“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.