I found myself at the Arizona State Association Jamboree in my gnarly Jeep with a 4-inch lift, 33-inch tires, lockers, low gears, and a V-8. I thought I had it made ... until I saw the others. One look around told me that I was in trouble. It seemed as if everybody's rigs towered above mine, especially when they got up on the suspension testing ramp. I drove up on the ramp as far as my wheelbase, but these creations just kept going well past where I'd been. I knew I was in trouble; I had signed up for nothing but the tough trails. Good grief, where had I been all those years?
The first day we did a trail called Lower Woodpecker. This is a new section of the Woodpecker, which I had read of in magazines before coming to the Jamboree. Wouldn't you think that after dropping into the wash, the trip leader would keep going down the wash? Nope. Good ol' Ed Melendy headed for the biggest rocks he could find. His spring-over-axle CJ-5 had clearance I could only dream of, but surprisingly I tackled the paths over these rocks and lived to tell about it. Further down, there wasn't an easier route. For a short stretch drivers either had to take the big boulders on the left, or an off-camber steep climb on the right.
I attempted the steep right climb. Simply approaching it puts you over some good-sized boulders and into a little hole at the bottom. The climb looked like a big slab. Easy, huh? Not so. Just over the top of the slab was a huge hole to the left. If I fell in, my Jeep would tumble over and fall about 5 feet down. I couldn't go that way even though it looked easy. No, I had to go a little to the right, straddle a groove in the rock, off-camber on the rock face, tilted towards the direction necessary to roll off the rock. I put the Jeep's front end up, let 'er crawl just a little over idle and aimed at the wall in front of me at the top of the mound. The tires bit, grabbed, and the Jeep crawled, easily cutting the quick left turn to avoid the wall at the top.
The next day we did a new trail in the area called Martinez Canyon. The country around it is pretty dramatic, with rocky, craggy peaks jutting out of a hilly up-and- down Sonoran desert with saguaro, palo verde, and mesquite everywhere. Entering Martinez Canyon certainly reminds you that it is a canyon, as you are surrounded by steep vertical walls on either side. Yet this is a green, tree-covered cove in the middle of a low desert. At the entrance are some cabins that have been occupied within the last several years by people with a mining claim.
This trail became confusing for me, because I saw perfectly good road on my left, but vehicles went down the dry wash on my right. Walking down the wash, I soon realized that this was the boulder-seeking crowd. It's not enough to just get somewhere-they had to do it by getting over the biggest boulders possible. I suppose it keeps the springs supple and shocks lubricated. No doubt that's how they were able to go up so high on that ramp. I liked the road though. It gave me a chance to be a spectator without any undue strain on my vehicle (I go into distant backcountry alone and have to depend on this thing to get me out).
The fun in the rocks took place up and down the canyon. Meanwhile, I found a pleasant, but definitely four-wheel-drive route around everything. Further up the canyon was the ruin of an old mill. Around the area of the mill all of the vehicles were forced to participate in the rock confrontation. I put my Jeep in low and idled it over the rocks. Occasionally someone picked a line that was not so good, like one guy who had, as I did, a Dana 300 transfer case. One problem with this otherwise excellent transfer case is the angle it hangs off of the transmission. This costs a bit of ground clearance. Was that "guy" me, you ask? Perish the thought! Shame on you. It doesn't matter; one of these days I'll fix it (maybe with an Advance Adapters Atlas)
Just a little ways up from the mill was a big mound of steep rock. This wasn't too bad-get the front up, just a little to the right ... oh what's that scraping noise? I know why I'm not moving. It seemed like this was the right path until I high-centered on the skidplate. After wiggling around a little bit, the seemingly impossible, nasty-looking path to the left cleared the bottom of the Jeep and the Jeep went up. Could've fooled me.
Between the mill and the upper end of the canyon the trail was difficult regardless of the path taken. Vehicles equipped with locking diffs, lifts, and low gears can have a pretty straightforward trip-unless the driver decides to divert into the aforementioned play zones. At the upper end we got up on switchbacks that carried us up, way up, way way up the side of the mountain. The view was spectacular there, assuming you opened your eyes enough in between off-camber spots on this ledge road. You wound up to the west side of the mountain range (don't forget to bring oxygen) and could see forever.
On the way back, it looked like we were heading back where we came from. Should be a quick easy trip. Yeah. Quick and easy. Like falling off of a cliff. That's one good way to describe the intimidating, adrenaline-rush obstacle encountered only a quarter-mile or so above where the adventure started into the canyon.
Don't want to go forward? It's a lot longer going back. Do you think I'm joking about falling off a cliff? The initial drop off into this thing, the Luge, is a vehicle-height cliff, off-camber to the downhill side-so steep that many vehicles took a tug strap on their rear bumper to be let down. Long wheelbase vehicles seemed to be able to drop (fall) off OK without aid, but at least one short wheelbase vehicle went over.
I took the strap. Even then you had to be in a Jeep at a totally vertical angle, strap or not, to appreciate the rush. Knowing you couldn't go over was not enough for the mind. OK, phew!, I am in the Luge, it's all downhill now. Jeez, look how steep it is. Hmm, when I put on the brakes, the Jeep just slides down. The only thing that gave any comfort was the low walls of earth on either side that would prevent us from completely falling off the cliff. The best thing to do was put it in the lowest gear possible and ride it down. If it got a little sideways, we would just give it a little power would fix it. And, at the bottom, why does nature do this? The most off-camber berm is tilted towards the only cliff edge on the Luge, which could give you a truly bad day.
No question about it: These Arizona guys knew how to handle the big rocks. And the Martinez Canyon trail was breathless. The other difficult trails in the Jamboree, Woodpecker, and Ajax are also great for testing.
If you want gorgeous country and scenery, the easier trails such as Montana Mountain and the Coke Ovens are spectacular, with vistas of rugged country steeped in history (and mystery-such as the Coke Ovens). Regardless of your level of experience and inclination, this is a good way to get to know some classic Arizona desert.