Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Subject to a sudden impulse I veer off the park road just past the empty fee booth in the early morning and bound down the White Rim Road; a 4x4 road that clambers over the rocks along the rim of the canyons of the Colorado and Green rivers near their confluence. The road is frequented by those fleets of Jeep Wrangler whose constant and noisy rumblings through Moab I so detest. I’d discussed this drive with one of my friends at Bryce and he said it would be impossible in my car. But I’m planning to just go 5 miles down the road to get a view of the canyon and make a sketch… 100 miles and two days later I came out on the other side.
As I finish my painting under the buttes and rim of the Island in the Sky a convoy of monster trucks pull up onto the rock on which I’m parked. I turn the key to start my car and get out of their way but the car only gives off half a beep before all the lights on the dashboard flicker and disappear. I’m about to try again when I notice the knob on the headlight wand is turned to “on”. Actually it’s set to that icon that looks like a bullet flying through the air but regardless it dawns on me that I’d left my lights on for the two hours I’d spent making the painting. I’d been debating with myself about going further on the road but as I pull out my jumper cables and sheepishly approach the hay bale sized tire of a ford I decide that this clinches it, I’m heading back to the main road.

As my car sputters back to life the driver of the monster truck asks which was I’m going. I point to the right towards the upper rim. I ask him the same thing and he says he’s just finished driving the full road and has to get back into town for work (I guess because tomorrow is SUNDAY-SUNDAY-SUNDAY!!!) I say “yehhhp” and disconnect the jumper cables, stow them under my bed and hop back into the car.  I bounce down the rock towards the dirt road and put my signal on to the right to let a coming truck know he could pass. I watch him pass and then turn to the left, deeper into the canyon.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve been down a dirt road and I have to relearn exactly what height of rock will whang the rod guarding the gas tank on the left and the exhaust assembly on the right. After a few scrapes I’ve figured out when I need to pull up out of the ruts in the dirt and drive on the mound in the middle of the road to get over a stray rock. About this time the dirt vanishes and the road becomes lumpy, solid slickrock. I drive over swells at an angle to keep from bottoming out and weave from side to side to keep my tires on top of the larger rocks. 
I pass a couple of jeeps taking a break just before Murphy’s Hogback and round the corner to find a narrow 30 degree incline of loose sand and football sized rocks hanging off the edge of a cliff. I hit the hill at decent speed in first gear and make it up the first slope. On the second, steeper incline I let off the gas for a fraction of a second when the steering wheel cuts left as I run over a rock. I immediately stomp on the pedal and try to regain momentum but with the pedal floored I slow to a crawl on the climb and the engine finally cuts off. I let it roll back down the hill to a slightly less steep section and restart the engine. In first gear, determined not to burn up my clutch I let the pedal out quickly and jump up the first line of rocks in front of me. I keep the pedal floored and spin the steering wheel left and right to avoid the rocks I can’t clear as a cloud of sand envelops the car. With a loud clatter I hit a pile of smaller stones and send some flying up into the wheel wells before the car lurches forward and starts to climb again, all the way to the top.

At the top of the hill I lay beside the car to check for any damage. I find the exhaust assembly knocked off its rubber hanger and now hanging down just a few inches from the ground. It’s too hot to touch so I grab the jack out of the back of the car and jack the pipes up until I can reconnect the hanger. As I’m sliding out from under the car one of the jeeps comes spinning up the hill, screaming in low range and emerges on top next to me. The driver says “We weren’t sure if you made it; we just saw a cloud of dust and smoke! I’m impressed with that little Honda!” I think “What about the driver?! Here’re the keys, you try it!” but just smile as I dust myself off.

On the way down the other side of the hogback the ABS has no idea what’s going on and seems content to turn my brakes off nearly completely and let me careen down the hill. With that obstacle behind me and another steep climb ahead I find a dry wash to park in and make dinner. I sit on the tailgate and eat and look out at the sun setting on the butte called the candlestick. I sit out and watch until the light has faded from the horizon.  
As I’m falling asleep I hear two voices getting closer and closer to me. I look up to see two headlamps bobbing down the road towards my car at a jog. They stop briefly only to say “That’s not him, I think I saw his lights farther down the road” and they continue jogging into the night. A jeep had come flying by as I was packing up my stove earlier; I wonder if the jeep was supposed to pick these two up but missed the stop in the dark. They were gone before I thought to offer them water but I hoped that they’d come back if they were truly stranded.

The next morning I’m pleasantly surprised to find a few solid miles of smooth sand to drive over and manage to get above 8 mph for a half an hour. In the sand I can see the footprints of the couple that had run by my car in the night. The prints disappear when I pass the next camp and I see that there are people there and feel relieved that they’d found shelter.

I’d slept poorly all night, imagining what the next hill would look like. I didn’t think I could make it back over the hogback if I had to turn back. Just as before, when I approach this hill I don’t realize it’s coming until I turn a corner to find a wall of sand. This slope isn’t littered with rocks as the last one had been and I know that if I keep the wheels turning I can slowly but surely claw my way to the top. The hill climbs up into the rising sun onto an exposed ledge high off the canyon floor. I watch the wall next to me to know when to turn as I come over the top. 
On the other side I enter a sandy wash and the footprints appear again, I can recognize the pattern on the sole of the shoe. I try to look for the line of a bike tire next to the prints; perhaps it was a mountain biker who periodically walked his bike when he got tired; but I find none. I’ve just driven 15 miles and it would appear that those hikers jogged the same distance in the cold and dark last night.

I drive slowly when I lose sight of the prints hoping that they’ll call out as I pass if they had decided to stop. Each time though, the prints re-emerge when the sand gets deeper. 

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