I can't recall ever being on a 'wheeling trip where I had to literally sign my life away against such likelihoods as "falling objects, including aircraft." Then again, such is the nature of a D.E.D. Tour.
You know: Dirt Every Day. It's a road-trip philosophy adopted long ago by Pewe and myself, one that mandates not only daily dirt, but adventure at its most core dirtball American form, following the brown dusty road wherever it happens to go, stopping at only the most caricaturized of restaurants, bars, pawn shops, and junkyards, and risking sudden death at any moment in vehicles of a sundry and dilapidated nature. No cushy SUV action here, baby, as you've certainly seen if you've followed our D.E.D adventures in the likes of several flatties and an M715.
Most recently we revealed the humiliating happenstance of flying to Utah, rebuilding a long-abandoned CJ-2A over the course of a few days, then hitting the road in it, only to spin a rod bearing a few miles out of town, forcing us to buy a $500 F-100 to drag the wounded Willys home. Pretty normal stuff for us, actually, but somewhat defeating nonetheless. So, when we had the opportunity for a replay, we took it. When you're offered a free flatfender, what are you supposed to do-not take it? Wrong.
This time it was family, though, as Pewe was gaining back a '48 CJ-2A that he'd built for his father-in-law 20 years ago, back when his own Republic Off-Road shop was around. Of course, there'd be no challenge if the Jeep hadn't also been sitting dormant for nearly 10 years by the time we arrived in Tempe, Arizona-during a rare storm front that would dog us for the next five days-and pulled back the tarp it'd been cowering under. This time we at least suspected that the swapped-in Chevy 3.8L V-6 had plenty of life in it, but no one could guess how baked the seals were inside the TH350 (one of many reasons you really shouldn't have an automatic tranny in the first place), or how vile the decade-old gas had become. We had a wrenching revival ahead of us.
Back when we did the Utah gig, we actually flew all our Jeeping toolboxes to Salt Lake City, but that just took the sport out of it. This time we packed light and foraged for tools locally. And, since a cheapy Taiwan set would be too easy, we hit the local pawn shop (lame-too sanitary) and the Park-'n'-Swap, choosing only the well-seasoned implements that really wanted homes. The scrounge netted us $200 worth of new friends in an olive-drab box, and they'd likely save our fool lives in the days to come.
The vehicular overhaul came easy this time, as the Willys and its bonus of a genuine WWII jeep trailer turned out to be an absolute prize, performing as expected throughout the adventure, but not before reminding us that the stench of varnished gasoline will bond itself to your soul through the pores of your skin and turn away every nose within 10 yards of you for at least a few days. So we were stinking of gas as we pointed the weary Tru-Tracs south outta town, and we were on Pecos Road with civilization petering out on our right and endless desert to the left when the Jeep died for the first time. Then the second. The death sponge at the bottom of the gas tank was going to plague us, and 100 paved miles later in Ajo, Arizona, we bought all the clear plastic fuel filters Napa had to offer. We'd eventually use 'em all.
And then came the part about falling aircraft. Unlike D.E.D.s of yore, we had a mild trip plan this time, or at least I should say that Pewe came up with it much to my surprise the day we left town: We were to follow El Camino del Diablo, The Devil's Highway, an ancient byway through what remains the most wild and unmolested portion of the Sonoran desert. Research into the history of the road produced conflicts about whether it was first traveled in the 1540s or the 1690s, but it's certain that the trail has been used by ancient peoples, by Spanish missionaries and California's first land-bound settlers, and by 49ers and pioneers avoiding the brutal Apache to the north. The only hope these people had to survive was to carry enough water for the 100-plus-mile trek to the Tinajas Altas from either California or Mexico. Tinajas Altas means high tanks, tanks being natural rock formations that hold up to hundreds of gallons of rainwater. At least you hoped so. Gravesites dot El Camino del Diablo and tellingly cluster at the base of the Tinajas Altas mountains. Hence, the Devil's Highway. The Yuma railroad came in 1870 and saved many lives, leaving the Camino to hardy freelance miners. Today, the fantastic desert route is traveled only by archeologists, geologists, illegal immigrants, drug runners, and we foolhardy desert rats.
El Camino del Diablo runs adjacent to the Mexican border through a former Tohono O'Odham reservation on what has been the 860,000-acre Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Reserve since Roosevelt said so in 1939. It's adjacent to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and is subject to flyovers from the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, which you also pass through if you live that long. Access requires extensive permission from myriad agencies that control the area. We signed all the required papers and watched the mandated videos at the very helpful U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service office in Ajo. The gist of the warnings is "You're gonna die here-you know that. Right?" We held harmless the U.S. government for "permanent, painful, disabling, and disfiguring injury or death" due to everything from live fire, to unexploded ordinance, to venomous desert reptiles, to our own stupidity, to the aforementioned plummeting aircraft. We promised to stay on the road at all costs.
Cool. So we were off on our own accord, and armed with 15 gallons of water, into a wilderness of sands of different colors, mud, lava rock, and forests of saguaro, ocotillo, and a few organ pipes. We were queried by two rangers within 5 miles, then it was nothing but jackrabbits, lizards, and a lonely hawk. The road is almost entirely passable in two-wheel drive, though only 4x4s are allowed for safety reasons. Travelers should come in packs of at least two vehicles, but there we were in a 56-year-old Jeep that, until the previous day, hadn't run for a decade. It treated us to 140 miles of pure desert bliss, including multiple stops to suck gas and clean out the recovering fuel system. El Camino del Diablo really demands at least a three-day exploration that every desert lover must do before they die, but we did it in one 14-hour sitting, motoring into the night lit only by a nearly full moon-no headlights to ruin our night vision. We wouldn't have traded it for anything.
So the civilization of the Arizona town of Fortuna came harsh. As did the hateful realization that we'd choked hopelessly: It was hotel time. Shoulda camped. And pavement travel revealed some nasty rear-axle noise.
The next morning we visited Dennis Franklin, an old pal of Pewe's, whose family has operated Franklin Tire in Yuma since 1966. We were welcomed with an open bay as Dennis' crew went to work getting the Jeep's original two-piece axles back in shape. And because it always goes right on a D.E.D. Tour, Dennis introduced us to Jet Sales, a fantastic treasure-trove of army surplus and the highest possible quality of junk that can only come from a place that's been collecting for 50 years. Water poured from the sky, barely slowing us from inspecting the treasures, but damping the ritual sniffing of the WWII canvas.
We succeeded in prying ourselves away from the surplus and beat feet to the nearest possible dirt road outta town and managed another 50 miles off pavement. Then it was onto California Highway 111 near Glamis, and I was plunging ever nearer to the portion of the trip where the work stress comes back as the city looms closer. It was Tuesday night. I needed to be at work editing the monolithic Hot Rod magazine the next day. Yet ceaseless rain finally got the best of us-there was more water on the inside of the windshield than out, and it looked like we were pushing the limits of cheatin' death. We stumbled into the Ski Bar for a life-giving Corona in the bleak trailer resort of Bombay Beach on the Salton Sea, and it was obvious we were staying for the night. I made Rick promise an early rising, and I'd be at work bleary-eyed by noon.
Pewe won't admit it even now, but it's my adamant belief that the next morning brought a calculated move on his part: when exploring beachline of the Salton, we got stuck in mud. Plausibly, he blamed the cursed automatic, yet I knew it was a ploy to keep me from work another day, and one that played out gloriously as we padded back to Bombay Beach and woke up the Fire Department, who sent us to the lady who owned the four-room hotel, who called Art-just "Art"-to fetch us out of the predicament with a backhoe. We promised to hose all the mud off the 60 feet of chain it would take to rescue us, and spent that time and well longer hanging out with a guy we'd never known before or since. War stories, dune-buggy admiration, local politics, and just plain good people who understand the flatfender life.
It was the kind of America you see on a proper road trip, and the reason they just never get old. But for now, it was finally off to the concrete ribbon, as we'd lived to D.E.D. another day.