We thought Death Valley was going to be the ultimate test. I mean... it has “death” right there in the name right? We were so wrong. In part four of our overland cheap car challenge, our three cheap cars are faced with the toughest challenge yet: The Grand Canyon.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “That place where people go to wait in line take selfies? That was hard on the cars!?” And yes, it very well might have been as at least one of us probably would have overheated... but no. We did the other side of the Grand Canyon, specifically the part known as the Arizona Strip.
But I am getting ahead of myself....
Way back in 2017 my friends and I went on our second “cheap car challenge” road trip. The plan was to fly to Sacramento, buy cheap 4x4s, and take them on a 1,800 mile adventure through California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah using unpaved and unimproved roads as much as possible.
As of last writing, we bought cars, got a taste of what was to come outside of Tahoe, got some dignity back near Bodie, had a blast in Death Valley, and were just now rolling in to Las Vegas.
The delay in finishing the saga is me (A) not being very good at video editing and (B) releasing the videos and articles at the same time. So here is the video that has been holding up this story for two years!
Words cannot express how bad we fucked up here.
Imagine you’re in your warm, comfortable bed, drifting in and out of sleep. Then, without warning, you get transported into the middle of a crowded nightclub, still in your pajamas. As the warmth of your bed fades, the loud music pierces into your soul, and the strobing lights dazzle you wonder how you got to this horrible place.
That was about how it felt for me going from Death Valley to Las Vegas. Since leaving Sacramento we’d barely seen other cars, let alone people, so this was... a lot.
Don’t get me wrong dance clubs, street food, and copious amounts of alcohol (though not in that order) just fine. But this was jarring and the opposite of restful.
Ahh right. When we last left off I’d separated from the others to go to the airport and pick up a “surprise”. For context, George’s birthday is/was the day after we were due to leave Vegas. His best friend since middle school who no longer lives near George, Spencer, was near Vegas for work, so he made the trip to surprise George as an early birthday present.
Not the best cliffhanger to end the last video on, but you work with what you’ve got.
Needless to say, George was both surprised and elated. Since Spencer moved away they don’t get to spend much time together. They spent the night playing blackjack and catching up, while the rest of us went to bed and tried to forget we were in Vegas.
Not really covered in the video, but we did spend a whole day in Vegas doing... stuff.
First off, I dropped off the Land Rover at Safelite to get a couple chips from Death Valley repaired. Since I’d already decided to keep this car, I figured it would be in my best interests to try and save the expensive-looking heated windshield.
When the Safelite guy came out, he mentioned he used to be a mechanic that worked on stuff like that. He said something along the lines of “I used to work on a lot of these. Not old ones, mind you. You never really see any old ones.”
That done, we hit the strip for some shopping, eating, and light drinking, returning hours later to a freshly sealed windshield.
The next day, Spencer safely deposited back at the airport, we packed up and headed out of Vegas. The ride out wasn’t as easy as it looks in the video, however. Having grossly underestimated the number of snacks Charlie could put away, our two week supply had lasted less than a week and we needed to top off. On the way out we hit a grocery store, gas station, and pawn shop. The latter because Taylor was still trying to get rid of the massive subwoofer that came with the 4Runner.
As with any stop, it took way longer than we expected, and when we finally got on the road again we were pretty firmly behind scheduled.
Soon enough, however, we reached Hoover Dam. What happened next... I’m not proud of.
For whatever reason, likely due to the HUGE footlocker in the back the the Land Rover that holds all of our tools and camera stuff, I got flagged for “additional screening” at the security check point. Shortly after pulling over they inquired if I had firearms in the car. I answered truthfully, yes in locked cases in the back of the car, and was directed to leave immediately and not come back.
I’d done a ton of research on the topic before deciding to get a concealed carry permit and bring firearms on this trip. It was not a decision I took lightly. Anyway, I guess I’d missed the part where you couldn’t bring firearms near Hoover Dam. I’d assumed all national parks had the same rules (fine, but not in buildings) or that Nevada’s “laws” were somehow going to help (pretty much do whatever).
I have slight objection to this on the basis that they only asked, seemingly relying on my honesty? Maybe they would have searched my car or my person. Who knows. Also George had fifteen gallons of gasoline on the roof of his car, but that was totally cool.
Either way, it was my mistake and deeply embarrassing.
We moved on.
We took Lakeside Road along Lake Meade, a beautiful drive which had surprisingly few lake views, given the name.
Eventually we arrived at Valley of Fire State Park and immediately noticed three things: beauty, signs, and honey buckets.
Seriously, as beautiful as this place was, it seems like they spent the entirety of every years’ budget erecting signs and places to poop.
No parking on shoulder.
No camping on shoulder.
Watch for pedestrians.
They went on and on and on, rather spoiling the view and certainly giving the impression that Nevada loved its rules.
After navigating the maze of signs and shitters, we found the trail we were looking for: White Domes Trail.
The hike was beautiful, but also shared the park’s general love of signs. That said, I did find my favorite sign ever:
That’s right. Your stacked rocks are graffiti and should be reported. I’m 98% against these things and could probably write a whole series on them, but needless to say I was pretty excited.
Anyway, here are some pictures of the hike!
After the White Domes Trail we hit the Silica Dome, resting place of Captain Kirk in Star Trek Generations.
Then we were headed to our tacky tasteless horrible interesting accommodations for the evening:
George specifically chose this place for his birthday with grand ideas of playing cheap blackjack into the wee hours and semi-responsible drinking.
This did not happen.
Mostly because we were tired, but also because all the cheap tables were packed with people and all the $50+ tables were empty. You’d think they would have figured that one out, but after trolling the floor for a half hour, we bailed back to the room to watch some Better Off Ted and toast to another year on the planet.
I’ve said many parts of this trip would be the “ultimate test”. Death Valley is a beautiful but utterly inhospitable place and we survived. Vegas is... well roughly the same but a little less beautiful. After surviving that, Tahoe, and Bodie, we thought we were in the clear. I mean... the route we were taking is on Google Maps! How bad could it be!?
A lot of roads are on Google Maps, come to find out.
We got a late start out, but as the road became less paved and and more gravel, then eventually dirt, we got gradually more exited. Today we were doing the Grand Canyon! Not the touristy side either. The North Rim!
Our route took us past something that was marked “This Cistern” on my maps. It sounds interesting, if a bit ominous, so we stopped.
Turns out it was just that, a water collection device built... at some point, to water cattle. It has since been abandoned, but made a cool place to kill a little time.
I mean... we didn’t have that far to go and plenty of time to do it.
Then things got weird.
I was leading in the Land Rover, heading for BLM 111 which we were planning on taking the whole way there. None of us remember exactly what spooked us. Taylor remembers a ton of no-trespassing signs. I remember a makeshift gateway and signs of occupation. George remembers an actual roadblock of sorts. The video doesn’t really show... much of anything, to be honest. Whatever the cause, we apparently all had the same feeling: Nope! It was an odd thing too, because going back through our dashcam footage I have no record of us discussing turning around. We just all knew to.
It wouldn’t be until I was doing research for official trip record, after the trip was long over, that I discovered that the area we were driving though was the epicenter of the first Bundy Standoff. Yeah... from the news.
Turning around felt like letting the terrorists win, but our safety procedures were clear: If we encounter any type of road block or resistance, we politely and quickly depart, get to a safe distance, and then re-plan.
We did just that, and did not encounter any trouble.
Unfortunately, come to find out that road was pretty critical to our plans. Though there are a lot of roads in the area and ours were chosen pretty much at random, our options were to add a couple hours getting back on-route, or make a completely new route.
We opted for the latter.
What followed was a beautiful drive that would push our (lack of) driving skills to the limit.
As we trundled along our new route, the difficulty gradually ramped up until I wasn’t sure we could make it any further.
Unfortunately, as we’d just done a very challenging drive up some narrow switchbacks, turning around wasn’t an option. Believe me, we would have if we could have.
We had to try for it.
The lack of other viable options certainly added to the tension, but after doing a walk down the trail to make sure it didn’t get any worse, I lined up the Land Rover and went for it.
I couldn’t make it.
I kept slipping on the rocks and just peeling out.
Finally, in frustration, I gave it some gas. This, as it turns out, was the missing component to driving the Land Rover.
(I would like to stress that we knew nothing about offroading before this trip. Open diffs, traction control, locking center... just words. This was semi-intentional, but in retrospect we made a lot of newb mistakes.)
Anyway, turns out the way the 4WD is set up in the Land Rover it really needs the wheels to spin in order for the brakes to effectively transfer power. When I gave it gas, I allowed the wheels to slip enough to catch the wheels and BAM, I was up.
The Jeep was next and I am annoyed to say he made it look... easy. Just sort of trundled up in his bald street tires. This sealed my deep respect for the ZJ, to be honest.
Then Taylor was up and he was having similar problems to me, except he was driving stick.
After a couple of failed attempts, he too got frustrated and
attempted to launch his car into space gave it enough gas to power though. Anyone there would swear to you we saw him catch some air, but either way, he was up.
Wait... we still have like... four hours of driving between us and the end!?
I’m happy to say the remainder of the day was very pretty and mostly easy.
The remainder of the day was.
Bad. It was bad. The final section of the drive, BLM 1063, dropped about 350 feet per mile for about three miles. Pitch black, unkempt switchbacks threatened to send our tired bodies and the cars they inhabited doing into an unforgiving ravine. But, against all odds, we made it to the bottom and a quick drive put us at our overnight halt: Bar 10 Ranch.
We’d called them a earlier on the sat phone to let them know we were running late and they didn’t have to wait up.
But they did.
As soon as I pulled in, ahead of the others by a few minutes due to a pack of wild horses (that isn’t a metaphor or a euphemism), the workers (ranch hands?) fired up the grill, cooked us some steaks, and laid out a much appreciated dinner spread. They even let us crack open a bottle of wine to help dull reality a little, though they declined to join.
Afterwards, we drank by the fire while the ranch hands played guitar in the end to an imperfect perfect day.
The next morning we awoke in our covered wagons to the sound of the ranch triangle ringing.
Did I not mention we were staying in covered wagons on a dude ranch?
We were staying in covered wagons on a dude ranch.
Turns out that is basically your only option in this area and it was the correct choice.
While the others showered I did some investigating. I had my suspicions that there was a problems with the Land Rover’s brakes. You see, I’d been hearing a clanging noise since we’d starting getting on the rough stuff. I’d been ignoring it as nothing seemed amiss, assuming it was a loose exhaust mount or something. However, on the way in to the Grand Canyon I’d notice the sound went away whenever I hit the brakes.
Rooting around with the front calipers confirmed my suspicions: my caliper was loose.
More specifically the right front caliper had lost one of the caliper slide bolts and the carrier was hinging on the other one. Unfortunately, the bolt was nowhere to be found, so my only option was to pretend it wasn’t a problem. I mean... it’d made it this far...
So, we packed up and headed to the Grand Canyon. When we told they staff we were planning on driving to the rim they were both confused and worried. Confused because, apparently, most people make the drive in ATVs, not cars, and worried because of the same.
We stuck out and pretty quickly learned why. The road wasn’t as hard as a lot of the stuff we’d done the day before, but it was consistently rough, slow going.
None of us have ever been to the south rim, but from where we were standing, there was no way we’d want to. We were literally the only people there!
After admiring for a bit, one of our group convinced us to try and make the hike into the canyon.
We didn’t make it all the way down, but we also didn’t die so.... win.
Actually that is a pretty good summary of the last couple of days: We’re still alive and the cars are still alive. We are winning this game.
All photos were taken by myself or Taylor. Please do not reuse without permission.