Sometime the a journey is defined by where you go, what you see and what you do when you get there, sometimes its defined by what happens along the way. There is nothing wrong with the first type, but while one is typically called a trip the other, well that’s an adventure.
We woke up to the sight of the snow capped Henry mountains we didn’t see in the dark coming in and practically leapt in the trucks overwhelmed with an excitement to get this adventure started. Poison Springs wash is not the typical route into the maze, which is the Hans Flat road 20 miles north but it was a shorter and more direct route to our first campsite and looked like a more fun drive so we chose to do it. I had initially feared that, being in a wash, the weather would play a major factor in our ability to use it but even though it had rained hard and long the week prior it was sunny clear for our trip and so I set my fears aside and dove in.
Doing a trip like this in the fall has its downsides, daylight savings and winter hours being one the biggest, not to mention cold nights and mornings but the upsides is that this far south the trees are absolutely exploding in fall colors, especially in and around anywhere there was water and driving up the wash was a visual feast.
Although it was sunny and relatively dry the evidence of the recent water was everywhere from the mowed down reeds 5 feet up from the natural bank or sections of road that were cut funny or just...gone. It slowed us down but we didn’t mind, it was just too pretty to care.
We kept at it, bypassing where necessary but otherwise just enjoying the drive until we came to a steep hill that descended back into the wash after a brief bypass around an area of wash too rocky for a road and up onto the bluff. At the bottom of this hill was what appeared to be a rock slide and as we got closer its confirmed that the road is blocked by several boulders of various sizes necessitating a little trail building to get pass...it was starting to feel like real overlanding.
Past the rock slide a few miles we pull over at the Dirty Devil river, an aptly named ribbon of swift moving murky brown water we would be required to traverse to continue. We had good data from a reporting station that the flow rates were well within the safe limits but the water moving so quickly and being so opaque meant we would either have to strip down in the 40 degree weather to probe the depths or just go for it and hope for the best. We chose the later, with the added safety of lashing two tow straps together on the back of my truck to serve as a recovery line in the event the bed was silty and sinky.
I locked up all my diffs, put it in low range and trepidatiously set off, but immediately felt like a ninny after seeing the water barely coming up to my rock silders and getting up the other side of the bank without issue. Next came Tom, again without issue and then Wade...and then it occurred to us that Tom had left something on the other bank (his tow strap) and would have to go back and get it and upon coming back his open differential Frontier found our new ruts too much and high centered on the bank...ooops.
Oh well, we had a tow strap out and a truck at the ready so we yanked Tom out of the bank and got underway again. I like this, it feels legit.
We climb out of the wash and onto a narrow shelf road on the side of the bluff which, unfortunately, shows more rain damage in the form of cuts in the road at semi-regular intervals as well as delta mounds from runoff from the bluff which slows us down again. At this point I’m starting to get concerned that we are far off the pace and that we will be getting to Dollhouse too late in the day to do any hiking. The Normal transit from Hanksville to Dollhouse on this route is about 4 hours, we’ve been at it 3 and we’re only in about 30 miles of the 85 we need to do today and the last 15 are the hardest parts of the trail. We therefor eat a hasty lunch and press on as quickly as we can safely go which isn’t very fast as the gaps are getting wider occasionally requiring bypasses and new roads. Its going slowly but were making progress until we round a corner and I noticed that the road ahead is absent, not like absent minded kind of absent, like GONE.
The rain had pulled out the road in the this corner completely and it was presently on its way down to California, which is not where we needed it at all.
We were sure we were screwed, as turning around here meant 3 hours to the freeway and then another 4 hours just to get to the start of the hard part of the trail and we didn’t have that kind of time.
Just when we were about to resign ourselves to missing the dollhouse Wade noted that on the other side of the road was a deeply carved channel from the rain that just have formed as the water overflowed on the road and diverted before the center section had given way. This channel and the gully that had been widened in its wake were of the right width and steepness that getting a truck up would be possible.
We sent Wade into the hole and with the application of lockers, A-Trac and skill he navigated the boulders in the wash and the channel to arrive on the other side of the chasm.
Tom went next and aside from the great look the ARB and light bar gave Toms blue truck the actual base model Frontier didn’t have lockers or an off road traction control that it needed and as such we had to resort to a little trail building, a little pushing and eventually all 4 traction boards to get tom up the channel. As a side note, even though the Maxtraxs are the nicer product, Toms off brand Maxsa boards worked just as well and didn’t suffer any more damage than did the brand name boards...for half the price its a solid endorsement for the cheaper boards.
Its starting to feel like an adventure alright, including the threat of a fast closing day. Fortunately the road starts to move away from the bluff and the damaged road sections are, for the most part, behind us.
We got to the teapot campground 4 and half hours after setting off and were still not even in the park, though we were now in the Glen Canyon NRA. The teapot trail was kinda difficult, but certainly no challenge more than we had already tackled, in fact I never once locked up and even Tom had very little trouble with the trail in his open truck and frankly, despite all the buildup to this road it was kinda a non-event. At least it was compared to the views that awaited us at the top of the trail.
A perfect, golden hour view of the White Rim and the Needles districts in front of us, and the spires of the maze silhouetted behind us. Awesome.
A few miles later and we’re pulling into the dollhouse for a well-earned meal and a rest. Well, except our night wasn’t done...we got here and we were going to get our hike in even if it means doing it in the dark! Not 5 minutes from our campsite is the trail head to Spanish bottoms, one of the few paths in Canyonlands that leads directly to the Colorado river, but it’s no easy path, dropping from 5200 feet at the dollhouse to 3800 feet at the river in a little less than 1.5 miles. The trail up top is poorly marked or at least it us under the power of 3 feeble headlamps and the milky way...I’m glad my GPS is tracking us, it’s going to come in handy later. 45 quad busting minutes later we arrive at a meadow with dozens of gleaming green dots in the darkness indicating that the deer also think highly of the trail. Down at the river bank, exists only the milky outline of the river as cast in star glow and a similar outline of the canyon wall set to the soundtrack of a gentle burbling that belies the importance of the water passing at our feet. It’s supremely peaceful and is among one of the few places I chose not to bring a camera; why? Because some things are just for me. Coming back up the trail is like an hour on a stair stepper, but the stairs are 14 inches tall and you had already just done an hour...coupled with the strain of trying to locate the wily upper trail and the events of the day prior and you have 3 guys who had no problem crawling into their bags and plopping right off to sleep.
As we got ate our simply breakfast on the rocks overlooking the river basking in the morning light it dawned on us that we’d done it, we’d made it to the maze...in spite of all obstacles.
Camp packed we set off towards the Teapot road, hoping to be able to spend a little more time taking pictures since we were so rushed last night. It wasn’t to be.
I’ve written before about the stoutness and durability that Toyota builds in the Land Cruiser and it’s pretty much true, even at nearly 270,000 miles my 1997 example has shown me time and time again what overbuilt and over engineered means, however, it’s also been nearly 20 years and many many hands have touched the truck in an effort to maintain and mostly improve. In the same vein it’s been my experience that of all the things that have gone wrong on my truck, most if not all of them, were not a results of anything done at the house of the big red T but in all the places since.
It’s this kind of situation that greets me today, though I don’t know it yet all I know is that I’m stalled out mid hill and I can hear my heart with total precision pounding away in my head. The downside of owning a car that seldom goes wrong is being out of practice for when it does. I back down the hill a ways to find a level spot, and I crank it over...cranks but doesn’t catch. I open the hood and start the diagnosis; EFI relay? No...That’s newish and looks fine. What about the fuel pump relay? No, looks fine. Blown fuses? I don’t see any, except, what about the fusible links? Yup, AM2 is blown.
On the forums I had read beforehand that this can happen, and I recall hearing a fellow 80 owner being stranded once for this very thing so I had taken the precaution of buying a spare set and at this moment I was sure glad I had. Though I wasn’t quite sure what had caused the short I was hoping that just the extreme age of the link may have been its unraveling, in any event the new link went in and the truck fired right up. Success!
back on the trail, the pounding in my head still present we soldier on but only for a few more miles before once again...smoke and stall, right on a big hill. Now my spare is used up and I have another blown fusible link and no clue why. We start to dig deep, what’s on AM2? let’s consult the Chilton manual I have with me...only I don’t think the alphanumerics A - M - 2 exist in that combination anywhere in that book...no help there. Crud. It’s about now I discover that I actually have cell service, and not just a little...like full 4g. This is not normal as we haven’t had reliable cell service since hanksville. Not being one to complain I jumped on this new revelation. Step - pull down the EWD from my cloud drive I should have pre-downloaded before I left...it worked! Okay, Step 2 - I will try and call my Land Cruiser mentor and Toyota engineer uncle to see if he can shed some light. Not only do I actually reach him but he has the right answer on the first try!
“Check the wire loom under the EGR near the firewall; it sounds like you’ve got a melted injector wire.”
(note: Wade and Tom were awesome to have and they deserve a lot of credit, I also put my share of work in too but I can’t take pictures when I’m fixing now can I)
Easier said than done, as getting to the loom requires the removal of the hood and LOTS of black plastic cladding...digging, hunting, praying (it was Sunday after all) and I find 3 wires that look out of the ordinary by virtue of them being obviously spliced once...hmmm...upon consultation with the EWD we discover that one of the 3 wires in an injector lead and sure enough the insulation on the splice was too thin and it was arcing to the intake manifold and shorting out when the engine was torqued. Lots of tape (for the loom and for my hands), a couple of ham sandwiches and 3 hours later we fire up the truck, this time with a spliced together AM2 link from the remnants of the old one. So far so good, but the day was already 230...so much for our nice easy low mile day.
The good news is that it’s working and we get through the challenging teapot section with no more incidents...that came later.
High up on the shelf road, climbing towards our next junction I hit a large bump and….dead. First suspicions confirm that the AM2 is severed, though I didn’t see or smell any smoke. We decide that if we have any hope of getting out of here without a tow our best bet was to cut up my trailer wire that supply brake power, steal the inline blade fuse, hack it together with the remains of the much stronger MAIN fusible link and hope for the best. The theory was that I had lots of blade fuses I could replace. At least there were worse places to break down.
Splice complete we face the difficult decision - turn right for 20 more rough miles to maze overlook and then 20 back to the same place tomorrow? Or play it safe, turn left and head up the flint trail towards highway 24 and safe towing?
I hate these.
It wasn’t even me that made the call; both Wade and Tom seemed in agreement that trying to stick it out was unwise. It kills me to admit it, but they are right. In the end I’m sure glad that I have a couple of very sensible friends who know the difference between brave and foolhardy. In truth, the fuel situation may have also been a factor - I knew from the kokopelli trip what my touring mileage would likely be (between 7 and 8 mpg) but Wade and Tom had no such guide.
I created a guide based on what I thought would be realistic and in line with the mileage and determined that 5 gallons would likely be more than sufficient to do the job, but the story from their dashes was indicating that I could be wrong.
With 70 additional miles ahead of us on the plan wade’s truck was reading 1/3rd a tank and toms a ¼...this is in addition to the 70 miles that they would need to get back to hanksville to refuel. The Truth is...it may not be enough.
Dejected, again, we head up the flint trail, to hunt down the first available campsite before the sun sets on another hard day. My prayers must have availed me some because of all the places it would have been REAL bad to break down, the flint trail is tops on that list so far. Steeper, rockier and tighter than any other road we’ve tackled the snow covered flint trail would have been dangerous if not impossible to tow up.
Finding the flint seep campground was easy, settling in was hard. It was cold, windy and generally unpleasant. Our meal is amazing, however, and with the small portable propane heater providing a poor but welcome campfire substitute we quietly commiserate. By 7 we’re cold from being so much higher up combined with a moderate breeze that was bringing snow soon so we bring the heater in the tent, queue up some cartoons and kill the evening. By 900 we’re all beat, so the heater goes out and so do we.
In the morning we have the manliest breakfast we can imagine: steak, eggs, bacon and potatoes covered in cheese...it helps. Then, after packing up camp inside the maze for the last time, we head out towards the ranger station. We stop in and chat with the ranger who’s visibly glad for the company and talk about the trail conditions, the truck troubles, the roads and sites we missed out on...the company JKU Rubicons that are spent after a hard life of 40,000 dirt exclusive miles...and stick around until it’s painfully obvious that Wade and Tom are ready to shove off. I’m not one for chit chat but these two can make me look like a nervous new yorker at a party...not that it’s a bad thing.
Back on the road we find that Hans flat, unlike our other roads, is smoother and faster than anticipated and the new hazard is over speeding our aired down tires. We play in some dunes, we joke around, we do a little rally driving and it’s all starting to worm its way into my brain, helping me find joy in the trip again. By the time we see the highway I’m feeling pretty good and just happy to be out in the land of the endless horizon.
Airing up we head into a sleeping and practically dead hanksville to fill up at the one gas station that still works (of the 3). New plan: Capitol Reef is 37 miles away, let’s go there and see what there is to see.
On our way I see a cool looking grey dune to my right and suddenly, an access road to it. On a whim I brake hard and exit the highway to explore the area as the others dutifully follow. I don’t know what we’ve found but it’s as if a giant bowl of moon dust was imported to the desert, blown into high, thin, ridges and then frozen in place...it was eerie but a blast! I find myself giggling like an idiot in no time; especially as an over eager tom nearly bounces all his gear clean out of the bed of his truck on a particularly spirited berm drive. It’s here I remember that the joy of a trip like this isn’t checking off a destination and it’s not ruined if the plan goes to pot...sometimes the plan going to pot is when the best stuff happens...it’s here I’m happy again.
Driving into Fruita on 24 does nothing but increase my joy as the cottonwoods and fruit trees that are abundant along the Freemont river are exploding in bright and vibrant greens and yellows in stark relief to the red cliffs adjacent. We try for a hike on the Notom Bullfrog road but abandon it as it’s clear we won’t have the time we need, instead we head into town, stopping at the visitors center to experience...we hope...warm toilets for the first time since Friday and then onto a short hike up Cohab Canyon.
Our meal tonight is, again, something of a hybrid as we have more food now that we had planned for, so we make kielbasa chili with onions, sour cream and cheese...it’s a good thing I have a cold and can’t smell well. SOOO good, but maybe I’m just hungry. That’s the good news, the bad news is that the heater is out of fuel, a winter storm is coming in and this is our last night. Curled up in our beds we treat ourselves to a little Gene Wilder in Blazing saddles and nod off.
The next morning it’s getting cold, and reconnecting my front sway bar is being an unusually unpleasant task that’s interrupted by the arrival of a fellow camper...one of about 10 in the whole campground.
“You guys tried these apples”
Turns out this nice guy and his young family were traveling in their 4 door truck and tiny popup cross country from Massachusetts through Utah and onto California, and aside from informing us about the apples, he wanted to know where he could get some fuel, since he was down to a ¼ and wanted to drive around and see capitol reef before moving on. I exchanged the spare 2 gallons in my last rotopax for $5 in quarters and leave for the 3+ hour drive home. It’s snowing like mad in the taller passes but our heavy trucks have no trouble getting through.
Its all over around 2pm Tuesday and I’m just left to reflect on my thoughts:
I’m sad that we didn’t get to hike the maze
I’m upset I can’t seem to complete a freaking trip
I’m flat out beat
I got an adventure
Me and my friends have some great stories
We did stuff I wouldn’t have done
We all came out without injury
I’m actually pretty happy
A trip is a wonderful thing, but an adventure...and adventure is a rare and wonderful thing.