Never Stop Learning…

There are a lot of factors that make a road trip worthy of being called great. There’s the people you travel with, the people you meet along the way, the planned stops, the unplanned stops, etc.

I was thinking about the road trips I have been on- what my favorite ones were and why- and I have come to the conclusion that all great road trips have valuable life lessons.

When my friends and I drove to Portland for a spring break in high school, I learned that I naturally step into a leadership role when needed. I also learned that it’s okay to be irresponsible now and then.

When I went to Whistler with my sorority sisters, I learned that texting while driving is a real issue and that my friend is a terrible driver. That same trip, I learned how to drive in the snow and how to convert kilometers to miles.

My most recent road trip was with a big group of my friends to The Gorge. We fit eight of us into my friend’s camper. I realized that I can handle way more than I thought I could (camping, smelly sleeping bags and gross bathrooms… ). Most importantly, I learned that I have the best group of friends I could’ve asked for.

I believe that if you don’t take away a new insight from a road trip, it’s just another long car ride.

It’s People Over Stuff… – Redux Day 7 UTBDR

It’s hot. Hot hot. Hotter than a sheriff’s pistol, my dad used to say. “It’s not hell,” he might have added, “but you can see it from here.” It’s hot and I’m getting hotter. I can’t seem to get my mind or hands to shorten this rope. Crap. I can hardly stand. I’m fading fast…. When did I become too stupid to live?

Stand on a bridge before the cavern of night
Darkness alive with possibility
Nose to this wind full of twinkling lights
Trying to catch the scent of what’s coming to be
~ Bruce Cockburn, “World of Wonders”

We arrived in Moab, descending from the La Sal mountains along Kokopelli’s Trail, with much anticipation. The many days — and nights — of driving behind us have lead us here. It’s been Yet Another Long Day on the trail, and so after making camp in the shadow of Little Lion’s Back in Sand Flats and getting our bellies comfortably full, Brad and I leave Facebook, scorpions and the cavernous night to Paul (the Other Other Paul).

The morning air was warm but comfortable. Comfortable, at least, until the sun crept above the slickrock. Now it’s hot and sticky and unpleasant. And so we quickly pack up for the day and head into town in search of Paul’s Next Mobile Office: some place that’s cool, brews good coffee and has free wifi. (If there’s a good power source, this might be our lunch stop, too.) After a couple of stabs, we land at the Wake and Bake Cafe, which proves to be a fantastic spot on this mid-week morning.

Fueling up on some wicked good breakfast tacos, I turn my attention to trail selection. I’ve been staring at the business end of an FJ Cruiser for what seems like weeks, eating its dust. Now we get down to different sort of wheelin’! Honestly, I don’t really have much experience in Moab, and we don’t have much time as the schedule has us finishing up this leg of the Utah Backcountry Discovery Route tomorrow and scooting over to Ouray, CO to meet up with our friends from Metal Tech. I settle on Strike Ravine, a middling trail south of town that has a couple of more challenging sections and some interesting scenery and other points of interest — including several old uranium mines — as it loops its way through Area BFE. (Red Rock 4-Wheelers rate the trail a 5 on their scale.) It’s not a trail that screams Moab, but I’ve run it before and it should provide a slower, more technical counterpoint to much of the driving we’ve done to this point (which has also been a blast). Time permitting, we can get some slickrock driving back towards camp.

The most significant obstacle on Strike Ravine — the Big Ugly — comes up fast: a long, steep, rocky climb on a thick bed of loose dirt. Keeping a solid footing while walking the Big Ugly can be tough enough; you can expect that pushing two or three tons up the same surface won’t fare much better.

We slide pretty smartly through the first half of the Big Ugly with just a touch of rear locker. And then the Blue Bunny got stuck. Not so much stuck, really, as poised expectantly for good old-fashioned, wholesale, better-prepare-the-missus carnage. Midway through the upper half of the Ugly is a good-sized boulder, maybe three and a half feet tall and a couple of feet around the middle, roughly bisecting the trail. The most viable line (without going off-trail and off-camber) is on the downhill side, though another cluster of decent-sized rocks ahead on the downhill edge of the trail sits waiting to thwart progress of the left front tire of vehicles that swing too wide of the boulder.

The narrow stance and short wheelbase of the D90 allows it to scoot through without putting slider to rock. But the FJ Cruiser is wider, and with a long-travel front end, the Blue Bunny is wider still. It’s no surprise, then, that the Bunny starts by swinging wide and finding that cluster of rocks on the driver’s side. A couple of additional attempts and a clutch mishap later, Ol’ Blue has come to rest not so nicely on our boulder, squarely in the center of the passenger side door.

And then things went sideways. I thought I’d been keeping hydrated. Doubtful. I thought I was taking things slow. Nope. I’ve already bounced down and up this hill a few times. Now I’m lugging recovery gear and trying to get things in place to get Paul clear of this stupid rock while he keeps control of his rig and Brad is pinned in. Before I know it I’m fading like a bad memory. There’s a conspicuous absence of shade, and though I try to rest, I soon find that I’m having a hard time staying upright. Brad climbs out of the window (more Dukes of Hazard than Jeff Gordon, perhaps, but still a fine feat) and I crawl off the trail and under a scraggly Utah juniper. The guy doing the vehicle recovery now needs to be recovered himself.

This might be a good time to write about proper hydration and energy conservation in the heat. Maybe, but not today. The real problem here, I think, stems from a lack of solid situational thinking, in at least two ways. The first has to do with advanced preparation. This is clear 7Ps territory, focusing on the full extent of the trip, which in this case has covered multiple climates. This isn’t so much living in the moment, but keeping the moments to come in clear view, so that those situations don’t take us by surprise. This needn’t become incessant, paralyzing (over) planning for its own sake. But I likely should have spent as much time planning for ways of handling the Moab heat (in a truck with non-optionally heated seats) as fussing over which top to use and how to stay dry.

Of course, preparation is one thing; actually applying that planning — or otherwise thinking clearly — in the moment can be quite another. Having water isn’t the same as drinking it, or tracking intake. Even developing a good stuck assessment on the fly doesn’t imply that one will pick an appropriate recovery plan for the situation at hand. Hand winching with a farm jack might be cool and all, but a straight-line pull with a winch would expend a lot less human energy, especially when conserving the latter is important. In that case, slowing down enough to make a good survey of available equipment and options is crucial. Who knows? Maybe there’s an access road leading off the trail that wasn’t initially apparent on first glance that would provide more interesting avenues for recovery. Stop and look!

There’s much more to be said here, but let me end with this: Surround yourself with good people. People with skills, no doubt, but also heart. I can’t begin to say how fortunate I am to have been on this trip with Paul and Brad, both of whom stepped in deftly to help keep me from going nose down. Together they helped me get myself together, off the trail and eventually home safely. Of course we got the Bunny out of harm’s way as well, and while it’s always a clear goal not to wreck the trucks, at the end of the day, it’s people over stuff. I hadn’t really known Brad before this trip, so I’m very pleased to have spent some good times with him on this trip (among many other things, botching camp fires, eating some questionable food and sharing a nice, air-conditioned ride out of Moab on the first leg home), and hope to see him on the trail again soon. And while I’ve spent a decent bit of time wheeling with Paul, I’ve never been more impressed (or proud) of him than I was here. I should tell him that, even if he roots for the wrong college football team.

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This story is Other Paul’s perspective on our Moab off-road adventure day-7. It was a very complicated day and a story that you deserve to hear in his voice.
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Next: Utah Backcountry Discovery Route Day 8

99 Problems – Day 7 UTBDR

Moab in July can be summed up as… Hot! It’s dead calm, barely morning (by our standards) and we’re considering where in town to grab breakfast.  As long there is air conditioning, we’re not all that concerned about the food.

Around the table of some little hippie cafe we’ve spread out maps, trail guides and coffee as we debate which of the 30 some 4×4 trails we’ll run…  Fins and Things, Elephant Hill, Poison Spider, Lockheart Basin… We’re looking for a challenge without being gone all day and we’d like to avoid carnage if we can.

We discussed the various 4×4 trails over breakfast tacos that were chased down with shots of espresso and lots of water. The Utah Backcountry Discovery Route has amazing views and covers all sorts of country, but today we want to test our driving skills with some serious off-roading and settled in on Strike Ravine.  Strike Ravine, rated a 4 out of 5 by Trail Damage is known for steep hills, loose rock and big boulders more reminiscent of the Sierra’s than than Moab and its famous slick rock. This seemed to be exactly what we were looking for.

13 miles south of town, we were pulling off the highway and readied the rigs for a day of 4-wheeling.  Airing down to the teens and checking that everything was lashed down, we took a few more swallows of water and headed down the two track.

Around a bend, past a rocky area and we came to the Big Ugly.  Big Ugly is a major obstacle, a long rocky hill climb filled with loose shifting rock and nasty boulders in all the wrong places. Barely 10:30 a.m., sunny, 90 degrees out and we’re about to start wheeling.

I may seem carefree about wheeling when we go on these odyessys but there is a method to my madness.  I try to put together a solid, well balanced team to hopefully cover any scenario.  A lot of careful thought goes into what each member brings to the table.

As much as I kid Brad, he has navigation skills.  Not a lot of wheeling under his belt but when it comes to managing the route and keeping us on schedule, few will match up. Just as important is his positive attitude and willingness to do what ever is needed. Setting up and tearing down camp, humping gear around or helping with repairs Brad pitches in with a smile. But most of all, I know I can count on Brad… He is one of the few guys I trust with my life. And as a bonus he has an eye for a great photo too.

The Other Paul, as I affectionately refer to him, is one of the best 4-wheeling guys I know.  He has wheeled around the northwest, the Sierra’s, Moab and other parts unknown.  The Other Paul’s experience includes time behind the wheel of an FJ Cruiser, his old 60, and his latest rig, the legendary Land Rover, Defender 90.  To keep honing his skills, Other Paul regularly goes out with Bill Burke, adding to his bank of knowledge. There is no one I trust more when it comes to making sound off-roading decisions or spotting me through a tough obstacle.

And when these two guys get going…  It is hard not laugh as their tall tales, 80’s movie quotes and bad jokes pour out.  They may not may not be pretty and no they can’t put up a three-pointer from half-court but this is my off-road adventure dream team.

The Other Paul took lead, gracefully maneuvering his D90 up the first half of Big Ugly. Hopping out of his rig, he provided some general spotting guidance on the best line up the first half of the long climb.  Finding a flat spot, I pulled up to let Brad, who’d been filming, hike up the 200 yards of loose rock and gravel, we’d just driven as I sat watching the D90 motor up the last half of the long steep obstacle.

100 feet from the top was a large boulder right center, cliff on the left and another boulder further up, on the left.  The line is hang left (no too left, remember the cliff), pass the first boulder then come back right while keeping forward momentum among the loose rocks. That is the line…  That was not my progress.

Not keeping far enough left and coming around right too soon put my rear passenger tire into the boulder, stopping forward progress.  Other Paul was quickly on it, evaluating the situation and ready to spot us out of trouble.  The idea, come forward than use the sliders to rotate around boulder and we’re back on our way… its a good plan but not a lot of room for error.  That is the plan…  That was not my progress.

Poor clutch management had  us slipping down hill and now the Blue Bunny is pinned against the boulder. When we say pinned, think slider holding the lower half of the boulder at bay while the top half of the crooked boulder is kissing the passenger door. Not yet denting the door, but like lipstick on a collar, there is a little blue on the boulder where it shouldn’t be. We Are Stuck.

If you’ve not been stuck before…  here is the drill.  Driver stays put, maintains control of the rig while the spotter works out the options.  Brad is pinned in by the boulder so he and I lament our position in the world, careful not to shift the weight of rig, while Other Paul develops the plan.

I followed instructions to turn the wheels passenger, turn them driver, bring them straight. Other Paul studied the truck’s lifting and lowering as the wheels turned, keeping a careful eye on the point at which the boulder touched the rig.  He calculated the position of the boulder, the force of gravity and my desire to get out of this without putting the body shop owner’s kids through college.

The plan is to use the hi-lift to winch the boulder away from the rig enough to drive off and get away with all our parts intact. It was either that or power through it and replace a couple of doors and quarter panel…  We opted for hi-lift approach rather than the bull in a china shop idea.

Brad and I sat tight as Other Paul bounded up and down the 40 some yards to his truck several times.  The pile of recovery gear next to us grew with each return trip: strap, hi-lift, shackles, extensions…  He put a strap around the rock, anchored a line to a leaf barren tree perpendicular to the rig up the hill.  Plenty of winch extension but without any chain, Other Paul would have to remove all the slack with several bytes on the rope before the hi-lift could begin to pull the boulder away. Dragging gear here and there, setting up for the pull, Other Paul was getting ready.

We interrupt this story for an important PSN: Heat exhaustion is a illness that may occur after you’ve been exposed to high temperatures. The most common signs of heat exhaustion include:

  • confusion
  • dark-colored urine (which indicates dehydration)
  • dizziness
  • fainting
  • fatigue
  • headache
  • muscle cramps
  • nausea
  • pale skin
  • profuse sweating
  • rapid heartbeat

Although heat exhaustion isn’t as serious as heat stroke, it isn’t something to be taken lightly. Without proper intervention, heat exhaustion can quickly progress to heat stroke, which can damage the brain and other vital organs, and even cause death.  And now back to our previously scheduled story…

At 5,000 feet in 100 degree heat, Other Paul appears to be showing the on-set of heat exhaustion.  And in what seemed like a blink of an eye, his health started to slide.  This is no longer about getting the rig unstuck.  Kill the engine, set the brake, secure the rig in gear and we’re outside to check on Other Paul.  Pale and unsteady he is making his way to the only shade for miles, beneath a scraggly juniper bush. Getting a water bottle to Other Paul and soaking a t-shirt that he can rest on the back of his neck to get his body temperature down, we make sure he is safe and comfortable. Weak but coherent, Brad and I take turns sitting with him, making sure hydration continues and to ensure he doesn’t slip into heat stroke.

An hour and several quarts of water later, Other Paul is feeling stronger.  As he recovers we discussed options to get the blue bunny unstuck and while Other Paul rests, we rigged up the plan.  Don’t fool yourself, it’s easy to misjudge the effects the heat has on you…  we’d talked through everything I’d do in the rig and the line I’d follow as the boulder was winched out of the way…  Hot and tired, I forgot about half of what I was going to do as the boulder fell clear from the rig.  I forgot to release the e-brake and knocked into a couple other rocks as I lugged forward, somehow managing to climb to the top of Big Ugly with nothing but a small scratch where the boulder had kissed the rig.

We’d spent three hours on the trail and barely managed to cover 400 yards. It was time to get out of the heat and take care of ourselves before something went seriously wrong.

Back in town we made a bee-line to the Moab Brewery, an air conditioned oasis where we grabbed a bite to eat, considered our good fortune and hydrated with lots and lots of H2O. We sat in our little corner booth for hours, teasing our waitress, who clearly had a great sense of humor, and stared out the window as a storm violently blew.  Eventually, feeling we’d properly hydrated, having made several trips to see a man about a horse, we packed up, tipped our waitress generously and made our way back to camp.

The storm that was blowing tourist off the sidewalks in town is violently attacking Kamp Karma.  Prayer flags blown into the trees, Other Paul’s tent lying kittywampus on its side, our Noah tarp flapping wildly, held up by a single pole and sand covering everything. This is not the worst problem of the day but definitely not how we wanted to spend the next hour.  We worked at securing camp by doubling up on the guy-lines as well as piling rocks onto of the stakes and anything that wasn’t nailed down.  The noise of tightly stretched ripstop nylon getting beaten by the wind echoed off the slick rock and filled Kamp Karma.

Still hot and now being sandblasted as we sat around camp, we recalled that the Moab Brewery menu spoke of root beer floats… and air conditioning.  Frosty mug…  foamy top… and creamy root beer goodness makes the worst day a little better.  Considering we hung out for several hours, well past dark, we should probably have paid rent on that booth.  When we finally left the brew pub for good, the wind hadn’t settled down much, dry lighting flashed in the distance and a thick cloud cover obscured the stars.  Laying in my bag, listening to the tarp abuse itself in the wind, I thought about how quickly life changes…  in a matter of hours we’d seen highs, lows and everything in between.  But despite it all, the dream team got through it and was hunkered down safely for another night, ready to face whatever the next morning will bring.

Next: Utah Backcountry Discovery Route Day 7 (a different view)