(Editor's note: In 1990, longtime Four Wheeler contributor Willie Worthy embarked upon a 1,300-mile "Border to Border" run from Canada to Mexico, nearly all of it off-pavement. We wanted to see if such a cross-country trip was still possible 20 years later, so we followed the progress of contributor Chris Collard, along with Del Albright of the Blueribbon Coalition, as they attempted the same four-wheeling feat. And just to make things interesting, they opted to run in the opposite direction-from Mexico to Canada. In the middle of summer, no less. This is the first part of their adventure.)
A light haze drifted like a translucent ochre blanket above the distant western horizon. The afternoon sun, like a retina-burning laser, seared a fiery orange hole through it. Adjusting my visor to the down position, the penetrating rays were just low enough to underscore my blind. Squinting, I sat up straight to ease my eyes. The mid-June air was warm, but not unseasonable. After all, we were crossing a fissured and desiccated lakebed in the middle of the Southern California desert. In the distance, I made out a shape. It began to take form as we approached. I leaned over to my driving buddy Del and commented, "Does that look like two guys sitting under a tarp?" Del laughed, smiled, and looked on. We'd hardly seen anyone for days, since we left the Mexican border; Del probably thought I was seeing a mirage or suffering from heat stroke. With a second glance, his infectious smile turned serious; he flicked off the radio and was all business: "Soldiers."
Startled by our stealth approach, one of them appeared to reach for an M-16 as he leaped from his chair. We slowed, and he approached Del's open window. About 19 years of age, he was wiry, fit, and energetic. Del's smile returned. "Where did you guys come from?" PFC Zach declared in a 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 the Can-Rocks Rumble on the Rocks event for Four Wheeler (Dec. '09). My flight home hit the tarmac at 0030 hours, I slept for four hours, Del arrived at 0600, and we loaded my truck and headed for L.A. I'd talked Jeep's Brand Manager Scott Brown into loaning me a four-door JK for three weeks, and at 1500 hours, he was handing us the keys.
But this wasn't your average JK. It was one of Mopar's Underground Engineering concept vehicles-a real head-turner. Sporting an ARB roof rack and tent, AEV bumpers, Warn winch, an Equipt gravity-feed water tank, and stack of Expedition One stackable fuel cells, this JK, the Overlander, oozed "outback adventure and world travel" from every angle. The 35-inch BFG KM2s didn't hurt our "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 desert or trekking through Morocco, this needed to be an adventure that anyone could do with their own rig-something stateside that didn't require a passport, inoculations, deep-pocket airline tickets and a rented rig. My assignment in Kelowna 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 1,135 miles. Yahoo! Maps put it at 1,530-miles (about 27 hours if you don't stop for fuel, food, or potty breaks). Well, we're not birds, and Yahoo! gives the most direct paved route . . . which is boring-especially when you have a fully kitted JK under your britches. So the question begged: How far would it be if we stuck to the road less traveled, the dirt track, and how long would it take? Is it even possible to avoid the tar road in a world, which is rapidly closing in around us? Enter our Border-To-Border All-Dirt Run.
New Mates, Slab City, and Fighter Jets
The international border with Mexico cuts across the Algodones Sand Dunes, stretching east for 2,000 miles to its terminus at the Gulf of Mexico. There are places in New Mexico and Texas where this high-security demarcation is no more than a bold red line on a government map. Not the case in California. Our friendly border zone, or zona de international is a 12-foot barrier resembling thousands of cattle grates standing on end. It also sports a 100-foot restricted area on the U.S. side. How do we know this? We parked ten feet from the ferrous fiend, kicked off our shoes and snapped a few pics-you know, tourist stuff. Within five minutes, a half-dozen Border Patrol officers converged on us like Radar (my dog) on an unguarded bag of beef jerky. But that is another story. As we parted our new friends, I mentally queried the scene I would encounter weeks later when I nosed the JK's bumper against the 49th parallel and into Canada.
We'd crashed the night before (three hours max) at the home of John Stewart, editor of 4x4 Wire and a SoCal desert aficionado. He'd had loaned us a few maps and suggested possible routes. Earlier talks with Willy Worthy, who'd completed a similar trip, revealed that it was too early in the year to do an all-dirt trek through the Rocky Mountain stretches of Montana and parts of Idaho, so we'd stick to the Wild West route: California, Nevada, Oregon,and Washington. I slipped in a Jimmy Buffett CD, reset the trip meter, clicked on Spot, our satellite transponder that would track our route via the Adventure Trak system, and turned the wheels north.
Mile 98: Slab City is one the most God-fearing and bizarre cities one will behold. Situated a few clicks from the our route along the Coachella Canal, this detour was like a 20-minute acid trip through a sectarian Tom Petty video-with a twist of Hunter Thompson. We parked at the base of God Mountain, a fifty-foot man-made precipice rising from the desert floor, and poked around the eclectic mix of oddly decorated cars and various forms of religious-themed folk art. Although the population rests at a few hundred, and dozens of aging double-wides are tucked away in thick brush, we didn't see a soul-but we could sense that we weren't alone.
With all the technology at hand, a Garmin GPS, Google Earth, and a dozen maps, one might expect that we knew exactly where were going, right? No-east of the Salton Sea, we got chased out of a bombing range by a civilian-looking guy in a Hertz rental truck. We thought he was full of it until a couple of jets did a low pass on our position and disappeared over the next range. Which led us to Plan B: The Bradshaw Trail.
If you don't know Del Albright, a fellow journalist and Blue Ribbon Coalition Ambassador, he's a perpetual joker and one of the funniest traveling buddies you'll find. He also spent a few tours in the military and knows how to roll with the punches-a good guy to travel with. We diverted to the Bradshaw Trail through the Orocopia Mountains (a mild and beautiful two-track), cut north crossed Highway 10 (60 feet of pavement, so we cheated already), and headed for Joshua Tree National Park.
Killer Bees, Marines, and M-16s
Our intended route into Joshua Tree had a big fat gate across it and a sign that read, "Closed (For Your Enjoyment)." At this point, we realized that the all-dirt aspect of our trek would need to be modified to get fuel, access the national parks, and skirt around numerous military bases. But we'd try to keep the pavement limited to east-west traverses around said offenders.
Seven miles of pavement later, we pulled onto the Old Dale mining road. The Dale mining district saw its boom in the 1880s, and the surrounding mines supported up to 1,000 people, depending on how the gold ore was paying out that month. We hunkered down for the night on a small landing a few hundred yards from an old ore rig. As our fire illuminated the canyon walls, we cracked open a few coldies and gazed at constellations crossing an obsidian sky.
The desert can be as dry as three-week roadkill, and any form of moisture is an attractant for bees. Thousands of them-in our coffee, the skillet, our eyes, and in Radar's water bowl-anything that was moist. The rattler I'd damn near stepped on the night before didn't grab my attention like this-the little buzzers were relentless. We packed up and drove off, swatting the ones in the cab as the rest followed just outside our windows.
Mile 210, Twentynine Palms
Time for fuel and blogging at the Holiday Inn Express (thanks, guys). We had to eat another 20 miles of tar road (eastward only) to get around the Twentynine Palms Marine Base. But this put us on the east side of Johnson Valley, which was cool. It was mid-afternoon when we rolled onto the pool table-flat Emerson Dry Lake bed and met our new Marine buddies, Zach and Nick. "Where did you guys come from? We're supposed to be keeping people outa there," said PFC Nick. "We haven't seen anyone out here for two days." They'd been dropped off with a case of MREs, radio and a few jugs of water-the M16s we thought we saw must have been a heat-induced hallucination. Little did we know that we had wandered into the middle of a live munitions military exercise (yes, the map did show the base, if we had bothered to look). Both were due to deploy to Iraq and had been dropped off to guard the perimeter so that stupid tourists (guess who?) didn't get their backsides scattered across the desert. We graciously thanked them for volunteering to protect our nation so snot-nosed civilians like us can enjoy our often unacknowledged freedom to wander across the country on vacation.
Mile 320, East Mojave Scenic Area
We were stonewalled, or lava-walled, near old Route 66 and succumbed to another six miles of pavement. But how cool was this-we were parked in the middle of the tarmac, not a soul in sight, and with a car-length Route 66 badge stretched out on the road before us. The mid-1800s, the age of the Industrial Revolution, witnessed the expansion of the iron horse across the west. And in the days before cars, semis and roads, the railroad became an expedient lifeline to the east. Our maps indicated our track continued over the Topeka-Santa Fe Railroad, and it did-but there was no crossing. Trying to be good boys, we followed the tracks for a few miles in search of a legitimate/legal crossing. No luck. Del raised an eyebrow, laughed, and turned up the radio. I slipped the JK in low-range, looked for traffic (or the railroad police), and hopped the tracks.
The sign at Soda Lake read "Closed." I thought, "How odd. The map indicates that this is the East Mojave National Scenic Area, which apparently can only seen from behind a locked gate?" We were standing in front of a fine example of land managers putting lipstick on a pig, majestically labeling "public" land that excludes the public! Uh, can you say "oxymoron"? (And, or communing with nature.) Nonetheless, we skirted the perimeter of the scenic area, entered the Mojave and zigzagged our way to Baker for fuel and a quick blog (with pirated WiFi from the Wills Fargo Motel).
The trip meter read 346 miles, with 32 on pavement-less than ten percent. But accessing Death Valley would kill our ratios. John Stewart had advised us of a dirt track near Halloran Springs to the east, but we where scheduled to meet the Eastern Sierra 4x4 club for a cleanup project and were a little behind the gun, so here came another 26 miles of tarmac.
I Spent Four Lonely Days in a Death Valley Haze
I'd set the ground for sleeping arrangements when I invited Del to join me: "Bring your own tent, buddy. I snore, Radar likes his space and, uh, you're sleeping on the ground." Del was the perfect traveling mate for a trek like this: a good navigator, likes Jimmy Buffett, Willie Nelson, and the Eagles, is a habitual humorist, likes my cookin' (I think he'd like anything he didn't have to cook), and prepped the coffee pot each night before bed. So far two guys, one dog, and a borrowed Jeep was working out.
Mile 422: Death Valley summers can chase the mercury well past the 120-degree mark, and it was 80 when we awoke in our camp near Warm Springs. I hoisted Radar down from the tent; Del had the coffee hot, and the harmony of Jimmy Buffett's Four Lonely Days drifted through camp. This became our "mascot song" of sorts, and numerous cab-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 railhead near Mojave.
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, Mengel Pass, and the infamous 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 and clan (which burned down in spring of 2009 following a restoration by the Park Service-go figure), 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 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.
Goldfish in the desert, coyotes, hot springs and Senor Patron
Mile 499: Goldfish in the desert? Legend has it that back in the 1870s, a Chinese mining camp cook used this natural spring to keep fresh fish for the bossman (they apparently were koi or large goldfish). The miners, hustlers and teams of oxen are long gone, and the whirl of steam driven stamp mills no longer echos through the canyon, but the fish, after 150 years, remain.
Contrary to what one might think, the town of Darwin is said to be "where evolution stopped." We didn't hear "Dueling Banjos" twanging out from behind the plethora of paneless window openings, but after a few unprintable jokes, we figured we'd keep moving.
Three large bucks jumped the road ahead of us as we descended Grapevine Canyon in the Nelson Range. Just beyond lay the vast expanses of Saline Valley-and Saline Hot Springs. Once a refuge for social dropouts from the 1960s, the palm-shaded hot springs, which are now concrete-lined, clean, and the perfect temperature, are a verdant paradise amid the scorched landscapes of the surrounding desert. Coyotes darted through the afternoon shadows as we set up camp, and we kept Radar close to keep him from become a coyote snack. As we stoked up the fire we had a surprise visitor, Señor Patrón. It was high-time for a bath (first since leaving the border), so we took our guest and a few (short) glasses back to the hot tubs for a fiesta under the stars.
It seemed like a month since we aired down the tires just a few yards from Mexico's frontier state, Baja Norte, but it had been just less than a week. What an adventure we'd begun. As we cleared the White Mountains and descended into the Owens Valley, the odometer clicked 618, the altimeter read 7300 MSL. In the morning, we were sweating like pigs. Now we were dodging a hailstorm. Twenty-four hours earlier, we'd been below sea level. We'd been accosted by the Border Patrol, dodged rattlesnakes, attacked by killer bees, drove through an active bombing range, soaked in a natural hot spring, and raised our shot glasses to Jimmy, Willie, and the deities of the road less traveled. Next month, we continue our trek towards the 49th parallel, visiting Bishop, Mono Lake, the booming 1860s ghost town of Bodie, and the Biggest Little City in the World.
Gear for the Road
When you hit the road for an overland trek, having the right gear is essential. With each installment of B2B, we'll share some of the gear we used and how it worked.
Short of USGS topo maps of the entire state (which are expensive and bulky), DeLorme map books are awesome (www.delorme.com). USFS regional maps are handy for determining currently available routes in National Forests (www.fs.fed.us/maps), and the Spot satellite tracker is a must (www.findmespot.com) for backcountry travel. I've been using an old Garmin 12 for years (which works great), though my new Garmin Nuvi 760, while it does accept an SD card loaded with Mapsource, is not much of backcountry navigation tool. I found it better suited for finding the mall or hair salon than overland travel.
Storing your swag: With temperatures pushing the mercury past 100 degrees, a traditional ice chest will keep perishables for three or four days max (if you are careful). We borrowed one of ARB's new fridge/freezers, plugged it in, and... ahhh!! The new design has a digital control panel, quick-release lid, partitioned storage area, and a super-cool interior light. I love the Rubbermaid Action Packer storage bins. They are simple, cheap, and durable. I've had this one for about 20 years and it is still holding tough.