around 11:30, and about thirty seconds after arriving on scene it was free. Chain up, pull, and off. Easy as that. The interior was filthy, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to be off that damn trail and I had seven hours of driving ahead of me.
Driving back was easy, and gave us plenty of time to reflect on what happened. Would more tools have helped? Maybe, but not without having all of them. A shovel. At least two, probably three traction pads. A better jack. A winch wouldn’t have helped because there was nothing to winch against. Extra gas, because I was already under half a tank when we got stuck, so even if we hadn’t gotten stuck we wouldn’t have made it back before running out. Was I really paying that little attention, or did the ledge just deceive me? I’d like to think the latter, but can’t argue against the former. Overall, though, I’d say I’ve learned my lesson:
Don’t be a dumbass.
I cannot begin to thank the staff at Canyonlands enough, specifically park rangers Brooke and Cody, as well as Chris at Nation’s Towing in Moab. Everybody was extremely helpful and made this about as easy for us as possible.