photo: Peter Matusov and Chris Snell
"We are," Garry said, "on a roto run."
"In our roto wagon."
Tim Cahill, "Road Fever"
What is considered 'essential travel?'
Travel related to essential activities
San Diego to Prescott
Our rendezvous with Chris is at six in the morning, at the curb of Intercontinental Hotel in San Diego.
After loading stuff in the truck, our first order of business is to procure a couple of pounds of fresh masa at a 24-hour, 7-day, Mexican tortilleria in the neighborhood of Barrio Logan.We take off early from Barrio Logan, and decide to skip the Interstate 8 in favor of Highway 94. Along a large stretch of it lies San Diego - Arizona railroad, occasionally crossing over the highway on high viaducts.
After about 90 miles on the road, we stop in El Centro to buy some forgotten supplies, top off the fuel, and grab breakfast burritos.
Mexican supermarket in El Centro is phenomenal - huge, clean, and incredibly well stocked.
In Brawley, Chris wants to recreate a feeling of a similar trip nearly two decades ago, and directs me to a large auto body shop off the main highway. It is closed; but behind the fence sits a very clean, nicely-appointed, Land Rover Discovery Series 1 with a rather familiar license plate. We both think we know who's truck it is - or was; Chris takes this photo (below) and immediately posts it on Facebook.
Sure enough - this was an old truck of Scott Brady from Overland Journal. What a small world!
The city of Niland, California, welcomes us with the "get the fuck out of here" honk by a passing citizen. We take a few photos near the old Commercial Building nonetheless; I like Chris' version far better than mine:
A few miles down the road from Niland lies the [in]famous Slab City.
We just have to stop and look around.
The Salvation Mountain is closed for visitors.
If you don't belong in the Slab City, you'll quickly get the feeling that your welcome is about to expire.
So have we, and bail out on a rough and long Bradshaw Trail going East-North-East from town to the mountains. In a few hundred feet, we find outselves surrounded by the beautiful desert in its late spring bloom.
The road is rough in places, with occasional long uphill stretches of deep sand. While not technical, it is definitely a road for a proper 4x4.
It takes us about 55 miles and 2.5 hours to reach Highway 78 in Palo Verde, California, on Bradshaw Trail.
Palo Verde greets us with well-tended corn and alfalfa fields.
The campground is quite full, but we aren't looking for a site.
The water is clean and refreshing.
Bouse has a long and storied military past, and we stop by the tiny open-air museum of Camp Bouse.
It is only 24 miles or so on dirt, but we manage to achieve unthinkable: rip the tread on a brand new Michelin XZL tire. We still don't know if it was a loose piece of sharp steel or a blowout, and it is unclear if the tire can be salvaged.
Chris takes a couple of photos for posterity; on the outside of the tire, it almost looks like a lug is torn off.
It is rather unfortunate - now we're in the desert having used our spare tire, even if we could fashion some makeshift repair that would last a hundred miles or more.
But we need to continue to the Camp Bouse training area. We reach it relatively soon, and find not much left besides a dry water tank and rainwater collector.
Our general direction is that towards Lake Alamo - we elect the circuitous route near the ghost town of Swansea.
It takes a little over two and a half hours and about 60 miles to reach the concrete boat ramp of Lake Alamo.
Now it is a time for the second swim call and coffee.
We aren't about to camp at an established campground and be close to other people, are we?
After packing up the field kitchen, we depart, and try to meander a network of dirt roads ultimately going towards U.S.93 near Congress, Arizona.
The sun sets quickly - and way before we find a place to camp.
Scott suggests camping along a dirt road going off Arizona SR 89 between Wilhoit and Prescott; we find the road corkscrewing up the hillside, with relatively few and small sites suitable for camping.
It tees off into a larger dirt road meandering along the mountain ridge. After a while, we think we found a secluded site - only to find three or four other campers nearby later.
It is already midnight, we skip grilling meat and satisfy ourselves with bacon and cheese on freshly-made corn tortillas.
Barrio Logan to Slab City: 160 miles/3 hours on pavement.
Slab City to campsite near Prescott: 120 miles/2.5 hours on pavement, 180 miles/8 hours off pavement.
Total - 280 miles on pavement, 180 miles off pavement, about 14 hours of driving.
Prescott to Coconino Plateau
It is very bright and sunny at 7. It is a lot brighter and sunnier at 8, so I bail out and set about to make coffee.
Chris gets out of the tent, too, and we observe a procession of unlikely companions - a Jeep Compass, an Audi Q7, and a built-for-the-run Toyota Tundra. The companions congregate - in the middle of the road - and seem to be unsure where to proceed from here. Soon, they decide on the direction (same as the one they were following before), and leave.
We have our first coffees.
I have to deviate here for a bit. Chris seems to be unfazed by most Italians using percolators as their main means to make coffee in the morning, and laments the lack of JetBoil and French press. I beg to differ. The only slow-ness of the 9-cup percolator is due to me still not being used to the Coleman propane stove, where I have to turn the valve like three full revolutions before it does feel like fire. But - by the time we're done with the first load, we have 9 espressos evenly split between us. Not yet enough.
The unlikely posse reemerges from the woods in the clouds of dust and proceeds in the direction they came from half an hour ago.
We make fresh tortillas, bacon and eggs, and have our delicious breakfast.
Sometime later, we're on our way to Prescott.
If you still remember, we're without a spare tire now, and that bothers us immensely. Chris figures out what is around and what's open on Sunday, and we drop the poor wheel and tire at a Costco store in Prescott Valley, to have a wounded XZL replaced with a "whatever" 245/75R16. An inch and a half smaller than 7.50-16s, but... better than nothing. There's already a line of waiting customers, so we have time to kill - and we bail back to Prescott proper.
I have never seen Prescott gloomy - and it is as cheerful as it has been before, quarantine be damned. People do spread out some, caffees and restaurants are only open for take out, but - the local Plaza de Armas seems to be full of people, kids, dogs, motorcycles, and whatnot.
We skip the temptations of coffee and ice cream, pay attention to a fully-open restaurant with people filling the patio to the brim, and head out back to collect our hardware from Costco Auto center.
$250 later and one useless tire richer, we're on our way to Watson Lake. The lake is unbelievably scenic on a calm morning or evening - now it is mid-day, windy, and crowded. Chris is itching to leave the civilization, so we don't stick around.
We still have a visit to the town of Jerome, Arizona; State Route 89A takes us there after a series of torturously steep switchbacks.
By the time we're there, Chris is ready to take the wheel from me. We still make a short side trip to the Jerome Historical park - and take a peek down a 1900-foot-deep main shaft of the mine.
Chris takes the helm - he seems to know exactly where we're going. He had seen an outstanding campsite from the airplane window on his cross-country flight, and he is determined to find it in person.
We leave the quiet of pavement for another dirt road (which we unhappily share with a cavalcade of side-by-sides).
We leave the comfort of a well-graded dirt road soon after crossing a muddy yet very popular swim spot in Verde River near Perkinsville (haven't seen a single building there), and the going gets a lot steeper and rockier.
In a while, all of a sudden it feels pretty hot inside the Range Rover. We decide to take a rest stop; I climb out, pop the hood, and find the upper radiator hose pretty damn stiff. We also find the little tribute to someone else's demise on the side of the road:
If you don't know what it is - this delicate aluminum casting is the fan clutch: the part that connects the crankshaft pulley with the engine fan (that thing with blades that makes it run cooler). A failure of this part, if unnoticed, leads to a long and expensive tow truck ride and likely a long and expensive engine repair. I just cannot help to notice that it perfectly fits our Range Rover. Fess up Rover people, who got stuck there?
The phone is connected to our Range Rover's computer, diagnostic program engaged, and reports the engine coolant temperature close to 212F. Pretty far from being dangerously hot, we start the engine again, it drops quickly to 190F, and we proceed.
All this time I wonder about a rock-rimmed plateau towering above us, and if there's a road that just might take us there. It turns out, we're on that road, and soon find ourselves in a beautiful pine forest on top of Coconino Plateau.
We marvel at just how similar the environment is to whatever we saw in Baja California Norte exactly a year ago.
The road is wide and flat, and we make a good time to reach the place Chris spotted from 35 thousand feet up in the air: Sycamore Point.
The point overlooks a gargantuan canyon, maybe fifteen hundred feet deep, and very hard to reach.
Unfortunately, we cannot camp here - the Forest Service signs are pretty adamant about it. We retrace our steps back to the road, and try every which turn-off in search of a good campsite. We come across places with spectacular views:
... but the sleeping accomodations are not great for a tent, so we move on.
On the way to Sycamore point, we saw a beautiful flat meadow we called "Golf Green," and we were determined to find it again. It takes a few wrong turns, but the result does not disappoint.
Arizona is already in the midst of high fire season, so we can't really make a good use of an enormous fire ring at a beautiful, flat, and soft campsite. So we fire off the grill in anticipation of the lamb chops, and take a few nighttime photos.
Chris makes a good use of his monochrome Leica. The photos make me long for the old film photography - where one thought a bit before taking a shot, and photos were few and precious. Here is Chris' shot of our campsite under the stars:
Total - 48 miles on pavement, 70 miles off pavement, about 8 hours of driving.
Coconino Plateau - Chino Valley - Bagdad - Lake Alamo - McCracken Mine
One lazy thought we had was to head out to Navajo lands near Tuba City - and maybe camp somewhere near Coal Mine (a.k.a. White Canyon) or Blue Canyon.
There is some uncertainty in this plan - tribal lands may be quarantined, - and some certainty - it would push us several hours further from San Diego, and add this time to our return trip.
We drink our morning coffee and ponder the options. Chris suggests a neat way to the North shore of Lake Alamo, mostly on dirt; we decide that coffee was enough of a breakfast, pack up the truck and get ready to roll.
A cursory examination of the Range Rover finds some washboard-induced flaws: both latches of the lower tailgate are loose, with one screw ready to leave the premises:
It could also explain frequent self-releasing of the upper tailgate; we substitute brute force for TreadLoc, bid adieu to the lonely cow, and get going.
We follow the dirt roads for about an hour and a half, which brings us close to Drake Cement plant on SR 89.
A hopper train car with elaborate graffiti draws our attention:
Soon, the whole train shows up, followed by the cement plant. Today's Monday, and the plant is busy.
After a pit shop in Chino Valley, we are looking for a way due West. Our first foray a few miles North of town, enthusiastically supported by both Garmin and Google Maps, brings us to the gates of a large ranch, with signs advising us to get lost unless we share business interests with the owners. We don't. Another sight-seer in a Ford pickup concurs and advises us to stay away from a business end of the owners' firearms.
A little away from the road, a small herd of pronghorns is watching us; occasionally, horses turn away from the grass and lazily eye our progress.
The next attempt takes us South of town, and into the neighborhood of mostly large and well-built vacation or ranch houses. The occasional road signs discourage riff-raff like us by promising dead ends, which we know is not true. At least, that's not what Garmin and Google Maps say, and we are determined to find out.
After the trip, Chris finds that one of these houses - a modest 4-bedroom, 3-bathroom job with 38 acres of land - is for sale for $2.3M. Some village.
The road - very nicely graded - goes through Prescott National Forest. The scenery is not quite breathtaking, but nice. In one of the tight turns we meet a rancher who misjudged the speed and crashed his brand new pickup and a horse trailer head-on into a tree. Neither he nor his visibly-devastated 10-year-old son are hurt or need anything - the help is on its way.
The road eventually leaves the wide plateau and now winds along the edge of a large canyon. The nature is a classic Sonoran desert:
... with occasional glimpses of eroded-lava-flow landscape we would expect in Owyhee wilderness in northern Nevada and Idaho:
Prickly pear cacti are in full bloom:
The signs on the road advise us of an on-going road maintenance; is it the road used by mine executives from Bagdad to commute from their ranch houses in Chino Valley?
We encounter the road repair crew in the outskirts of Bagdad:
The town of Bagdad appears soon after. I guess I expected to see something like Clifton or Morenci - but Bagdad is totally anticlimactic. We drive by what looks like a reasonably clean and maintained trailer park.
Bagdad Fire station, a seemingly-deserted diner, and mine office follow.
Freeport McMoran sure seems to own a pretty large chunk of Arizona - good for them.
We load up on gas and Gatorade, and move on. The road out of town takes us to SR 97, to merge with the U.S. 93 going North a little later. Too bad I miss my chance to take photos of the road signs in Nothing, Arizona; the place appears to be very true to its name.
The highway is very pretty.
After a little under 30 miles on pavement, it is time for us to embrace the dirt - we're taking 17-Mile Road towards the hamlet of Greenwood and ghost town of Signal.
The road starts off nice and wide. Palo Verde trees are in full bloom, lending the yellowish tint to the entire desert landscape.
Somehow, somewhere, we take a wrong turn and end up crossing Big Sandy river.
Big Sandy river turns out a little over a foot in the deepest places, with a whole bunch of trout panicking but having nowhere to hide. We're only here to cool off, dudes, no worries. A perfect time for a cold beer.
We continue on, hoping for a nice and relaxing evening at the shore of Lake Alamo.
Somewhere along the way, a pack of burros emerges on the road and doesn't really want to yield.
Finally, the lake shows up.
The expectations run high - commensurate with how wide and well graded is the road.
Then... The road stops being wide and well graded; a few shuttered huts are on the hillsides nearby, with "Jesus Saves" signs all over the place. It is eerie...
Both Garmin and Google Maps agree on the lack of river crossing in the vicinity of the lake. We hope for some faint double-track, but they all disappear in thickets in marshy parts of the lake. This is depressing; this is how far we get:
We look at the maps again, and find something that just must lead us to a nice wide boat ramp. It only takes about fifteen minutes to explore it all - the road peters out in sand and tamarisk groves near the lake.
It may be a poor man's boat ramp in good times, but now we don't even want to risk coming close and getting stuck in mud. The sun's already down, and it is getting darker. We turn around, and eventually find something passable for a campsite - complete with a giant fire ring and abundant piles of burro crap.
Guess that's where we're staying; I set about cooking some skirt steak and making coffee. The wind dies down and everything holds a great promise.
By the time we are done with steak and coffee, and are on our second finger of Bourbon, sand flies arrive.
I am not easily troubled by insects, but boy, was that a wave. Camping in this location would be so ugly; we collect our shit and toss it in the truck without much regard, and hightail out of that goddamned wash.
Now it is completely dark. We have to get to the higher ground, as far from the lake as possible; we leave the daytime comfort of a wide and graded road, and turn West on a small mining road climbing up some hillside (which we cannot see).
As many things on this trip, a Baja California scenario repeats itself. There's absolutely no place to set up a tent - the hillsides are dense with cholla, ocotillos, and palo verde. On top of that, both of our navigational aids now show we are not on the road at all - without a sligthest chance we missed some turn - so we continue for a while, find a flat spot, and decide to camp on the road. Range Rover would provide a good protection for the tent on one side, and Chris stretches a retro-reflective rope across the road on another. True to the form, if I saw a brightly-lit rope across the road in this neck of the woods, I would not even think of crossing it.
We set up the tent, have another couple of beers, and turn in.
The night is hot, and sleep is fitful.
Campsite to Drake Cement - 34 miles off pavement,
Drake to Chino Valley - 20 miles on blacktop,
Chino Valley to Bagdad via Camp Wood - 67 miles off pavement,
Bagdad to 17 Mile Road - 28 miles on pavement,
17 Mile Road to Greenwood, Signal, Lake Alamo, to somewhere near McCracken Mine - 60 miles on dirt.
Total - 48 miles on pavement, 161 miles on dirt.
McCracken Mine - Parker - Salton City - Julian - San Diego
We wake up to the already-hot sunlight, and a constant din and drone of insects buzzing around. Make coffee, skip breakfast again, pack up our stuff, and get rolling.
The road is twisted and rough enough not to care that the Range Rover's transmission wouldn't shift out of the first gear.
Soon, we arrive to an old mining cabin and shaft, on site of former McCracken mine, and currently known as Rockhouse Cabin:
The cabin appears frequently visited, with a lot of memorabilia spread around.
We would love to personally congratulate the Winner of 2014 Sundance wet t-shirt contest, but she was nowhere around.
Chris is driving, and I take my time to shoot pictures of birds from the moving truck. The results are somewhat predictable.
A quail couple doesn't give a rat's ass about us about to flatten them. Chris theorizes that the birds' intelligence should be proportional to their ability to fly. We come upon, and make exception for, the penguins - because they can swim. Personality, too.
The road gets rougher, but not to the point of having to pick the line yet.
Yet in a few minutes we arrive at a place that merits getting out of the truck and taking stock of the situation.
The trail makes a very tight turn around a fold in the hillside; formerly-flat road has been badly eroded, and is now significantly off-camber and with the surface so loose that we cannot stand or walk on it. Having one left wheel in the trough at the bottom of the gully would mean an inevitable rollover.
We deliberate on the best line across the spot, and I give it a try. The Range Rover slips into the rut in the left, and immediately gets its right rear tire up in the air - and gently rocks on diagonally-planted tires.
The feeling of the truck to be so unstable even with three wheels on the ground is upsetting; I time application of gas in reverse with the moment of the most traction in the rear, and back out a few feet. Get out and take the photo, which as usual doesn't give proper justice to the situation.
Chris suggests going back - but that would mean driving in reverse up to the mine, which is not appealing. We resort to filling the left rut with rocks - which has to be done all the way from the bottom of the gully since almost nothing holds the rocks in place. Fortunately, the rocks are aplenty.
As an additional safety measure, we hook a 30-foot recovery strap to the roof rack, and wind it around a trunk of a palo verde tree nearby. Then, Chris spots me through the descent until it is time to hold the strap tight; at least, we're safely at the bottom. Climbing out on the opposite side took much less finesse and a lot more throttle.
After a little excitement (which took about 40 minutes, all said and done), the road flattened out, and it merited a coffee break:
The desert around is all in bloom and is very pretty:
Soon, we come upon an open gate, which was built with an amazing lock arrangement. In programmer's terms, is a mechanical equivalent of a multi-condition logical statement: to unlock the gate, one OR another (out of many) locks needs to be open:
Our discussion on mechanical logic is interrupted by having to make a decision: on to Parker or back to Bouse?
On to Parker it is; a dozen or so miles on dirt and about as much on sun-cracked paved road, and we're passing by Parker's railroad attractions.
Chris discovers a sure sign of things changing: an open barber shop in Parker, and uses the opportunity.
A swim call in Colorado river on our first day is still fresh in our memories, and we really counting on being able to hit the water close by. Somehow, the relaxation of coronavirus quarantine only stretched to the barber shop, but hasn't quite reached outdoor recreation. It is pointless to discuss merits and otherwise of actions of powers to be; suffice to say that we have not been able to dip our toes in Colorado river in Parker, in either Arizona or California side.
After a couple of miles of failed attempts to reach the water on California side, we use a chance to leave pavement for a few miles, and cut across the desert to California SR 62.
Highway 62 is not a bad way to cross Mojave Desert:
Chris has never seen Salton Sea before, so we set our sights on Salton City. We flirt with Interstate 10 for a few miles, then bail out to the Box Canyon Road:
South of Mecca, California, we're on the four-lane, divided, CA SR 86. This road only connects Coachella Valley with Imperial Valley agricultural areas, and the traffic is made up mostly from big rigs carrying produce, off-roaders going from or to Anza Borrego Desert or Truckhaven hills, and a few commuter vehicles here and there.
We see Salton Sea on our left all the way to the turn-off to San Diego County road 22 (gloriously called Borrego-Salton Seaway) in Salton City. After the adventure of a fifty-feet slog through salt marsh in Salton City a few years ago, I have zero desire to get closer - so we turn West towards Borrego Springs.
The sun is already low, and we have quite a few miles to cover. We use Yaqui Pass Road to connect with CA SR 78, which greets us with beautiful soft sunset lighting before Scissors Crossing:
We see the last rays of sunshine while climbing up Banner Grade towards Julian; in Julian it is already dark. We haven't had any food today, so I am on the lookout of anything open for take-out in Julian, Manzanita Ranch, and Ramona - no dice. We end up being the only customers at a drive-through window of an In-n-Out Burgers in Poway, and Chris has his dinner in the Range Rover, while we barrel through Scripps Ranch, and take Highway 163 to downtown San Diego.
The end of the trip is just as anticlimactic as it was at the border crossing in Tijuana exactly a year ago. The party's over, we need to clean the table, load the dishwasher, and get ready to go to work tomorrow. Depressing, really. I drop Chris off at his hotel, and come home thinking that, aside from a busted tire, not a single thing broke in the 358-thousand-mile Range Rover Classic. Not even an ABS light on. This thought cheers me up somewhat - time to plan another trip!
Campsite to McCracken Mine too Parker - 56 miles off pavement,
Parker to Salton City, Borrego Springs, Julian, Poway, and San Diego - 272 miles on pavement, 8 miles off pavement.
Total - 272 miles on pavement, 64 miles on dirt.