How I Spent My Summer Vacation

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

by Dave Connors

Miss Scoville -9th Grade Honors English

 

Remember those? Summer vacations? Days on end of doing nothing. Building forts in the field. Hours spent refining jumps for your BMX bike in an abandoned gravel pit. Water balloon wars. BB gun wars. Toilet papering and sneaking out late. Riding your skateboard to all three 7-11s in South Davis County for Slurpees in one day. Or was that just me? How nice it would be to get three months off every summer to just play. I didn’t quite just play. Nor did I get three months but I did my best to enjoy my summer vacation to the fullest.

Let’s start with my job. More than likely if you’re reading this you have a basic understanding of my job. If you don’t I’ll wrap it up quickly. I work from home. And hotels. And airports. I travel a portion of about 24 weeks a year.  When I’m not traveling I work from home. I rarely shower or shave and wear shorts and flip-flops pretty much every day. It’s not bad. It’s better than not bad, I really love my job. I’m enabled to just get my job done and aside from conference calls I get to do it on my terms. If I have to build a presentation or melt my brains and eyeballs with massive spreadsheets I can do it when I choose. (Usually midnight on the latter when all the din and distraction of the day are gone.) All my job really requires is a phone, an internet connection and an immense amount of intelligence and skill. Okay scrap those last two. Each summer my travel schedule has a huge lull. I’m actually home for about 6 weeks straight. (I also get that in Dec/Jan.) Because my needs are basic and my skill level is adequate I can do my job from anywhere I have a reliable connection. My trip to Hawaii earlier this year to check off my 50th state was technically me working from home. I’ve had the occasional work day from a desert campsite or friend’s couch out of state. Between my AT&T cell phone and a borrowed (thanks Matt Russell) Verizon MiFi I knew I could take my home office to Alaska for a month. Yes there were one or two 5am conference calls and many a long day sitting in the same parking lot for 8-10 hours getting work done. However, in the land of the midnight sun, and an early start, by 2pm local time I was free to explore the wonders of Alaska and visit some old haunts until the wee hours of the fully lit morning. Was it the perfect trip to Alaska? No but it was a hell of a lot better than not going.

 

Next up, distance. I was gone 25 days from Utah. I drove 9193.1 miles in that 3.5 weeks. Yes a lot. But not really. Because of all the other things I want to do with my vacation time (Although a major one recently fell through) my goal was to do Alaska without using a vacation day. Some more background.  This would be my 7th trip driving between Utah and Alaska. Some trips taking as many as 3 weeks just to get to AK. I’ve also traveled quite a few times in BC and Alberta. This trip was about Alaska not about the amazing landscape between here and there. I had Friday July 3rd off for the holiday, with approximately 2500 miles between me and Skagway. My goal was to get there by start of business Monday morning. Even with the slower speeds it wasn’t difficult. I made it by Sunday evening. That included half a day of hiking around White Pass, BC. Having lived all over the state over the course of a 6 year stretch the rough plan was to visit all those areas. Stay in each for a few days or a week and use the weekends to move between locations.  On most maps Alaska is skewed small.  It’s huge.  To drive from Anchorage to Fairbanks is slightly shorter than SLC to Vegas but also a bit slower.  But let’s call it similar.  And that is one of the shorter/easier drives to make.  Originally I had no plans to go to Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay. I’d done the trip in 2002 and thought my time would be better spent exploring other areas. However, after a friend who works on the North Slope expressed interest in making the drive home with me I decided it was worth making the haul up the Dalton. So while 9k miles seems like a lot, if you consider I did about 5500 of those in 7 days I had plenty of down time while in Alaska.  Why don’t I break it out in chunks?

SLC-Haines via Juneau. July 2- 9

Got out of town before rush hour traffic.  Helped some stranded people on the side of the road just north of Idaho Falls. They’d hit a moose but not killed it. They were waiting for the sheriff to come finish it off. I took the mom back to their house to get their other car so they could get their kids home. Her brother in law was currently serving and LDS mission in Alaska. Small world. Slept in the back of my car near the Canadian border.

Woke early, crossed the border and drove. All day.  Through Calgary, Banff, Jasper, Prince George, Burns Lake (where I once slept on the ground, in a parking lot, at -18) and to the start of the Cassiar Highway.  Long day on amazing roads through some of the most scenic landscape on the planet.  Well that I’ve seen with my own two eyes.  Slept in the back of Amie.

Woke early, hit the Cassiar. Kept waiting for the washboard and potholes. Never came. Got gas at a truck stop. The cashier was from a tiny little town in Chilean Patagonia. She about passed out when I told her in Spanish I’d spent a night in her home town. Drove some more.  Gravel never came but the frost heaves did. Still made great time. Took twilight photos of the Carcross Dunes. Camped on the Canadian side of White Pass.  Slept in my car.

Woke late, took pics. Went hiking. Took pics. Got really scratched up bushwacking through the alder. Took pics. Knocked down about 500 worthless cairns stacked by idiots. Took pics.  Crossed into the US and down to Skagway.  Between BC, YT and AK there were almost 200 wildfires burning in July. The air quality was horrible but I didn’t care. I was back in Alaska. Couldn’t find LTE service anywhere so checked into an expensively cheap motel to get WiFI. Got dinner and a ferry reservation to Juneau. Explored town and went to bed.

Woke very early, and worked. Took lunch, 10am, got some breakfast and ice cream, back to the hotel to work some more. Check out. Had a con call on the banks of a river and worked. Back up to White Pass. More hiking and pic taking. Back into town. Spotted an FJ45 and chatted with some Pan-American travels. Some from Sweden, Some from Germany. Got on the ferry about midnight. Took some pics on the ride down to Juneau. Found a place to park and slept in the back of the car.

Woke early. Worked. Went to the Mendenhall Lake

You know what. Enough of that travel log how about some observations.

Tourist trap tshirts are shockingly cheap. I now own 4.

I hardly recognized downtown Juneau. It’s changed too much. I don’t like it.

I saw a man on a tread climber on the back of a cruise ship. Parked next to one of the most famous hiking trails in the world.

Witnessing a ruined vacation while an elderly couple argued over whether or not a café in Skagway ‘proudly serving Starbucks’ was the same as a real Starbucks was both sad and extremely hilarious. Okay more of the latter.

Far more bugs in Montana and Idaho than anywhere in Alaska.

Cops told me to avoid “skater’s cabin at 6am as someone was ‘sleeping in there.’ The cheap beer and gas can makes me think ‘sleeping’ is a euphemism.

Loading a ferry is part art, part science. I was very happy the guy loading the M/V Malaspina had both sides of his brain otherwise I may have been stuck in Juneau for a week.

I LOVE Amie. Such an awesome machine to drive. It’s fast, durable, comfortable. Amazing roads and a 2013 Land Cruiser are a match made in heaven.

Ruckus Scooters were all over Skagway

LED lights in your tent are worthless in the Alaskan Summer.

70 degrees in Juneau at 1am? Hmmm.

A LOT of black bears. No brown.

July 9 – 15 Haines to Wasilla

Worked the day in Haines parked near the main harbor.  Left inland Thursday night. Camp in an abandoned gravel pit outside Tok that night. The drive through the Yukon was spectacular. The gluten free banana bread I had in Haines Junction not so much. Tok was blanketed in a thick haze of smoke making the lackluster intersection of the Glenn and Alaska Highways even less enjoyable. I spent all day Friday on calls parked in the shade of a scrubby pine forest in an abandoned parking lot. Not great but better than a cubicle any day.

Hit the road to Valdez that afternoon, excited to make a drive down one of the few highways I’ve not driven in Alaska.   I’ve driven a lot of epic roads. I’ve seen some amazing landscapes. I was blown away on the road down to Valdez.  So much so I forgot who I was and ordered halibut tacos for dinner. Yep seafood.  They were spicy and they were better than decent. I ventured back up into the mountains and found a place to camp. The only downside to what was otherwise a perfect evening was the 24 hour bike race going on. There were support vehicles EVERYWHERE. It took a bit of skill and exploration to find a nice quiet spot.  Weather was perfect so I broke out the tent, built a small fire and soaked it all in. There is always a slight bit of nervousness when camping in bear territory. It takes a while to relax and trust the noises outside the tent.  Eventually I fell asleep. When I woke late the next day I was very rested and not alone. No not a bear. Just 3 or 4 bike racing teams. See what I did there? You were thinking bear. I think I would have preferred one to the neighbors I had. I packed the truck and took off for the Kenai Peninsula. No real plans just play it by ear.

I saw a few more black bears. No grizzlies.

The drive to Anchorage was exquisite. Perfect weather, very little construction and once I left the bike race behind very little traffic. After a quick stop in south Anchorage for food and gas I hit the road south to Kenai.  There is something that draws me to Seward. I’ve never been able to place it but I find it very comfortable and a far better destination than Homer or Kenai.  I wandered around town for an hour or so. Found an awesome map of Alaska to frame and hang on my wall. Found some excellent Salmonberry ice cream the set off to find a place to camp.  After a few false starts I finally stumbled into one of the most scenic campsites I’ve ever had.  I was shocked it was so easily accessible yet solitary. I took pics for a few hours in the lingering daylight, built a small fire, listened to some music and nervously scanned the river’s banks for bear before going to sleep. That night, that campsite, that scenery, that moment alone was worth the effort to drive to Alaska. Again I woke late and hit the road north to Anchorage.

I made a few stops along the way. Kenai Lake, Portage Glacier, the ‘road’ to Whittier through the mountain and found my way to a Hilton Garden Inn near the airport.  Laundry and workload necessitated a few nights in a hotel.  Luckily I have a lot of Hilton Points.

Next few days in Anchorage were rather uneventful but significant. I hadn’t been back since 1998 and I was awash in memories and nostalgia. I drove around and saw all my old apartments. I stopped by all the churches I attended and drove many of the streets I spent days and nights tracting.  Weather was Alaskan. Sunny and rainy and warm and cold and windy and calm and perfect and horrible.  I did some hiking and some tourism and bought a pair of Sanuks. I have issues. Get over it.

Headed north to the Matsu Valley and after striking out on cell coverage where I wanted to camp near the Knik Glacier I finally settled into my sleeping bag in the back of Amie tucked into a quiet corner of a Wasilla Walmart parking lot about 2am.

July 15 – 20 Wasilla to Deadhorse

More thoughts.

Wasilla motels are not cheap but with 45mph winds they are necessary.

Hatcher Pass is still beautiful but no longer charming. Paved roads, parking lots and tourists traps have a way of doing that.

I may or may not have poached wifi from the parking lot of the LDS church in Wasilla where I served as a missionary 20 years ago. Okay I didn’t. I tried but it was too slow for voip calls so I switched back to my phone as a hotspot. Great place to park for the day however.

I found the golf course while wandering around. Had totally forgot I played there back in 94 until I saw it again.

The Matanuska glacier is huge and gorgeous and worth the price of admission.

I’ve known Mark Whatley since the old Land Cruiser Mailing List back in the 90s. It was nice to finally meet him in person.  Exactly what I expected and could have spent days talking to him about Cruisers.

If Mr. Whatley gives you advice on where to camp listen to him.

It’s okay to get a little bit nervous if you’re driving your new to you 2013 Land Cruiser up a river, in the back country of Alaska, far from any town and the water starts splashing over the hood.

Driving your new to you 2013 Land Cruiser up a river, in the back country of Alaska, far from any town with water splashing over the hood is awesome and I highly recommend it.

It rains a lot in Alaska. Sometimes it rains so much you bail on Denali NP because the ceiling is so low you can’t even see the small mountains.

The Hampton Inn is Fairbanks is new and super clean.

Bought a new jacket at REI. I have issues. Get over it.

A lot of the Dalton Highway has been paved in the last 13 years.

I CHIPPED A TRUCK DRIVER’S WINDSHIELD WITH GRAVEL!!!!!  Call it truck drivers 138, Dave 1.  Felt good.

Last time I stopped at the Arctic Circle the bugs destroyed me. This time I had time to make a sandwich.

It rains a lot in Alaska which can also clean the air of smoke. The light and air quality in the Brooks Range was sublime. Heavenly.

Met another dude from the internet for the first time in person. Jeremy Averett welcomed me into the Era Helicopter barracks in Deadhorse with open arms. After about 20mins of talking to him I knew we’d have an awesome time on the way back to Utah. Always a bit unsure in a situation like that but in this case there was no reason to be.

July 20 – 25 Deadhorse to SLC

This stretch was a blur.  Let me see if I can summarize it in a fashion that illustrates it perfectly.  True 24 hours of daylight, multimillion dollar helicopters surrounded by multibillion dollar refineries requiring background checks, confiscated cameras, stealthy reaches into the oddly warm Arctic ocean, gave way to dozens of rainbows and a perfect drive south. Running in circles to escape bugs before diving into tents and laughing at them as they fight to get through the mesh protecting me. Great pancakes, Greg and Kurt launching their insignificant jetboat into the quite significant Yukon River. Fairbanks, Denali, drones, sat-phone calls, Fairbanks. Parking lots, crepes. Excellent crepes. Greg and Kurt back from the significant Yukon River. Fairbanks. Burgers. Perfect night. More rain. More clean air. Tok. Stupid ugly abandoned parking lot in Tok. Phone calls. More overlanders. Alaska highway end. The road. Miles and mile and miles. Rain, rivers and camp. Epic miles. More rainbows. Mile and miles. Alaska highway start.  More miles. Camp in the forest. CANADIAN ROCKIES. Jeremy overwhelmed, can’t take enough pics. I’m overwhelmed. Still amazed and in love with the place despite being there 4 times in the last 18 months. More miles. Lots of blackbears. No grizzlies. Border crossing. Epic sunset. More than epic storm. Mile and Miles. Goodbyes. Sunrise. Amie kicks ass. 3k miles in 4 days.

There are a lot of people who have a similar work situation to mine. Sadly, from my perspective, few take the effort to maximize their situation.  I’ve done 60+ nights in hotels this year.  Many of which are forgettable.  The 24 nights I spent in Alaska on my summer vacation were anything but.

 

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One to Remember

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Two weeks ago was one of the more memorable weeks I’d had in a long time. I flew to JFK, picked up my new to me 2013 Land Cruiser and drove it 3600 in 4 days across 15 states. Add another 1k driven the following weekend while in Hawaii, my 50th state visited, and my mind was filled with memories and thoughts to last for years. Below are just a few of them.

 

Manhattan and the Holland Tunnel was a mistake.   Glad it happened.

Taking conference calls while sitting on the floor at JFK for a few hours was oddly familiar and somewhat pleasant.

First Class upgrade on the red eye to JFK was even more pleasant.  Our pilots made up a 50 min delay in the air. Impressive

Car salesmen in Brooklyn wear 3 piece suits.

Detailers in Brooklyn don’t quite have the same standards as those of us out West. No wonder I got such a good deal on my truck. It was filthy.

I was a hero at the Bay Ridge Toyota. I was introduced to everyone as ‘this is the guy from Utah.’ My arrival was quite the experience.  They’d never heard of such a thing.  Obviously they don’t understand Land Cruiser owners.  Everyone there was super pleasant to work with and very friendly in NYC sort of way.

All Alaskans are awesome. Even those from the Dominican Republic living in Brooklyn.

Bay Ridge Toyota is just like the city around it.  A melting pot of all races, language, nationalities and religions.

Muslims and Mormons both like lots of wives.

Pennsylvania roads are horrible.

Happy Valley is awesome. Stadium is HUGE.

West Virginia roads are fantastic.

Trust in the advice of a friend. It might lead you to back roads that are beautiful and desolate.  My back road route from Indianapolis to Denver was spectacular.  A long and very pleasant day behind the wheel.

Golf, even The Masters, is incredibly boring on the radio.

Despite the popular belief Kansas is gorgeous.  The people there are incredibly pleasant and friendly.

People in Kansas HATE abortion. I’ve never seen so many billboards on one topic.

A 200 Series Land Cruiser is a thing of beauty.

Even the interstate system holds some gems. I still find I-70 From Denver to I-15 a great drive.

White Death is an amazing friend who gets it. Glad to share the road with him from Green River to Newport and back to SLC in day. Sadly RCD couldn’t join us.

The stars at night, are big and bright, deep in the heart of the Mojave.

29 Palms = tattoos

Not everyone should own a smart phone.

Pancakes are always good.

Newport is too.

Thrifty Ice Cream as close as Vegas is fantastic.

Happy with my new truck.

First Class upgrades to Hawaii are nice.

4am conference calls are not as bad as they sound when you consider the 4 hour time change.

Walking almost 50 miles in 4 days in Chaco Flip Flops is a breeze.

The beach bores me and the ocean steals my sunglasses.

Lava flows do not.

9pm is not too early to go to bed.

It’s a shame the Chevy Camaro is so ugly and uncomfortable because it’s pretty fun to drive with the traction control off. It’s also quite capable as an off road rig. (don’t tell Avis)

People in Hawaii love a yellow Camaro. I wanted a Ford Escape.

Lava rock is great at removing massive amounts of landscape and skin from my back, shoulders and toes.

A Big Kahuna Burger with Sprite is much better than a Royale w/ cheese.

Folks on the Big Island hate ethanol.  E-Free gas stations were all the rage.

Toyotas everywhere.  Jacked up with small wide tires. Odd.

Speed limits are never attained on the Big Island.

Gigantic waves are soothing and terrifying.

Volcanos are always a treat.

I was wise to save Hawaii for number 50 but damn is it expensive.

Why does every Army Surplus store have the exact same mildew stench?

Fish and chips in Hawaii aren’t bad.

Pork is much better.

Did I mention lava fields are awesome?

People that live on lava fields are insane and a bit proud of it. It being the insanity and the living.

To the cute girl in the rental mustang that got mad at me when I told her there wasn’t any active lava out where I’d been hiking. Enjoy the beauty around you and don’t get pissed at some dude trying to help you because your bucket list vacation plan isn’t going as planned.

Sunsets in Hawaii are more than decent.

The Hilton Waikoloa Resort is HUGE.

I felt old and soft when I turned around while hiking up to a waterfall. Perhaps the author of the guidebook uses the word ‘adventure’ in a different way than me.  I saw it as suicide.  I felt wise when I returned the next day and the raging river was just a trickle.  The rain had made the canyon unpassable the day before.

The Southern Most Point in the US felt a lot like the Southern Most Point in the Western Hemisphere. Only much warmer.

I miss my Land Cruiser.  Maybe I should name her. Amie sounds like a good name.

Black sand beaches are surreal. Intriguing. Bizarre. Gorgeous. Temporary (at least on the Big Island). Crowded. Memorable.

Hawaii is beautiful.  Hawaii is warm. Hawaii is a great experience. I doubt I’ll ever go back.

Dragon Fruit sorbet is fantastic and the color looks fake.

The wind on the big island, NEVER STOPS BLOWING.

The air is super clean.

Land and houses are cheap.  Shockingly so.

Didn’t expect wild turkeys. Saw a lot of them.

Turtles are cool.

Not everyone should take their shirt off.

I pretty much always had my shirt on.

First Class on the way home from Hawaii is awesome.

9 days of amazing travel.  Ocean to ocean and my 50th state.  I’m not a bucket list kind of guy but glad I’ve now experienced a lot of what this amazing country has to offer.  I am fortunate to get to travel so much.  Some trips are exhausting and boring. Others are pleasant and rewarding.  Then there are weeks like these, that I’ll remember forever.  I haven’t even mentioned how awesome it is to be the owner of a 200 series Land Cruiser.   Amie is going to take me to many a remote destination over upcoming years.  What better way to start the journey than a trip from across the US.

As Beautiful as I Remembered.

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There is always the risk that time and distance skew memories from the reality. I was nervous that the Cartagena I’d built up in my mind was out of touch with the city I couldn’t wait to return to.  Luckily my mind is exceptional. Well in this case I got lucky and Cartagena was just as amazing as I’d remembered it. Now for some Random Thoughts from Cartagena

 

It’s hot. And Humid. Like being stuck in Satan’s armpit as he goes for a nice jog around the deserts of hell.

 

“Hey man you from the US? You want some cocaine? It’s legal here”

 

The people are as nice as can be.  Patient with a 1.5-lingual gringo and always smiling. Even when they are trying to scam you on a fake Rolex.

 

In the matter of five minutes I negotiated the price on a fake Rolex from $80 to $6. During that time the hands never moved. I pointed it out to the guy. We both laughed and I went on my way.

 

I love street vendors. Both those who harass tourists and those who are there for the locals. Especially the latter.

 

Limonada and freshly sliced local fruits for less than $1 is an ideal snack.

 

Motorcycle taxis scare me. Correction. Scare the hell out of me.

 

“Hey man you from the US? You want some heroin? It’s legal here man.”

 

Crepes y Waffles is divine. I don’t care if it’s chain restaurant because it is awesome. Specifically the Baby Doll. Seriously, look it up.

 

I was invited to a cock fight by a guy called The Gentleman. “It’s legal here.” He showed me pics on his phone of his bird and told me he was going up again a rooster from Panama. I showed up at the appointed time to catch a ride over to the sketchy Getsemani with him to see lil Yerry Seinfeld get his clocked cleaned but The Gentleman was not where he said he’d be.  Disappointing. Good chance it would have ended with my demise but what better way to go out than at a cockfight in Colombia.

 

The next day I was invited to another totally legal cockfight.  I decided to skip this one.

 

I love fried plantains.

 

I bought two 2XL counterfeit Colombian soccer jerseys. One fits perfect, the other I can barely squeeze into.  Neither would even be considered an XL in the US.  Not sure if that says more about our obesity problem or QC at the “$8 jersey” sweatshop.

 

“Hey man you from the US? Want some marijuana? It’s totally legal here.”

 

Colombians, for lack of a better word, are kind. Yeah I already said they were nice but it deserves to be reiterated.  From my coworker hooking me up with a nice meal in his cousin’s restaurant, to my taxi driver Rodrigo, to the front desk clerk at the Hampton Inn my last night, everyone I met, even those trying to hook me up with drugs are extremely kind. I’m tempted to use the word gentle but that’s not right.  Maybe it’s the gringo mystique I have about me but from the time I boarded the plane in Miami (and technically the night before when I had dinner with my Colombian amigo Frank) until I deplaned 5 days later I found nothing but kind, friendly people.

 

Colombian Castellano is spoken softly and mumbled. A lot like my English.  Made the communication harder. By day 5 I was feeling comfortable with the language. Just in time to get on the plane

 

The top of my deodorant broke off and fell in the toilet.  A toilet not designed to flush paper is not going to handle 3/4s of an inch of waxy Old Spice very well.  I had fun digging it out.

 

The Hotel Casa la Fe has immaculate bathrooms and excellent hot water.

 

Colombian markets pretty much only carry spray deodorant. Lame. They also sell decent socks just in case you need to know.

 

I eavesdropped on 5 gringos exchanging business cards at the Cartagena airport. All of them work in ‘energy; and I kind of wish I had their job.  Much better than traveling to Harrisburg.

 

Watching a World Club qualifier on the street with a bunch of locals is a fantastic experience everyone should enjoy.

 

There are only so many jokes you can make to the smoking hot prostitutes before their giant of a pimp decides it’s no longer funny and you tuck tail and book it to your hotel. Even if “it’s totally legal man.” That guy was not happy with my bargaining skills. This happened on my last night there. I was starting feel like I’d lost my charm with the ladies in Cartagena.  Last time I was there I was approached by quite possibly the most attractive woman I’ve ever seen. Evidence enough she was in it for the money.  Glad I still got it with the Professionals. The smoking hot non-professional Colombianas wanted nothing to do with me.

 

The customs guy in the US could not figure out why my backpack was so heavy. Couldn’t believe I was there for only 5 days. I tried to explain to him how damn hot it was in Cartagena. He decided to go through my bag anyway and after I pointed out I had two sets of clothes for each day to deal with the sweat he decided to let me go.  Just one more reason to love that place. The oppressive heat just adds to the character and the charm.

 

Lots of 90 series Land Cruisers in Cartagena. Most of which are diesel. Nice.

 

Give me a cold coke and a curb to sit on and I can people watch for hours. I can do this anywhere. It just so happens Cartagena is one of the most enjoyable places I’ve ever done it.

 

I’m headed back to Orlando in the spring. Maybe I’ll find the time to hop over to Colombia again. Or maybe I’ll man up and give Venezuela a shot.

Chasing the Dream

The most unique title in the history of man right there.  How about “Chasing Someone Else’s Dream”? It’s more accurate.  In the case of this little collection of words the ‘chasing’ is not a figure of speech but truly chasing. Chasing the Baja 1000.  Canguro Racing will have a legit write up on the race but because it took a lot of my time, energy and emotion I want to focus on just the chasing side of the Baja 1000.  Also, our crew deserves the glory. And by glory I mean the 4 people that will read this.
Let’s start at the start. Yep the start.  Let’s start there. For those who may not understand, ‘chasing’ a Baja race is essentially doing whatever it takes to support the race car and team during the race. Chasing the car down the peninsula as it were.  Where my role began in the chase plan is that I volunteered to do it.  I think my team trusts my judgment and they also know that despite the number of hours it takes to plan and write up I thoroughly enjoy it.  The process starts with knowing what cars we have, knowing what personnel we have, then printing off a large map (for the Mil it was 5 feet high) and then sitting down with pieces of paper representing each chase truck and I go from there.  I love looking at maps. I love planning routes and logistics. That part is easy. Seriously, if anyone needs a complex logistics plan with lots of map study and day to day planning call me. I’d love to do it.   Moving cars down a 1200 mile peninsula, chasing an 1121 mile race course over 2 days is easy and enjoyable for me to figure out. Where the stress comes in and what keeps me awake at night is planning for the safety of everyone involved (and the horrendous guilt that would come if something happened as well as the effect it would have on their families), ensuring personalities don’t clash, that stress is kept to a minimum and allowing each person to enjoy the beauty of Mexico and not feel like they are spending their time and money to come work for us.  Oh and did I mention safety?

A significant amount of stress was mitigated once we settled on who made up our crew.  John Thorne (aka Hampton), J Ralls, Paul May, Jason Goates, Jake Chatwin, Cody McKendrick, Dan Lockington, Ryan Nakaya, Adam Tolman (team photographer as well), Cory Fillmore and Jason Call.  Me personally, and the entire team, will be forever grateful to them for being a huge part of the race with us.  While coming from different social circles and backgrounds and varying in ages from 20 to 48 we, as a team, knew we could trust them.  My concern was conveying to each one of them the stress involved in driving Mex 1 on little sleep.  Aside from Paul and Goates there wasn’t much Baja experience in the crew and aside from me and Darren, Paul was the only guy who had been to the southern portion of the peninsula.  I can try and convey to you what it means to drive in Baja but I’ve learned, from post-race conversations, that as much as I tried to emphasize the danger and insanity (for lack of a better word) of Mex 1 I failed.  The slightest lapse in concentration can lead to disaster.  There were 2 chasers that died this year during the race. A few of us saw the carnage of the accident.  There is a race related death every year during the Baja 1000.  However, even those numbers can’t quite prepare anyone for the experience.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’ll skip over what happened between home and Ensenada and get right to our team meeting the night before the race as I think this puts in all in perspective.  I was going over the plan (that  I’ll paste at the end of this ramble) and after telling Chase 1 (Ryan Davis, Ryan Nakaya, Adam Tolman and Dave Helm) “You’re going to Valle de Trinidad to monitor communications and support the car, once the car moves past you’ll head to RM795, to put in that in perspective it’s about the length of driving SLC to San Diego.”  I still remember the look on Nakaya’s face when I said that. Pure shock.  So 800 miles of driving on a notoriously deadly two lane highway with a brief stop along the way to monitor communications at the car ran through El Arco. Is what awaited them.  I would find out later that during this brief stop Adam would take what he called a ‘dirt nap’ while he could. Yep, lying down in the dirt about 6 am to take a nap having not slept for 23 hours.  I think he said he got 45mins.  After that meeting we all went our separate ways.  I would not see Goates, Dan and Cody for 36 hours. Even then it was for a 3 mins pit stop to get fuel.  I would see Goates about 8 hours later.  I would see Cody and Dan 20 hours later at the finish line.  Combined I think the 3 of us would get 5 hours of sleep over the 42 hours of racing.

I want to talk about Dan, Cody and Goates just a bit more since I asked them to take on the greatest burden of the chase and they did so enthusiastically and without a hiccup.  What exactly was that burden?  We had two options: Backtrack from San Felipe through Ensenada and down Mex 1 or drive down the race course, in the dark to Mex 1.  First option is approx. 470 miles.  Second option is 80.  After consulting with Baja veteran Ted Moncure I proposed to these 3 that they take Chase 3 (Kurt’s 100) down the course. The gleefully accepted.  So 5 hours to go 80 miles was the route they took. Once back on pavement and somewhere on Friday morning.  (I’m not really sure as I was in the race car at the time) Kurt climbed back in his 100 and Goates climbed into my 100 with Hampton and Paul.  But I’ll get back to them. Dan, Cody and Kurt then drove from San Ignacio all the way through San Insurgentes and then looped back north to La Purisma.  I think their route was close to 150 miles longer than the rest of ours and in much harsher conditions.   To illustrate exactly how exhausting, and thus confusing, the entire endeavor was I’ll give you a brief explanation of what just happened to me while sitting on my couch.

Darren and I got out of my 100 and into the race car.  Marc and Kurt did the opposite.  Goates was in Kurt’s 100.  I next saw Goates, however briefly about 4 hours into my leg of driving, still in Kurt’s cruiser with Cody and Dan. The next time I saw him was when Darren and I got out of the race car 8 hours after that. When I tried to find out how he got there I couldn’t get ahold of him so but I did talk to J, Hampton and Kurt. All 3 gave me a different story of what happened. Keep in mind all 3 were in my Cruiser when I got out of it. Less than a month later none of them could remember who went where.  I managed to piece together the truth from each of them before talking to Jason but clearly shows how much is involved in chasing.

I woke up on Thursday morning in Ensenada about 9am. I climbed into my sleeping bag in San Ignacio Saturday night about 10 o’clock.  Between my cruiser and the race car I drove almost 1800 miles and slept a grand total 45 mins in that entire time.  14 other people had a similar experience to mine over those 2.5 days.  Just so 6 friends could drive fast(ish) through the desert for 1100 miles.  Quite impressive. But that that point we were only 1/3 of the way back to Salt Lake.  2 full days of driving and we would be home not all would be incident free. Let’s get back to Mex 1.

It’s scary. It’s frightening. It’s high stress. There are portions that are strikingly gorgeous and beautifully desolate but even those require focus and concentration. The driving is not relaxing, it is not pleasant. It is high stress and very sketchy. On the way south during the race Adam experienced just that. He dropped a tire off the edge of the road and instantly lights began flashing the traction control took over Ryan’s tundra. It scared him. It panicked him but the worst was ahead of us. On the way home Marc , while towing the race car. Got sideswiped by a local at 60mph. Okay that’s hyperbole.  It was side mirrors slapping high five. As word was coming over the radio my truck passed the other car in the incident, a mid-90s maroon Explorer.  Mirror gone and driver’s window shattered and the driver was knocking out the broken pieces of glass. When we finally got to Marc his mirror was also gone and he was in the process of taping the race car mirror into the void.    Sometime the next day (it’s all a blur) I hopped in Chase 1 with the Ryans and Helm to swap stories about the previous 2 days and get details on their portion of the race.  I was gawking out the window listening to Dave tell me about the tunnel vision he got from the race car lights when I look off the side of the road in some small village and see my Cruiser, with Darren behind the wheel, with all 4 tires in the air!!! What the hell was going on? I grab the radio and congratulate D for launching her.  Apparently they had a drunk driver in front of them wandering both lanes and narrowly miss a head on collision.  I gathered later from Darren’s passengers at the time that they were all scared for their lives and were actually relieved when Darren left the highway at 50mph down the steam embankment and passed the drunk in the desert.  I totally trust Darren with my truck. Kind of goes without saying since I trust him as my race co-driver as well, but I think J, Hampton and Adam had a new appreciation for his skill and his well-earned trust in a moment like that.  I was laughing watching him bomb my truck. The mood inside it was far different.  It’s the mood you get while driving Mex 1.

The rambling is getting bad so let’s wrap this up with some more talk about trust. That is what the 1000 comes down to.  15 people who trust each other (sometimes total strangers) to be safe and smart in a foreign country during a stressful situation.  The race is a blast, both in the car and chasing it down the peninsula but, the true joy sets in when we hit American roads, dial up cruise control and relax back into sub-conscious driving. Once the stress was removed we could truly savor the experience.  Plenty of time to savor it too as we were still 12 hours from home. As I mentioned above, Ryan, Marc, Kurt, Helm, Darren and I have the proud honor of finishing the Baja 1000 in our first attempt.  However, each of us know full well we never could have done it without a fantastic group of friends.

 

Below is our pre-race logistics plan and it even changed from this just days before the race but I never posted it up

updated version. someone please read this closely and see if i missed anything. changing personnel and chase truck numbers was trickier than i thought and I may have confused myself in the process.
okay. here it is. I used the BFG 2010 map to plan but it will probably be a slightly different course. This is my ideal scenario and I realize there is no way it will happen but need a starting point to work from until we know cars and personnel
http://rlhcomm.com/BFG/RACES/2010/10…0Web%20map.pdf
Baja Mil 2012 v1

1. Canguro Race: Mathilda

2. Canguro Chase 1: Ryan’s Tundra

3. Canguro Chase 2: Dave’s 100

4. Canguro Chase 3: Kurt’s 100

5. Canguro Chase 4: Marc’s Duramax

6. Canguro Chase 5: Adam’s Taco

Canguro Race: basic tools, spare parts, first aid, emergency kit (water/food/ sat phone, cell phone, spot) water and food for course, tp/baby wipes
Chase 1: RCD, Helm, Jake, Paul. Master communications, spare tires, personal supplies, documents
Chase 2: Connors, Darren, Hampton, J. Personal supplies, documents
Chase 3: Kurt, Goates, Cody and Dan. Personal supplies, documents
Chase 4: Marc, Nathan and spare tires and parts, Mathilda-specific tools, trailer, extra chase fuel, sat phone, personal supplies, documents, cell phone
Chase 5: Matt, Nakaya, Brandon, Adam. Personal supplies, documents
Web Racers: Jason and Cory. (Ryan will handle all of this)
ALL trucks need to have a radio, minimum set of tools, extra fuel, maps, food/water and ability to tow (either on strap or trailer) the car, recovery gear and GPS and cell phone with international plan.
November 11th Sunday: We all leave. It will probably be best if people move around in cars to add some diversity to the group and conversation. Once the race starts each truck will have plenty of time to get to know each other. Crash at Matt’s and swap trailer from Chase 2 to Chase 1.
November 12th Monday: Wake early, bust to Mexicali, cross border, bust to san Felipe and camp where we did this year.
November 13th Tuesday: Head to Ensenada early enough for driver’s meeting /registration, check in to El Cortez, driver’s meeting and registration, chase crew free to wander the city, Tacos El Pablano #2
November 14th Weds: Contingency, all day affair, team dinner, load up chase trucks with food/drinks and fuel
November 15th Thurs/Race Day: Check out, eat breakfast, check radios and phones, confirm with Web racers. Exact logistics will have to be figured out but the way I see it, all go watch trophy trucks bomb down the wash. Hustle back to El Cortez and get Mathilda down to the start line for the race. We’ll probably go out close to an hour after the start of the race and I doubt we’ll need to be in line when they go out. If so we can leave 2 people (probably me and Darren since we have been to the race the most times) with Kurt and Marc. 1. Marc and Kurt in Mathilda 2. Nathan and Paul in Chase 4 3. Connors, Darren, Hampton and J in Chase 2 a. Chase 2 and Chase 4 leave after the start and head south. Chase 2 to Bay of LA. Chase 4 parks near the turn off/hwy 1, within radio range of Coco’s 4. Chase 1 with RCD, Helm and Jake climb to Ojos and do radio work. After Mathilda passes and is in communication with Chase 5 Ryan, Helm and Jake proceed to Catavina for central radio work OR park where they have cell coverage and can assure updates from Web Racer and communicate that to Chase 4 and possible relay to Chase 2 5. Chase 3 Goates, Dan, and Cody proceed to BFG Pit 1, to observe fuel and talk, via radio, with Canguro Race then proceed to San Felipe to assist in driver change and check over car. They will then parallel them down the coast until pavement runs out or they can’t keep up with the car once it turns to dirt. They then backtrack to Ensenada and proceed down the long ass drive to RM 726. They could in theory stay on the gulf coast and take dirt down to hwy 1. It’s a decent road and fairly fast but not sure we want to take that risk. Maybe ask Ted? 6. Chase 5 Adam, Matt, Nakaya, Brandon head east on HWY 3, find a place (if the route is the same as 2010 I know a place) to watch the race somewhere between Ojos and Trinidad, take pics of the race and Mathilda in action. Communication relay with Chase 4, Chase 3 and Mathilda. Once the car is in communication with Chase 3 they backtrack down HWY 1. They’ll meet up with Chase 1. Ryan and Helm hop in with Adam and Matt and proceed to La Purisma/BFG 5. 7. Brandon and Nakaya hop in with Goates/Chase 1 and caravan with Chase 5 to Guerrero Negro where they’ll head east on dirt to the course to pick up the car and ideally communicate with Chase 4 at San Ignacio. Maybe even put up an external antenna to increase range.
Nov 16th Fri (midnight): 1. Chase 4, Paul and Nathan, communicates with Mathilda until Chase 2 in Bay of La pick them up. Chase 4 then proceeds to San Ignacio/BFG4. 2. I think we should either set up along the hwy or at the Pemex right as you enter Bay of LA. Should be closed but their lights will be on. Find a spot previous to BFG 3 as after the pit the course starts pretty quick and hard to backtrack on it. Darren and Connors take over Mathilda. Thorough check of the car. Make sure everything is working perfectly as the next leg is easier driving but isolated. Chase 2 with Hampton, J and now Marc and Kurt monitor radio as long as possible then proceed to San Ignacio/BFG4 3. Chase 1 will stay in communication with Mathilda as long as possible then either backtrack to G Negro or down to Vizcaino then haul ass to La Purisma. 4. At BFG 4 or somewhere near it, a driver swap takes place. Chase drivers can also move around. Marc can hop in with Nathan and Paul can climb in Chase 2. Chase 4 Then proceeds to Loreto/BFG6. 5. Depending on the exact route Chase 2 can parallel the race course out to the pacific coast pretty easily (I drove this route in 07 and the road paralleling the course is like pony express all the way to the beach) and maintain communication for a while until they can’t keep up. They then backtrack to hwy 1 and head to BFG 7 6. At La Pursima/BFG5 Helm and Ryan get in the car. Connors and Darren hop in Chase 5 with Matt and Adam. Thorough check of the car. I drove this section of the course in 07 and it was brutal. We should be able to communicate with the car from La Purisma to the summit then Chase 3 should be able to pick them up from RM 726. 7. Chase 5 and 1 will proceed the short distance to BFG6 or shortly after to facilitate the driver swap and check over car. 8. When Mathilda has passed RM726 Chase 3 will proceed down to HWY Between Loreto and Insurgentes to communicate with the car. After car is picked up by Chase 5 or 4 they proceed to Cuidad Constituion and join Chase 4 9. After Mathilda has passed Loreto Chase 4 will proceed to Ciudad Constitution and wait. 10. Mathilda arrives at BFG6 or shortly after. Driver swap. Thorough check of car and drivers. 11. Chase 1 heads to BFG7 while monitoring communications to join Chase 2. 12. Chase 5 joins chase 4 and 3 in Constitution. Do some personnel swaps back into the right cars if they want. Would be good to change things up. A new start and conversations to wake people up and avoid too much stress. 13. Chase 5, 4 and 3 head to La Paz check into hotel and head to finish line 14. At BFG 7 last fuel stop. Another check of the car. Chase 4 and Chase 2 parallel Mathilda down the coast until about 15 miles out then proceed to town and the finish. (Ideally we’ll be able to communicate via handheld at this point.) 15. Celebrate a 1st in Class finish. Go get food and sleep very well at the hotel that night.
Saturday Nov, 17th Head toward home at a safe but quick pace. Obviously stopping to get tacos along the way. I’d be ecstatic if we could make it to Ensenada but that would be a really long day. If so we can maybe we go back to El Cortez. If not we can find a place to stop and crash on the side of the road I personally don’t want to get much closer to the border than Ensenada that night.
Sunday Nov, 18th Head to Tecate and cross the border. Hopefully much quicker than last year. If people need to get home that night we arrange cars so they can just bail and go. The rest who can get home Monday go to vegas and crash.
Monday Nov, 19th, wake up and head home.
Friday Nov, 23rd. Day after thanksgiving. Get together for a nosh and rehash and sort through gear.

Sitka On My Mind

Blanketed Sitka Spruce
Blanketed Sitka Spruce

This is an older trip that took place in November of 2006 and comes from a forum thread I made at the time.

The trip started out about as expected. Delayed. My plans to leave early were affected by work and phone issues. (oh and I had to stop and give ryan some Phil and Friend tunes for his trip to Hawaii) With those items squared away and fuel tank filled I headed toward Mountain Home, ID to go wheeling with Eric Vogt. One of the concerns of traveling to Alaska is rock chips in the windshield. BC prefers to dump gravel on their icy roads instead of salt or sand. That concern, however, disappeared before I was an hour on the road. Two diesels thought it would be a good idea to ride side by side at 70mph for a while just outside of Tremonton. Eventually one of them kicked up a large rock and the windshield was cracked. Nice to have it out of the way early. My last trip to AK I made it almost 6000 miles before the windshield was damaged.

eric sliding
Eric doing his best to entertain Gabe

I arrived in Mountain Home 4 hours behind schedule. Stuck on a conference call at that. So with some whispers and hand signals Eric and I filled the tanks and headed west into the Owyhee Mountains for some snow wheeling. I felt bad about the tardiness and I’m sure Eric had to alter our route a bit. We climbed through New York Pass and down into Silver City. Eric had talked about Silver City and in my head it would be like a Utah mining town where the majority of the buildings are gone. Those that remained would be a mere shell of what they once were. I was in for a wonderful surprise. However, before we could get there we had some icy road ahead of us. Eric thought it would be a good idea to test my winch at the beginning of the trip and slid off the road. Attempting to right himself only resulted in lifting his front tire. We decided to unpack the gear and winch him back onto the road. I hadn’t expected to use my recovery gear so the daylight faded as I dug it out. A snatch block and a stout tree were all we needed to get him back up. I doubt he would have rolled but another 4 of 5 feet over the edge and it would have been a nice long slide down the slope and a much more difficult recovery. His 3 year old Gabe wasn’t sure why Eric had done it but was happy when we were headed back down the road.

Silver City

We pulled into Silver City about 20mins before darkness. Instead of the remnants of an old town we found an actual old town. 68 buildings, many occupied, full time caretaker, many homes on the National Historic Register. I took as many pics as possible before the darkness flooded the mountain valley. When summer comes around I will be going back to Silver City. Very cool place. A step back into the old west. A quick chat with the caretaker and we were off again. Eric decided to not risk a trip over New York Pass solo so he followed me down to Jordan Valley, OR where someone was there to pump our gas. No matter how much time I spend in Oregon I cannot get used to someone filling my tank for me. With a handshake we went on our separate ways. Eric with the scenic route back to Mountain Home. Me into the unknown.

I started down a dark two lane with no real plan. Before leaving SLC my plan was to cross the Columbia River at The Dalles and spend some time around Mt. Saint Helens on my way to Seattle. I pulled over to examine the map. I realized I was further south than I expected to be. S.R. 95 took me east with the diesel traffic. At Burns Junction I took S.R. 78 North toward Hwy 20 and Bend. I think the best place to view stars in the lower 48 is in the Maze, or along the UT/NV border. I’m now reconsidering that statement. Almost zero light pollution and clear skies along this lonely, central Oregon highway provided the ideal environment for sitting on the side of the road, ‘watering’ the rye grass and examining the stars. Before long I found myself filling the gas tank in Bend. 20 mins later I turned down a dirt two track and climbed into my sleeping bag around 2:30am.

I woke early, well early for me on vacation, about 8:30 in a nice grove of ponderosa pine. I walked around and took a few pics while Ruby Claire warmed up. A few hundred feet from my camp I found a nice view of Mt. Bachelor. Pretty decent view to start out my day. Out on the road I was greeted with breathtaking views of Mt Bachelor, Mt Washington and the 3 Sisters. I stopped to snap a few photos. As I descended toward I-5 and Corvallis the fog closed in. I drove for an hour through the fog. Lebanon, OR has THE worst layout of any town in the country. I think I traveled 20miles through town to get the 3 blocks west I needed to go. That was without any mistakes. Poor design. Scratch that. Awful design. The fog didn’t help. A few miles from the coast the fog lifted and ocean came into view. I stopped in Depoe Bay to take some pics of the surf and Coast Guard exercises going on in the bay. I think I was the only person in the tiny tourist town under the age of 65. Retirees and me on a Friday afternoon on the Oregon coast. After chatting with a few of them, trying to explain what a snorkel is, I was back on the road. Plan was to get to Seattle by 7pm to spend some time with Farnes, his wife, and daughter before I stole him away for 10 days.

Lincoln City, Tillamook, Cannon Beach, Astoria. Scenic town after scenic town. I kept a keen eye out for any ‘rich stuff’ that the Goonies may have left behind. I loved the power of the 1FZ at sea level. I drove with way too much skinny pedal. I found some buggies ripping through some dunes and was tempted to join them but passed. Alaska was the goal not messing around along the way. Too many winding roads, too much lift and too many miles had finally caught up to the u-joints in my front driveline. A slow rumbling was getting progressively worse. It reached the point that unless I was on the throttle the car shook violently. I knew I would need to diagnose the problem and fix it before I headed in to Canada. I pulled into Seattle, actually Wallingford, convinced my trip had ended a few thousand miles short of my goal. We had a ferry reservation on Monday morning at 9:15am and only 1100 miles lay between Farnes’ driveway and Prince Rupert, BC.

I removed the front driveline. Rolled around Seattle in 2wd to determine it was the problem. Of course this was redundant because after pulling the driveline I could see the u-joints were trashed. One cap was completely missing. After a phone consultation with my friend Will I logged onto IH8MUD looking for local help. (what can you say about an internet message board where people across the country offer to help out. One guy even offered to drive to the airport and ship me his spare driveline at 1am his time, amazing) Slept well that night and took what I thought would be my last shower for 4 days and work up early on Saturday morning. Got a good deal on u-joints at a local dealership and even scored a new Toyota beanie in the process. A recommended driveline shop eased my concerns about getting the job done right when I called them. They wouldn’t have worked on my truck if I wasn’t using OEM u-joints. We loaded up on food at Fred Meyer, picked up the driveline and headed toward the border about 1pm in 2wd. Clear sky, fresh snow in the mountains and little traffic made for a pleasant afternoon. Crossed the border in Sumas, WA with very little difficulty and into the land of Canucks. Our late start would mean a lot of driving in the dark but we would still make our ferry.

‘We’ would be myself and my friend Travis Jeremy Farnes. He is the same freak that drove to the Arctic Ocean with me in 2002. I saw freak with affection. He and I probably would have had just as much fun driving to Oklahoma. It just so happens that we were headed to one of the most scenic towns in all of Alaska and therefore all of North America. Of course I am biased. We both lived in Sitka at different times over 10 years ago and this would be the first trip back for both of us.

Stop for Dinner

We stopped in Hope, BC to eat dinner and some vanilla Breyer’s. Yes even 900 miles from home I can find Breyer’s Ice Cream. Took a few pics and then north up HWY 1 toward Prince George. As we rolled through Fraser Canyon I stopped to take pics of my lowly camp spot from my first trip to Alaska in 1996. Things haven’t changed. We found a bizarre gravesite with 3 crosses. Dedicated to the ‘many who have lost their lives.’ Not really sure the context however. Darkness settled in. (wow that cliché has never been used before) My Hellas lit the road nicely. Most Canadian roads lack for reflectors and paint so night driving can be an adventure.

We debated many things that night while pushing to get back on schedule. Religion, Neil Young, the perfect song, how cool it would be if Tron was real, the best 5 NBA players in our lifetime, he wanted to know how I could possibly choose Kareem. I blamed it on the unstoppable sky-hook. Why Donald Duck didn’t wear pants. Oh wait I stole that last one from Stand By Me. Basically the stuff you talk about to pass the time. At one point it got heated enough while getting gas in Prince George that I told him to get out of my car and find a ride back to Seattle. There may have been one or two expletives used as well. 1.2 liter Slurpees eased the tension and things were fine again. I was hoping to camp near Vanderhoof or Burns Lake. 40+ mph winds made us rethink that plan. We found a motel in Vanderhoof that wanted to charge us by the hour but we got the full night rate instead. So about 3am we crashed in the Hill View Motel. Wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, although we did both sleep in our sleeping bags. The guy behind that counter was trying to talk Farnes into some acupuncture to relieve the pain in his knee. Funny stuff.

 

The Lovely Hill View

 

 

Sunday morning dawned cold. The remote start on the 80 not only warmed the inside of the car but also helped warm the engine properly in the cold weather. I usually lack the patience to allow the car to idle long enough. Vanderhoof through Smithers, BC is fairly non-descript in the winter time. In the summer this road is dotted with lakes and farms. In winter, however, it is fairly dull. The landscape blends to a consistent grey. A few of the rivers were beginning to freeze over. A local walked within 10 inches of Farnes while we were taking pics and never lifted his eyes, didn’t speak a word, just kept on walking like we weren’t there. Must have been trashed despite the early hour. Smithers lies at the base of the Seven Sisters. The kids movie “eight below” was filmed in and around Smithers. The views are incredible and the town is filled with cruisers. Of course I could never dig the camera out in time to take any pics. Two SWB FJ45s, a 40 and an HJ60. Lunch in Smithers, past the turnoff to the Cassiar Highway, through Terrace and then the descent to the coast. As we neared the coast we saw a small nappy black bear limping along the side of the road. Appeared to have an injured hip and more than likely would not survive the winter. We saw a few moose along this stretch as well.

The weather report in Vanderhoof had called for 100mm of rain in Prince Rupert that night. I was game for setting up the tent but Farnes wasn’t going for it so he sprung for a room at the Totem Inn and the charming turquoise “Kitchenette.” We had some Canadian pizza, which had bizarrely sweet sauce on it. Everything in Canada seems to be sweeter. However, the bulk Runts and Swedish Berries I bought for the ferry ride were just right.

Totem Inn

Monday morning we pulled onto the Ferry about 8:30. The Alaska Marine Highway ferries are decent sized ships. The M/V Taku holds 450 people and 80 or so vehicles. Our trip north started with 9 vehicles and about 14 people. We knew we were back in Alaska before we had ever boarded the ship. We spent our morning making small talk in the parking lot with the other passengers, down to earth friendly people willing to do anything to help us out on our journey. Over the course of the next 28 hours (yes that is how long the ferry ride lasts) we had conversations with every one of those people. Started chatting with a ski-bum from Ketchikan on his way north to Alyeska for the season. During his two winters at Alta he shared an apartment with a kid I went to high school with. Small world.

So some explanation about the ferry. A very stripped down version of a cruise ship. They have a theater for movies. I mean they have a 36in TV, dvd player, and surround sound. They have a fine restaurant. Or is it a cafeteria? State rooms, observation decks, bathrooms, showers, and of course Gopher the Purser. In the summer time the ships are full to capacity and once you find your spot you stay there for the duration of the trip. In the off season you have the ability to wander, move around and pick your place to sleep. No need for a state room when the back wall of the theater will work just as well. How do you pass the time?

Take a lot of pictures. Talk to the locals. Take more pictures. Read. Play the original Metroid and Zelda on Gameboy. Watch dvds. Take more pictures. Wander to loosen up the legs. Sleep. Wander around the small towns you visit along the way. We were using the ferry for recreation. In the winter it is used for real life. In the town of Kake (population 1500? Maybe) we saw a few cars unloading, full of presents for the holiday season. Talked to a few locals getting on headed to Juneau to load up on supplies for the winter. So along the way you hit all the small villages. Mostly native population. Some logging, some tourism. All fishing. Our stop in Ketchikan lasted 3 hours and we treated ourselves to a fine meal and people watching at The Galley restaurant near the dock.

Inside Passage

The inside passage of the Alexander Archipelago (yeah that is me using a fancy word. Basically the thousands of islands that make up Southeast Alaska) is very placid. There is enough shelter from open water to prevent large swells from forming. Occasional gaps in the protection do exist. We woke up on Tuesday morning in one of these areas. Unfortunately for us it coincided with low tide. Open sea and tidal currents made for some exciting water. I didn’t quite hurl but I felt like it. Farnes and I both spent a few hours lying in a dark room until the water calmed. Around 7 pm we arrived in Sitka.

According to the locals Sitka only gets about 3 feet of snow a year. They average over 80in of rain. Well the weekend before we arrived 2 feet of snow had blanketed the town. The roads were slick and I eased my way the 7 miles into town in two wheel drive. Temps were in the low teens and the idea of installing my driveline was not a pleasant one. We checked into the Shee Atika’ Totem Square Inn. Farnes went for a walk only to return with some Terkyaki. I wandered looking for ice cream and American coke. One of the few things that Alaska lacks is fountain drinks. They are few and far between. Especially in the southeast. So I settled for some Dr. Pepper from the ARB Fridge and Runts for dinner. It was nice to be in a real hotel with clean sheets and towels.

Making Ruby Whole

Early weds morning I open the blinds to another day of sunny skies and beautiful vistas. Of course before I could enjoy it fully I had to go lie on the frozen asphalt and install my driveline. Some ice cold driveline bolts and bare fingers didn’t help the process but 30mins later were we rolling.

"Downtown" Sitka

We’ve all had instances where the mind creates an image and mystique of a place or event in our lives. There is always the fear that the expectations are better than the reality. I vividly remember when I left Sitka in Sept of 1994, as the plane climbed over Baranof Island, I looked down on the tiny town with a deep sadness. It was a town I had grown to love dearly and I doubted if I would ever return. The trip to Sitka so far had been one of great natural beauty and a lot of laughing. However, in the back of my mind I was hoping that the Sitka in my past was not an ideal that reality could never match.

The town was all I remembered it to be and more. The dormant Mt. Edgecomb stood defiant in Sitka Sound. Harbor Mountain, Arrowhead Peak, and Mt. Verstovia towered over the tiny town. The Tongass National Forest was blanketed in fresh snow. The town had grown and yet remained the same. We wandered around the town recalling our experiences there. The apartments we lived in. The covered outdoor basketball courts. The Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation center where we volunteered. As we headed south of town a few eagles were feeding on road kill. I had the pleasure of releasing a rehabilitated bald eagle back into the wild when I was there and couldn’t help but wonder. Yeah extremely sappy and melodramatic but that’s how a town like Sitka can affect you. After exploring the downtown and visiting all of the local sights we headed out north of town to the artesian well and hopefully some wheeling up the Harbor Mountain road. Little did I think I would be using my winch 3 times in Alaska. Of course that will have to wait until I have the energy to type again.

North of town we found a surreal wonderland of snow and rainforest. 150 foot Sitka Spruce and Tamarack trees blanketed by a foot of snow. Of course, true to the nature of Alaska, in the middle of this unrivaled landscape we found a random singlewide. I snuck a pic of the trailer, fell in the fluffy powder and got out of there before the eccentric owner could come after us. I was a bit bummed for the road to be gated but we had another option for some wheeling. Harbor Mountain rises about 2000 feet from the ocean’s edge. The access road is a tight winding gravel road that I used to rally, ebrake drifting and all, in my ford escort wagon. I thought it would be worth the effort to try and get to the top. In the last 10 years they had moved the entrance to the road so they could add a golf driving range (should have brought my clubs) and it took some exploration to find our way onto the road. We made great time for the first few miles only to come around the corner to find a native stuck on the side of the road. After a short chat we agreed to pull him out. He was hoping to get his 2wd S10 up to his friends stuck truck another half mile up the trail to pull him out. I guess the street tires and some alcohol were not enough to get up there. An easy winch pull and he was out. I backed down to a spot where he could get by me and down off the mountain. Now it was time to pull out the full size truck. We found the odor of more alcohol and Farnes found himself another friend pouring out his life story. I had to pull a few times and change the angle once or twice but eventually we winched him out. As we were helping out, a couple of kids showed up in a chained up suburban on their way to retrieve a Dodge Neon stuck just around the next corner. Our leisurely drive was turning into a winch fest. I backed down again to let the full size truck get by on his way down the hill. The truck had belonged to this old man’s son who had died of alcohol poisoning a few years earlier. Not really sure why he told Farnes this story but it was obvious this man was trying to drink away the pain. He offered us money 3 times. Eventually I just said okay because it was easier than saying no. It paid for dinner and a movie so it worked out okay. In my haste to get out of the way I slid off the side of the road. He got by me and I dug out my treesaver strap. The winch pulled me out no problem. I pulled at an acute angle to the road and was able to use the pull point to 3 point turn and get faced down the road. The kids had managed to get the Neon out with a shovel and a come-along. They did pose for the camera in our attempt to fully document our trip.

By this time I was sopping wet. The sun was nearly set and we still had to explore the tourist shops in town. Farnes wanted to buy some gifts to take back to his daughter. I was bound and determined to find some stickers and a nerf basketball hoop for the ferry ride back south. We managed to find both. In another bizarre interaction with an Alaskan I over hear Farnes talking about Insane Clown Posse with some 20 year old local at the gift shop. It’s truly amazing how he can relate to anybody. The old man on the ferry and the 20 year old Juggalette as ICP fans are called are just 2 of the dozens of strangers I’ve seen him befriend over the years. We snuck back by the hotel to poach their wireless and upload photos and then headed out to the LDS church so I could warm up and change my clothes. Clean and refreshed we wandered around looking for food. A Chinese run Italian joint offered awful soup but rich and warm entrées. Our ferry wasn’t schedule to leave until 3am so we decided to go see a movie.

Happy Feet and Casino Royale were the choices. We arrived at the theatre to find out that the town actually had 2 theaters. So with the directions “it’s on Sawmill Creek Road next to Spenard Building Supply” we set out to find it. After driving around an industrial park for 20mins we decided to ask a local out walking her dogs in the 15 degree air. She pointed to a warehouse with a light on in the front window. So we parked the car and entered what should have been a machine shop or boat repair. Instead we found a decent sized screen with solid sound and stadium seating. Okay I made up that last part but at least we had cup holders and leg room. I forgot to mention all the old school video games. More on that later. So after traveling all the way to Alaska, interacting with the stereotypically insane locals for the last 3 days and finding a movie theatre in a warehouse I was once again reminded of how small the world actually is. After the Rocky Balboa preview a light chuckle with some snide remarks bubbled from the dozen or so patrons. Seems like even Sitkans realize that Sly needs to hang it up for good and move on to other things. I know most people think that Rocky V never happened and now he thinks this movie will make any money? Anyway.

After the movie Farnes and I talked the kid behind the counter into letting us play video games for a bit before closing. He said we could stay all night since he gets paid by the hour. After we split the first 2 rounds of pinball we moved over to the Ms. Pacman machine. There must have been just the right amount of pizza grease on the joystick because after destroying me Farnes went on to set the high score on the machine. I made him pose next to the machine for his fine achievement. I wanted to put a few bucks into Crystal Castles but we had to get to the store before midnight to load up on food for the ferry. We settled on turkey, rolls and pudding to have some semblance of Thanksgiving Dinner on our way south.

The ferry to Sitka travels through a very narrow stretch known as Peril Straits. Because of current and water levels there are only a few windows each day that allow this passage to be negotiated safely. We had hoped to be on the ferry by 1 and sound asleep shortly thereafter. The oceans had other ideas. Our 3am departure had been delayed until 4:30 and the ship wasn’t set to dock until 3. I told Farnes, an urbanite at heart and a user of public transportation, to trust my judgment and I threw Dust to Glory into the dvd player. What better movie to watch in the snow covered parking lot, at 2am, with single digit temps outside than a documentary about the Baja 1000, right? I wandered outside my Cruiser every 20 mins or so hoping to see the Northern Lights. Farnes was totally enthralled with the movie. He had no idea such a race and such a culture existed. A lifelong dream for me to race in the Baja was something he never knew was even possible. “I don’t care if have to carry the toilet water. If you ever do it I’m going to be a part of it” was his comment. Those familiar with the movie know how he could feel that way.

We finally loaded on the ferry and before long I was sound asleep. The ferry south was much like the ride north. Beautiful weather, lots of pic taking and some boredom. The Nerf hoop proved to be a genius purchase. We killed almost 3 hours playing horse the second night. Farnes even took to vacuuming up the movie area so it was cleaner for us to sleep in. The restaurant provided a decent Thanksgiving feast. The 14 passengers all convened around 6pm for dinner. The $8 price tag was cheap by Alaska standards and they threw in free pie and drinks.

There was one major negative to our trip. Passengers are only allowed on the vehicle deck while docked so any food that requires refrigeration must be in small portions. Basically the Tillamook Medium Cheddar Baby Loaf does not agree with ferry travel. Except that when it’s sub-freezing outside you can use Mother Nature as your fridge. Unfortunately on our second night the garbage sack we’d been tying to the rail on the deck disappeared. A few cans of coke, our lunchmeat, my pudding snack packs and my $10 cheese slicer just up and walked away. Pretty frustrating. Who would still someone’s food? Bastards.

We arrived back in Prince Rupert about 10am on Friday morning. Farnes hadn’t stopped babbling about Dust to Glory as well as the help I’d received from IH8MUD. He kept telling me how fortunate I was to be involved in the Land Cruiser world and the friendships I’ve made because of it. The fact that some random dude from Ohio that I’ve never met offered me his driveline or that I formed my friendships with Darren, Ryan and Will (he has met ryan and will) because of a random Japanese vehicle is just completely foreign to him. Why do I bring this up? Because Toyota people are different as we would find out once more.

Rolling Off the Ferry

The ferry only had 11 vehicles on it. You have to pass through Canadian customs immediately after leaving the ferry. Because I wanted some pics we ended up being the last vehicle off. All 10 cars in front of us were pulled aside and searched by the 3 border agents. You all know what my truck looks like. We were anticipating the drug dogs. The agent approached my window.

“is this thing a diesel?”

“no I wish Toyota didn’t offer diesel in North America”

“yeah I know, my wife and I are in the process of importing a diesel hilux through Vancouver right now, I just noticed your Aussie plate and thought it might be.”

He takes our ID and goes inside. He comes back out, we chat for 5 of 6 minutes about Toyota diesels and his old HJ60.

“you fellas have a safe trip”

With that we drove past the 10 cars still being searched, the incredulous looks from their passengers, and hit the road home.

It’s hard to explain to people why I would go through all that effort for only 5 days in Alaska and most of that on the ferry. I can only try. Alaska grabs a hold of your soul and regardless of the time away it becomes a part of you. The eccentric people, the purity of the air, the rugged landscape, the intimacy with the wildlife all combine for an experience that lingers indelibly in your daily life afterwards. I haven’t even mentioned the 40 or so whales we saw because they are so common it doesn’t feel exceptional. For anyone who has read this far I will just say that if you like the outdoors and the natural world find a way to get there. It’s a very long way up there and I recommend that you take at least 3 weeks but go before even it because overrun with pollution and overpopulation.

Up until now you’ve been reading a combination of posts from the Wasatch Cruisers forum from just after the trip.  From here on out I’ll be going on memory and it’s one that’s rapidly failing. Luckily not much happened.

We left Prince Rupert and made the gorgeous drive up the Skeena River, climbed up the Trans-Canada Hwy and eventually rolled into Prince Gorge to a bitter -17 temp. Somewhere outside of town we saw a sign for Moe Road.  Figured it would be a good souvenir and pulled over to ‘put some gas in the tank’ while we also worked on removing the bitterly cold aluminum street sign. The cold was getting to us and Ruby as she started to make some uncomfortable noises. After dinner at Wendy’s we looked for a bed. In lieu of the pricier motel options we crashed in another dive.  $30 a night or so.  Best part was the 2 in gap under the door. Again -17.  Our simple fix to this was to sleep in sleeping bags and then pile the blankets over the gap.  Somehow Farnes decided to use his Ralph Lauren down comforter and pillows that he’d brought from home, unbeknownst to his wife, on the disgusting bed that night.  They also got left behind the next morning and as far as I know she has no idea what happened to them.

The Road Home

We woke up early the next day. Let Ruby warm up for a good thirty minutes before hitting the road.  The plan was to get all the way to Seattle that day where Farnes’ family was planning a late Thanksgiving dinner for us. Sun was out and the roads empty so despite the occasional patches of ice we made good time.  We arrived in Hope, BC about Sunset and got some gas as well as posing with the Rambo cutouts.  A storm moved in and the last few hours into Seattle were slow and soggy as the rain fell in torrents.  Just a few hours late we pulled into the driveway for a delicious dinner and a safe return (halfway) home. We finished eating about 10pm and although this may sound crazy to most I wanted to head home.  I still had 800 miles to cover and had to be to work on Monday. I wasn’t tired so I decided to hit the road.  A rainy night turned to snow as I crossed Snoqualmie pass and down toward Yakima. I pushed pretty late that night and ‘camped’ along the river between Ellensburg and Yakima.

When I climbed out of my sleeping bag the next morning, having slept on the reclined passenger seat there was 6 inches of snow blanketing my truck.  I meandered down the twisting road to Yakima and pick up the freeway again. I knew that the Blue Mountains and the start of a long day lie ahead.  Luckily I was headed Eastbound.  As I climbed out of Pendleton there was very little traffic in both directions and the roads were slick by not impassable.  Just as the switchbacks flattened out and ascent toward the summit becomes much more gradual there was a wreck in the westbound lanes.  A jackknifed diesel was blocking both lanes and had come partially into the eastbound lanes.  Holiday weekend traffic, 8 inches of fresh snow and poor visibility was going to make this a mess. I quickly snuck (sneaked?) by the accident and counted myself lucky that I wasn’t headed west.  There are only 2 or 3 exits the entire stretch between Pendleton and Le Grande, about 50miles, and nowhere for the traffic to go. I crawled along about 20mph over the summit. The traffic in the westbound lanes was backed up a good 30 miles.  Not the way I’d want to end my Thanksgiving weekend.  Once I hit Le Grande the snow stopped, the roads dried up and I had an uneventful drive home.

I was rather fatigued when I got home but had another awesome trip under my belt.  It had been over 10 years since I’d been in Sitka and it was everything I remembered it being. Amazingly beautiful, wonderfully quaint and worthy of the effort to get there. Even a short sprint to get there and back.

dmc

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It Felt Like Home

My kind of road

I’m not really concerned about anyone reading this but I’m going to write it with the expectation that someone will because that’s what I’m used to from my old blog.  This little site is for me and perhaps others may find this tale entertaining. This is going to be long and rambling and might contain more Land Cruiser content than some of you care to read about but that’s how it goes. With that warning let’s move along…

I purchased a 2003 Land Cruiser last spring with the goal of replacing my beloved Ruby Claire (my 1997 Cruiser that took me to Alaska and Ushuaia and tens of thousands of miles in between.) A funny thing happened with that little purchase. I felt re-energized about exploring again, about getting out and seeing the world, a rekindled sense of adventure. I’d made some trips to Baja and some awesome journeys through Utah but they were always big trips. Lots of planning and lots of money. Shortly after the 100 purchase, and christening her Wynonna, I took a trip through Death Valley and fell in love, again, with the desert, with aimless wandering, and just going. I purchased a National Park pass on that trip with the intent of using it as much as possible. Back in the late 90s and early 2000s a park pass was an annual purchase. Over the years my aversion to crowds, and a continual push to see things more remote, more desolate and farther away (trips to Deadhorse, AK and Ushuaia, Argentina for example) began to take over the small local trips. My goal over the Christmas holiday was to combine the old and the new. My company shuts down every year so with little more planned than hike to Delicate Arch the day after Christmas and find my way to White Sands, NM, a place I’d never seen before, I hit the road.

After finding my way to the North entrance to Arches, NP on Christmas night I threw down my tarp and bag to what I knew would be a cold night. By 430am the beautifully clear, starlit night, cooled to a biting 6 degrees. With that I climbed in my truck, started the heater and tried to get myself warm. I woke a few hours later and wandered the washboard road into Arches. I arrived at the Delicate parking lot to a few cars and with temps now soaring to 14 degrees started up the sandstone trail. When I turned the corner to see the iconic entrada sandstone arch two very interesting things happened. One, I was mad it had been 12 years since I’d been there and two, I was alone. It’s very difficult to find solitude at such a famous landmark but for 3omins it was just me. No wind, no noise, no wildlife. A solitary man and the beauty of mother nature. I took a few pics to capture the moment but for the most part I just sat and soaked it all in. A few tourists started to trickle in and with the scenery sufficiently processed I took a few pics for a family from Oklahoma and began the walk back to the car. I scrambled down into the bottom of the bowl, where I picked up 3 or 4 pieces of trash (a recurring theme of my whole trip was the guy who loves desert racing and gas guzzling SUVs was the guy picking up trash at every park and preserve he visited) and took the back way down to the parking lot. By now the temps had climbed into the high 30s and being dressed for mid-teen temps and in all black I began to sweat quite a bit. All fine and dandy until you strike up a pleasant conversation with two attractive young ladies and all you can think about is the steam billowing off your bald head and sweat running down your face. Another photo taken for some German tourists, another piece of trash picked up, and it was time for me to move on. Back in the car, layers shed, and I was off. Where I was off to I had no idea. Gemini Bridges? Island in the Sky? White Rim? Lockhart Basin? Plenty of options and all of them fantastic.

When people want to chat about my trip down the Pan-American there is one theme that continually bubbles to the top and that is the freedom of the road.  When people want to chat about my trip down the Pan-American there is one theme that continually bubbles to the top and that is the freedom of the road. That freedom is hard to find in a daily life or even over a two week trip and it’s what I miss most. Living every day and making every decision on its own merit is unbelievably rewarding and I was hoping to find some of that freedom on this journey. So with that I left the park and hung a right. That meant White Rim, Island in the Sky, or Gemini.Mesa Arch

After finding solace at Delicate Arch I figured why not try Mesa Arch and Island in the Sky. Mesa is usually always packed but perhaps I might get lucky. And I did. There were 2 people there when I arrived but they left shortly after. I took way too many photos and then drove to the Island in the Sky. I took the walk out to end of the trail, which was very crowded, snapped a few pics then decided to head into town via the Schaefer Trail. Oh wait the NPS decided to close it? Really? So you’ll charge me to come into the park but close the one dirt road out of the park? Okay. So backtrack to Long Canyon and one of the most amazing views in the world. Long Canyon in the foreground, Behind the Rocks and the LaSals in the distance. Awesome.

Long Canyon

The descent down long canyon was tricky. The first 200 yards were easy although slow and steep as the shaded canyon was covered in 6inches of snow. I came upon one of the steeper sections of the road and it was iced over from people getting stuck trying to go up the road. At this point my very heavy truck, a sheet of ice, and fully inflated tires left me only one option. Point the nose, plan on sliding about 30 feet, and hope. Hope that when I hit dirt again I wouldn’t be going too fast to stop. The risk wasn’t too high as I was in a narrow chute. Some scratched up body work, maybe a dented bumper, but I could definitely stop before I hit the edge of the cliff. Definitely. With that I eased over the ledge and hoped. With the grace and beauty of a musk ox I slid a bit askew down the road until I hit the dirt and came to a rapid stop. An unexpected rush of adrenaline on a road I’ve driven a dozen times but otherwise a piece of cake. I pleasantly rambled down the remainder of the canyon, explained to a few kids in their 89 Oldsmobile sedan that they may want to re-consider their attempt to drive up the road and found my way into Moab.

A quick stop for some food at City Market and it was time to hit the highway south. I figured I’d work my way toward Mesa Verde, NP and Montezuma Creek is the perfect ‘short cut’ to get there. A cottonwood filled canyon in Southeastern Utah that is visited mainly by cattle ranchers and locals, Montezuma Creek contains a hidden gem of a road and the perfect way to end my perfect day in the desert. The descending light created surreal hues in the canyon and camouflaged the hundreds of deer, antelope and cattle that lurked around every high speed corner. This was my first night on this trip and strikingly clean air would be a constant on my trip. I would find myself pausing every night at sunset to try and capture the perfect lighting with my new Canon 60d.

Eventually darkness, real darkness, absent of any light pollution, filled the canyon and I settled into an old groove. Driving way too fast down a dirt road in the dark, heater cranked, sunroof open, music a little on the loud side and happy as I could be. Dirt turned into gravel, gravel into potted asphalt and slowly the lights of town appeared. After my uncomfortable sleep the night before I figured a motel in Cortez would be a good idea. I grabbed my phone and fired up the Trip Advisor app and found the highly recommended Tomahawk Lodge for $39.  There were far more expensive mainstream options but 2 years ago I learned a valuable lesson while in Tonopah, NV during a violent windstorm.  Some small motel owners take a lot of pride in their service and quality.  At a local’s suggestion I had found a gem in Tonopah and that lesson has stuck with me when I opt to get out of my sleeping bag and the elements.  The owner of the Tomahawk gave me some food tips and I found some excellent carne asada in portions large enough to feed a family, returned to my room and slept very soundly.

Mesa Verde

Morning came and I reluctantly climbed out of bed and out into the bitter cold. I wanted to get to Mesa Verde at sunrise but my body just wouldn’t let me.  As I was checking out I learned that the park wasn’t open til 9 anyway.  So I found some breakfast, topped off my tanked and slowly meandered out to the park.  Once there I learned that the majority of the ruins were closed for the season due to lack of funding for the NPS and a slow trickle of tourists.   I arrived at the main visitor center, waited for one of the trails to open and wandered down to one of the ruins.  I took a few pics, poked around the ruin where I could and headed back to the car.  As I was pulling out of the parking lot I spotted at least 2 families I’d seen in Arches the day before.  I felt that stir inside to escape the mainstream and find some remote locale for my travels. My first day and half of experiences were great though, and who cares if I was sharing them with a few others. I knew they hadn’t seen Montezuma Creek and my route would provide for plenty of solitude. I was finding the balance I wanted on this trip and that was the goal.  I really had no idea where I was headed after Mesa Verde so I grabbed my map and started looking.  East to Durango then over to Pagosa Springs. I’ve visited Durango a few times but never Pagosa Springs so I figured that would be a good route.  After further study I realized I could get to Taos that night and find a place to camp. One of my friends spends a lot of time there and raves about it. I sent her a text asking for recommendations on food and camping and settled in for a long day of driving.

Somewhere North of Taos

It’s easy for me to find that driving groove.  Once my mind is set on it I just zone out, process the landscape in front of me and can go for hours. I found out how true this would be today.  I made it through the construction and congestion of Durango and hit some pavement I’d never seen before. Everything became new and exciting. I can find joy in pretty much any road I drive that is new to me. As I was rolling into Pagosa Springs I got a call from my friend Brian Hanson asking me some questions about his 4Runner timing chain swap.  I bring this up because of what he said during the call. For the second time in my life someone compared me to Ernest Hemingway.  For me that’s about the highest compliment I could receive. Of course in Brian’s case it came as “Knowing you is like knowing a less intelligent Ernest Hemingway.” Not a total compliment but I took it as such. That type of comment from a friend really lifted my spirits and even without the amazing terrain and beauty unfolding before me it would have been a glorious day.  Mile after mile, snowcapped peak after snowcapped peak, and small town after small town I wound my way through the very scenic, sunny and desolate northern New Mexico landscape. At one point I went almost two hours without seeing another car.  It was during this time that I really began to reflect on life behind the wheel of a 2UZ powered 100 series Land Cruiser.  I put almost 150k miles on my previous truck over the 7 years of ownership.  I’d driven through 17 countries and pretty much the length of the western hemisphere. I knew it very, very well.  It was underdriven due to the 4.88s, the lumbering straight 6 had plenty of torque but lacked the hp needed to get anywhere fast.  The solid front axle bumpers and roof rack made it a big slow truck. But I loved that pace of things and it was comfortable. Driving a v8 powered IFS truck is easy. It’s smooth, it isn’t burdened by mountain passes or a full load.  Not what I have been condition a Land Cruiser to be but I’m really starting to like it.

I eventually rolled into Taos, and apparently it was the exact wrong time of day.  Between construction, tourists and the end of the work day my travels came to a screeching halt.  Mid-week gridlock in a ski town seemed very weird to me but also frustrating. I grabbed some food at a local sandwich shop and got the hell out of town.  I had seen too many open miles that day to deal with that sort of din and congestion. I hit the road south thinking Santa Fe would be a better stop.  I’d stayed there on my trip home from Oklahoma after picking up Ruby Claire back in 2004 and had good memories. Then that damn desert twilight settled in and the urge to be away from civilization overcame me and I rolled right through Santa Fe.  A few exchanged text from another friend resulted in me finding Route 14 down to Albuquerque.  I stopped to snap a few more pics of the amazingly clear desert sunset and rolled into town just after dark. With the darkness covering the landscape and not really wanting to stay in town I figured I’d make a push for Alamogordo and get to White Sands the following day.   A few hundred  impossibly straight miles of highway and I rolled into town just in time to grab dinner at an open til midnight Wendy’s and crashed at another clean $30 motel in town.  A very long by enjoyable day.  Got a shockingly high 17mpg.  Traveled about 650 miles.  All on pavement.  It was a beautiful 650 miles and one of those days where nothing really happened but I’ll remember it for a very long time.

Route 14 Sunset

Woke up the next morning, got gas and breakfast and rolled out to the White Sands National Monument. Not really sure why, this of all places, is where I wanted to get to during this trip but when I found myself in the middle of the dunes I was glad I had made the journey.  My goal was to walk out into the dunes as far as necessary to find a spot with undisturbed sand and no other people. Sky was clear, temps were in the low 50s and it took me just a little over and hour to the perfect spot. After climbing a tall dune, I sat down, took out my camera, a Granny Smith and some peanut butter and soaked in the view.  After snapping a few pics and my quick lunch I started the walk back to my car.  I was headed generally north and the shadowed faces of the dunes were all covered in snow.  I sped up my hike by sliding down the dunes, some as high as 150 feet. I fell one or twice and got going way faster than a man in my physical condition should but it was a blast and I enjoyed every second of it. Until the very last dune. A tiny little guy of about 15 feet.  I slid down it like all the others. Only this one had a deep drift at the bottom. My lead foot sunk in the drift and my knee buckled under me and I stepped down to the road with my other foot.  No big deal, felt a tweak in my quad but that was about it.  I’d find out later that I’d torn my meniscus in the process.

Dunes

I shed my jacket and set out to take some pics of the yucca plants around the edges of the dunes. I have a weird affinity for the yucca plant that I can’t really explain.  It primarily has to do with the fact that the damn thing will survive just about anywhere in any desert. Add to that the various uses of the flower and the ideal design of the stalk for a spindle fire and you have just about the perfect desert plant. Enough rambling. Just know I spent almost 2 hours taking pictures of yucca.

White Sands Yucca

Back on the road and into, or on to, the unknown.  I really had no idea what to do that afternoon.  The previous day I’d covered so much ground that I was really almost a day ahead of schedule.  Oh wait, what schedule?  Let’s just say it took me much less time to get to White Sands than I anticipated.  So I hit the interstate toward and through Las Cruces. Somewhere near the AZ border I hung a left toward Mexcio and the town of Douglas.  A lovely two lane ribbon of asphalt unfolded before me.  The desert was interrupted by the occasional homestead but nothingness was the theme of the day.  I didn’t see one other car between I-10 and Douglas.  I felt the urge to head into Mexico but I’d intentionally left my passport at home just to avoid such a temptation.  This trek was about exploring the desert southwest of the US.  I’d been in Baja just month earlier and although I was dying to go back I knew I’d find just as much pleasure wandering the ‘local’ roads.  Fast forward a few hours, more empty miles, another spectacularly clean sunset and I arrived in Tombstone, AZ.  I’d been to Tombstone once with my parents as a kid and in my head it was just a small tourist trap but I thought it would be a good place to find some food and some people watching.  Food was okay.  People watching was fantastic.

Lonely Road

There were very few tourists in town as it wasn’t peak season.  The streets were pretty much empty with the cold temps and most of the shops were closed.  I wandered around scoping out all the restaurants before choosing one and with the town being little more than 4 streets that took all of 10 mins. Nothing really jumped out to me and then I saw a family looking at their phone and saying something to the effect of ‘it’s down there two streets.’  I assumed they were looking at some sort of tour guide so I decided to follow them, at a safe distance, even though we were the only 6 people on the street, hoping they were headed to the best joint in town.  About half way to their destination the husband and wife started arguing about something. Not sure what. Then they started arguing loudly and it was each blaming the other for getting lost.  Thought that was strange considering they were in a town the size of a football field.  As they crossed the last street in town I felt this rush of embarrassment for them and for me.  These two geniuses now yelling at each other, along with their 3 teenage children had lost their car.  Again 4 streets and the size of a football field. I made a quick about face and hurried back, chuckling the entire way, to the nearest open restaurant.  I always assumed that those apps for marking your car were meant for people in cities like NYC or Chicago.  I now understand they are for idiots.  4 Streets. Size of a football field.  Maybe I should just say I’m thankful for my innate ability to never get lost and keen sense of direction but I won’t.  These people had to use and iPhone app to find their car in Tombstone, AZ during the off season.  How many cars were parked on the street at the time? 2. Mine and theirs.  I’m still laughing about it 5 months later.

After an okay calzone I set off to find a place to camp. Not really sure how I ended up there but Patagonia Lake seemed like a good place to crash.  I threw my pad down and slept very well that night. Not a hint of pain in my knee.   I woke up rather early and realized my painless knee from the night before would not bend.  Something was definitely wrong.   I chucked all my stuff in the back of Wynonna (the beauty of traveling solo in a huge SUV is stuffing a sleeping bag or rolling a pad isn’t necessarily required) and hit the road.  Today was another day with no agenda. I broke out the map and formulated a plan.  First stop, ‘breakfast’.  Yeah really strict agenda there.  I started toward Nogales, found a McDonalds for a breakfast bagel then found a neat little dirt road running straight west along the US/Mexico border then turning northwest toward the town of Ruby.

I wasn't doing either

From the amount of signage and number or Border Patrol agents I could tell this road was a hotspot for illegal immigration and drug runners. The fact that my phone was on the TelCel network the majority of the route indicated exactly how close I was to Mexico. I probably passed 15 trucks out on patrol and was beginning to think something was going on until I stumbled across the base.  Full communications arrays, hundreds of trucks and ATVs and dozens of double wide residences and I realized it was just the hub for this region.   Oddly I didn’t see one other non-border patrol vehicle the entire morning.  Sometime before I got to Ruby I hung a left and decided to follow the border as close as possible. This new road was fantastic with great turns and ridges and uninhabited terrain. The downside is that every time I tried to rally a little bit I’d come across another patrol.   I took a few pics along the way but for the most part just enjoyed the little road I accidentally found myself on while wandering southern AZ.

Around 11 I ran into the pavement and the Sasabe road.  It had been a fantastic morning driving through a desert I never thought I’d see. I decided to take the 286 toward Tucson and a little side trip through Saguaro National Park.  Another chance to use my park pass and possibly a place to go for hike.  It was warm but not necessarily hot and after finding a trail head I realized my knee was in no shape to go hiking. So I found a picnic area, made myself a nice lunch of a cherry coke, peanut butter, a bagel and a Granny Smith.  I hadn’t yet wired up my ARB fridge in the new cruiser and had rented one of the newer style fridges from Kurt at Cruiser Outfitters that runs off a 12v outlet. I liked it so much that after returning home I sold my older style fridge on Expedition Portal and picked up a new one from Kurt.  The beauty of his rental program is that he applies the fee toward a purchase. Yes this is a plug but it worked for me and I highly recommend it.   My favorite part of the new fridge is the digital display.  On my old one I had to run a thermometer up through the cab to keep an eye on the temps.  The display on the new fridge reflects off my rear window and then looks correct in my rear view mirror. No need to run extra wires. Not to mention the battery monitor that allows me to run it, worry free, in my new truck since I’ve yet to install a second battery. (If you can’t tell I’m kind of giddy about my new fridge.)  Lunch finished I left the forest of cacti. I sent my friend Darren a text and told him that although I dig the saguaro it’s nowhere as impressive or majestic as the cardon cactus of Baja. His simple reply ‘that’s because everything is better in Baja’ was genius.  It was right about then that my trip took a very odd and unexpected turn.

View from El Conquistador

I’ve been going on a golf trip with my friends for 11 years.  Every year but one has been at PGA West in La Quinta, CA.  We always consider trying someplace new but we know how amazing the golf and accommodations are in La Quinta so we keep going back. This year some of us were anxious to try something new and I figured since I was in town I might as well do a little recon.  So in the middle of my cheap dirty wander of the southwest I checked into the Hilton El Conquistador Resort just north of Tucscon.   I was shocked to find a room for $109 and figured why not.   Before we get to the resort I just remembered something I found very odd while in Tucson that requires a bit of a digression.  I go to the same gas station near my house pretty much every day for my refilled 44oz of Cherry Coke.  Not once have they given me a free drink. I know that sounds odd but at my previous regular haunts there will be days where it’s on the house. I never would expect it but it’s a nice gesture.  4 times in Arizona, 3 of those in Tucson, the refill was on the house.  So kind and so weird.

It was still early afternoon so I stopped at a mall to pick up an Arizona atlas. I had a goal to get to Utah using as little pavement as possible and need the proper map for doing so.  Eventually I checked into the resort then drove over to check out the golf courses. Not much was visible from the road so I wasn’t able to get a good idea of the conditions or playability.  I returned to the hotel, which has a 9 hole course on property, and decided to go chat with the pro there and see what he had to say.  To his credit he told me that if we were accustomed to PGA West conditions and difficulty we’d be disappointed at his resort.  I told him I appreciated his candor and asked if I could go walk the 9 hole course.  He gave me the go ahead and I went for a walk. Oddly my knee was sore but working just fine. I thought it might just be strained and nothing really injured. The walk was good for me and as the sun set the course took on some incredible hues.  I stumbled across a coyote and tried to snap some pics but failed.  I hopped in Wynonna and wandered around Tucson trying to get a feel of the town. Had a tasty meal with a very impressive waitress at a place called High Falutin, posted up on Facebook about my intentions of a dirt only return to Utah, then fell into bed with my atlas and started planning my route.

Willow Springs Road

The next morning I lingered in bed much longer than I wanted to but finally got rolling after a breakfast at Einstein’s and another free refill and started out toward Oracle and my departure from pavement. It was there I discovered the Willow Spring road. Quite possibly the most enjoyable dirt road I’ve driven in years.  Smooth, banked, fast and great visibility to oncoming traffic.  I drove far more aggressively than I should, drifting at 60mph but it was too hard to resist.  As I got closer to Hayden a voicemail popped up on my phone.  My friends Hampton and Bush were in Phoenix, had seen my Facebook post, and wanted to know what I was doing in AZ. So I called Hampton and chatted with him. Their great aunt had died and they were helping their dad clean out her stuff and get a lot of it sold.   I told them I’d drive up to Mesa and help them load the moving truck.  About 30mins later Hampton called me back and said they’d be done sooner than expected.  At this point I’d abandoned my plan to see only dirt up to Utah and had hit SR 177 toward Superior.  We decided we’d meet in Flagstaff and have dinner.  I planned a route of 2 lane highway up past Teddy Roosevelt Lake, through Payson and Pine. It was another day of glorious 2 lane desolation from the desert up to the Ponderosa Pine forests of Northern, AZ.  I joined I-17 about an hour ahead of Bush and Hampton as they got delayed leaving Mesa.  I had originally planned to camp at the North Rim but it was closed for the winter so we decided to meet in Page as they were going to try and get home that night. I pushed on through Flagstaff pulled over to take some pics of another perfect sunset, stopped at Marble Canyon Gorge and took a leak off the bridge.  Perhaps I even howled like a wolf. I climbed the plateau up to Page, joined the Thorne brothers and their parents at Subway and scored myself a free dinner. (Thanks Morty.)  With the North Rim closed I decided that Toroweap would be a good option.   I spent the next few hours driving dark stretches of highway and 60miles of washboard out to the Toroweap overlook where I set up my tent and fell asleep rather quickly.

At this point I’m just writing for myself because I guarantee no one has read this far and honestly I’m rather tired of typing.  I’m too close to the end to give up however.  I woke up before dawn.  Damn alarm going off while camping? That makes no sense. However, I wanted to see the sunrise fill the canyon so I slowly, and I mean slowly, climbed out of my bag. I’d taken my camera into my tent, knowing how much I hate mornings and managed to snap a few pics as the sun warmed the southeast horizon.  I stuffed my feet into my frozen shoes, threw on some extra layers and hoofed it, gingerly, as my knee was not bending again, over to the rim. It was truly a beautiful morning. Despite other people in the campground I never saw another soul for the 90 mins I spent taking pics.  I loaded up my stuff, again just thrown in the back of my truck and set out for Zion. Of course I had to take the backway (dirt) into Springdale along the way.

Toroweap Sunrise

My plan to hike Angel’s Landing was sufficiently foiled when I hurt my knee in White Sands. I’d sort of forgotten it was a weekend, New Year’s Eve no less, and the parking lot was full of people heading up the trail so I probably wouldn’t have gone anyway. It had been a number of years since I’d seen the main canyon and it was far more impressive and towering than I had remembered. I stopped to watch a few climbers but felt suffocated by the number or people so I hurried my way through the park to the east and toward the Skutumpah road. This gem of a road follows the southern tip of Bryce Canyon, a few thousand feet below the rim, as it winds its way into Cannonville. As I gained elevation the road got muddier and slicker.  Then I hit the snow.  When I first hit dirt in Orderville (or is it Circleville?) I was bombing along at 65mph. I’d now slowed to around 15 in the mud.  As the road winds down into the river basin it also happens to face north.  I shifted to low/low and crawled my way down the extremely slick and sloppy road.  I’d had very bad luck a few years earlier while wheeling on NYE by myself on a volcano in Panama. Actually scratch that. I had amazing good luck, preventing an awful experience in Panama.  However I look at it, it was an awful experience I’d like avoid again and I was basically getting a sense that this day might end the same. It took me an hour to complete the final 6 miles of the road and by then I was spent.  I hit hwy 12 east toward Escalante and a stretch of road I’ve driven a dozen times or more and zoned out.  I topped off the tank, got myself a coke and set out for Boulder and the Burr Trail.  The declining light made for awesome color from what I think is the pinkest sand stone in Utah and stopped to take some pics of the Henry Mountains as I descended the Muley Twist switchbacks into the Water Pocket fold.  In 3 short sentences I skimmed over what might be the most scenic stretch of highway in Utah if not the entire western US.  But I’ve done it numerous times and for me it was a pleasant but non-thinking evening.  The exact thing I needed after the slow, focused Skutumpah finale.  Or some crap like that.  It was a great evening of beautiful scenery but nothing exciting happened.

By the time I hit the Notom-Bullfrog road it was near dark if only 530pm.  I was torn. It was getting single digit cold outside and I wasn’t keen to camp in the bitter cold again. I was closer to home than I’d been in almost a week but I was still a few hours away.  I rolled through Cainville and into Hanksville.  A lot of ‘villes’ along my route today.  Found some gas and a fountain coke at the hole in the rock gas station , or whatever it’s called. Still unsure about my plans for the night I set out north for the San Rafael Swell.  Somewhere along SR 24 I hit a wall; mentally, emotionally, physically.  I was ready to be home. A combination of a bunch of small little things. Yes I just said ‘small, little’. I have a kick ass vocabulary.  A bunch of disparate, seemingly incongruous, incidents combined to put me in a shitty ass mood.  I decided to call it quits on my journey. I entered the Swell on the Buckhorn Wash road, dropped the windows, cranked the heat and the music and bombed through the swell at an aggressive speed to help get my mind off all the ‘small, little things.’  I soon rolled into Huntington, then Price and Helper. Sub-zero temps accompanied me through Spanish Fork Canyon and now really starting to feel the fatigue I stopped and grabbed one last coke before hitting the freeway.  An hour later I was home and off the road just before the clock struck midnight on 2011.

It was a great little road trip that I ad-hoc’d together. I doubt I’ll ever see some of the stretches again but I’m glad to have seen them once.  At this point I’m damn near 6000 words so why not toss a few more out on the page to see if I can get there. I’m a rambling idiot but when I’m 80 years old I’ll have this to write up to fill in the gaps in my faded memory.  Fortunately I have a few pics too.   Over the course of my 3000 mile road trip I visited 10 National Parks or Preserves: Arches, Canyonlands, Mesa Verde, White Sands, Saguaro, Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Escalante and Capital Reef.   I covered thousands of miles of roads I’d never seen before and visited a few places I hadn’t seen in years.  Not a bad way to finish 2011.