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.