Trifecta of near mishaps
I woke to a beautiful pre-dawn morning and watched the sun rise above the canyon before me, just outside of Canyonlands National Park in the Moab, Utah. Just inside the park entrance is a 4-wheel drive road called, “Shafer Trail.” I wanted to take this road to the canyon floor two years ago when I was in the area, however due to heavy rain it was closed. This single-track road is not one on which to take any chances…it switchbacks and traverses along the canyon wall, dropping some 1400 feet in elevation. One distraction could send you down a sheer cliff to your ultimate demise. Thankfully, this visit, the skies were clear and the road was dry.
As I made my way toward the canyon floor I was awestruck at the beauty and the grandeur of Canyonlands. You get an entirely different perspective when you’re at the bottom looking up, rather than looking down. The entire off-road loop is 100 miles long and would have taken an entire day to complete, so I opted to exit the canyon toward Moab on Potash Road. As I neared Moab and finally hit paved surface, I heard a sound…an indication that something was in my tires. Often a rock will get stuck in my tire treads, so I exited my truck to remove it—what I found however was a huge bolt-looking impediment lodged in my tire. Thankfully it did not appear that the tire was losing pressure, so I made my way to Moab to see if there was a Discount Tire (the place I purchase all of my tires and where road hazards are fixed for free). To my disappointment there was not a Discount Tire in town. I assessed the tire once again and it now looked as though the head of the bolt was flush with the tire. I checked the air pressure and it was good, so I decided to just continue driving on it and wait until I made it back to the Phoenix area to have it repaired. First mishap averted.
My next stop was Natural Bridges National Monument. After doing the loop and hiking to Owachomo Bridge, I decided I would make the 70 mile drive to Glen Canyon National Recreation area…home to Lake Powell (Utah side). I had been to the southern part of Lake Powell in Arizona many times and it’s one of my favorite places to explore and camp. When I arrived at Glen Canyon Recreation area I was disappointed to find that the road leading to the beach areas was closed (perhaps for the season). The only campground was high above the lake off in the distance…which was full of RVs. This was not what I was looking or hoping for. There was no way to access the lake. I was really looking forward to a swim; it had been four days since I last showered.
I decided I’d head back the way I came and look for a good remote/primitive place to camp. While I came across a number of places that would have been suitable to camp, it was still a bit early, so I continued on. I then realized that I did not have a lot of fuel—and, I had no cell or data reception. I figured I had about 50 miles of fuel left at that point, and was about 43 miles from a place I knew I could get some…it however was not in the direction I wanted to go. I decided to continue south, rather than east. I looked at my trusty Rand McNally map to see how far the next town would be and it did not look to be farther than 50 miles, so I decided to continue onward.
As I drove south on highway 261, things seemed to be going well…it was a nice road and I figured I did not have much farther to go. Then, all of a sudden, the nicely paved road ended! In front of me was a dirt road, which threw me into a panic. “How could this be a dirt road,” I asked myself. Things just didn’t seem right. I looked at my map. Considered my options. There was no way I could go back the way I came…I just didn’t have enough fuel. At this point I figured I had 25 miles of gas left. I had no choice but to go forward…as I did, I could see a huge vista in front of me and could see the road below…but no town. It looked like I could see for 20-30 miles, but nothing but openness lay before me.
The dirt road was steep (10-12% decline), so to conserve fuel I put my truck in neutral and would have to ride my brakes all the way down—a drop of at least 1500’ feet. This was the hairiest, non-4-wheel drive road I’d ever been on. The sheer cliff was extraordinary. I so wanted to mount my GoPro and film the drive down, but all I could think about was my lack of fuel. I was so focused on that I could not think of anything else.
As I made a hairpin turn about a third of the way down, I saw four Suburban vehicles parked at an overlook with many men just starting to embark. This was a welcome sight, because what I failed to mention is that I had not seen anyone for 70-80 miles. It was a huge relief to see others in the area. I got the attention of one of the men and asked, “do you know if there is fuel in Mexican Hat?” He replied, “just one second,” and went back to his SUV. This seemed a bit odd, but I thought perhaps he was asking someone else in the vehicle. He then reappeared and said he was not 100% sure, but did say that he knew for sure that there was fuel in Bluffs, which was just a few more miles in the opposite direction of Mexican Hat. This was good news; at least I would get close to fuel on a main road. The man also informed me that they would be heading in the same direction in just a few minutes, so if anything happened they could help out if they saw I was stranded. This, too, was good to know…and a slight weight of stress lifted—at just that moment, the low fuel light went on.
As I continued my descent, I came across another hairpin turn, with yet another Suburban vehicle waving at me. At first I thought he was just signaling me to go in front of him, then it was apparent he wanted to talk with me. I rolled down my window and he said that one of his colleagues told him that there was in fact fuel in Mexican Hat. Clearly one of them from above radioed down. Continuing my descent I began to think about all these Suburban’s full of men. It just seemed odd to me. I could see Jeep or Toyota enthusiasts in a group…but Suburban’s? It just didn’t add up to me. I have a strange feeling these were “G” men.
The dirt road turned back to paved and flattened out. Before me was an amazing sight…”Valley of the Gods.” Again, so paranoid about the lack of fuel, I didn’t even stop to snap a picture. As I write this, I’m regretful now because the views were simply stunning. Still, no town in sight, but there was a junction coming up. As I turned right I saw a sign for Mexican Hat just a few miles away. I averted mishap number 2 on fumes.
It was now getting late and I really needed to think about where I would be camping that evening. The sun was low on the horizon. In hindsight I should have backtracked and camped somewhere in Goosenecks or Land of the Gods. As it were, I continued my trek south. I guess I was getting antsy to get back to Arizona to spend time with family and friends…and, to get off the road after five continual months.
I continued driving, but nothing before me was suitable for primitive camping. I was now on the Navajo reservation and each dirt road lead to a home. There was not service nor recreational road to be had.
The sun was now lowering itself on the horizon…darkness was not far off. Unfortunately a new area of awe-inspiring beauty presented itself…Monument Valley. I had only been to the area once before and I know this opportunity might be the last I will ever have to capture a few quality pics. The light was spectacular as it cast its amber glow upon the magnificent out-croppings. More precious time had faded away… the sun now dropped below the horizon.
I knew that I only had 30-40 minutes until it would be too dark to find a camp spot. Still on the Navajo reservation, the terrain and sporadic domiciles presented no options. Then, I came across a junction leading toward the Navajo Visitor’s center. As I turned down the dirt road, things looked promising. This area looked more recreational. A rugged side road/path presented itself. With headlights guiding my way now, I found what seemed like a relatively remote and secluded place, nestled among some scrub oak trees. It was well after 8pm and dark now, however the moon had been rising and was now illuminating the area just as the sun had been doing an hour earlier.
I was famished at this point and simply opened a can of soup, heated it up and consumed it rapidly. Thankfully no one was around to hear my slurping. I decided it was too late to set up any sort of camp, and the weather looked clear, so I just took out my sleeping pad, bag and pillows and laid them atop my tonneau cover where I would call it a night. As I lay and looked up at the stars, the bright moon illuminated some oncoming clouds…clouds that I could see were full of rain. Considering my options, I just lay there to see if there was any chance the front would side-step me…thankfully it did. Third near miss averted.
Unbeknownst to me at the time of selecting my camp spot, I did not realize how close I was to the highway, nor some sort of industrial activity. The noise and the brightness of the moon shining down did not provide for the best sleeping conditions. I managed to get a few winks in before waking around 4a m…too fidgety to sleep, I decided to pack it up and continue onward.
Once on the road, the setting moon mesmerized me. The sun would be rising soon, so the moon had an amber hue. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve paid much attention to a setting moon before. Some clouds passed by, detracting from its illumination. Soon thereafter the moon fell below the horizon and all that remained was a subtle amber glow. Since I was traveling south, the moon had set to my right, soon after, the sun would rise to my left. It was really an interesting observation to see a nearly full moon set, then see the sun rise all within an hour of each other.
After five months of non-stop road tripping, I’ll finally be back in my home state of Arizona where I’ll be staying with friends and family for a while to get caught up on a whole lot of content I’ve collected along the way. Stay tuned for a host of stories and videos on some amazing places I’ve visited this year.