I don't even know how I persuaded Lena (my wife) to take a 2500-mile trip around four Southwestern states - I may have overstated the allure of the lush mountain meadows, and similarly understated the mileage and ambient temperature of the desert portion of the trip. It worked, somehow. My mother (also Lena) and Jules, a 70-pound Airedale kid, never needed any persuasion - they are ready to hit the road at half an hour notice at the longest.
Travelling in a 276-thousand-mile Land Rover Discovery was entirely out of question, so the oh-so-new LR4 was it. With a barely-month-old battery, new front brakes, new set of tires and two full-sized spares, it looked like an almost reasonable mode of transportation.
We do know of pitfalls of a vehicle run by 39 interconnected computers - nothing we can do about keyfobs occasionally at cold war with the engine computer; we think we can hack air suspension to the extent allowing us to come home; no codes are stored in the computers; that's about it.
For three people and a dog, without any camping plans, packing should be light and quick - right?
Nope. A second spare tire, flat in the cargo compartment, takes up quite a bit of room. Hope we never need it, but if we do... finding 19-inch tires in the sticks could be difficult. Of course, the "field kitchen" has to go in, with the table and folding chairs. Air pump, wrenches, sockets, a tow rope, and the like kit goes under the rear seat frames - very convenient.
By the time we're out of the door, the immense cargo space of LR4 is loaded up to the window level. The Airedale has the luxury of a folded-flat large half of rear seat all to himself (he'd take that, and much more, eventually).
By noon, we're on Interstate 8 towards Yuma, fiercely arguing about setting of air conditioning.
Four hours later, we leave the scorched-Earth parking lot of a gas station in Gila Bend, Arizona. The weather is clear, balmy 111 degrees Fahrenheit, feels exactly like 111F, not a degree less.
I am relegated to the shotgun seat. The destination for tonight is Safford, Arizona; my vague memories from 8 years ago don't yield any remarkable eateries, so I summon the Yelp to pick the dinner spot in Tucson.
The dinner menu is outstanding. Steak tartare, foie gras, and roast duck feel like a grand prize for the hardships of the day.
We go as far as taking foodie photos. The trains roar by a few feet away from the outdoor seating area of the restaurant.
When not a single molecule of steak tartare or foie gras is left on our plates, I remind the crew that we still have another couple of hours to drive, and we reluctantly leave the place.
It gets dark quickly, and there is nothing to see all the way to Safford.
There's a void space behind our Best Western in Safford where I take Jules for his evening walk. Halfway into it, he must be seeing some ghosts, absolutely refuses to proceed and pulls me back to the motel.
The mine is immense. I vaguely remember the factoids we were told many years ago - but, besides the open-pit mine [then] being nearly a mile deep, a million tons of dirt is extracted daily, give or take some. This dirt is crushed, and then neatly piled in leaching fields, and soaked in diluted sulfuric acid.
Whenever you're about to invest in that beautiful plug-in electric vehicle, remember how and where this copper came from. At least a hundred pounds or so out of close to a million pounds of copper coming from Morenci.
Morenci is relatively off the beaten tourist path, so few people feel this connection - mostly the native American tribes living nearby. Being on the U.S. soil, it has to be environmentally sound... Has to be... There are plenty of others overseas, in places demanding less rigor in preserving the environment.
Closer to Springerville the trees yield to rather barren landscape. The U.S.60 takes us East-North-East towards Quemado, New Mexico.
Soon, Arizona is behind, and there's precious little to rest one's eyes on.
Over-reliant on the mobile phone maps and directions, we miss a turn from New Mexico Route 36 to 117, and have to turn around - we have no desire to end up in Gallup.
Route 117 winds in El Malpais National Monument, and skirts a line of cliffs on the right, with a neat turn-off and short hiking trail to the very scenic La Ventana Natural Arch. Besides a departing minivan with a few kids, we have not met a single vehicle in about fifty miles.
Further North on NM 117, I keep my eye on the gas gauge. We are getting close to ponder the accuracy of "miles remaining" display on the instrument panel. The phones are of no use, and the Garmin knows of no gas station within 40 miles of our location. Fortunately, there is a brand new gas station on the junction with Interstate 40; when we resupply the gas and drinks, it is already dark.
Lena my wife is sulking, and turns down my offer to have a dinner in Albuquerque, so we plow on without slowing down. I keep watch for oh-so-brilliantly-bright LED flashers of New Mexico Highway Patrol - driving across Arizona kind of makes you used to that - but don't see any.
In Santa Fe, we miss a bunch of turns and drive back and forth past our motel, until we find a place to turn just right. Half of the streets are one-way and U-turns are generally prohibited.
It is almost nine in the evening on Sunday, and our dinner options are dwindling quickly. The desk clerk in Santa Fe Sage Inn directs us someplace that turns out to be a sports bar full of a local rugby team. The manly dudes in short shorts are watching and celebrating Texas A&M win over Notre Dame. It is loud but peaceful; we eat something unremarkable and return to the motel.
I take Jules for his evening promenade and discover a park behind Sage Inn - very nice. Jules keeps looking into the darkness at something off to the side, I dismiss it as his kiddie's ghost sighting.
The morning dog walk into the same park behind the motel reveals the source of Jules' anxiety - a Bob Marley lookalike is sleeping neatly on the grass with his back against the park fence. I am sure he's been there the night before - maybe I should trust my dog's instincts.
Hotel breakfast is nothing to write home about - we won't have a single good one on this trip. I understand this isn't Cote D'Azur or Amalfi Coast, but isn't there a Costco around to procure some passable pastry?
We relocate our truck closer to "downtown" and embark on a city walk.
The shortest description of Santa Fe's historic center - architecturally, it is Prescott; people-wise, it is Sedona. Take it how you will; there was some festival on the main square, and it was all off limits to dogs. Prescottonians, I am sure, would never do it. The park adjacent to the Cathedral - The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, built some 130 years ago - is also off limits to dogs, but locals bums disregard that rule.
We take turns looking inside the Cathedral - it does have some very impressive mosaic glassworks - and by the time we feel we've seen the gist of it, it is already nearly lunch time.
There are cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating - but... dogs are off limits. What is wrong with these people? We grab something at a French cafe and eat it while sitting on the bench near the Cathedral. Then I get over-confident in my ability to navigate the city streets, and we circumnavigate downtown at least once trying to find our parking spot. It is hot already, so nobody objects rolling up the windows and turning the A/C on.
While walking around, we come across a somewhat bizarre statue. The dude looks like he broke something off himself. What, exactly, is he chuckling at?
On the way from Albuquerque to Santa Fe last night, I make a mistake of telling Lena about a ski resort in Taos, and now she would not hear of missing it. Taos is not in our plans or anywhere close to the route from Santa Fe to Ouray, Colorado - but ... what the hell, it isn't like we are often in this part of the country. We find outselves on NM State Route 68 snaking around Rio Grande.
After sitting in Taos jam-packed traffic that rivals Ensenada in intensity and air quality, we skip the town.
We visit Taos Pueblo, and are not disappointed by it. The buildings are not quite up to the grandeur of Raqchi Cathedral in Peru, but the views were spectacular.
Jules enjoys contact with Native American dogs, as well.
After another failed attempt to have a meal al fresco with Jules, we hit U.S.64 North-West towards Colorado.
The route crosses spectacularly-deep Colorado River Gorge; refreshments are served right after the bridge.
Knowing the remaining distance to Ouray, I take the helm back, so no pixels are harmed for the duration of our ride to U.S.160 and on to Durango.
The evening already sets in, so we use a chance to have an excellent dinner at the Seasons of Durango. Steak Tartare rivals one at Maynard's in Tucson; in every respect, the two places are comparable.
When we hit U.S.550 North, it is already dark. I have to say that night driving on a Million Dollar Highway is not my most-favorite pastime; last time I did it was in driving rain as well. Now it is clear and dry - but the deer are everywhere, slowing us down more than the sheer drop-offs on the sides of the road.
By the time we arrive in Ouray, the keys to our one-bedroom suite at Twin Peaks Lodge and Hot Springs are taped to the office window. We unload the truck and turn in.
In the middle of the night I wake up - the strained din of refrigerator drives me nuts. I get up and inspect the appliance - it appears that it was completely enclosed in a wooden cabinet, without a single breathing hole. No wonder that it runs at a 100% duty cycle, never turning off and never getting cold. I pull the cabinet away from the wall, yank the cord, and fall asleep.
Jules The Airedale sleeps in a lot longer than usual - must be the long drive yesterday.
Then he wakes up and starts his very gentle yet persistent "wake up, get dressed, and walk me out" treatment. Soon, we're out of the door. I have never seen the Main Street in Ouray empty. It is a beautiful feeling. There was a little rain overnight, and everything looks crisp and fresh.
We walk around town; Jules is content and quiet.
Back at the Lodge, the ladies are getting ready for adventure. We make a feeble attempt of getting a passable breakfast - of all places we stay in this trip, Twin Peaks really, royally, sucks at it. I rearrange stuff in the LR4 - our luggage stays in the room, but the rest of it must be tied down so it wouldn't get airborne on the trail.
Outside, the bikers and jeepers get their stuff going as well. Gradually, the racket of Harleys' twins and whine of engine electric fans on the built-to-the-hilt four-door JK Wranglers fills the ears - it's time to leave.
The plan for the day is easy. I don't want to spook the ladies with overly-rocky stuff, so I choose Corkscrew Gulch - an aptly-named steep, tightly-winded, slippery, but otherwise smooth trail leading from U.S.550 near Ironton towards Hurricane Pass.
The trailhead is all hustle and bustle. A large group of jeepers is busy ogling each other's trucks and airing down their giant tires. In comparison, LR4 with 31" tires and at highway suspension height looks outright mall-crawler-ish. A salt-of-the-Earth dude approaches my window, chuckles, and inquires - "Clear up all them rocks for us, will you?"
I wonder if he's ever been in these parts - there are no rocks on that trail. We take off, and I get the whiff of the conversation about how slippery the trail might be. We never see these guys on the trail - by the time they aired down, they must've decided to take things easy and bailed out.
The trail wastes no time - the climb begins right away. It is tight and uneven enough for LR4 to lift one or another tire - but even in its "we'll sort things out for you, mate" setting traction control stops airborne wheels mid-turn and the progress never ceases.
It doesn't take long for the younger Lena to insist on stopping the truck and going off on a wild mushroom hunt. My multiple forays into this forest in the past never once yielded anything edible, but I am dismissed. We spent quarter an hour sliding around in mud on a steep hillside, and then re-embark the vehicle. The steep climb continues - but instead of proceeding to Hurricane Pass, I take a left turn leading to a very beautiful gulch bordered by one of the Red Mountains. We drive about half a mile into the gulch, and stop for mid-morning picnic.
The clouds start to roll in, occasional sprinkles suggest the rain is in the store for this gulch. Soon Jules is the only one not wanting to get inside the truck.
Soon, we depart towards Hurricane Pass, which comes about quickly, followed by California Pass. There, the wind is howling, the ladies are freezing, and we cut short our photo session at California Pass.
As I keep talking about never seeing good weather in California Gulch, the clouds part and sun shines.
We see our first yellow-bellied marmot, and stop to take photos.
By the time we arrive to Silverton, we are in dire need of an afternoon drink. It is way past lunch time, and somewhat before dinner - so many quality establishments are closed. Including Natalia's - with its cheerful notice on the door:
Undeterred, we find ourselves a bar and order some rather unusual cocktails - that turn out so sour that I bail out and order something more traditional. While it is being prepared, I roam the streets in search of an ATM - the place's cash-only.
The plans call for a relatively early return to Ouray - for a dip in the hotel's hot springs, and a reasonably early dinner. We depart and work our way North on the Million Dollar Highway.
The plans are very quickly derailed, however - Lena reminds me that I promised her a stop at a place that is guaranteed to have wild mushrooms. The stop is executed, and about fifteen minutes are spent without a single glimpse of anything of value. Just as ladies are about to proclaim the place a bust... BOOM - a whole world of porcini mushrooms and their close cousins opens up! Soon we have enough for not just one, but multiple mushroom-only meals, and the attempts to drag the ladies away seriously strain my marriage.
The dinner was had in one of two high-end restaurants in town - the Outlaw. The food was great, the bill - truly spectacular.
The rest of the evening was spent in arguments about what to do with collected mushrooms. They were cleaned up and deposited in the room refrigerator - which, regrettably, had to be turned on with the cabinet door open.
We can safely skip the breakfast, but habits die hard. This time, the only food to be had is a waffle without any syrup.
Once everybody's out of the room, our first order of business is to procure a good frying pan, salt, and olive oil. The food comes from Ouray's only A G Duckett's Market, the pan and utensils - from Khristopher's Culinaire. I flip the pan over and over to verify that Teflon is its only coating, and there's no gold anywhere. It ought to be, for the price.
In anticipation of the mushroom meal, we also procure a bottle of Ketel One - a small Ketel One, given the geography of our destination and multiple sheer drop-offs along the road. After all the shopping, the moment of time when we leave time can be loosely called mid-morning.
For the first time in my life, I am behind the wheel of a vehicle that does not need low range to be driven up Ouray County Road 361. Wow. Once we turn off from the road towards Imogene Pass, I raise the LR4 for the first time in its life to "off-road height," and we enter the switchbacks on the shadow side of the mountain overlooking the recently reopened Camp Bird mine. Sometimes the trees thin out and one can take in the spectacular view of the valley.
The slow and wallowy going up the granite shelves makes Lena (young one) nervous. She gets out of the truck, and tries to keep pace with our progress - which isn't easy on foot due to so many large puddles and creeks crossing the trail. Somewhere up the trail I notice that the truck hesitates to climb a particularly steep ledge - I've been driving the poor thing in high range all the way! Once in low range, sky is the limit.
We stop by the waterfall - which is its usual September version, not yet a trickle but not a roaring stream of early July.
Since we're once again in the lull between the lunch and dinner, it takes us a while to find a proper watering hole with a dog-friendly outdoor seating. We kick back and relax for a good part of an hour.
My plans to take Ophir Pass on the way back to Ouray are not received well, so we take Colorado 145 and 62 to Ridgway. It is here where I show the ladies Ridgway's hidden gem - Orvis Hot Springs. If you care to follow the link, you'll easily see why we didn't need to carry swimsuits and towels to visit the Springs.
The conversations with "crusty locals" ranging from Russian President Putin to local trails and four wheel drive knowledge lasted until the end of daylight.
The day was capped with a dinner in Bonton restaurant in Ouray - despite its French name, it sports Italian cuisine. We over-stuffed ourselves with appetizers and were totally defeated by the main courses (which had to be carried out for the next day's lunch).
In the morning, we start what I think is a shortest trip ever to Yankee Boy Basin. The plan for the day called for a hike to a lake - which I choose to be Blue Lake, a long trail off from the last vehicle-accessible point in Yankee Boy Basin.
The road to Yankee Boy Basin begins with Camp Bird Mine Road (Ouray 361).
We run into some road entertainment - it appears that under that rock there's enough room for an LR4 and Forest Service GMC Tahoe to pass side by side. It was by no means obvious to me just a year ago.
Today we are leaving Ouray. That alone is sad, and we have one very long journey for the day - which the ladies don't yet fully appreciate. The breakfast is a royal flop, and we spend some time packing the stuff into the LR4. The un-cooked mushrooms are packed in their own cooler and a fresh bag of ice - meaning two cubic feet of stuff have to be spread out elsewhere. We never even once went to the hot springs in the Lodge. Something ain't right.
The least I can do about it is... to take us across yet another mountain pass - this time it is a pretty tame Ophir Pass. We roll across the pass unimpeded by on-coming traffic (which can be an issue here), tiptoe at 15mph through the town of Ophir, and emerge on Colorado State Route 145.
The ladies and Jules return before me, and are moderately unhappy with the hundred-degree weather outside. We retreat into the LR4 and headed out West - towards U.S.191 (the road we practically started our trip with), and then on Utah 95 towards Hite Crossing.
Soon we cross Comb Ridge and descend into Comb Wash - the place of many happy memories.
Somewhere near Comb Ridge there's a spot, where one can see the Sleeping Ute Mountain about 50 miles to the South-East, La Sal Mountains - about 70 miles away on the North-East, and Henry Mountains about 70 miles almost due West. What a wonderful place!
Utah 95 takes us to Hanksville, where we turn on Utah 24 along Fremont River, and watch the sun gradually set behind the colorful cliffs of Capitol Reef National Park.
We use two passes through the town of Torrey to find our motel, and equal number of tries - to find a room with a working refrigerator.
Now we have high expectations for the upcoming dinner at Cafe Diablo - it does not disappoint at all. Rattlesnake cakes are wolfed down, followed by yet another gorgeous appetizer. By the time the lamb shank and glazed ribs arrive, we're already full and our eyes glaze over - so a good part of our dinner returns with us to the motel in styrofoam boxes.
Little do we know what's in store for us. We certainly plan to do many cool things and end up in a gorgeous hotel room in Prescott, Arizona.
We only did some of them cool things.
Highway 12 splits off 24, and climbs steeply along the Eastern slope of 10,000-ft-high Aquarius Plateau.
The road passes through beautiful mixed forest - we just can't let it pass, so we find a spur dirt road, make a few hundred feet into it, and proceed on foot. Jules is ecstatic, ladies are happy as well.
The road begins its gradual descent towards the hamlet of Boulder, Utah. I have to stop and take a picture of our meeting spot three and a half years ago.
Right after Boulder, the road climbs back up to a giant fin, and we enter the section of Utah 12 known as the Hogback.
After a brief stop at Kiwa Koffeehouse, we move on. The road descends to Escalante, which we pass without as much as making a fuel stop, and meanders through less-spectacular sandstone cliffs and forests to Cannonville.
All the time passed from Kiwa to Cannonville I spend pondering our next move. All electronic navigation aids unanimously declare that we should proceed to U.S.89,
then - Kanab, Fredonia, and then - on to Page and whatnot. At the same time, I am perfectly aware of a gorgeous shortcut that is Cottonwood Canyon Road - not only it
can save us about 90 miles, but also about half an hour of travel. And - scenic it is, all right.
So while driving through Cannonville I hang a left at a sign "Kodachrome State Park" - an easy decision for me. I am aware of implications of this choice - ten years ago, on this road, we rescued four people (including a couple from France) who'd already spent 24 hours in confines of a Volkswagen minibus. But that's in wet season - dry, Cottonwood Canyon Road is no worse than Woodward Avenue through midtown Detroit.
Soon, our first detour arrives - a turn-off to Grosvenor Arch. This gorgeous double arch always blows my mind; we take a short walk to the arch - Jules tries to hang on to any shadow. On the backdrop of cloudless blue skies, the Arch is awesome.
A mile back to Cottonwood Canyon Road, and we are close to its most-spectacular spot - the Northern entrance to Cottonwood Narrows slot canyon.
We make an attempt to hike the Narrows - but since the last time I've been there, erosion left a good five-foot vertical drop onto the canyon floor.
Even if some of us made it, it would not be an easy task to get a 70-pound Airedale down and up the step. We give up, and spend some time in the shade
eating the leftovers of the last night's Gargantuan meal.
Jules happily finishes off the glazed ribs and the lamb shank, and we're back on the road. The rocky outcroppings along the road look like giant scales on a dinosaur's back.
That becomes, without question, the shortest stretch of our trip - it lasts less than 20 minutes.
On one of these curves, the mighty LR4 climbs up from the creek crossing, and dies.
There's no sputtering, no chimes, no lights on the dashboard, no noises - the engine just dies.
I coast to the edge of the road, stop, and hit the "Engine Start" button. The lights that should come on do so, the starter motor purrs like a kitten,
the engine catches for a split second, and dies.
At this time, the first vehicle catches up with us - they offer assistance, I decline.
Hood is popped open, Owner's Manual is retrieved from the glovebox, and fuses are inspected. YES! - the 25-Amp fuel pump fuse is blown. We certainly have spares - the truck doesn't have rear seat heaters or rear A/C, we could live without rear window defrost, and there are many other amenities we could live without - electrically protected by 25A and 30A fuses.
The spare fuse is extracted with a knife, and plopped in place of a blown one.
The started runs, the engine catches a whiff of gas, and dies.
This process is repeated a few times until our supply of spare fuses becomes short. Out comes a nifty diagnostic tool, which promptly connects to the network of LR4's computers and reports two trouble codes - both related to the fuel pump, but of bizarrely opposite wording: one hints at a short circuit, another - at an open circuit. Neither is helpful.
Oh yes... Did I mention that there is no cellular phone coverage pretty much along the entire length of Cottonwood Canyon Road? Now I did.
I get under the truck in hopes of finding an obviously-badly-chaffed-by-a-sharp-rock piece of wiring. None is found.
The second vehicle catches up with us, and the nice young couple inside offers help. This time, I produce my AAA card, and explain in fine details what needs to be said to the AAA helpline operator. The couple assures us that the help will be on the way, and departs.
Did I say they were French? The irony of that makes me chuckle.
Well, there isn't much to do - so I grab the phone and embark on a climb onto one of those giant dinosaur scales. There's a nice view of our ride with the popped hood and opened doors, and the road that we are yet to cover...
There's no cell phone coverage on the top of the hill, either.
I work my way back (climbing is always easier!), and we fall into the Dolce Far Niente.
Another car shows up - this time I am more thorough, giving the couple inside (also French!) a piece of paper with geographic coordinates of our location.
Boredom begins to set in - I pull out a little Yaesu FT-60R handheld ham radio, connect the rooftop antenna to it, and start flipping through the
frequencies. There's a lot of them, across two-meter and 70-centimeter bands! All of a sudden, I come across a loud and clear conversation on a repeater
somewhere, at the frequency of 448.6 MHz. Later, home in San Diego, I will learn that this repeater is WA7VHF,
located on top of Navajo Mountain, and it can be unlocked using CTCSS tone of 100Hz. I could have known this had I bought a $10 Repeater Reference Book... but I hadn't.
So I spend some time trying random CTCSS tones, but the conversation ceases before I have a chance to join...
Another car shows up - this time, with an American couple. They write every little detail and promise to follow up.
Three hours pass. Ladies are gradually running out of reading matter, Jules is getting restless. The sun is setting; I take photos of random useless stuff.
The quiet evening is disrupted by a faint rumble of a big V8. In a minute, we are greeted by a Sheriff's deputy in a Dodge Ram. The conversation
leaves a lot to be explained; he mentions a 911 call (who would call 911 instead of a AAA 800 number?), and that the callers said we were "stuck".
That must be the "lost in translation" part with the French callers - the "stuck" and "broken" mean different things for 911 operators. Besides,
whoever is "stuck" on Cottonwood Canyon Road when it is bone dry sure must have been doing something illegal. In any case, the deputy inquires about
our well-being, offers water and supplies (we decline), and promises that we would not be spending a night on this road. He promises to talk to the
tow truck operator (which is on its way), and clarify the information about our whereabouts.
Then, in the cloud of dust, he is gone.
Another hour and a half passes by. The sun is gone, and we watch the clouds to turn peach, then orange, then red, then dark gray.
I take stock of our situation. We have about a gallon of water; it is plenty for three people, but not three people and a large furry dog. There is a creek about half a mile from out location, which may have some water that we'd have to boil. We do have propane, multitude of packets with Mountain House freeze-dried food. We have warm clothes and one sleeping bag. What we do not have is anything that may alert any potential drivers on our location mid-turn on a hill - like a flasher or emergency triangle; both are neatly packed for the trip, but left at home. I would rather not use whatever reserve capacity is left over in the battery for the flashers...
My survey of overnight survival necessities is interrupted by a loud bang somewhere far. Then - another.
Soon, we see the headlights of a Dodge pickup truck, towing a flatbed trailer, and a minute later Jake, the truck operator, assesses the
situation. He travelled all the way from Kanab - some fifty-five miles away.
Another 20 minutes - and that good-looking Land Rover is winched onto the trailer. The dogs are not allowed in the truck cab, so terrified Jules is left in the LR4 for the duration of our trip to Page, Arizona.
We chat with Jake - they have a rather unusual, and far from boring, business: besides flat-towing the disabled vehicles, they routinely
perform real off-road recoveries. There's no shortage of rental four-by-voiturettes taken way beyond their abilities to the deep sand of White Pocket.
Halfway to Page, on U.S.89, the cell phone service emerges, and I book us a room in La Quinta in Page. By the way, this ended up being the best place we stayed during the entire trip - and the most expensive, too.
In Page, I pay Jake $160 - an hour's worth of tow - and we part our ways.
Our dinner is three DiGiorno's six-inch round pizzaz from the hotel's fridge, washed down with Gatorade. The ladies go to sleep, I fire up the laptop and download and read Topix' PDF files until way past midnight.