Cooper Discoverer: Backing Down Elephant Hill for Love


Overlanding Nurse
A second chance in life: isn't that what so many of us wish for?

I stood next to the dusty truck, smiling broadly, trying not to laugh at the absurdity of our situation. Donna had settled down a bit, but was still chatting nervously with one of the Land Rover guys as Bill and I pored over the Benchmark map. The Rover guys were standing by chuckling, giving the occasional thumbs up.

Decades earlier I had spent half a year rebuilding an old Series II Land Rover. My stepdad had driven the old girl all over Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, through India and Nepal. His work with the Peace Corps had allowed him to explore some of the most remote and beautiful areas of the world. Never one to travel the common path, his stories of the road less traveled had sparked my interest in adventure. As a callow youth I had little to stop me from embarking on adventures of my own, and he generously offered the old Landy as a means of travel. Learning her secrets, marveling at the power of a 7/16 inch wrench and little else to take her down to bits, gaining confidence in the rugged simplicity of the time-tested design...these constituted the early stages of my journey and were in and of themselves thrilling. I had read and re-read Peter Matthiessen's adventures in Africa, fascinated with the wildlife and cultures of that vast continent, but even more so with his descriptions of roaming the roadless savannas in his Land Rover. Though having no experience in driving off pavement, I found myself called to the dirt, the dust, the rock and sand of arid landscapes. Having been raised on a barrier island, the son of a marine biologist, the sea was my home; the desert and the mountains were strange, exotic places, beckoning to me. And so I prepared to embark.

Then life happened. As is so often the case, the best-laid plans, etc.; you know how that story goes. Illness, family crisis, massive upheaval...the adventure is set aside. Inertia propels one down a new path and a young man, overwhelmed and unprepared to swim against the tide of change, acquiesces to what seems like the inevitable. And so I did what I thought best, and raised my own family, and this came along with more challenges, more medical complications, and years turned into decades.

An 89 year old man asked me a few years ago, "Anson, do you ever tell your kids that they have no idea how fast their life will go by?"

"Oh yes," I replied, "they hear that from me all the time."

"Anson," he said, looking me in the eyes and lowering his voice, "you have no idea how fast your life is going to go by."

It made the hairs on my neck stand on end.

And so I found myself in a second marriage, in a second career, and being of a certain age with a goodly amount of life experience behind me, gaining a perspective of gratitude for what I'd learned along the way. Along the bumpy road of life, in the school of hard knocks. A bit battered, to be sure, but having an appreciation for the opportunities I'd been granted, the experience that I now had under my belt. New desires for adventure were rekindled from the ashes of dreams that I thought had been long abandoned. The rock and sand were still calling to me, and I found myself again attending to this call, and I made plans to regain the path of exploration.

The Montero bounced and bumped over the sandstone ledges, hot air blasting us and dust swirling about the cabin. I hadn't thought to air down the tires (being an absolute novice at this), but it didn't matter. The White Rim trail opened before us and the hundreds (thousands?) of square miles of Canyonlands National Park that lay before us drew repeated gasps of awe. It was June in the Utah desert, a stark contrast from the damp, cool "Juneuary" of the Pacific Northwest. When we later asked a ranger why we had only seen one other vehicle on the entire trail, she gave us a funny look and replied, "you do know that we're having a heat wave, don't you?" No worries...we had lots of water and this pair of pale northwesterners were perfectly happy to bask in the heat; the windows were down and the A/C was off by choice.

While the heat was the omnipresent force that commanded a great deal of our attention, the beauty of the desert was constantly diverting that attention. The varying colors and textures of White Rim sandstone, of Chinle, Wingate and Kayenta formations were absolutely breathtaking. The environment was at once harsh and unforgiving and yet soft and beautiful, sensuous and subtle. And we had the whole place to ourselves.

I cannot really convey the feeling of being in such a place at this time of my life. Photographs cannot possibly give the sense of spectacular grandeur of the landscape, nor can they capture the subtleties. Even videos fail to portray the delicate essence of the place: the whisper of the hot breeze, the gentle scent of the hardy vegetation, the feelings coming up through the vehicle as textures and angles change, the grateful delight of breaking a new bottle of water out of the cooler to replace the last dregs of hot liquid that preceded it. To be in this place with Donna made it one of the most complete and satisfying experiences of my life. I'm a social animal, and though I've poked around this world a bit while alone, the opportunity to share the experience with someone I love multiplies the enjoyment a hundredfold. Adding to the sense of delight was the fact that this was a trial run for us. Never before had we camped together, never before had our travels taken us out of cities and airports and hotels for much more than a day or two. To see her joy in sharing the adventure with me made me whisper prayers of thanks for this second chance. To have her ask me whether I thought we could make it to the top of that hill in a voice charged with enthusiasm and childlike wonder almost brought tears to my eyes. Thank you, God. I didn't know that it could be like this. Thank you.

In preparing for this trip I had spent a year finding a vehicle, choosing the Montero for its reputation for reliability and off-road competence. My Land Rover lust had never fully abated, and I had almost pulled the trigger a couple of times on wonderfully rugged trucks from Solihull, but financial necessity meant that the vehicle would also have to serve as a daily driver, grocery wagon and parental bus for various soccer and volleyball teams. Combining suburban comfort and true 4x4 ability with little needed in the way of expensive modifications, I was and still am extremely happy with my choice. And so we proceeded to explore several other trails in the Moab area, eschewing campgrounds (when possible) in favor of primitive dispersed sites, returning to town only when supplies required replenishment. Having generous capacity for both water and fuel and with the efficiency of our Engel 80-quart cooler, those return to civilization trips were pleasingly infrequent. Donna and I had an absolute ball learning a new way of travel!

And thus, gentle reader, we come to the crux of the story. We found ourselves at the Needles District ranger station, filling out the backcountry permit for camping in Chesler Park. Yes, it meant a trip over Elephant Hill. The ranger asked whether our vehicle was lifted...well, sort of...I put larger tires on it...we'll be fine. Yes we would, I promised Donna. After all, hadn't I watched all those YouTube videos of stock-looking trucks negotiating the famous trail? We'll just go slowly and carefully and have a great time.

And so we arrived at this famously difficult trail. NOW I would air down the tires and would finally test the Montero's legendary abilities. NOW I would drop us into 4-low-lock for some bona fide adventure! We waited while a group of Land Rovers and Range Rovers came down the hill, marveling at their legendary ability. And then it was our turn; we started up....

The Mighty Mitsubishi groaned and lurched and tilted and jounced its way up the trail. Although we had explored a bit prior to this new challenge, Elephant Hill was a different sort of beast altogether. The smile suddenly disappeared from Donna's face and her hands gripped the door handles with white-knuckled alarm. Ledge after ledge, the Montero pluckily scrambled further upward, but the grinding noises were taking their toll on my partner in adventure. I noticed that a light was blinking on the dashboard and knew that some pesky electrical gremlins, constituting one of the Montero's only known weaknesses, had decided at that moment to strike. We were left only with 4-high and an unlocked transfer case, and it meant that the truck was going to really struggle to continue up the hill.

At that moment, my bride reached her limit of tolerance. Instinct took over and she abandoned ship. As she later told me, "I thought that we were going to die any moment and I didn't want any part of tumbling end over end down that hill." She was suddenly gone. Just gone. One moment she was sitting there, white knuckles and a look of grim death on her face, and the next thing I knew her door was swinging open and the copilot seat was empty. What the...? A few shouts were to no avail. She was out of sight.

I worked for a bit to continue, but the poor Mitsu was really struggling. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, a man was standing at my window.

"I just spoke to your wife and she told me that you were having a bit of trouble. I'd be happy to help you get up the hill...this truck can certainly make it." He was lean and tan and wrinkled, a bit dusty, wearing dark glacier glasses, a bandanna on his head, wearing a neckerchief and looking for all the world like a member of a British Sahara expedition.

It didn't require much thought on my part. I thanked him, but reckoned that marital happiness took priority over ego gratification. "She did seem kinda rattled," he added, "I think you're making a wise choice."

And so this gentle, confident stranger briefed me on some simple hand signals, gave me a short pep talk about backing down those insane ledges, and let me know that he'd keep me from getting into any trouble. I had never met this man before, but I trusted him completely and just let myself relax. Slowly, and not without some shocking tipping and lurching as cross-axle situations rocked the Montero dramatically from side to side, I backed her down the famous Elephant Hill, her tired paws alternately waving in the air this way and that.

I parked it next to the assembled group of Rovers who had stopped to watch the show and who now greeted me warmly. The kind stranger asked about our plans and together we spread the Benchmark atlas on the hood of the Montero. He reviewed the area with me and offered some suggestions, obviously having expert knowledge of the complex systems of trails and primitive roads in southeastern Utah. I thanked him heartily and pumped his hand as he offered a gentle and modest response, indicating that it had been his pleasure to lend a hand to a fellow traveler. I could never have backed down that hill by myself. Never. Not without destroying the Montero, anyway.

As we climbed back into the dusty truck, Donna explained her sudden panic and I offered reassurance that I wasn't upset with her, though I did confess to wishing that she'd stayed close enough to take pictures of the events as they unfolded. No matter, it was an adventure, my love, and we're safe and the Mitsu is fine and that nice guy has given me all sorts of ideas for places that we can explore. She asked me if I knew who that guy was. No idea, am I supposed to? The Rover guys were in awe...a couple of them had driven out from Virginia to go on this group run with him; he was apparently in the business of leading such adventure outings for 4x4 enthusiasts.

"His name is Bill Burke," Donna informed me, "and they said that we need to look up his website and then we'll see who he is. They referred to him as a guru."

Well, he certainly was a nice enough fellow, whoever he was. He had gently de-escalated a situation that had quickly overwhelmed my poor bride (not to mention the poor Mitsu!), reassuring her before hiking up to bail me out, supporting both of us and allowing us to feel that we hadn't failed but rather had simply had an adventure. We'd had fun! And so we happily wheeled out of the parking area in search of the next road, our spirits bright and cooing to one another rather than feeling disappointed or resentful.

Over the next week we continued to explore: Behind The Rocks, Eye of the Whale, and other local trails that offered challenges and further opportunities to gain experience. We learned a great deal about the Montero and how to use it to best advantage, but we learned a lot more about one another. We learned about some of our own limitations, things that we differed on and things that we had in common, and we decided that this would be the beginning of a pattern of adventure to come. As we were leaving Moab en route back to the northwest, Donna was no less enthusiastic than she had been at the start of the trip. She turned to me and asked, "aren't there some sort of bars that you can put under the truck to help protect it from the rocks, and some longer springs that you can get to give us more clearance? I think we should get those for next time."

Dear Lord, thank you for a second chance. I am ever mindful of how fortunate I am to have such a partner in life, love and adventure, and I will back down any hill for her. We've taken several more such trips, always learning, always enjoying our dusty adventures, and we're currently planning for the next one. She asked me the other day, "what do you think about getting some of those orange things that Bill Burke had on the top of his Range Rover, the things that you use when you're stuck in the sand?"

I am a lucky, lucky man.



2007 Expedition Trophy Champion, Overland Certifie
This is fantastic...
Great story, great writing, great pics and it was all for real.
Thanks for putting this out there and please keep it coming.


Overlanding Nurse
Whoa! Was the guy that offered to help the famous Bill Burke?
Oh yes he was! Several days later, after coming out of a restaurant in Moab, we found his card on our windshield with a nice little note wishing us well. The guy is a 100% class act.


Incomplete Idiot
Electrical gremlins...haha. Gotta slay them things (though easier said than done on our Monteros).

It's awesome how the bigness of this world, almost as if by design, has a way of inspiring gratitude in us. Great story.