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Fall 2018 Part 1: Impassable When Wet

Friday, November 2nd, 2018: Fall Trip 2018, Southeast Utah.

For this year’s fall camping trip, I had a vague plan to revisit Southern Paiute territory in a counter-sunwise direction, from northeast to southwest, from southeastern Utah (the Colorado Plateau), through southern Nevada, to southeastern California (the Mojave Desert). In Utah and Nevada, I hoped to seek out places and prehistoric rock art sites more remote and obscure than the ones I’d previously found.

I took a few dozen maps that I’d collected on previous trips, showing varying degrees of detail, but I had no preconceived schedule or itinerary. I wanted to make each day’s plan on the spot, based on the weather and the way things looked at that time and place. I was starting by heading north, from late October into early November, so I was prepared for cold. But my trip would later take me south to the Mojave, so I had to bring shorts and a lightweight sleeping bag. A wide variety of gear! And for the first part of the trip I’d be in very sparsely populated country with virtually no place to buy groceries, so what I took with me from home had to last a week or more.

It took me two days of driving just to get to the start of the trip. I was still recovering from my latest episode of severe lower back pain, but I had a good lumbar pad that made it possible to endure the long drives in my little old hard-sprung truck. Something I hadn’t got used to yet, or found a remedy for, was the crippling pain in my upper right arm that I’d had since last winter. That made it really difficult to shift gears. But I was excited to be on the road again, headed to some of my favorite wild country. The sky was clear for the first two days, but on the third morning, a storm front started moving over from the west.

I started out with a visit to the local museum, which had been closed when my girlfriend and I first passed through here, on our rock art trip over 30 years ago. The museum focused on what the archaeologists call the Ancestral Pueblo people, more familiarly known to us as the Anasazi. Although I’d eventually lost interest in that culture, I found it interesting how the museum highlighted collections of artifacts recently discovered by Anglo hikers and subsequently excavated and removed for display in the museum.

Like most of my friends who explore the wild places of the West, I’ve collected artifacts – potsherds and stone toolmaking flakes – but I’ve come to realize that the best place for these relics is where I found them, so others can have my experience of discovery in the future. I don’t share archaeologists’ or preservationists’ concern with preserving the past in some sort of frozen stasis, and I don’t believe majority-white archaeologists with their Eurocentric worldview are the best custodians and interpreters of the native past. So I really wish the Anglo hikers had kept their finds a secret.

For my first real day of exploring, I’d gotten it into my head to try to reach a vast, high, forested ridge of red sandstone that I had passed below and admired from a distance for decades. My previous focus had always been the canyons in the mesa below the ridge, rich with cliff ruins and rock art. But recently, the entire area had been designated a national monument, and it had been named after a pair of distinctive peaks near the south end of the ridge.

As I drove toward the ridge from thirty miles away in the east, I could see those peaks under the low mass of clouds that was spreading from the west. Rain was forecast with this storm, and temperatures were in the forties. I knew that throughout this area, unpaved roads were posted with prominent signs warning “Impassable When Wet,” and the road I planned to take up the ridge was one of those roads. But my maps showed that it was also a “backcountry byway” which was presumably maintained for tourism by car. Oh well, I thought, if I get caught in the rain, I’ll just have to pull over and make camp. Sure, I never bring a tent – I’ve camped in the rain many times by wrapping a waterproof poncho or tarp around my sleeping bag, like a cocoon. But if that didn’t work, I could always spend the night sitting up in my truck seat. No worries.

When I found the road and left the pavement behind, it started out pretty good. They’d laid down a thick layer of gravel and it was a wide road. But when it began to climb the side of the ridge in steep, twisting switchbacks, it turned to red clay – the fine powder eroded from sandstone over eons – and got narrow, with a sheer dropoff on one side and a deep, narrow ditch on the other.

I drove up about a thousand feet, with spectacular views all the way, then topped on a rolling ledge forested with pinyon and juniper, with pulloffs to undeveloped campsites on each side. There was standing water in the roadside ditches – it must’ve rained last week – but the clay road itself was dry and hard as rock. I could see the twin peaks up ahead, and after a few miles, the road began climbing again, to a notch between them. Passing through it, I looked down across the ridge proper, a high, rolling plateau of alternating sagebrush meadows and mixed pine and fir forest that stretched dozens of miles to the horizon. The peaks were roughly 9,000′ elevation and the ridgetop plateau was roughly 8,500′.

Up here, there were patches of snow beside the road, and more snow on the northeast side of the peaks. And as I drove down onto the plateau, I passed large pools of muddy water in low places, and shady patches of road that were still flooded and muddy. It must’ve really rained last week.

But the cloud cover overhead kept breaking up and revealing blue sky, and by and large the road was still hard as rock. I figured the temperature was in the 30s up here, and the road must be frozen from hard freezing overnight. I wasn’t worried. Even if it rained, surely the road would stay hard.

I passed turnoffs for side roads to trailheads. Off to my left, in the north, I knew there was a huge wilderness area encompassing a canyon system that I’d tried to reach from its mouth, far to the northwest, years ago. It really intrigued me. The maps showed a trailhead located on this very road, about 20 miles northeast, and I hoped to camp there and hike a few miles down into the wilderness.

I passed grazing cattle, corrals, and stock ponds. I passed a couple of big utility trucks, but I didn’t see any other campers. I came to an overlook where I got a glimpse of impressive canyons and distant tall mountains, far in the east.

Then the road branched off and turned north, and snow began falling. Of course! At this elevation it wouldn’t rain, it would snow. As long as it didn’t accumulate more than a few inches, I was sure I’d be fine. It was cold enough that it’d be dry snow, no problem for my rear-wheel-drive truck with poor weight distribution. I could always let some air out of my tires for better traction. And the road was already frozen solid so no problem with getting bogged down in mud. I might have to camp out in the snow, but I’d done that just a few years ago and had a great time.

Mile after mile, I twisted and turned, up and down through tall trees, past the occasional small, overgrazed meadow. Snow fell heavier, but it wasn’t sticking. I reached a major trailhead with a big parking area and lots of informational kiosks, but it was a 4wd trail. The forest got heavier, and I continued for another 10 miles or so. I was inside the cloud now and couldn’t see more than a few dozen feet from side to side. Finally I drove down a steep grade, and at the low point there was a small sign: “The Notch”. I couldn’t see anything, but apparently it was a narrow pass with steep dropoffs on each side. And there was the trailhead I’d been looking for.

I parked and suited up in my winter gear. Snow was falling heavily but still wasn’t sticking on the road. I watched for a while to see if the flakes were melting as they touched the clay. Yes, they were. My theory of a frozen road turned out to be wrong. My heart started racing, just a little bit.

I love snow, so I was excited, regardless of what was to come. I started hiking down the trail into the head of the famous canyon. I made it a few hundred yards before I realized that the snow was rapidly turning into a blizzard and accumulating on the trees and the ground. I climbed back to the road, which had developed a half-inch layer of white. I knew I was in trouble, here, 30 miles off the paved highway and 70 miles from the nearest town, with no cell coverage if I needed help. Part of me had known from the beginning this was a bad idea.

Although I’d never driven these powder-clay roads when they were wet, I’d read accounts of what happened to them, and seen the aftermath. They instantly turned to a sticky bog with the consistency of mashed potatoes that accumulated on your tires, turning them into giant mud donuts, until even high-clearance 4wd vehicles bogged down all the way to their engine blocks. When the clay dried you’d be fossilized in the road itself like a woolly mammoth in the Tar Pits. 4wd trucks that were foolish enough to drive these roads before the clay completely dried, created ruts a foot or more deep that were nearly impossible for others to navigate afterwards.

But now, the snow was only a half inch deep, and the clay surface was still hard. I drove carefully up the grade into the forest, my heart in my throat. As long as I kept rolling and stayed in first gear, I seemed to be okay. But the snow was falling heavier and I had 30 miles of this to go. I really didn’t think I could make it.

I soon found the limits of my traction. Even at low speed, in first gear, there were places where I just lost control and started sliding toward the deep, flooded ditch at the side of the road. One tire in that ditch and I’d be immobilized. But the tires always caught just before the ditch, and I continued my agonizingly slow progress across the high plateau.

What I feared was the climb up the grade to the notch between the namesake peaks. I was sure I’d lose traction there, but even if I made it over, there was the steep grade down the other side, without guard rails and a sheer drop of 500′ or more, instead of just a ditch, when I started to slide.

Mile after mile through the blizzard, losing traction again and again, sliding toward the flooded ditch, only to regain my grip and progress a few more miles. Finally I felt I was on the final short down slope to the big meadow just before the climb to the notch. I very carefully slowed to a stop on that down slope, figuring I would scout on foot for a place to pull over and camp in the snow if I lost traction and couldn’t climb the grade ahead. But as soon as I stepped out of the truck, my feet slipped out from under me. The road, under the 2 inches of snow that had now accumulated, was a completely frictionless surface. By sticking to rougher ground at the edge, I was just barely able to walk a dozen yards down to the meadow. I had no idea how I’d been able to drive this far on this road in these conditions! I could barely even walk it!

Through the cloud off the side of the road, I suddenly saw a bull elk with a huge rack, making his way through the high sagebrush. He turned and saw me, and then I saw the others, a herd of cow elk following him. They began walking uphill toward the notch. Behind them, there was a side trail, of sorts, leaving the main road for a short distance just above the meadow. It was rough and there was no place to camp. I walked off the road, under the big trees, and felt the dead branches near the ground where the snow hadn’t yet reached. They were all drenched. There’d be no dry firewood anywhere on this ridge. It was clear that if I pulled off there, I’d be stuck in the cab of my truck, without fire, maybe for days, until somebody showed up to rescue me. So I carefully made my way back to the truck, determined to try driving up the grade. Just keep trying.

Somehow, I made it to the notch between the peaks. And down the grade on the other side, which wasn’t as bad as I remembered, to the long ledge with all the primitive campsites. Hey, it wasn’t snowing so bad down here, and it hadn’t started accumulating on the road yet. I started looking at those campsites and thinking I might just stop.

Then, at a low point in the clay road, with deep flooded ditches on both sides, I suddenly lost traction again. I let my foot off the gas, kept the clutch engaged, and let the engine idle just apply some gentle rotation to the rear tires. They spun freely in the wet clay, and me and the truck drifted, oh so slowly, toward the nearest ditch, which was at least two feet deep.

I gently maneuvered the steering wheel, trying to use the front tires as rudders, but with virtually no effect. My truck was like a hockey puck. Just drifting to the edge of that ditch, agonizingly slow, then hovering, then drifting a little ways back toward the crown of the road.

This went on forever! Literally, for between 5 and 10 minutes, the truck rotating, drifting to one side or the other, the wheels slowly spinning, the hideous gaping maw of that deep muddy ditch getting inches nearer or inches farther away, with me seemingly helpless to influence my fate.

Then finally, I felt something change. The wheels were again in line with the road, and I had a measure of control over steering and speed. I gave up on those campsites. I realized I had the thousand feet of really steep grade, with its nightmarish dropoffs, still ahead of me.

Before I got there, the road actually became dry. And I pulled off into the trees just before the down grade, and found what would normally, in benign conditions, be an amazing campsite, with unbelievable views out across the endless mesa. But there was no dry firewood here either, and I had no idea how long the storm would continue. I could still easily get stuck up here if it kept snowing overnight. So I left the ridge behind, amazed that I’d been able to get out. To return again in warmer, drier weather.

This is a vast area, and the storm had only been forecast to cover the southern part of it. My next logical destination lay to the northwest. It was still just mid-afternoon, and I thought if I kept driving I might get to a dry area where it’d be possible to camp.

And I did eventually emerge out from under the storm, but there was still standing water everywhere from last week’s big downpour. I’d never seen anything like it. Mile after mile, I pulled over again and again, but couldn’t find a usable road or a dry campsite. It was bitterly cold and my arm was really aching. The sun went down, and after dark, I arrived in the only tiny hamlet in the middle of this huge landscape, where I spent the night indoors, in a fairly dismal but not nearly cheap enough motel room.

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