It happened way too fast. Steve Riffel was out enjoying Johnson Valley's Fissure Mountain Trail in his Jeep with a few friends. Steve, driving solo, attempted a low-speed descent over a ledge. Vehicle weight shifted suddenly, and tragically. The Jeep rolled over, and Steve died of his injuries. Life is short, and it is fragile.
Steve is described as "a fun-loving guy who loved the outdoors, a straight shooter who never complained. [He was] self-sufficient, good with pranks, and laid back. Steve wasn't bothered who went or where we went. Hardcore or a picnic run, it was all the same to him. 'Just get out of Dodge,' he would say."
A group of Steve's friends came to his funeral dressed in black shirts and were subsequently dubbed the "Men in Black." The MIB members' common thread was a love of off-roading, and they wanted to make sure Steve's memory would not fade with his passing. Brian (who requested last names not be used in this story) spearheaded not one but two projects in Steve's memory.
The first project was to erect a monument on the Fissure Mountain Trail at the site of the accident. Off-Road introduced readers to this monument while covering an All-Pro Off-Road trail run (see "Johnson Valley Unhammered," July '06). The MIB hauled and mixed 2,800 pounds of concrete on location to build the monument, which was adorned with a plaque bearing Steve's name. The monument was a fitting tribute and was completed with determination, time, gasoline, and muscle power.
If the monument was a tough project, building the Riffel Canyon Trail can only be described as gargantuan. Rising steeply from the valley that adjoins Soggy Dry Lake, Riffel Canyon's obstacles rank right in line with other hardcore rockcrawling trails in the area. If you've ever run Wrecking Ball, you'd do well to get yourself and your rig down to Riffel Canyon for a test of mettle.
"We are here today to honor a fallen comrade, Steve Riffel, and to open a new trail which will bear his name. Who was Steve Riffel? He was one of us. He was part of a group of people who take part in a sport unmatched by any other sport. We have a sense of family and a sense of unity. We are always there to help one another. No one gets left behind or forgotten.
The Riffel Canyon Trail begins abruptly with a "gatekeeper" climb that's just plain nasty. The gatekeeper isn't the toughest obstacle on the trail, but it serves as the route's harbinger: If you can't make it past the gatekeeper, just smile, park your vehicle, and hitch a ride with someone else. You'll have plenty of time on the trail to scheme and dream of ways to build your rig better for future runs.
Once successfully in the canyon, obstacles come in rapid succession. Some are fairly benign, such as single boulders or distinct narrow spots in an otherwise wide section. Others can only be described as merciless waterfalls. The recipe for success: a minimum of 35-inch tires, low axle gears, rock sliders, low T-case gears (or a dual transfer case), and a winch. The winch is mandatory, as the climb above the "bear cave" is completely impassible without one. Let's mention it again: You'll need a winch.
Riffel Canyon was built in a few months using the same ingredients as Steve's monument on the Fissure Mountain Trail: determination, time, gasoline, and muscle power. The trailhead is located at 34 degrees N, 28 minutes, 18.2 seconds; 116 degrees W, 42 minutes, 12.8 seconds. To get to the area, take CA 247 and exit at Green Rock Mine Road. Once you've exited the highway, head north toward the mountains. Pay close attention to your GPS. Riffel Canyon lies within the Johnson Valley OHV area.
After almost a year of trail-building, Riffel Canyon opened. Before the inagural run, Brian addressed the group with these words:
Riffel Canyon was born a little less than a year ago. It was built by the Men In Black. There's no one person who stands out alone. Finishing this trail was a group effort. The end result of those efforts is the Riffel Canyon trail.
To the Men In Black: what can I say? You did it again. You, my friends, never fail me, nor fail to amaze me. The efforts given to this adventure will not be forgotten. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
With that, I give you Riffel Canyon. Buckle up. Be safe. Have a good time."
Steve Riffel is gone, but he's far from forgotten. The Fissure Mountain monument and the Riffel Canyon Trail stand as living tributes to his memory. They're there for all to enjoy thanks to the Men in Black.