Words and pictures: Chris Collard
Wherever in the world you go, you’ll find off-road enthusiasts. And wherever you find off-road enthusiasts, you’ll find someone who’s decided it’ll be a great idea to cross their country by off-road routes alone. Our US correspondent, Chris Collard, is one such off-road enthusiast. This is the story (the first in a two part series) about his attempt to cross America off-road, from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, in a rather special Jeep.
A light haze drifts above the distant western horizon like a translucent blanket. The afternoon sun is low enough to force me to adjust my visor down. Squinting, I sit up straight to ease the glare on my eyes. The mid-June air is warm, but not unseasonable. After all, we’re crossing a fissured and desiccated lakebed in the middle of the southern California desert. In the distance, I make out a shape. It begins to take form as we approach. I lean over to my driving buddy Del Albright and comment, “Does that look like two guys sitting under a tarp?” Del laughs, smiles and looks on. Since we left the Mexican border we’ve hardly seen anyone for days – Del probably thinks I’m seeing a mirage. With a second glance, his infectious smile turns serious; he flicks off the radio and is all business. “Soldiers.”
Startled by our stealth approach, one of them appears to reach for an M-16 as he leaps from his chair. We slow and he approaches Del’s open window. About 19 years of age, he’s wiry, fit and energetic. Del’s smile returns. “Where did you guys come from,” PFC Zach says in a slow Texas drawl. “They got live bombing exercises going on, we’re supposed to be keeping people outta there.” Flashback five days: I was in Kelowna, British Columbia, shooting an event for one of the US magazines. My flight home hit the tarmac at 00h30, I slept for four hours, Del arrived at 06h00, and we loaded my truck and headed for Los Angeles. I’d talked Jeep USA into loaning me a four-door JK for three weeks. At 15h00 hours, 700 kilometres later, we’re handed the keys.
This wasn’t your average JK; it was the Overland, one of Jeep’s Underground Engineering concept vehicles – a real head-turner. I was introduced to the Overland JK while shooting Mopar’s annual Trail Calendar in Moab, Utah. Sporting an ARB roofrack and Series III tent, AEV bumpers, a Warn winch and Viking winch rope, it oozed adventure and world travel from every angle. The 35” BFG KM2s didn’t hurt the ‘we’re cool’ profile either.
I’d been daydreaming of creating a major overland trip for some time. And unlike past adventures like crossing the Kalahari or trekking through Morocco, this needed to be an adventure that anyone could do. Just fly in, hire a decent 4×4, get some gear and get on the road. The other criteria were that it needed to be in a region where AK-47s are not standard issue for teenagers, and inoculations are not required. My assignment in British Columbia sparked the idea – a trek to Canada. But where should I start, and what would make this an epic adventure? Logic determined that I should start at the beginning, or in this case, the bottom…Mexico!
As the crow flies, Google Earth pegged my route to be 1 816 km. Yahoo Maps came up with 2 448 km (about 27 hours if you don’t stop for fuel, food or wee breaks). Well, we’re not birds and Yahoo gives the direct route… on tar roads… which is boring… especially when behind the wheel of a fully-kitted JK. So the question begged, how far would it be if we stuck to the road less travelled, the dirt tracks, and how long would it take? And this is how this story materialised.
New mates, Slab City and fighter jets The US / Mexico border cuts across the Algodones Sand Dunes, stretching east for 4 800 kilometres to the Gulf of Mexico. There are places in New Mexico where this high-security demarcation is no more than a bold red line on a government map. In California though, the border, or zona de international is a four-metre barrier resembling thousands of cattle grates standing on end. It also sports a 30-metre restricted area on the US side. How do we know this? We parked close to the ferrous fiend, kicked off our shoes and within five minutes half a dozen border patrol officers converged on us.
My research revealed that there would be too much snow to do an all-dirt trip through Montana and parts of Idaho. So we’d stick to the Wild West; California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. I slipped a Jimmy Buffet CD into the stereo, reset the trip meter, clicked on Spot, our satellite transponder, and turned the wheels north.
Slab City is one the most God-fearing and bizarre cities one will behold. Situated a few clicks of the Imperial Sand Dunes, passing through Slab City was like a 20-minute acid trip through a Tom Petty video… with a twist of Hunter S. Thompson. Strange! We parked at the base of God Mountain; a 15-metre man-made precipice rising from the desert floor, and poked around the eclectic various forms of godly art. Though the population is only few hundred, we didn’t see a soul… but could sense we weren’t alone. With all the technology at hand – a Garmin GPS, Google Earth and a dozen maps – one would think we knew exactly where were going. No… east of the Salt-n-Sea, we got chased out of a bombing range by a civilian guy in a hired cargo truck… We didn’t believe him until a couple of jets did a low pass on our position before disappearing over the next range. Time for Plan B… My mate Del Albright is a perpetual joker. He’s spent a few tours in the military and knows how to roll with the punches… a good guy to travel with. He’d ride with me to Reno, Nevada, where I’d kick him to the curb in lieu of my wife. We diverted to the Bradshaw Trail through the Orocopia Mountains, cut north across Hwy 10, and headed for Joshua Tree National Park.
Marines and M-16s
Our intended route into the park had a big fat gate across it. The map showed open but the sign read otherwise. It was clear at this point that the all-dirt aspect of our trek to Canada would need to be modified slightly to get fuel, access the national parks and skirt around numerous military bases. In the north-east corner of the park is the Old Dale Mining District, which had its heyday in the 1880s. After a close encounter with a rattlesnake, we hunkered down for the night near a decaying ore rig. As our fire illuminated the canyon walls, we cracked open a few coldies, gazed at the drifting constellations and surveyed our maps. We succumbed to another 30-odd kilometres of tar road to skirt the Twenty-nine Palms Marine Base, which put us on the east side of Johnson Valley, location of the King of the Hammers race. It was late afternoon when we rolled onto the pool table flat Emerson Dry Lake bed and met our new Marine buddies, Zach and Nick and their M-16s. “Where did you guys come from… we’re supposed to be keeping people outta there,” said PFC Nick. “We’ve got live bombing going on out there.” The soldier’s been dropped off with a case of MREs, radio and a few jugs of water. With the current US military build-up, we’d need to keep a closer eye on our maps.
Mojave Desert – Four Lonely Days in a Death Valley Haze The 1800s US policy of Manifest Destiny (that America should encompass all lands from the Atlantic to the Pacific) was the impetus for the expansion of the iron horse across the west. And in the days before the automobile, railroads became an expedient lifeline to the east. Our maps indicated the track continued over the Topeka-Santa Fe RR, and it did… but there was no crossing. Del raised an eyebrow, laughed and turned up the radio. I slipped the JK in low-range, looked for traffic (or the railroad police), jumped the tracks and headed into the Mojave. Encompassing thousands of square miles of Southern California, Nevada and New Mexico, and ranging from barren salt flats to palm-lined oasis’, the Mojave is a mustdo on a trek through the Southwest. Death Valley summers can chase the mercury well past the 45° C mark, and it was 27° C when we awoke in our camp near Warm Springs. I hoisted Radar, my dog, down from the tent; Del had the coffee hot, and the harmony of Jimmy Buffet’s Four Lonely Days drifted through camp. This song became a trip song of sorts, and numerous karaoke auditions would occupy upcoming days on the road.
The two-track we’d traversed on the previous day, Henry Wade Road, holds a secure footing in the region’s annals. Though written accounts vary as to the number of desiccated souls left behind by the first wayward wagon train to stray into Death Valley, no one disputes how the area received its moniker. A survivor of the ill-fated 1849 expedition, Henry Wade, returned the following year in route to California with his family. Faced yet again with dwindling supplies and dying livestock, Wade acted on a hunch that an old Indian trail, now Henry Wade road, would lead his group safely away from this hellish wasteland. Decades later, in the 1880s, the famous 20-mule teams of the Harmony Borax mines used this route to haul ore to the Mojave rail station.
The route from Warm Springs to Goler Wash and on to Panamint Valley is not to be missed. Striated canyon walls stretch high from the valley floor, evidence of the gold rush lay in deteriorating stone walls, the occasional miner’s cabin, and Death Valley mascots (burros), which clumsily clop over the uneven terrain, foraging the scrub brush for late spring grass. Stops along the way included the Geologist Cabin, Mengle Pass and Barker Ranch. Goler Wash is a narrow and hidden cleft in the western slope of the Panamint Range. Though commonly known for its access to Barker Ranch, the 1969 hideaway of Charles Manson, the canyon was actually named after John Goler, a member of that first wagon train in 1849. We kicked around the charred ruins of the ranch before moving on to the ghost town of Ballarat to visit George ‘Big Hands’ Novak. Settled into an old blue office chair like a comfortable cat, George Novak, now in his late 80s, is no stranger to the desert. Arriving in 1947 to do some prospecting, George took a liking to the solitude and desert way of life, and never left. Six decades later, his mining days are only vivid memories of an era gone by, and his new gig is managing the Ballarat store and museum with his son Rocky. We shared cold Cokes while George spun a few yarns of desert days past, and Del cranked out a few tunes on the piano.
Coyotes and Hot Springs
Three large bucks jumped the road as we descended Grapevine Canyon in the Nelson Range. Beyond lay the expanses of Saline Valley… and the Saline Hot Springs. Once a refuge for societal fallouts from the 60s, the palm-shaded hot springs are a verdant paradise amidst the arid surrounding desert. As we set up camp and stoked up the fire coyotes darted through the afternoon shadows in an attempt to lure Radar away for a meal. It was high-time for a bath (first since leaving the border), so we cracked open our bottle of Patron Tequila (it’s a Yankee thing) before heading down to the hot tubs for a fiesta under the stars. It seemed like a month since we aired down the tyres just a few metres from the Mexican border, but it had been less than a week. What an adventure we’d begun, and we were less than a quarter the distance to Canada. As we cleared the White Mountains and descended into the Owens Valley, the odometer clicked 1 000 km and the altimeter read 2 330 metres. In the morning we were sweating like pigs, now we were dodging a hailstorm.
We were heading to Bishop, California to restock sundries and address some suspension issues on the JK. The original suspension was fine until we burdened it with a half ton or so of gear (high-lift jack, Expedition One fuel cans, Front Runner water cell, an ARB fridge, etc). Normal stuff, yes, but it rendered the tail end of the JK as springy as a Chevy station wagon with the shocks removed. When we arrived in Bishop, Scott Brown and Poly Performance had lined us up with the right combination. A quick stop at the local garage and we were right. Threatening black thunderclouds spilled over the Sierra Nevada and into Mono Basin like a tsunami, warning us of the impending deluge. I glanced over at Del and said, “Don’t even think about it… you’re still not sleeping in my tent.” Del had been setting up his ground tent each night, and I’d be crawling up into a warm and cozy rooftop ARB hacienda with my dog to keep me warm. Sheets of rain hammered against the windscreen as we made our way around the eastern edge of Mono Lake on a sandy-tomuddy two-track.
Fortunately, the rains passed as quickly as they’d arrived, trailing off to gray skies leaving behind a soggy track. We were now on a trail that I’d gazed at from a distance as a young boy camping in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Spectacular! We made our way north, crossing highway 167 and on into Cottonwood Canyon towards one of the most celebrated ghost towns of California’s Gold Rush. A chilly wind blew through the glassless wood-framed windows of an old clapboard church, swinging a pair of creaky-hinged doors open and kicking up a swirl of dust as it exited across a wood-planked sidewalk. Down the street was one of Bodie’s 65 saloons: billiards table with a full rack, dusty beer pitchers on the bar, and pool cues leaning against an old hand-made rack. It appeared that the party just got up and walked away. That day was in 1962, when the State of California deemed the town to be a state park.
This was Bodie. With residents that ranged from gunslingers, to conmen, gamblers and ladies of pleasure, the people of Bodie didn’t mince their words when it came to hard rock mining, drinking or pay dirt. In its heyday, around 1880, preachers, shopkeepers and ladies of society had moved to town in an attempt to save the township from Satan. They were a hardy lot, and as winter snows and arctic-cold winds encapsulated the town, which sits at 2 530 metres, most folks stayed the course. The steam engines continued to whistle, town folks shovelled snow tunnels, and proper church services were still held on Sunday. The famous quote, “Goodbye God, I’m going to Bodie,” was penned by a young girl whose family moved to godforsaken Bodie from the refinement of San Francisco. Tombstones, Bucket of Blood Saloon, and The Biggest Little City In the morning, Del brushed the frost off his tent, then we warmed our backsides on our small fire while drinking some freshly-brewed coffee. We’d crossed into the state of Nevada the night before, the sky was clear and the compass beckoned north. Our new morning ritual, Willy Nelson’s On the Road Again, got our blood moving for another day.
A half-dozen antelope darted across the track in front of us as we traversed a narrow canyon to Fletcher Junction and the remnants of the Pine Grove mining district. After snooping around the bone yard in Pine Grove, we got a surprise visit from the…uhh… guard? We didn’t know it, nor did we see anything posted, but Pine Grove is a privately owned mine. We assured the guy we were harmless and stupid tourists, and made our exit north towards Smith Valley. One of the truly special things about the state of Nevada is that the Wild West and wide-open spaces remain. And, you can get just about everywhere on a dirt track if you choose. We slipped onto a few miles of tar (maybe three) to fuel up in Smith Valley before traversing the lee slope of Mt Como, through the Como Mining Dist and on to Virginia City. As the days on the road turned into weeks, the cab of the JK was taking on the aroma of a dirty sock bag, and we figured a hot shower, some good grub and a few cold suds were in order. It was just past 22h00 when we wandered into the Bucket of Blood saloon on Main Street. It’s the kind of name that you can’t help but to pose the question, “How did it get its name?” We speculated, since Virginia City was one of the most booming mining districts in the Mother Lode, that somewhere in the mix of When you hit the road for an overland trek of 5 000 kilometres, having the right gear is essential. We were lucky enough to borrow a well-kitted JK from Jeep, then stocked it with our own personal gear, tools and camp gear. For starters we added an additional Optima battery (which we stowed under the flat rear deck of the JK), Ready Welder, ARB fridge / freezer, LED camp light and portable compressor, high-lift jack, a Viking recovery rope and a set of ARB recovery straps. For the extended portions of our route, four roof-mounted Expedition One 16-litre stackable fuel cells and a Front Runner 40-litre gravity-fed water container fit the bill.
The JK was kitted with some of the best hardware in the industry. Here’s the punch list: front & rear bumpers from American Expedition Vehicles (AEV), Warn 9.5Ti winch with Viking synthetic winch line, AEV Snorkel, BFGoodrich 35” KM2 tyres and an ARB Series III tent mounted on an ARB roofrack. To securely fit the tent / rack assembly, the guys at Jeep’s Underground Engineering had fabricated special roll cage-brackets that slipped through rubber grommets in the JK’s roof. They were also looking for unique wheels for the Overland and found them laying around the shop… just a few spares left over from Grand Cherokee projects. drunken miners and handy revolvers, tempers flared and the blood spilled. Maybe in the Bucket of Blood Saloon? The skyline of the World’s Biggest Little City came to view as we descended Rattlesnake Mountain grade into Reno. I’d be kicking my old buddy Del to the curb in lieu of my lovely wife Suzanne – she’s way better looking… There really isn’t any way to get in and out of major cities on dirt tracks, and we sacrificed another 50 km to our tar-road tally.
John Fremont, The Smoke Creek Desert and Bruno’s Kissing my wife and saying goodbye to Del, (I’d soon be missing his cab karaoke), our new B2B crew loaded up and continued north to Eagles Roost Ranch, gateway to Nevada’s great northern desert.
Colonel John Fremont, a civil war veteran and explorer was the first white man to glimpse the deserts of Northern Nevada. His charge, from 1841 to 1846, was a government-funded survey of the Oregon Territory, Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. After meeting Kit Carson on a Missouri riverboat, and working together on several westerly expeditions, the two left St. Louis with 55 men for a five-month survey of the west. With a howitzer cannon in tow, to apparently to fend off hostile Indians, they ventured into the Black Rock Desert. It was 5 January 1843 and a low groundfog obscured visibility. Many of their livestock and horses had been stolen by Indians or died, and Fremont’s crew needed greener pastures. A scouting trek revealed the waters of Pyramid Lake to the south, and the Smoke Creek desert, which was named for the rising smoke from Indian campfires through the fog layer, stretched northward. Fremont’s vantage point may have been the peak to our right (east) as we cleared the Moon Rocks area and veered north on Winnemucca Ranch Road.
We lit our campfire in the lee of Eagle Head Peak near Willow Canyon this night. Daily temperatures were rising and a light wind blew from the south. Looking out over the Smoke Creek Desert we couldn’t help but envision the heavy fog that Fremont and his men witnessed. Smoke from scattered Indian camps rising through it as a constant reminder they were not alone. Unlike Fremont, we were only graced with the howl of a lone coyote this night. (Radar, the wonder-dog, tucked his tail and burrowed his way to the bottom of the sleeping bags.)
The next morning as we pulled into Gerlach, an outpost on the edge of the great Black Rock Desert, my departure from the Mexican border seemed like a distant memory. Each day blended with the previous, each new two-track streaming under the JKs AEV bumper like a high-speed video game. The trip meter clicked 1 806 km, just 15 kilometres short of Google Earth’s as the crow flies distance from Mexico to Canada, and we hadn’t made it to Oregon yet. We still hadn’t unspooled the Viking winch rope from our Warn 9.9Ti winch yet, but the snow and downed trees to the north would undoubtedly put them to work. Topping up our fuel and water (and grabbing breakfast at the famous Bruno’s Café in Gerlach), we again turned the wheels north, nosing the JK onto the Black Rock Playa, a 50-kilometre-long pool table in the form of an alkali flat. Beyond lay the High Rock Canyon, the Trail of Death and Oregon Territory.