As happens from time to time, this morphed into a pretty long post, so if you’re the visual type and don’t have the time or patience to read all these words then skip down to the bottom for the photo gallery.
If there was a single standout moment for me at the Overland Expo in Flagstaff back in May, that moment was when, in the midst of setting up our camp in the Featured Vehicle area, my subconscious isolated and registered a familiar noise, one that I had not heard in some time.
Like a hound hearing the distant voice of a long-lost owner, my ears literally pricked up and I dropped the tent poles I was holding to look up and isolate the source. There, jouncing toward me over the uneven field of the campground, was a silver, boxy specter, Rivets himself, piloted by our long-lost Baja travel companions Alex and Ashek.
We had said our regretful good-byes to each other on the beach at Los Frailes some twelve hundred miles ago as they had to race north to Vancouver in order to tend to family matters, and over the next month or two Val and I discovered just how much we had enjoyed traveling with them, because it became clear to us just how much we missed them.
We had traded a few messages but it was unclear if their plans or time would permit them to make it south again from British Columbia to Arizona in time to be at the Expo, so it was with genuine surprise and heartfelt delight that Val and I recognized the unmistakeable blue mop of Alex’s hair as she popped her head out of the window.
They vaulted from Rivets, and the four of us, joined shortly by the girls to make it six, ran around in circles screaming and yelling like kids before hugging each other in a massive, clumsy scrum.
As the Expo drew to a close we made plans with them to rendezvous on the north rim of the Grand Canyon in roughly a weeks’ time. A ranger in Cottonwood had identified a campground there to us as one of the best little-known spots in the entire park (which, incidentally, it was: a sixty mile unsigned forest service road led to it, there was no permit or fee required, and it was a small cluster of just nine campsites in a little rock cove within maybe a hundred yards of the lip of the canyon itself).
After a week of errands and tending to some personal matters of our own, and after an incredible drive that had us crossing the Colorado over Navajo Bridge, we nosed Red Beauty onto the trail that led to the north rim Tuweep campground, having left word with the Ranger there that we were expecting friends.
With no phone service our job was to simply wait and keep our fingers crossed, and after a few days we came back from a day hike along the rim to find a Land Rover parked at our site – but not the one we were expecting.
It was the unmistakable white LR3 and Adventure Trailer combination that belonged to our newly-minted friend Oliver, with whom we had camped at Expo and who quickly revealed himself to be a very desirable travel companion because he was generally cheerful, had silicone spray (our tent zipper was misfiring) and, buried in his trailer, a bunch of very, very good scotch that he happily shared in the evenings.
In catching up with Oliver, we discovered that Rivets had developed the not inconsequential problem of a leaking fuel tank, and Alex and Ashek had been forced to seek out a place to drop the tank and get the thing re-welded. I suppose these things can happen after over 25 years’ spent in hard service.
Oliver camped with us for the next couple of nights and we left the Grand Canyon together with a plan to disperse briefly, allowing Oliver to try to track down Rivets while we made our way up into southern Utah to take the excellent recommendation of a Salt Lake City couple we had met to camp at Calf Creek State Park.
From Calf Creek we made our way to Capitol Reef National Park, and were able to re-establish contact with both Oliver and Team Rivets. On the recommendation of the campsite host at Capitol Reef, we actually camped just outside the park on a plot of BLM land, surrounded by towering cliffs and with a view out over the town of Torrey and the snow-capped peaks beyond it.
We scouted the area and picked our spot and eagerly kept our eyes on the roadway, a vigil that was ultimately rewarded by the appearance of Oliver, and then Rivets. Over the next few days we got the full story of the gas tank repair which was effected, involuntarily, in stages and saw Alex and Ashek dropping the tank three separate times.
However, the repair was holding well and, after a few fabulous days spent at our site just outside Capitol Reef, we sat down one night over drinks and dinner and drinks and made a group decision to work our way further westward and visit Canyonlands.
Thanks to a prior scouting mission, Oliver confirmed that the place was beautiful (we were coming to learn that everything in southern Utah is beautiful) and noted that while on road in the northern section of the park he had seen some kitted-out vehicles traveling on a backcountry road that circumnavigated a huge section of the canyon high above the Green River.
With Rivets now holding her fuel, and our sense of adventure piqued, all of us decided to head out the next morning and see if we could get a backcountry permit to do the 90 mile loop of White Rim Trail.
We convoyed the four hours to Canyonlands and finally made our way into the Visitor’s Center by mid afternoon, which gave us two or three hours of useable daylight to work with and, we figured, should quite easily allow us to make it to our first campsite, wherever that might be.
Now, we had been traveling in Mexico for the past four months, one of the most sparsely populated places in the continent, so one of the things we never had to contend with was driving all day to get to a place only to have someone shake their head mournfully when we arrived and tell us we should have made reservations.
But we’re not in the Baja any more, Dolores. This is the kind of place where people wait for a year to get their backcountry camping permits lined up, so three grimy vehicles showing up at the last minute on a weekend represented a low-probability event.
As a group, we approached the volunteer manning the counter at the Visitor’s Center and I explained that the three of us wanted a backcountry permit for the White Rim Road, and would need campsites for four or five nights, please.
The fellow raised his eyebrows and exhaled in pre-emptive disappointment.
Noting that he didn’t think there were any campsites available at all, for the entire week, he would still check and so he asked about the number in our party.
Three vehicles and a trailer, I replied, doubly jeopardizing our trip without really realizing it.
Oliver’s little Adventure Trailer was a marvel of compact engineering and the source of much, much jealousy for the rest of us for weeks as we watched him dip into its roomy interior and produce cold beer, arcane electrical diagnostic tools, and a nightly cheese platter (“It’s a brie, but it’s pasteurized milk, I hope that is OK with everybody”).
His set-up has a very roomy rooftop tent mounted on top of the trailer with a large second room that deploys on the ground below, which we all took advantage of during a very spectacular lightning and thunder storm at Capitol Reef, and had us rename the area “The O Room” as we all enjoyed its dark, dry interior, drinks in hand, maelstrom held at bay.
The trailer is small, extremely well laid out, and has a full suspension and high clearance as it is specifically designed for off road use.
But the National Park system has not yet caught up with Adventure Trailers. At the Grand Canyon, Oliver had to enter into an intense negotiation to get permission to bring the trailer to our campsite because there is a blanket prohibition on trailers (the Ranger, who shall remain nameless to protect his identity, was a terrific guy who elected to show some flexibility on this rule and let Oliver in).
Canyonlands allows three vehicles per backcountry site, which was obviously perfect for our group, but Oliver’s trailer for some reason counted as an extra vehicle, a huge disappointment and a logistical nightmare for us given that there appeared to be few, if any, campsites available and now we would need two per night for our party.
Ashek stared at me, essentially saying “you got us into this mess, now you get us out” with his eyes, and the former salesman in me surfaced, ready to tackle the charged deliberations ahead.
Let’s first figure out if there are any sites available, I offered to the volunteer, and while you’re doing that I think you should really just have a peek at Oliver’s trailer, you’d love it, it is really, really compact and the Rangers at the Grand Canyon were comfortable letting it into the site we were at, and my goodness don’t you look handsome in that uniform…
The Hand of God intervened, and there happened to be four sites available, sequentially over the next four days, at four different camps along the road, each one roughly 15 to 20 miles apart.
Literally perfect for us, and a good enough stroke of luck that the volunteer raised his eyebrows and let out a low whistle.
Further, the volunteer, who had begun the conversation with a “no” on his lips and in his mind with regard to the trailer issue, moderated his position to a “maybe” and then finally called in a Park Ranger to make a final decision. To his credit, the Ranger took one peek at Oliver’s trailer and said “it’s fine.”
And with that, we parted with $30 (for all three of us, for five nights and five days, incredible), filled up every water container we had, let a bunch of air out of our tires and crept off to the White Rim Trail.
There are switchbacks, and then there are switchbacks.
The White Rim Trail doesn’t afford much opportunity for a warm-up, as within a mile of entering the gate and bouncing along a reasonably well-maintained gravel road, you are suddenly on a sheer cliff, looking down maybe a thousand feet or more at a slim beige line leading off into the distance and you realize that the road goes from being up here to down there in a hell of a hurry.
I meant to change the brake pads after we got out of the Baja but, of course, never did, and that lassitude began to haunt me immediately.
Time to give the kids a crash course in engine braking.
“What if somebody is coming the other way?” Val very reasonably asked as we made yet another 180 degree blind turn on a 15% decline and sent loose rocks dribbling over the edge.
“Nobody is coming the other way.”
“What? How can you be sure?”
“Ah, well, I’m pretty sure.”
“You’re just making that up.”
We made it to the bottom and were rewarded with one of those views that is so distinct and exclusive to the desert that it becomes the rationale and reward for the journey in the first place, high mesas plunging into bottomless canyons, mountains in the distance and a dozen different shades of red and pink and orange, curves and swoops and arches and huge isolated boulders, towers of rock left standing alone against the horizon.
We all took a break to drink it in, and then moved onward to our first campsite.
The site was located on a broad rock shelf and relatively flat, so we had our tent up in no time and began agitating for Oliver to establish the cheese tray as quickly as possible.
We arranged our chairs in a broad crescent, and the girls raced about playing some unknown game while was enjoyed a communal meal and a cold drink and recounted the switchbacks that had led us here.
Worth the effort, we agreed, and as the sun set, sleep came quite early and easily for all of us.
Day two was Ladies Day behind the wheel, as Alex commandeered Rivets and Val took the helm of Red Beauty. The trail had just about every dry challenge in the book, from sand to bare rock to bumps to sharp rises and falls, and the combination of Val and the truck handled things very capably, and we made good progress that morning as we plodded our way toward our second campsite, on a high dome.
In the lead, Val came to a stop when we got to a section of the trail called Murphy’s Hogback.
It rose so abruptly from the ledge we were running along that as a group we decided to walk it in order to evaluate just how big a challenge it represented.
It was a cocktail of problems, not only being very tight with a sheer drop on one side and featuring a sharp left turn at the entrance (so, no way to build up momentum ahead of the climb), but there was a nice, blind, decreasing-radius turn two thirds of the way up, and the whole thing was covered in a layer of loose rock and earth the entire way, presenting a real traction issue.
And it was steep, steep enough that as we walked it, I had to keep my arms splayed out to keep my balance and found myself taking frequent stops to simply catch my breath.
Rivets, with no modern traction control and a manual transmission (meaning, the potential to stall and begin sliding backwards while whomever was piloting it got to frantically try to start the engine while braking and steering backwards) would bravely go first.
Ashek plotted his game plan and sent Alex up ahead to make sure there was no oncoming traffic, locked his differentials, and, after sending forth a plume of angry black smoke, the little silver box was off, grunting its way up the hill, and, to our wild shouts of encouragement from below, made the turn and crested the Hogback.
Red Beauty was next, operating on the theory that if there was an issue for Oliver and his trailer, we could use Red Beauty as a tow vehicle (after, of course, emptying it of roughly a thousand pounds of our gear).
I took over driving and put her in 4WD Low, ready to engage the locker if there was a real problem, and began to inch up the hill, planning on replicating the line that Ashek had followed.
On a road barely big enough to fit a vehicle in the first place, it sounds kind of silly to talk about a “line”, but the ascent was so hairy that there were multiple spots where placing the wheels three inches in one direction vs. the other meant avoiding a rock, a ledge, an eroded crevice, or some other traction-robbing feature that might make things unnecessarily exciting when you’re carting your family and everything you own about in a place that is a long, long way from help, medical or otherwise.
But our big Toyo tires, aired down to barely 15 pounds, hungrily glued themselves to the trail and the truck plodded her way forward ceaselessly, and while the girls sat chirping away in the back seat, obliviously working on a set of drawings, Val and I sweat through our shirts as she kept me appraised of where the starboard side of the truck was (“Um, you’re a little close to the cliff wall here”) and I kept track of port (“I think I have at least a half inch of room before the road drops away”) and, to the cheers of Alex and Ashek, we summited.
It was Oliver’s turn next, and I will say this:
Watching him drive a Land Rover with stock suspension and stock tires and pulling a trailer, I simply could not believe how comfortably he piloted it, and how well that vehicle did, right out of the box, in the conditions it found itself in. It was a living advertisement for Land Rover, and their marketing guys should contact him for the footage he has from his little Go Pro camera.
Which is to say, despite a little wheel spin here and there, he made it to the top without too much drama.
Relieved, we made our way to our next camp, which sat at the top of a large white sandstone dome and offered a spectacular view to the west of a warren of canyons and meadows and red cliffs.
After a brief conversation about who was going to set up where in the spacious site, we established our camp and worked on feeding the girls, ourselves, and then watched Ashek gamely check the entirety of Rivets’ fuel systems, just to make sure all of his repair work was holding (and it was), while Oliver worked on a cheese platter.
The morning of Day Three had us leaving Murphy’s Hogback to head toward Potato Bottom which, encouragingly, showed itself to be quite close to a bend in the Green River which, to date, had only been showing glimpses of itself thousands of feet below us.
More descents waited, therefore, including the left hand turn out of our camp that was steep enough that, while I was enjoying a morning cup of coffee with Leonie, I bore witness to an entire peloton of mountain bikers dismount to walk down the first thirty yards.
Val was on duty again this morning, and the day before we had scouted the descent, which had one pretty dramatic turn but we felt was otherwise doable. And, after carefully crawling off the Hogback, we were off, working our way down out of the high mesa and toward the Green River itself.
Which, upon our arrival at Potato Bottom, proved itself to be neither Green, nor really accessible. Melt had swollen it pretty substantially, so the river was high into the scrub on the banks and moving fast, and there was no evident way to get to it and take a dunk to shed some of the grime that was clinging to us even if we wanted to.
So we set up camp in the hot sun, and hid from the afternoon heat under a clutch of grand old cottonwoods, and I (foolishly) went for a run and returned, panting, to find Ashek and Oliver busy rotating the tires from the Adventure Trailer to the front of the LR3.
I mean, why not?
We plotted tomorrow’s mission and agreed that while we had booked the next campsite, Labyrinth, for two nights, given how damn hot it was during the day and how dry the air was, and how low we were getting on water, we’d probably be best served spending just one more night.
But tomorrow night, which would now be our last night in Canyonlands, was going to be a big night, for sure, as we quietly conspired with Alex to celebrate Ashek’s birthday. Given the effort he had placed into celebrating the girls’ birthdays, it seemed only appropriate that we would be in a position to pay it forward.
And pay it forward we would as, unbeknownst to Ashek, nestled in the coldest, darkest corner of our ARB fridge was a gift more valuable than gold itself out here in the desert: we had a sixteen ounce can of Guinness, the good stuff, which we had brought all the way from southern Arizona after finding a lonely four pack of the stuff at a local grocer.
The best birthday present ever? Possibly, and we’d find out for sure tomorrow.
The next morning we moved out. Thanks to jogging the trail the day prior, I was able to forewarn the group about a pretty tight ascent that looked to be about the equal of the Hogback. Alex heroically volunteered to head up with a radio to let us know that the coast was clear, and we fired up the vehicles and moved out, Rivets in the lead.
We were cautious, certainly, but given our prior success on the Hogback we were all confident and soon found ourselves reconvening at the top of the hill.
The surprise event for this leg of the trip was a legitimate river crossing.
We were driving through a part of the road that was basically in a trench, hemmed on either side by a compacted red sand wall, and as we made our way through this dusty tunnel I saw brake lights ahead and came to a stop, exiting the cab to see what was going on.
The Green River, overflowing thanks to the snowmelt, had pushed its way up through what was supposed to be a dry arroyo and completely washed out roughly forty or fifty feet of roadway. We all rolled up our pants and made out way across, guinea pigs to determine just how deep the water was, how fast it might be moving, and what kind of traction the bottom might offer us.
At its deepest, the water was coming up just over my knees, and the bottom was pretty firm below a few inches of muck, so we figured we’d hold our collective breath and send the vehicles over. Ashek, who viewed the crossing as an early birthday present, tied a yellow balloon to his radio antenna and drove Rivets triumphantly across. Oliver was up next, and we made room for him on the opposite bank so he could get a head of steam up in order to make sure both his truck, and his trailer, ended up on the far side.
Finally, it was Red Beauty’s turn.
I turned to the back seat to ask the girls if they were excited that we were about to drive into a river, but the ladies, having become bored with the delay and the discussions involving entry and departure angles, had their headphones on and were absorbed in a viewing of Kung Fu Panda.
And so it was that Red Beauty made her way across the stream, Val on the shore snapping photos, me gripping the wheel in white knuckled anxiety, and the ladybugs chuckling away at the voice talent of Jack Black.
We made our way toward the Labyrinth campsite, and pulled in just after noon to set ourselves up on a broad shelf of splintery, cabernet-colored rock and, with the full weight of the sun bearing down us us, scrambled to establish some shade.
We deployed a couple of large white triangular cloth sails that we actually picked up at an Ikea earlier in the trip, extending the coverage provided by the awning underneath Rivets, and set a table and chairs up underneath.
And, as the sun began to set, we set about properly preparing for Ashek’s birthday. Alex, with the girl’s help, ran a stringer of balloons beneath the awning and Oliver opened up that Santa’s Sleigh of a trailer of his and produced enough yardage of multicolored monofilament lighting to make our camp look like an outdoor nightclub from Cancun, circa 1997.
We presented Ashek with his present, a chilled can of Guinness wrapped in a paper towel and a length of paracord, which he visibly appreciated and tore into with gusto. Oliver deployed his camp stove, which was a truly astonishing three burner masterpiece, and which permitted me to begin to sear up a host of hand cut and herbed fries for all of us. Alex was busy grilling steaks and sausages, and in short order we were sitting down to what was, by any standard, a pretty lavish meal.
Val and I produced a very decent bottle of red that we had been hiding in the back of the truck for just such and occasion, and we listened to music, ate, told stories, laughed, and had ourselves a pretty grand time. Once the plates had been cleared and the birthday cake devoured (a no-bake Jello cherry pie that was, frankly, delicious), Alex introduced us to Werewolf, a fairly simple game that taught the girls how to bluff, lie, and manipulate people for personal gain.
They loved it, and were quick studies.
The premise of the game is simple: one person in a group is a neutral arbiter, and everyone else is either a Citizen, a Doctor, or the Werewolf. In every round, the Werewolf picks someone to kill in secret, the doctor picks someone to save in secret, and the citizens sit around hoping not to die. At the end of the round, the arbiter identifies who has died, and then everyone simply talks to everyone, trying to figure out who the werewolf is, and then, by vote, eliminates one of their own in a witch-hunt atmosphere.
If they’re right, and they vote the person off who is indeed the werewolf, then nobody else dies and the arbiter tells the group they’ve all safe.
If they’ve made a mistake, then the arbiter breaks the news that one of the group has died, and the werewolf is still on the loose.
So basically, you sit around a table with a drink in your hand trying to throw anyone and everyone under the bus, and if you happen to be the werewolf, lying through your teeth. Embarrassingly, my six year old daughter, Sylvie, learned in a hurry and managed to knock off her old man in two different games when she was the werewolf and then survive to the end.
By the time we were done were-wolfing, the sun had long set, it was finally cool enough to be comfortable, and the night sky was dark and showing an extraordinary mess of stars thanks to the moon being just a sliver at this point in its cycle. Just when we had assumed there was nothing else Oliver might pull out of the depths of his Adventure Trailer that could possibly surprise us, he reached in, rummaged about, and surfaced with what were basically a pair of nunchucks with bright lights on either end.
Valerie called them “love weapons” which, of course, is a descriptor that will likely get this site flagged as pornographic, but it’s a risk we’ll take.
In time to the music, Oliver proceeded to put on a one man light show and twirled, swung, juggled and danced with the love weapons, leaving glowing trails of light standing out against the black background of the canyons and completely mesmerizing the lot of us for at least half an hour.
Finally, with us demanding to know just where on earth he’d picked up this particular skill, and Oliver conceding that at some point in his past he had DJ’d the odd rave or two (“I dabble”), he admitted he had run out of tricks and the girls had run out of steam and we broadly concluded that it was time to call it a night, so we did.
We packed up early in the morning the next day in order to avoid the brunt of the midday heat, and then focused on the important stuff: lazing about and watching as Oliver commandeered his monster grill and made an enormous batch of scrambled eggs, broccoli, sweet potatoes and fresh queso for the lot of us.
Feeling perhaps a little stiff thanks to the prior evening’s celebration of Ashek being a little older, I wolfed down the eggs and felt substantially better on the follow.
The way out subjected us to some pretty significant vertical gain, as we had to pick our way up and away from the Green River’s banks and get back up to the high mesa, and there weren’t a whole lot of miles to do it in. We were confronted with what were just about the most serious switchbacks we’d seen to date, complete with the rusted hulks of vehicles on the cliff walls demonstrating the downside potential of a missed turn.
But we made it up and out, of course, and then slogged the ten or fifteen miles to a small gravel lot that marked, rather unremarkably, the end of this trip. It was a real ending, too, in the sense that Val and I now had to race north to make it to Jackson, Wyoming, in order to attend the wedding of a close friend, while Oliver, Alex and Ashek decided to explore Moab and Arches.
So, quite sadly and reluctantly, we were forced to say goodbye to our friends. It seemed unfair, really, that we find ourselves in a position where we keep having to say goodbye to Alex and Ashek. But, I suppose the good news is that we can always look forward to saying hello again.
It was tough to bid adieu to Oliver, too, and not just because we had come to rely on his ability to curate a decent cheese platter. He was kind and patient with the girls, even as they scrambled all over his gear on a daily basis, and I have to say was kind and patient with Val and I, also.
After all, here’s a bachelor making his way across the country in style, and he’s for some reason voluntarily hanging out with an old married couple and their kids.
Just another reminder that half of the experience of travel is built on the physical places you see and things you touch, and the other half is this odd, foggy variable that comprises the people you meet and the friendships you forge.
As Val and I drove north toward Salt Lake City, we were both quiet, not half an hour from having pulled away from the White Rim Road and yet already feeling far too distant from it.
Evidence of the pleasantness below: