An hour or two outside of Los Angeles, the high desert’s fire-scorched hills rise on either side. This Jeep Wrangler Rubicon I’m rolling in wears Toyo’s latest all-terrain tire, the Open Country A/T III, enough Pacific Overlander gear to be self-sufficient for a week or two, and roof-mounted Airtop tent. I don’t know what the drag coefficient is, but judging by wind noise and vibration, it’s akin to that of a U-Haul, albeit much cooler looking.
The rough plan is to hit the road, get into the open, and gaze upon mountains, those fabled vistas and peaks that you’ll never quite shake, and that dreamy blue sea that effortlessly brings an internal, arresting quiet simply by gazing upon it. All combined, this serves up as a powerful elixir, the right remedy to break the stir-crazy in a seriously bizarre year.
A Window Into The Wild
Finding a window was especially tricky calculus this year; between lining up the right rig for the job, factoring unprecedented wildfires and the resultant smoke ravaging the western half of the US – which pushed back the original timing – and ever-changing coronavirus closures and restrictions adding to the Tetris. Seeing as I wanted to camp where possible, the closing outdoor camping season and quickly dropping temperatures further added to those challenges.
But with the fires and smoke mercifully tampered down, a mid-fall window emerged to embark on this little adventure. And now as the wheels roll across the asphalt towards Death Valley, so to do thoughts seem to smooth out and pin back, the road a great pacifier. I cross the California-Nevada border and plan a brief layover in Las Vegas to pop into the Wynn hotel to pick up a coffee and get a quick snapshot of what things are like these days. Not knowing if the clearance will be an issue, I opt to park on the roof. Between the 33-inch rubber and the tent above, it seems wise.
Everyone has to go through a metal detector and get a pat-down at the entrance, women’s bags are checked, an experience you might be used to at sporting events or the airport, not entering a Vegas hotel. Staff are masked, though indoors patrons are less observant. Despite new small plastic plexiglass windows around a roulette table acting as dividers, a small rowdy crowd is gathered around tightly, high-fiving, cheering and jeering, while cocktail waitresses refresh drinks. These otherwise normal Vegas scenes are a little strange in this unconventional year
I get a large coffee to go and, while sipping in the parking lot, map out various places to camp tonight. Although night has already descended over the desert, I plan to drive several more hours, the destination not exactly set. Having come together at the last minute, I have a loose itinerary, but my stops and daily plan are not pre-arranged, and I kind of like it that way. Many official campgrounds have closed for the year, but I'm content to find a parcel of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) territory where I can set up and get some rest before getting up to my first official destination: Jackson, Wyoming and Grand Teton National Park.
A mile up the strip I pull in for gas, my second fill of the day, something that will be an exceptionally frequent occurrence. While pumping, a couple of panhandlers approach before shuffling on. I pop inside to briefly peruse snacks, and when I return there’s a person near the Jeep peering in, not quite admiring, but perhaps seeing if there’s anything he can acquire. At the next stoplight, a man on the street aggressively suggests I may want to relieve him of a quantity of narcotics. It hadn’t been a year since I was last in Vegas, but without the usual influx of tourists, it feels like the city has gone back to its Wild West frontier days.
I’ve got the radio on, sipping black coffee on a gusty night. While there’s a fair bit of weight on board, Jeep’s trusty 3.6-liter V6 has ample power at the ready, the JL generation benefits from a new eight-speed automatic transmission that helps deliver power more smoothly. I lower the windows for a blast of fresh, cold desert air. While driving during the day has the benefit of views, ones that will get continuously more spectacular on this drive, I’ve recently become fond of the meditative quality of a longer night drive.
Some mean wind gusts do their best to toss Ruby – as I’ve unimaginatively named this Rubicon model – and me around. Instantly as we pass the Arizona state line, the roads get better. There are a few states I’ve yet to get to, but I don’t know one that has consistently better roads than Arizona.
Ruby and I snake through the scenic Virgin River Gorge. So smooth and quiet is the ride, you’d be forgiven momentarily if you forgot about the Jeep’s chunky, special-compounded Toyos, heavy solid axles, and high center of gravity. There’s some distant activity under yellow lights, people getting in and out of cars, an RV pulled to the side, small motels and a restaurant that seems to be closing for the evening.
Utah arrives in a blink, and the pace of traffic picks up. Passing St George, in the southwest corner of the state, and on approaching Cedar City, I pull into a rest area and hop on my phone to check for nearby camp spots. Forums suggest the closest BLM sites are sketchier to manage in the dark of night on random dirt roads. At this point I’m pretty tired and just want to get some horizontal sleep before carrying on in the morning.
So smooth and quiet is the ride, you’d be forgiven momentarily if you forgot about the Jeep’s chunky, special-compounded Toyos, heavy solid axles, and high center of gravity.
I move the Jeep over to a quiet corner of the rest area where others are snoozing; in a separate area in back truckers are doing the same. Quietly I pop up the front half of the Airtop tent, fetch and extend the ladder out, and climb in with my sleeping bag and pillow, briefly taking mental note of the billion stars above.
From one-something to dawn I sleep like a rock, a vague remembrance of occasional wind, voices carrying, or a vehicle. I sleep more than I did the night before I set off, with the thousand little things to do before you go and everything somehow taking longer than you anticipated. As daylight breaks, the rest area is active again. I stretch, take in some of the cold, fresh air and hit the road.
A Cold Wind Blows
On the highway, the 80 mile-per-hour speed limit is very welcome. Cattle are out grazing, horses too – there’s plenty of pasture to go around in Utah. It’s a Sunday and many restaurants in Salt Lake City are closed, but I find a place for noodles. Then, the snowy peaks of the Wasatch range come in view again on the road, and later the red rock near Logan, close to the Idaho border. I exit onto some dirt roads to get a closer look at the mountains, then take in the last light.
The beauty of the road is that as you pass along you can gradually process the changing landscape – with each shifting vista, weather swing, and elevation change, you get to understand the land, the country, and its diverse topography.
As Ruby and I cross into Idaho, I pull into a gas station in Soda Springs. Though the temperature was hovering just above freezing, there were three kitties occasionally prowling, but also bathing and observing the late weekend traffic in and out, deciding what to make of it all. Up and down the roller coaster roads of Idaho, near the Wyoming border I spot three bears making an investigation in a yard strewn with trucks that may or may not run.
I pull into Jackson around two in the morning, one of the famous antler welcome arches is lit, so I stop for a quick photo with Ruby. Then down the gravel and dirt road of the National Elk Refuge, where the rickety ride belies Ruby’s overall capability on tough terrain. We climb up to the Curtis Canyon area where some limited dispersed camping is allowed. This is a no-facility area: Find a spot and pitch up for the night camp. I engage the 4WD, first with 4 High, before switching to 4 Low in the rockier and steeper parts while climbing higher onto the mountain – High probably would have probably sufficed.
This is a no-facility area: Find a spot and pitch up for the night camp.
Possibly because it’s snowing lightly and there’s a fierce wind, or maybe it was the sighting of the bears, but once in the tent I become paranoid, unlike the evening before.
What are those noises? Is that a bear sniffing just outside (highly unlikely), what is all that various rustling? At 3:30 AM, I decide to quiet my anxiety and attempt to get a few hours of sleep.
I give it about another unnerving hour and a half. It doesn’t help that I’m shivering in the sleeping bag, covered head to toe in most of what I wear snowboarding. My feet are frozen in wool socks as the howling wind rustles up in the valley below, the sudden gusts cause a thundering crash all around, the tent flapping, the tree branches rocking, and even the car swaying. I'm uneasy, parked at a slight angle just above the trail. There’s the gravel road just beneath me, and then the blackness of a hill dropping off into the valley below, only the tops of sloping trees visible above the road. Around 4:30 AM, I decide to try my luck in the car.
I get down, but have a newfound difficulty closing the tent – in my haste, I didn’t stow away the ladder inside correctly. The latches won’t close and I have to use my hands, which may have well been frozen stumps. Wyoming is sending down a little “Welcome to the Tetons, friend”.
I finally get it shut, jump in the car, and turn the heat on my feet to thaw my toes out a bit. Once inside, at least alleviated of the bear anxiety and now a little warmer, I’m able to get some sleep, exhaustion setting in after having clocked nearly 1,000 miles in 33 hours. When I open my eyes the next morning, a fiery pink-orange sky illuminates the tops of the Teton mountains, which had received a fresh covering of snow overnight. I get out to take it all in. Although the wind hasn't let up, I stay out for a few moments, fixated on the towering peaks across the valley. A sunrise like this... these are the moments that stick.
Jackson is a little like Aspen meets old town Vegas, a little ritz, a little western cowboy, and a pretty neat town. I take the Jeep for a mud-and-creek crawl after breakfast – Ruby’s Toyo rubber was specially formulated for wet performance, and this is an opportunity that doesn’t naturally present itself often. These 285/70/17s boast a 33-inch diameter, and in relatively shallow water or rock strewn trails, the setup is barely challenged. In fact, I don’t even engage the 4WD. With a pretty aggressive tread pattern and generous clearance, it wasn’t needed.
The creek is cold and clear, I shut the engine once across to hear the rushing water. A few hours on, I’m back on the road, pushing up against the last light. The skies on the Teton Pass en route to, fittingly, Big Sky Country are dramatic – massive clouds the size of mountains suspended in the air. I wind up the Pass, everything covered in the fresh snowfall, and find myself back in Idaho, back on roller coaster up-and-down hilly roads. A sign says:
“Wildlife crossing next 6 miles, give them a brake.”
Skirting West Yellowstone, the navigation tells me welcome (back) to Wyoming, and then welcome to Montana. We dip below freezing, and as the degrees here drop off it seems the stars in the sky grow exponentially. I see a massive elk pondering a cross, and its heft and majesty stay with me for many miles.
I pull over at a turnout and shut off the engine. I look up and a sudden well of emotion overcomes me. Sheer disbelief at the sky, a billion twinkling stars sparkling brightly, so intense is it that I look away, and then look back up to confirm it. That such a thing exists and is always there for us to see, seems like a gift everyone should experience. Those cliches about feeling small ring true.
I get to Bozeman in the small hours and check into a roadside hotel. Because of the pandemic, I travel with wipes and a canister of Lysol spray, looking for hotels that have that old-school air conditioning unit in the window, which seems preferable to central air at the moment. A hot shower, a bed, simple good things. Sleep comes fast and deep. Bozeman delivers. Food, local brews, and the famous laid- back vibe it’s known for.
I drive back on US 191 to see Lone Peak and Big Sky during the day. The cold river running alongside it is showing full fall glory with the evergreens above and little trees and shrubs near the water alight in color. Rolling up to the Lone Peak creates a kind of inexplicable inward excitement. It’s simply one of the most majestic mountains I’ve gazed upon. The Gallatin River runs along the way to Big Sky, ensuring a stunning drive any time of year. My decision to head west comes, apparently, not a moment too soon. It begins to hail, yet another little test for the Wrangler.
In between Bozeman and Butte, a furious snowstorm all but eliminates visibility. I pull over to the shoulder, hazards on, and switch into 4H. Between the four-wheel-drive and A/T III tires I’m not too concerned about handling the conditions, but I do go slow as visibility is challenging – the snow creates a Star Trek-like warp-speed vortex. I decide to wait out the worst of it. All night snow will come in and out, and on I-90 West between Butte and Missoula the flakes get cartoonishly big, both menacing and beautiful.
The sun rises outside of Missoula and it could be New England with the fall colors shouting out. Entering the Idaho panhandle, visibility and temperatures are low in tandem, though this time a dense fog is the culprit. I press on past beautiful Couer D’Alene, a morning mist rising off of the lake, and stop at a rest stop to catch a few hours of sleep.
Crossing the eastern Washington border, the dry brush, warm sun, and lakes are a welcome sight after the cold of the last few days. I take Ruby to see the mesmerizing glacier on Mt. Shuksan near the Canadian border. The plan is to eventually return Ruby to Pacific Overlander’s headquarters in San Francisco, but first there’s one proper experience that’s eluded me on this trip: a proper scenic camp out, one where I’m not concerned about frostbite creeping in.
But I’ll get that opportunity. I drive through Oregon’s Willamette forest, the area near Detroit Lake. Homes, businesses, lives all gone in fires just days and weeks before. I see work trucks clearing debris, stuff that represented dreams, memories, favored artifacts, a culmination of a 1,000 decisions, all now ash. This was all in a place I could see myself, in the mountains, by water, in the American West. I sit with that for a while and drive in silence.
After a night in Bend, a town that charms me enough to warrant future investigation, I cross into California’s northern border. The Siskiyou National Forest is the stuff of screen-savers. Deep canyons, rivers and creeks, redwoods shooting up along the steep hills and mountains. The true California gold, long after miners stopped looking for metal in the mountains.
I see work trucks clearing debris, stuff that represented dreams, memories, favored artifacts, a culmination of a 1,000 decisions, all now ash.
An eagle at full wingspan hovers above majestically, and completely awestruck I scream out “wow-wow-wow!” I come across trees so vast, tall, and wide that the Jeep’s instruments go into night mode. A deer appears seemingly out of nowhere and darts across the road, but luckily I’m not going very fast at the moment and it was never in tremendous danger. After a harrowing night drive through windy redwood forests, I reach the coast. Once again the tapestry of a billion stars hover above, this time accented by an orange half-moon hanging low and beaming bright on the water, pure magic all around.
Wants And Needs
A few miles down the coast, I attempt camp. It’s in the 40s with a consistent breeze coming off of the ocean, but it’s not going to get any better than this. Mason, the founder of Pacific Overlander, clues me into several spots that fit the bill of what I was looking for. As he often guides overlanding trips throughout the west, he’s also familiar and knowledgeable about terrain and where you can get off the grid into some nature and views. “We get the whole spectrum,” he’ll later tell me.
This, however, is exactly what I want. Long days with varied terrain and endless tunes, camping in the crisp autumn air under starry skies (including at least once with legitimate bear anxiety). Driving alongside rivers; in mud, snow, hail, and rain; highways and two-lanes; feeling the wind; FM radio in places with only one station. A trillion gas station coffees and trees and long views and mountains and not many people. Passing the small towns and remote places. It makes for a powerful, addicting cocktail that's not for everyone. It’s in these times I feel life most fully. Out there, on the road, witnessing the bounty we all share.