To Venezuela… and Beyond – Part 2 out of the frying pan & into the fire

…What could go wrong at the beach?

We met a group of kids our age at the beach. In the course of introductions, we learned that two of them were our host’s cousins. We spent the entire day on the beach, swimming, drinking, laughing and dancing into the evening. It was then that we realized the value of sunblock and taking frequent breaks in the shade. As evening turned to night and the day grew darker and the temperature dropped, we realized that my friend and travel companion Karon had been badly sunburned. Chills were setting in and she was getting sick. We all started to wonder if she might need a hospital or if her illness was a combination of alcohol and sun poisoning. We kept her moving and drinking water and we kept her warm until late into the night when we all got tired and fell asleep in makeshift tents. When we woke the next morning, our eyes stuck shut from a wind storm that blew sand into every crevice, she was better. We spit sand and dug it from the corners of our eyes. The ocean water stung our skin as we dipped ourselves in the dusky morning to rinse the sand from our bodies. It had permeated the tents we’d made. It was on and in everything we owned (which was very little). That morning we packed up and went to visit our hosts Uncle and spend the day watching Karon to make sure she didn’t relapse into the shock we realized she was in the night before. The uncle chastised us for not being more careful.

When night came the decision was made to do something calmer. We went to a nearby village to eat, watch people in the square and relax. The village was small and quaint. Whitewashed shops surrounded a small park square with a gazebo at its center. The night air was cool. Children played while mothers talked and men smoked with one foot up on a park bench, shirts buttoned half way exposing tan chests. Our host and I led our little parade clockwise around the exterior of square. Behind us, my sunburned travel companion and our host’s older cousin Chris, behind them the prostituted and our host’s younger cousin Billy. After eating dinner from a street cart on the corner nearest our car, we walked up the short south street of the square to an ice cream cart and got cones. From there we walked the shorter west street licking our ice cream, people watching, and enjoying the peace of the night. At the north corner we turned again and walked, still taking in the view of the center park. It was alive with activity. It was peaceful and calm in its state of happy mania. Calm had fallen on all of us for a moment.

At once I felt our host grip my elbow and whisper. “Don’t look. Just look straight ahead and no matter what, don’t look back.” I fought the urge do the opposite but didn’t. There was urgency in his voice. Moreover, there was fear. I didn’t know what I wasn’t supposed to not look at but I wasn’t going to look. We were approaching a local police post. I glanced over my shoulder at Karon. She looked pale. Worried. Our host squeezed my elbow and I turned forward. We walked in silence and didn’t stop until our entourage came to a stop at the south east corner of the square near our car. It was then that I took inventory of our group. Two were missing. “What just happened?” I asked. Our host responded, “Billy and the prostitute were arrested.”

“What?”

We stood next to our rented car in a village somewhere near Chichirivichi, somewhere near ‘the beach’, somewhere in Venezuela weighing what had just happened to our host’s other cousin. Chris decided he was going in. He was going to march back to that police post and demand an explanation and the release of his cousin and the prostitute. Our host, Karon, and I watched as he marched directly across the square, through the children and mothers and fathers and grandparents, to the steps of the station where a half dozen policemen lazed observing the scene in the park. Several of them stood as Chris approached them. We could see him speaking to them. Then we saw the men arrest him too. As he disappeared into the station, our host’s chest puffed. That was it. He wasn’t taking any more of this from these degenerate dopes with badges and guns. He was going to go over there and demand the release of our three friends. Karon burst into tears and grabbed his arm with both hands and dug her heels into the pavement. “NO!” she demanded. “If you get arrested we can’t help any of you. We don’t speak the language! We don’t know where we are! We don’t have any money! We can’t even find our way back to your uncles, let alone Caracas! You can’t leave us here!” A vision of the article on the airplane flashed in our minds.

Our host calmed down and it was decided we’d go get the uncle. When we returned to our spot on the south east corner of the square with the uncle in tow, he instructed us to stay in the car and keep it running. When he was done, we were leaving immediately. Just as his son had done, he crossed the center of the square and walked directly to the steps of the station. Just as before, several officers stood, forming a barrier between the station and the uncle. We saw him speak. We saw two or three officers turn away from him and scale the steps of the station disappearing into the station. In moments we saw all three captives escorted out the front door, down the steps and into the custody of the uncle. The four turned and walked calmly, too calmly for my liking, back across the park. In silence all seven of us took seats in the car and no sooner than the doors of the vehicle shut and the car was put in drive did the prostitute begin sobbing uncontrollably and the men begin talking at once with rapid urgency; each illuminating the story of what had occurred from their vantage. I learned that the police, who were nothing more than local derelicts with badges, didn’t like what our friends were wearing. The prostitute was wearing a bikini top and cut off shorts. The cousin was wearing a t-shirt, bathing suit bottoms with a towel wrapped around his waist. That was the reason for their arrest. They’d arrested the second cousin, perhaps hoping to obtain a small ransom for the boys. They released them all when the uncle kindly explained that he and his compatriots owned the land these men’s homes were built upon and said their homes would be burned to the ground before morning if the three prisoners were not released. We were definitely not in Kansas anymore. We dropped the group off, including the prostituted and left that night back to Caracas. The next morning, we told our hosts family of the adventures we’d experienced over the past three days. They were not surprised.

One effect this trip had on my travel companion was that it instilled in her an overwhelming appreciation for and desire to call home. Our host’s father assured us he could make that happen but not until evening. We spent the day visiting family members and driving round the city, since we’d rented the car for the week, seeing the sights; Universidad Central, the shopping district, and a crazy night club district where transvestites walk the streets cat calling passersby and passing cars. We laughed, relaxed and returned to the apartment with the prison cell door at dinner time. Karon still antsy about calling home asked again. Our host’s father assured us that we would but first we were going to dinner.… (continued To Venezuela… and Beyond – Part 3 everything’s different here)

To Venezuela… and Beyond – Part 1 the getting there

I am finally ready to talk about Venezuela. This ill-advised road trip took place in March of 1983. It was one of those trips that occurred amid a perfect storm of will, an injection of funds from an outside source, availability of time, and the stupidity of youth. As time passes, the more I think of the good that came from it the more I realize that fate is a wonderful thing.

It was after 11:00 p.m. when the call came. There had been several days of conversation about whether or not I should come to Venezuela. I wanted to go, but not alone. My host wanted me to come. I couldn’t afford it. Neither could my travel companion. The question was how badly did our host want us? At 11:00 p.m. the night before our departure we learned that he wanted us bad enough to pay for our air fare, pick us up and house us even though it was not under the best of circumstances that we were traveling. Me, to have legal documents signed that would negate a partnership. Our host’s motives, I presumed were to try and talk me out of it. For lack of a neutral venue, I went. 21 years old and not very worldly, albeit utterly confident I could navigate any waters the tide brought in.

My best friend and I flew to Miami with a Venezuelan who gave us tips all of the way to the point we separated in the Miami airport about the cultural dos and don’ts we should understand before our arrival, how to get through customs flawlessly, how to greet our elders, how to not stick out like two naive American girls on their first trip abroad; the basics. We listened intently until we boarded our flight to Caracas where our confidence waned and an underpinning of fear for our future set in as we lifted a used newspaper from our assigned seat in the plane and saw the head line that read, “American Woman Held on Drug Trafficking Charges in Venezuelan Prison.” We looked at each other wordlessly trying to assure ourselves that we’d made the right decision 18 hours earlier to take this trip, both knowing that the woman charged in the article was very likely innocent and that it would be months if not years before she was released. My companion broke the silence with an uneasy, “Well, we’re not trafficking drugs, so there’s that.” Our future in the hands of fate, the flight took off over the Caribbean.

We arrived in the night and were met by our host and a friend who turned out to be our driver. From the airport to Los Palos Grande where we would spend our first nights, we watch the thin outline of the mountains against the night sky dotted beautifully by tiny lights. We commented at how pretty it was. Our comments were greeted by snickers that we didn’t understand and protested, “You don’t think it’s beautiful?” Our host responded that perhaps by night it was but in the light of day it was quite something else and we would see. It was true. By the light of day what looked like rows and rows of prettily lit streets and houses was a settlement of Columbian Indian refuges that’d fled over the mountains and settled by the thousands in makeshift tin and cardboard shacks along the side of the mountains. The Beautiful lights were an irregular confusion of wires tangled together that strung for miles back and forth across the face of the mountain to provide an amount of light and security to the inhabitants beneath them.

This wasn’t our first indication that we weren’t in Kansas anymore. When we’d arrived the night before we were taken to an apartment building where our host family lived in a two bedroom apartment. The front door of which was a steel cage, the equivalent of a cell door in a prison. Inside of the first door a second flat steel door shut out the world. Both opened and closed through the sole use of a key. That first night as everyone slept more than thirteen floors up, I lay thinking, if there is a fire, who will find that key and let us out? It doesn’t matter. There is no way this building is to code. We’re all dead. I didn’t want to be rude to my gracious hosts but I needed to get out of this death trap.

During the course of our first day my business of dissolving our partnership had been completed. Surprisingly with little resistance, which I attributed to the family of our host, who unanimously agreed with me it was for the best. This left an entire week ahead and us looking stupidly at one another wondering what next. My travel companion suggested we rent a car and tour the country. Having come from the land of free to move about as you please, it never occurred to us that what we suggested was easier said than done. We’d seen a car rental shop in the storefronts that lined the first floor of our building; we knew how to read a map. I spoke a fair amount of Spanish. How hard could it be? Judging by the scuttle our suggestion caused, very hard. It was clear that there was no way our host’s family was going to let two young American girls travel unchaperoned around the hazardous and wild roads of Venezuela. Our host was volunteered to ride with us. For my travel companion and I this was less desirable, given that it was his irresponsible nature that had brought us to Caracas to begin with.

Regardless, if I was to escape sleeping another night in a prison cell awaiting sure death by fire, he would have to accompany. We acquiesced. It was decided that we’d head to the coast and Tucacas and Chichirivichi and beaches there. If we couldn’t find a place to stay, we’d sleep on the beach. We were off.

No sooner had we left the metropolitan area on the road west of Caracas than we were met by wobbling buses full of workers and passed women awaiting these buses on the side of the road with livestock. We passed small banana stands and stands with other fruits. Within an hour, we passed kids our age hitch hiking; two boys and a girl. Our host stopped. I looked at my friend and she looked at me. We looked at our host. “We’re not picking them up?” We were. They piled in and we learned that the two boys were friends. They were headed to a parent’s condo near the beach and for a ride we could stay the night. As for the girl, they didn’t really know her. They’d picked her up along the way. Given her dress and deportment, she forever became known to Karon and me as the prostitute. We never did know her name.

It was evening when we arrived at the condo of the boys. We’d driven through villages were pigs wallowed in mud in the streets and rooted for food and where chickens scratched freely in the dirt. The roads narrow one lane dirt tracts that no municipal branch maintains. We’d passed dense jungle swaths dotted with leafy shacks along the roads, and perhaps many others hidden by the flora. We arrived almost suddenly in an community of well-groomed newly built structures that were clean and landscaped, where the roads were paved and wide enough for two lanes and for cars to park at the curb. The difference in scenery so sudden, it was confusing. We ate, laughed, drank, and danced until late in the night and then we slept in comfortable beds with fresh clean linens and our host’s final glance at us was a knowing, ‘told you so’ look that implied this was how it was done. That is until the next morning when we awoke to shrieks.

The hitchhiking boy’s parents had arrived to find a house full of strangers and a floor three inches deep in water. Someone had turned on a faucet and never turned it off. The rapport of angry Spanish fired at the boy in the next bedroom was indecipherable and was our cue to leave. We ran. The three of us ran without good-bye to the boy or his family, and we took the prostitute too. It was ten minutes of driving before we even bothered to ask where we were going. Our host answered, “The beach.” We relaxed. What could go wrong at the beach… (continued “To Venezuela… and Beyond – Part 2 out of the frying pan & into the fire“)

Dog Days of Rubithon

The last two days we battled, clawing tooth and nail against the Rubicon Trail to get here. Today we are growing roots below our camp chairs. The sun beats down and we move our chairs into the shade, the breeze blows and we move a little back into the sun. Regulating our temperature as if we were lizards basking on the rocks we are recharging our Qi. The sun is on its downward slop and we haven’t moved more than a few feet all day. The dog days of Rubithon are here and like an old hound dog resting comfortably on a rickety cabin porch, we are aren’t going anywhere.

Late in the afternoon, prodigal son ( Woody ) returned. No, we don’t kill the fatted calf but we do smile, make room for an extra camp chair and consider our next move… maybe dinner… maybe not. We’ll just sit here and think about it while Woody sets up his tent and we listen to his stories from the wagon run.

I can rehash the three days of Rubithon (or you could read The Rubithon Experience) but like summer camp, the experience you take home is completely different than the brochure. Until you’re here, having earned your place at the table, I can’t begin to tell you how it will change your life and you wouldn’t believe me anyway. Everyone I talk with is taking away something special from Rubithon, adding new stories to their mental catalog that they will pull out years from now around some distant campfire. Stories I hope to hear them tell when I wheel with them again somewhere down the road.

Three days and four nights, the Rubicon Soda Springs has been our home. Early Sunday morning a parade of Toyota trucks is lining up to leave. The only thing that stands between us and flushing toilets is Cadillac Hill.

The advice you get for Cadillac Hill… stay left. Cadillac Hill, named for the old wreck that rests there, is a long series of narrow switchbacks starting out as a rutted section filled with tree roots and exposed rock followed by a hairpin turn that becomes very off camber and contains a series of boulders to maneuver over. Finally a steep waterfall of large loose rocks to climb. Oh yeah, on the way up, a cliff to the right. The stories of rigs going over the side, tumbling to the bottom and ending with heroic rescues of the victims fill TV reports, the news papers and Internet websites. Stay left, don’t hit anything and hang on.

Leaving at 7:00 a.m. means I’m up at five tearing down camp with Brad, making last minute checks of the rig and ensuring everything is strapped down tight. God I hate early mornings and damp fog isn’t making this morning any better as we roll up in line. As we wait, watching well built FJ 40s and 80s ahead pull cable to get past the obstacles of Cadillac Hill puts a knot in my stomach as my turn approaches.

On an off-road adventure I try to live by five simple rules:

  1. Get out of your comfort zone
  2. Let go of the past, don’t worry about the future, live in the present
  3. You are in charge of your adventure, own it
  4. Embrace change, flow with it
  5. Smile, relax, enjoy…  this is suppose to be fun

At this point I’m all over rule #1 but having a real hard time with #5.  Spinning tires on wet granite the rigs ahead slide into rocks as they try to grab hold of the slick surface and pull themselves out of deep holes does not look fun. Crunching of metal, squealing tires and the roar of horse power echos up and down the hill.  Now it’s my turn.

With no room to negotiate, other rigs on my heals and the thought of tumbling down the hill buried deep within my subconscious, pictures are a bit scarce of Cadillac Hill.  In fact I’m still blocking the whole experience. You’ll just have to take my word for it that the Blue Bunny made it. And made it cleanly. Unfortunately there was a large rock that took out its aggression on the door panels on one of the FJCs in our group. An approach that was a little high, a little fast on a rock that was a little too wet combined to make for a big bang. Another in our group caught a bit of door as they tried to squeeze between two chunks of granite, leaving a dab of paint behind. A third gave up a small ding to a rock that reached up from below in an effort to stop their forward progress.

We were so close to all making it a clean run… But this is the Rubicon Trail and as I said in the beginning of the adventure, trail damage is a real possibility. It is part of what makes this trail so special. Not that any of us want damage but the challenge of pushing yourself and your rig to their limits is only possible when you are forced to overcome obstacles bigger and more complex than before. Rubicon is that challenge and it comes with risk.

Two days down, two days back and six days on the trail. Sitting in my office, looking back and writing this story I have time to reflect on it all. For me Rubithon is ranked as an adventure of a lifetime but where in that ranking? Each adventure holds different memories, Rubithon: Brad’s trial by fire, Woody’s stories, Mark’s encouraging words, new friendships and Little Sluice. There were some camera problems, a new coat of rattle can will need to be applied to the sliders, a plastic bumper wing looks tired, and there were some restless nights but none of that takes away from the experiences or the soul baring I’ve exposed here to the Internet.

Will I take on the Rubicon Trail for a third time… I don’t know. There are so many other off-road adventures to plan as we continue to explore the road less traveled. But the Rubicon Trail definitely qualifies as one of the last great road trips left on earth that everyone should check off of their bucket list.

Next: The Rubithon Video and the Rubicon Trail

The Die Is Cast, Crossing Rubicon

“Alea iacta est!” – by crossing the Rubicon, you are at the point of no return… for the second time in my short off-roading career I find myself halfway across the Rubicon Trail driving over the dam at Buck Island Lake heading deeper into the Eldorado.

After a night on the trail, morning is all about the coffee.  To say I’m not a morning person is a gross understatement. Crawling out of a perfectly warm sleeping bag into the cold morning holds no entertainment value for me.  But by now Brad has been up for hours and nature calls.

When I finally wander down to where everyone is fixing breakfast, I can see in Brad’s eyes that I’m late with making the morning coffee.  On our adventures, cooking duties fall to me and I’ve tried any number of methods for making a good cup of coffee.  Stove top percolator, various forms of instant, drip contraptions, little coffee bags on a string and even cowboy coffee (throw grounds into a cup filled with hot water).  But nothing has achieved the balance between the roaster’s aromatic signature and full bodied piquant taste Brad desires… Until now.

This morning I fire up the stove, more of a back packing blast furnace really, and the sound of white gas and air forced through the igniter, exiting in a blaze of blue flame breaks the silence of the still mountains.  A pot of water is at a rolling boil within minutes, steam rising high into the cool air as the pot is pulled from the inferno. Several scoops of dark roast Indonesian Komodo Dragon blend are poured in and begin to swim as the caffeinated goodness seeps for several minutes.  Plunging the french press down separates grounds from beautiful dark caramel colored elixir. I pour it into Brad’s cup, releasing a deep earthy aroma that fills the senses. He sips and the distinctive bold notes linger on his tongue as his lips form a smile that tells me, this time I got it right.  Note to self, add the french press to the must pack list.

Heading back to Loon in order to join the wagon run, Woody leaves our group in hopes of capturing more pictures and catching up with old friends.  We begin the day crawling over the dam leaving Buck Island behind. Immediately we are back into complex obstacles with a number of steep granite shelf climbs exiting the basin.  Loose rock, shelves with the occasional massive boulder to drive up reignites the anxiety and exhilaration of the Rubicon Trail.

The “co” in co-pilot has had Brad in charge of navigation, camp setup and tear down, video taping as well as being the eye behind many of the great pictures of our adventures. But I’ve always owned the driver’s seat.  As the climb from Buck Island ends, the trail flattens out, not easy but no longer the big obstacles that can have you flopping your rig.  Now it is time to remove the “co” from Brad’s job title.

Handing off the keys is not as difficult as I thought it would be…  it’s harder!  I trust Brad with my life…  I’ve known him for more than 30 years, best man at my wedding, god father to my oldest, through thick and thin… but driving my rig is another thing.  Brad has never driven off-road before so this is his baptism of fire. Taking his place in the driver’s seat I explain the four speed transfer case, the basics of putting a wheel on rocks the diff can’t clear, how to approach a shelf climb, when to go around rather then over, how the rig will lift away from what you turn into and the off camber limits of the truck.

Starting out cautiously, I am spoting from the passenger’s seat.  “Approach by putting the driver’s wheel on that rock”, “the passenger wheel is going to drop now” , “come around and let your slider keep you off the big rock”, “hug the wall on your side close, really close”…  Brad’s driving is smooth as we move along the trail keeping pace with the other rigs following their lead through the obstacles.  Getting comfortable with my new roll, I’m spending more time taking in the views and focused less on where we are going, Brad has this under control.

Watching Brad drive off-road for the first time, I’m remembering what it was like on my first trail: hands holding onto the steering wheel so tight I almost ripped it off, worried about every noise, not sure how the rig is suppose to react and having no idea what to expect next.  Seeing the sense of accomplishment in Brad’s eyes when he finally pulled off made my day, hell my year…  But now we are sitting at the top of Big Sluice.

Without Woody to help out, spotting duty falls on each of us to help one another.  Mark is focused on getting each of the rigs through the big problems while the rest of us are jumping in and out of our rigs to spot the next truck through the “easier” stuff. About half way down Big Sluice is the tree.  The tree divides the trail in half. On the right, a huge boulder falling down to piles of large rock that could eat 35″ tires for lunch. To the left a huge boulder with rocks half buried into the up hill side of the trail.  And below it all a third bus size boulder holding it all in place with a three foot drop beyond its down hill boundary.

Their are two options that appear to offer  an escape. Crawl along the hill side of the boulder on the left picking through the big rocks just far enough to pivot onto the bus size boulder where you drive to the edge of the three foot abyss, backup, come around  and descend onto the more gentle drop on the opposite side of the trail without rolling over the edge and finally point the rig back down the trail, driving to the next set of obstacles.

The other option is to squeeze between the boulder on the left and tree in the center.  Both the tree and the rock are covered with swatches of color. Bits of glass rest at their base as a testimony to their ability to extract revenge on a quarter panel or tail lights of rigs that miss judge distance as they tilt back and forth on the roots exposed between.  Neither choice is easy and there is no by pass.

Mark spots our crew through the perils, half taking the left track and half squeezing between the middle. All our skill is brought to bear as each driver tries to establish a foothold on terra firma working their way down.  There is no fast or easy way here and rigs are stacking up, wanting to run up Big Sluice. And they are getting impatient.  Half the crew above the obstacle, half below, our group yields the trail.  Once the other rigs pass, Mark goes back to work, bringing the rest of us down without incident.

Just because we are off Big Sluice doesn’t mean we are done. Even after we cross the bridge into The Springs, obstacles still stand in our way…  to the point where I just want to be done.  My brain hurts, my feet stink, I can’t focus any more, I am so done. But the Rubicon Trail doesn’t care! The trail keeps throwing all it has at us. Finally…  camp.

Driving through camp we motor past sites filled with tents and trucks.  Even though we are here a day ahead of schedule, lots of folks have been here working hard to ready The Springs for Rubithon.  Past PMC camp and by the helipads the option is to continue down to the slabs by the river where the parties will go late into the night, or stop and take a couple of the big sites along the road where we can watch all the rigs parade by over the next few days. Several flat spots, our own outhouses and a shortcut down to the main event area. We will call this piece of ground home for the next four nights.

On the trail we all chatted with one another but most of time, focus was on driving and avoiding catastrophe. Now that we are staying put we can let our guard down and really get to know each other. Camp set up, check.  Dinner dishes washed, check. Camp chairs in a circle, check.  Beer cooler open, check.  White gas, dry wood, roaring camp fire, check. It’s official, FJ Cruiser Corner is a party.

As the fire blazes and the beer pours, stories start to flow. All of us are coming forward with our own tales… The trails back home.  What drives us to take a perfectly good rig and attempt to thread it through the eye of a needle.  What we do back in the world and why we left it to be here.

As I listen to everyone I can’t help but notice how we are all so different yet the same. We come from across the country but are here together and share a common bond.

All tatted up, Dave is one of the cool kids…  with a heart of gold.  He shares his feeling about being on this adventure with his dad and what it means to spend time with his father (reminds me of my Arctic adventure with my own dad). David and Brad have hit it off, sharing stories about their lives as well as a bottle of Kentucky’s best between them.

Marcus and Laura are the youngsters in our group (remember this is my mid-life crisis so put youngster in perspective).  Watching the two of them together reminds me of what is important in life.  They have figured out what it means to work together and seem to laugh and smile in unison.  Together they set up camp always think about the other’s need before their own.  This generosity is not limited to each other.  Marcus and Laura offer to share burgers, dogs, snacks, what ever they cook to anyone who wants. If you need a camp chair, barrow theirs. Their generosity never ends and inspires me.

Look up hard working, honest, good people on Webster and you’ll find a picture Bill and Virgina.  I’ve wheeled with them before and I’m always impressed at how genuine they are. If you’re stuck, Bill is the first to start digging you out.  Need a tug, he’ll strap you up. Ask Bill how it is and he’ll give it to you straight.  Virgina seems to always have a good word and warm smile.  Virgina walked much of the Rubicon Trail taking pictures. I knew if I saw her hiking ahead she would have a smile for us and wave as we passed.

As I mentioned previously (you did read that story right) Todd won the right to drive Metal Tech’s FJ Cruiser in a charity bidding war back in Tennessee. Todd is no stranger to wheeling. From the Great Smokey Mountains to the Alaska Cruiser Trek, Todd has wheeled his Toyota across it all.  The epitome of a southern gentleman I’m pretty sure if cut he bleeds sweet tea.  Todd always took lead through the toughest obstacles so we could all learn from the lines he drove and avoid problems that he encountered.  More then once I looked to Todd for spotting help through an obstacle and he never steered me wrong.

Mike is a calming influence.  Sit next to him around a fire and you immediately start to relax.  Always a kind word and smile, Mike is the guy you count on in a pinch…  and he comes through for you.  He is the perfect Ying to Erin’s Yang. Erin is a trouble maker. She leans in and coaxes each of us to talk about ourselves without ever giving up her secrets. Like Satan in the Garden of Eden, each of us succumbed to her charms and spilled our guts.  But as I came to know later, she can use her super power for good too.

Mark Hawley has taught me most of what I know about driving off-road.  A teacher at heart (check is family tree), I dare you to chat with him and not learn something. While everyone wheeled like they owned the trail, we owe Mark a big thank you for getting us all to The Springs unscathed. And now he can finally relax, he is off the clock.

Up until the late hours of the night (early hours of the morning), the fire burns with all of us laughing, chatting and happy to be here at Rubithon.

Next: Rubicon Springs driving out Cadillac Hill

More Addictive Than Crack – Rubicon Trail

Back in 2009 I made my first trip across the Rubicon Trail. Naive and in way over my head I had no idea what lay in front of me… four years later and several major off-road adventures under my belt I know what to expect from this adventure and my anxiety levels are shooting through the roof.

The sun is still warming the early morning mountain air, as Brad and I descend to the base of Loon Lake for the meetup where several others are gathered. Brad has co-piloted for me on Baja, the Utah Backcountry Discovery Route and a couple of local trail runs but until now, I’ve not exposed him to anything like what we’ll experience on Rubicon.

Our trail boss, Mark Hawley from Metal Tech 4×4, one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, is starting to hold court as soon as we arrive; inspecting rigs, handing out trash sacks and putting raw nerves at ease with his calm demeanor and assurances that he will help get us through. Thirteen individuals, in eight different rigs make up this convoy about to set out across some of the most scenic granite in the world. For the next several days we will be inseparable, placing our rigs and lives in the hands of one another.

Marcus and Laura had traveled from Phoenix escaping the 110 degree heat. Mike and Erin drove across Nevada through the late night in order to make it here on time. Bill and Virginia left behind the rain of the Oregon coast to be here. Todd, who had out bid everyone back in Tennessee for a chance drive Metal Tech’s FJ Cruiser, had flown in the night before. David and his dad Mark join us this morning to take on the trail, each in their own rig. Brian “Woody” Swearingen, who surprised everyone will provide additional support, guidance and comic relief on the trail. Five FJ Cruisers, two 80 series and a FJ40 lined up and ready to go.

The TCLA’s departure schedule is run tighter than a German rail station and at the stroke of nine we are departing the lake. Moving cautiously, getting comfortable in our rigs with the feel of granite under our tires we proceeded down the trail slowly but in less than a quarter mile our convoy comes to a screeching halt. The 7:00 a.m. group, we’ll just call them “The Committee”, are working to repair one of their own. Not wanting to put the “turtle slow” (a not so accurate assumption) FJCs in front of them they ask that we hold back since they would be ready to move on in just a few minutes. Two hours later and we are still within view of Loon waiting on their repairs, but this is Rubicon and if folks need a hand you stick around… no one gets left behind.

The weather at 6,000 feet above sea level can be deceptive. The sun feels good on our skin but there is little atmosphere to protect us against its burning rays. With few trees to stop it, the wind blows where ever it wants across the expanse of granite slab stretched out around us. Our tube doors that provide so much visibility of the trail offer little protection from air rushing by as it pulls the moisture from our lips and dispenses a chill over every exposed body part. Waiting for the repairs to complete, we hunker down out of the wind, sitting next to the rig, hydrating, nervously chatting about the trail ahead and hydrating some more until the wounded FJ40 is once again on its feet and “The Committee” has put some distance between us. The sun is now well over head.

As the slab gives way to loose rock and boulder our convoy picks its way through the narrow maze that is Rubicon, climbing up shelves, scrambling over boulders, then navigating along wall faces where only a wisp of space exists between mineral and sheet metal. FJC’s taking one set of lines, the 80’s another and the lone FJ40 of our group driving a third. Watching the rigs pick their way through each obstacle you can see Land Cruiser glory reaching back all the way to the shores of Japan where they originated nearly a century ago.

There is no break from the obstacles our group faces. Like a lion on the Serengeti the Rubicon Trail picks and pokes looking for weakness until it finds an opening to extract its revenge. One false step, a momentary lapse or an unaccounted for rock and the Rubicon Trail will warp you against a boulder. We are constantly on high alert.

The big obstacles stack our little group up as each rig works its way through with the guidance of spotters. These little delays offer us all a chance to watch and learn from each other’s approach to solving the problem. We each have our own way, some gingerly balance between braking and gas to maintain slow steady forward momentum, others use more skinny peddle preferring to muscle their way over rocks. As the long FJ Cruiser with three peddles, I recalled my first experience on the Rubicon Trail where you could smell clutch for blocks as I worked with the stock gears and transfer case trying to control power without killing the engine. Driving a manual on The Con is all about gear options, this trip I came prepared to do battle, armed with a re-geared rear end and a 4speed transfer case. Drop into the low end of the crawl box and ooze confidently over whatever is in the way. Between the stupid low gears and the visibility afforded by the Metal Tech tube doors, this is a different experience all together. I can now see where I want to place a tire and guide the rig onto and over each obstacle without having to dance between the brake, gas and clutch. This is how wheeling is meant to be done, even if I am compensating for missing skills with more technology.

Years earlier we pulled off trail, walked up to Little Sluice, got back into our rigs and made a hasty retreat to the bypass. Once again we have come to the moment of truth. Little Sluice lays in front of us like a boulder staircase reaching up so high it makes the trees jealous. Although some will say it has been paved, and even with many of the truck size obstacles removed Little Sluice remains a formidable path stretched out before us.

Woody in his 80, of course makes it look easy, running all but a few feet with open diffs. Finishing the section he expresses his belief that the FJCs are more than capable of taking it on. He walks us up the route he has in mind pointing to a way out (up a rock face) if the boulders get too hairy.

Todd is the first to step up to the challenge… after all it isn’t his rig. With Mark and Woody spotting, Todd works Metal Tech’s Orange FJC up Little Sluice bouncing from rock to rock and working the line. As he pulls past the last large obstacle, a sense of pride washes over everyone knowing that the latest rigs to come out of Toyota have what it takes to call themselves Land Cruisers.

Mike rolls his rig up to the base of Little Sluice next following the same lines and working his rig until the sound of air rushing from a tire echos along the granite hills, stopping all forward progress. Mike’s has rolled the bead on his tire and he is stuck. Time to breakout the bottle jack and see about re-seating the bead where his rig sits, perched on rocks next to a massive wall. Karma can be as cruel as an angry mistress with your wife’s cell number on speed-dial or she can kiss you with the love reserved for a mother welcoming her child into the world. Mike clearly has been living a good life and Karma chose to smile down on him this day. Within five minutes the wheel is up off the rocks and on-board air is pushing the tire back into place as the bead resets itself on the rim with another loud pop. Two minutes later under Woody’s guidance, Mike is working himself away from the rock face and up to the top of Little Sluice.

For me, Little Sluice is the Rubicon Trail. Pulling forward, my mind races. Will my 33 (and a half) inch tires give me the clearance I need over these boulders? Do I trust that all the mods LT worked so hard on will pay off? Do I have the skill to follow Woody’s direction and drive a line that feels wrong? Will I have the determination to work through the mine field when the sound of metal scraping across granite rings in my ears or will I bail out? Do I have what it takes to risk body damage and push myself through the obstacles that years earlier I had walked away from?

My motivation isn’t driven by testosterone (there are better outlets for that) or a need to show off. Rather motivation comes from a desire to know if my skills have matured to a state where I can take on a challenge that is a significant step up from any I’ve previously tackled.

My ass puckers a bit (more) as I motor up Little Sluice and pass the last turn out to safety. There is no going back now and like long legs in heels strutting across the room, the rock face on the right and boulders ahead have my full attention.

As with any tough set of obstacles, I get hung up a little as I work through the line. Woody backs me up, repositions me to a new line and I try again… this goes on to the point where I am making more progress backwards than forward. Then the light goes on for Woody that I’m not running a stock rear end and my Ford 9” is getting hung up because all that flexy travel will not force my diff to raise up like the stock FJCs he’d driven back in the day. A few squirrelly turns back and forth, a little change in direction. Woody now has me crawling the Blue Bunny up the gauntlet of trauma on a new path and through the drama of Little Sluice. You can not wipe the smile off my face as I pop out the other side. No I didn’t do it alone (Thank you Woody!!!!) but I did do it and I did not leave any paint or parts behind.

Between the adrenaline rush, constant barrage of obstacles and lack of sleep the night before, the rest of the road into Buck Island Lake, gets a bit foggy… I do recall at some point our group of “little turtles” caught back up to “The Committee”, who decided this time it might be better to wave us on by rather than face the embarrassment of being over taken a third time. Our little rag tag group of off-road adventurers made its way down to the Buck Island Lake safely, our biggest incident today a blown tire bead. Hungry, excited, a little warn down and covered in trail dust, we quietly setup camp on a flat rock, eat a warm meal and turn in for some well deserved rest.

The night is clear and the taste of cool mountain air lingers on my lips as the stars dance across the blackness. Drifting in and out of the place where dreams are born I can’t help but think about what tomorrow will bring. Halfway across the Rubicon Trail and tomorrow things gets tougher.

Next: Driving Buck Island Lake to Rubicon Springs

In A Word, Rubithon 2013

Ask folks to describe what Rubithon and the Rubicon Trail means to them and you may be surprised by the answer.

Comradery and diversity: Doctors, lawyers, plumbers, carpenters, accountants,  fire fighters and everyone else come together at Rubithon.  From across the country and every imaginable walk of life, people come together to celebrate their love of the great out doors, off-road driving (off highway for the Tread Lightly folks in the crowd) and Toyota trucks in the Rubicon Springs. For many, this will be the only time they get to see a friend they’ve known for years.  Other friends have traveled thousands of miles together, eating truck stop food, sleeping in rest stops (or Walmart) and fixing flats along the way in order to check the Rubicon Trail off their bucket list.

Bragging rights: Everyone in the off-road world knows the Rubicon Trail as the ultimate off-road adventure.  Folks come from Tennessee, Colorado, Oregon, Arizona, Texas, and even the Antarctic to drive the Rubicon Trail in order to attend the 25th annual Toyota Land Cruiser Association’s “Rubithon”. For some it is their first time on the trail, for others it is another of many and for a few it is their 24th time at Rubithon.

As for trail cred, complete the Rubicon Trail making it safely into The Springs for Rubithon and no one will question your intensity again.

Patience and Self Discipline: Intense focus and concentration is required every second on the trail. Easy flat sections are short and infrequent.  Other trails may have more intense obstacles scattered about but none can match the constant barrage of boulders, granite shelves, drops and off camber of Rubicon.  Loose focus for even a moment and you will experience the results of metal and granite trying to occupy the same space in time.

A trail with so many obstacles has very little room for rigs to pass. Traffic jams become the norm as rigs stack up working their way through the toughest sections or repairs are made for broken axles, bent tie rods and blown tire beads.  The pace can be maddeningly slow but it offers an opportunity practice your Zen meditation of patience and take in the majesty of the High Sierras which are unmatched in the world.

Sense of self sufficiency: Rubithon starts on Tuesday at Loon Lake  and ends with a drive up Cadillac Hill on Sunday.  In between you drive, setup camp, tear down camp and drive some more.  There is a thin line with dry camping between extravagant treat and a week in hell.  Your water, shelter, tools and ingenuity are all that separates you from a miserable, nightmarish, hypothermic, sleepless trip.  At best the trail provides a flat spot for a tent. If you need it, you must bring it in.  If you bring it in, you must bring it out (Google “wag bag” if you dare). Balance creature comfort, spare parts, weight and space in your rig correctly and you will know the bliss of independence and self sufficiency, get it wrong…  think Donner Party.

Off-road driving skills: If you think you know how to drive off-road and have never driven the Rubicon Trail, think again. Come around on your slider and bounce off the skid plate to line up for an aggressive climb up a series of large boulders  followed by a steep off camber descent. This scenario repeats it self a 1,000 times in seven miles.  Get it wrong and you’ll have a permanent reminder of your mistake tattooed in sheet metal. On the Con you learn just how far you can push yourself and your rig.  By the end you have developed the ability to see the lines that will keep you driving the straight and narrow. Trails you thought were difficult before Rubicon, not so much any more.

Family: “When everything goes to hell, the people who stand by you without flinching — they’re your family. ” Fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, girlfriends and their beaus, husbands, wives and children, families of all sizes sharing the Rubithon experience. Multiple generations on the trail, where for a moment the differences in years, life experience and taste in music melt away exposing their love for each other, building family memories that will last a life time.  Parents who are committed to taking care of the Rubicon Trail, protecting it for generations to come. A family that extends beyond genetics to each and every member of the TLCA that stands by you on the trail to fix what gets broke and ensure no rig is left behind.

Fun: Wine tasting, horseshoes, RC cars, BBQ, the Marauder bar, bond fires, hiking, swimming, rock chief, tech talks and door prizes… lots and lots of door prizes.  Rubithon is the only TLCA hosted event and they go overboard making sure it is fun for everyone who has arrived in the Rubicon Soda Springs. After 25 years, Rubithon has grown to be one of the most fun off-roading events where everyone from kids to grandparents can find something to enjoy, when they tire of fresh air, sunshine and relaxation.

In a word, Rubithon is all of these.

I ponder my own description and I struggle to come up with a single word or phase that can sum up the gambit that is Rubithon.  Thinking about it my word choices pale when compared to the words of those who worked so long and hard behind the scenes all year to pull off this event or the folks who have battled against those who would close the Rubicon Trail and condemn this place to nothing more than a historical foot note.

My word privileged. Privileged to drive on this sacred trail for a second time, to have met so many great people who share our love for off-road adventures, to listen to them tell their stories and to now call several of them my friend.

Next: Driving Loon Lake to Buck Island Lake