The Unreached Mountain

After our first Jeep trip to the Salton Sea, I thought our Wrangler was invincible. My husband, Frank, and I rode through sand, rocks, ditches, and narrow squeezes as easy as driving the freeways of Southern California. Sometimes even at the same slow speed.

The next trip we camped near Anza-Borrego State Park. The other four-wheelers with us had brand new Broncos and a 2003 tricked-out Rubicon. We were a little outclassed. Our 2004 Wrangler had 32” tires but otherwise was stock. However, we weren’t too concerned. The trails we planned were considered “easy” and “moderate.”

A few hours into the ride, Frank and I sat eating sandwiches inside our Jeep looking up with regret at our crew perched on the mountain.

Our day started out easy enough. Our group of four vehicles entered the windswept sandstone canyon and followed a creek bed. At first, we saw regular motorhomes and four-wheel drive trucks camped under the shade of the canyon walls. Other Jeep groups and single off-roaders passed by on this main part of the trail. I wouldn’t have camped there with all that billowing dust.

As the canyon walls closed in on us, we still saw a few Jeeps and trucks with popup tents on top of them. Full camping kitchens were balanced on rocks. People sat under EZ up canopies to block out the unrelenting sun. The trail became narrow with sharp rocks that poked out of the sand, waiting to pierce our tires.

We kept up with the rest of our group despite our lower stance. Jeff, our experienced leader, turned off the main trail and headed up a side wash. The rocks were a hand’s touch from the sides of our vehicles, especially the wider Broncos. We crawled over the boulders and inched past the protruding edges of the canyon walls.

The trail turned sharply to the left. A sandy trail led straight up the face of a cliff. There were many tire tracks showing the success of others before us. We all stopped and allowed each vehicle to climb the mountain alone in case they had to back down and try again.

Jeff in his Rubicon made it up there easily. Then one of the Broncos scaled it. It was our turn. Frank adjusted his gears and gave it some gas. I hung on and closed my eyes. We bounced up to the top. I turned toward our dogs in the back, and our border collie, Davey, had a wild look in his eyes. Our beagle, Harley, was buried in the seat.

Our group joined several Jeeps that were parked on a flat mesa overlooking the mountains and desert. We got out and took a break, talking about our next move. Should we go down and try another branch of the canyon? Above us was another trail that went up onto a sandstone ridge. I could see a few Jeeps parked up there. We decided that would be our lunch stop.

Jeff found the trail leading up and we followed slowly. The side of the cliff was deep soft sand with patches of rock. Frank and I got stuck a couple of times and had to drop back and try it again. One last section remained before the top.

Jeff parked and stood out on a rock with his radio so he could spot us. Our first Bronco went up and got stuck. Jeff gave him directions on the radio, and with a few adjustments he was up the hill. From our viewpoint, his wheels were all twisted different directions as he clung to the uneven surface.

It was our turn.

Starting on soft sand made it hard to get up the speed we would need. Frank threw it in low gear and we shot up. Near the lip there were several deep ditches close together. We hit the first one.

Clunk! Spin! We were stuck. Frank threw it in reverse and tried it again. Clunk! Spin! Jeff offered suggestions which we tried unsuccessfully.

We were too low to navigate the ditches.

Frank backed down and found a place out of the way of the other Jeeps coming behind us. The last Bronco in our group made it up the hill. I stepped outside to give the dogs a break, but heat radiated off the deep sand and the dogs were not interested. We decided to stay inside and eat our lunch.

After a while, Jeff radioed us that the group was coming back down. We joined them and completed the rest of the trip.

Were we disappointed? Yes. Were we embarrassed? Not really. Our friends are people we’ve ridden Harleys with for years. There was no condemnation. You ride your own ride.

Back at camp, we talked about our favorite parts of the day. Red rock sculptures and vast desert vistas unseen by regular roads. Old rusted minecart trestle covered in bright colored graffiti. Groups of people gathered to shoot their guns at a desolate mountain. A tiny bar filled with thirsty off-roaders.

Tomorrow we would go back to our regular lives, but for this weekend we were explorers and adventurers.

And I would have to complete a few more days of substitute teaching to pay for upgrades to our Jeep.

Two Wheels to Four-Wheel Drive

When my husband was forced to sell his Harley, it seemed like the end of the world. The Harley world had been family to us. Our access to adventure and fellowship were suddenly taken away like a thief breaking into our garage. But this thief was chronic illness, cruel and relentless. Slowly over the years, my husband lost the strength and energy to safely ride a motorcycle. Our riding days were over.

How could we replace roaring down back roads viewing God’s art galleries of nature? Swapping stories with other riders in tiny diners only bikers know about?

We bought a 2004 Jeep Wrangler, bright yellow, that we named Digger.

Some of our Harley friends also had off road vehicles so we planned a weekend trip to the Salton Sea. They invited other Jeep friends and suddenly we had a new group to ride with. Following their motorhome down to the desert felt a little like the HOG rides we’d taken in the past.

The first day we set up at the campground and met the others who would ride with us the next day. In the morning, my husband let out enough air out of Digger’s tires so that we could travel the sand without getting stuck. When it was time, we lined up behind the other Jeeps. One of the experienced Jeepers rode “sweep” like on a Harley group ride. We turned off the main road and hit the dirt.

Slowly. Definitely not at the pace of a Harley.

It’s a different world when you leave the asphalt. Tire tracks in the sand were our only street signs. Instead of cars and trucks competing for highway space, we had to share the dry riverbeds with Razors and ATVs.

The incredible scenery rivaled a Harley ride.

I snapped photos of bat caves, abandoned railroad trestles, and even a palm tree oasis. I held my breath as we climbed a steep hill to reach raised railroad tracks. Our beagle in the back seat covered her eyes, unlike our border collie who watched the road eagerly. The wood and iron from the railroad tracks had been cleared away, leaving the flat gravel surface. The trail was only as wide as a train, with steep drop-offs on either side. It reminded me of a Utah highway we rode with our Harley.

As we followed the railbed, I snapped pictures from our elevated position over the desert. After a while, we encountered mounds of soft dirt piled up on the tracks to prevent off road vehicles from going any further. That didn’t stop our leader. His Jeep was lifted much higher than ours, and for a moment my heart fluttered. Would we get stuck on the top of the dirt pile?

Of course that was an incentive for my husband. As we reached the top of the dirt, I heard a soft swushing under our Jeep, but we made it back down the other side. I started breathing again.

Riding off road can be jarring especially on some of well-traveled trails that have been worn down into washboard ruts. Our Jeep jerked back and forth so much I had to brace myself against the center console and the door. Riding on our Ultra Limited had been much smoother. We dipped down into ravines so deep I was positive we were going to end up planted headfirst in the bottom. But our trusty Jeep climbed in and out of them like it was a regular road.

One thing I learned—the desert is not flat.

On the way back to the campground, we traveled down a canal access road that was gravel but well maintained. That was welcome relief.

When we reached our motorhomes, my friend and I headed to the mineral springs at the resort. We soothed our tight muscles as the sun set into the desert night. My brain appreciated not being jiggled for a while.

Later by the propane campfire, we devoured steaks, potatoes, and corn roasted on the grill. We shared stories and learned more about the new Jeep people we had met. My husband was tired, but it was well worth it.

We may have lost Harley adventures, but we had gained a new world to explore off the paved road.