The Red Rock Canyon Mysteries were born of adventure and exploration in Utah and Arizona’s magnificent wilderness, such as the Escalante National Monument, described here in this tale of mis-adventure.
“Do you think we can get down that?” I ask.
I’m sitting behind the wheel of “Toro Azul,” – the Blue Bull — my trusted and dependable 1989 Toyota SR5, gripping the wheel with white knuckles. The road slopes down at a twenty percent grade, but it’s anything but graded. It’s sandy and deeply rutted, and in addition to the downward pitch, the whole road lists to one side, tilting precariously towards an arroyo, a dry wash that once or maybe twice a year floods with water the colour of blood, and then goes dry.
Greer Chesher is sitting beside me, her border collie Bo at her feet. It’s early spring, and we’re exploring the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument, a 1.9 million-acre swath of wilderness in south-central Utah. Greer is doing research for a book on The Monument and I am along for the ride, such as it is. Greer and I met in the early 1990’s when she was a ranger at Grand Canyon National Park and I was a volunteer there. We’d stayed in touch, and when I wanted to spend a month in the Escalante, she agreed to show me around.
And now we’re driving down the Red Breaks “Road,” which is really a couple of sandy ruts that snake across the desert, around stunted Juniper trees, and up over bare red rocks. We’re trying to get as close to a place called the V, where Harris Wash meets the Escalante River.
When we get to a point where we can drive no further, we’ll hike the remaining miles.
“Do you think we can get down that?”
It should have occurred to me that this was that point. But it didn’t. Instead, Greer said cheerfully, “Yeah, we can get down that.”
What I didn’t think about, at least until we were down, was – gravity being what it is – can we get back up that?
I shifted into first and crept down the grade in four-wheel drive, leaning to the right to avoid being pressed against the driver side door, steering to keep the tires in the ruts of the road. The moment we were down, I knew that getting back up was going to be a serious problem. I should have just cut to the chase, turned around, and begun the 12-hour ordeal of driving that twenty meters of road right then and there. Instead we drove on another mile, parked where the ruts disappeared into slick rock cliffs, and wandered over the canyon country towards the V. We didn’t make it, for whatever reason. That isn’t important now. Instead we rendezvoused with the truck an hour later and began the return journey.
When we got to the place where the road was perched on the edge of the dry wash, I stopped. That was a mistake. If I was an experienced off-highway driver I would have just kept driving, and might possibly have used momentum, horsepower and a devil-may-care attitude to make it to the top of the grade. But I didn’t. The image of the sand giving out under the truck, and Greer, Bo, and I tumbling sideways into the wash made me let up on the gas and roll to a stop. The fall wouldn’t have killed us. But we were 40 miles from the town of Escalante – population 400, including dogs – and I was rather attached to my truck. I didn’t want this arroyo to become henceforth known as Legault Wash with my battered truck as a monument to my stupidity.
After a few minutes of study I geared down into compound low and began to creep up the grade, hardly touching the gas. Even at this snail’s pace the tires dug into the loose blow sand, and we ground to a halt. I backed down – nerve-wracking at the pitch and angle of the road – and tried again, this time giving the truck a little more gas. We went up. We stopped.
We tried again, and again we dug into the sand.
Cursing. Back down. This time we got out to survey the scene. The sand was loose and dry and the wind was picking up, blowing in more from the desert all around.
We tried a few more times, me nervous and watching out of the corner of my eye the dry wash twenty feet below looming out of the passenger window.
What came next was an hour or two of road work. We hauled rocks from the wash and the surrounding desert, and found loose brush that could be used to build up the road to give the truck some purchase. The wind picked up and more sand blew in, burning our eyes and filling our hair with grit. It was exhausting work, with the nagging concern of being stuck out at the end of a road that saw maybe one or two vehicles a week (or less, who knows!) gnawing at the back of our minds.
When we got the road to where we thought it could support our weight, we mounted up and took a bit of a run at it in four-high. We climbed nearly to the top, the truck swaying back and forth, the engine revving as it worked hard to keep its momentum. Just as we reached the crest our handiwork gave out, the tires left the rocks and brush and dug deeply into the sand, and we lurched to a halt. I tired to reverse and couldn’t. I switched to compound low again; nothing. We were stuck deep.
Stepping out of the truck into the blowing sand, I could see that we were going nowhere. On the driver’s side, the back wheels were pushed to the very top of their wells and half buried in sand. On the passenger’s side, there was a two-foot gap between the top of the wheel and the bottom of the well, and it was likewise buried. The axle was completely obscured by sand.
Hiking. Greer and Bo guarded the truck and I began the hike towards Greer’s vehicle – also a Toyota SR5 (our expedition was not sponsored) – parked six or seven miles away. The plan was to return with her truck and use it to pull mine from the sandy quagmire.
After just four miles, at the trailhead for Harris Wash, I flagged down some hikers and they offered to give me to Greer’s vehicle. One of them had been stung by a scorpion and they were on their way to Escalante to find medical attention. I had a snake-bite kit and did first aid while be banged over the rough road. I wished them good luck, and they me.
Behind the wheel again, I started back with Greer’s truck, over the rocky and pitted road as far as Harris Wash, then down through the creek and up past the sign that warned travelers that the Red Breaks Road was four-wheel drive only.
Who was it that told me that that four-wheel drive just gets you stuck deeper, further from home?
As I drove Greer’s truck back towards my own, I noticed with some dismay that the tracks from my morning’s passing were already gone, blown over as more sand drifted across the pathway.
Down and around the stunted Juniper tree and up over the slick rock, I finally got to the place where my truck rested axle deep in the road. We hooked up a sturdy tow rope, and I got into my truck while Greer pulled with hers. Nothing. We were in too deep, and her four cylinder SR5 lacked the chutzpa to pluck mine from the desert’s greedy clutches.
Driving. We made our way in Greer’s truck over 40 miles of sand, rock, ruts and bad attitude and finally reached the asphalt and Escalante. We ate a pizza and drank coffee at the town’s only Espresso Bar – a sign of the times with the creation of the Monument attracting new business to this tiny town. And then we called the tow truck. Singular; there was only one.
Greer suggested offering one of the sturdy Escalante men, with a muscular Ford, Chevy or Dodge truck a hundred bucks to drive out into the desert and pull my dinky import from the clutches of the Monument. I always felt out of place in Escalante with so small, and so quiet, a truck. But I lacked the guts or brains to give this a try. The tow truck seemed so much safer.
That’s when Darrell showed up.
My first response was one of tremendous relief. The tow truck was massive. Its wheels – all six of them – were up to my shoulders! Good news, I thought, this rig will do the trick.
When Darrell emerged from the cab to discuss the particulars of the situation I noted that he looked ready enough. He smiled a wide grin and I noted that he was missing two teeth on top and two on the bottom, just about where you might land a well-placed punch. Excellent. He either fought enough not to care, or so rarely that he was really bad at it.
I drove with Greer, Darrell followed behind. We had to stop at the Conoco on the way out of town so Darrell could pick up a friend who could help with the job. That’s when I met Steve. Another affable chap, despite the fact that most of his teeth were present and accounted for.
When we got to where Greer and I were camped in her trailer dubbed the “Adventure Pod” I climbed in with Steve and Darrell, and we left Greer behind. No sense in getting two Toyota’s stuck. It’s not like there was a two-for-one sale on in Escalante that day.
We groaned along in low gear over the rocks and ruts of the road to Harris Wash. I inquired after the workings of the big rig, and learned that indeed it was four-wheel drive, but all the wheels that “drove” were in the back. The front two were for steering only. Then and there I should have seen the trouble brewing.
As we crossed the wash I was ruminated on cold beer, which I mentioned was in a cooler in the back of my truck. Darrell couldn’t drink, a condition of his recent parole from prison.
Further into the desert.
Down and around stunted juniper, blow sand accumulating quickly at the bottom of that swale, and up over the slick rock we ranged, the wind beginning to howl. By this time it was late afternoon. Sundown was just a few hours away, and ahead was the last long, straight stretch of sandy road before the steep decline, the wash and my truck. We drove headlong into sand, and stopped. The front wheels of the massive rig burrowed into the soft sand and the back wheels spun and we were rendered motionless.
The tow truck was stuck.
We clambered out and found some rocks and brush and used a couple of four-by-fours that Darrell had on the back of the truck for just this sort of situation and drove again. We made a solid four or five feet of progress and then down went the rig into the sand again, hub deep in the powdery grit.
Suddenly the couple of hundred yards between us and my Toyota seemed like the distance to the moon. For two hours we dug, hauled rocks, moved the four-by-fours, gunned the engine, lurched forward, dug in again, and repeated. Each time we made a few feet of progress. Once we drove twenty feet with loud raucous cheering before sinking back into the desert. We bonded.
We fixed bandana’s over our faces to keep the blowing sand out of our noses and hauled more rocks, reorganizing the desert as we went.
When we finally reached the Toyota it took all of a minute to pluck it from the Monument’s greedy fist. It popped out like a cork. I pulled the top from a couple of Mormon 3.5% microbrews and those of us not on parole enjoyed them, the watery suds washing the sand down our gullets.
We three stood side by side looking back over the road we had just spent several hours transforming. It looked as if it had been carpet bombed. The sandy ruts were churned up several feet deep from the tow truck’s massive tires.
“I can’t drive my truck over that road,” I said.
“Just drive it like they do in the commercials, man,” grinned Darrell.
I didn’t have the heart to tell these fellows that I had never actually seen a Toyota commercial.
I handed the keys to Steve.
I’ve never seen my truck do the things that Steve made it do that evening. Somehow he got it going fast enough to surf over much of the loose sand, and when he did get stuck once, he shifted into compound low so fast that the momentum of the truck seemed to propel it out of trouble again.
Darrell pointed the tow truck toward to the side of the road and roared across the desert, avoiding the hazard all together. I groaned at the thought of the hardworking men and women at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance ever learning of my malfeasance.
Then I remembered that I was standing in the desert, Steve was sitting behind the wheel of my truck, and Darrell behind the wheel of the tow truck. 40 miles from town. I hurried to catch up, congratulated Steve on an impressive display of manly driving, and resumed control of Toro Azul.
In the failing light and blowing sand we made our way back towards Harris Wash. But our misadventure was not complete. Remember the ‘down and around the stunted juniper’ part of the road? The down and around went fine on the way back, me in the lead and the boys following close behind, but as I gunned the Toyota on the uphill side (I was emboldened by Steve’s driving and the thought of what a Toyota commercial must look like) all the gear in the back of the truck slammed against the tail gate, which popped open, spilling my stuff in the middle of the road.
Run it over! I yelled, as Darrell piloted the tow truck around the Juniper. But he didn’t He stopped. And didn’t get started again.
More brush, more rocks, more deep and abiding guilt. It took us another hour to free the tow truck from the incline that it was marooned on. The winch came in handy. It’s amazing how sturdy stunted juniper trees are.
It was past 10 pm when we finally reached Greer’s Adventure Pod. She handed me what money she had and I drove on ahead of my new friends to Escalante, drinking 3.5 and singing the saddest Ian Tyson songs I could as the wind buffeted my Blue Bull.
At the town’s only bank machine I took out all the cash I could – Darrell could take neither cheque nor credit card – and paid nearly $500 US for the privilege of their assistance that afternoon. I gave them each a $20 tip – all the cash I had left – for their trouble. Then we parted. Muchacos.
I stopped at the Conoco for more beer, courtesy of Visa, and finally reached the Adventure Pod and my sleeping bag near midnight. As I closed my eyes I could feel the sand grating over my corneas. The following morning we drove back to town to shower and I deposited bright red sand from the Escalante Monument into the corners of my shower stall.
Two days later we were driving out to Egypt Point, over a washboard road, when my muffler, loosened by being buried in blow sand and unceremoniously wrenched from the desert, fell off and I drove over it.
But at least now my truck, braying like a jack ass, fit in around Escalante.
Rough Breaks on the Red Breaks Road was first published in I Sold my Gold Tooth for Gas Money, an anthology of adventure travel stories edited by Matt Jackson and published in 2006 by Summit Studios.
Greer’s book – Heart of the Desert Wild – was published in 2000. My Toyota SR5 blew a head gasket climbing a steep mountain pass and was sold for scrap in late 2004. Now I drive a 1993 Nissan 4×4, but for how much longer?