In June, 2006 our oldest daughter reminded us that time was running out for the dream vacation "Out West."
My wife and I looked at each other and realized that she was right. Rachel is going into her junior year of high school and there are not going to be many more opportunities for the whole family (wife, kids age 16, 14, 9 and 7) to vacation together. We had been holding off because my youngest is not been a very good traveler. He has a bad case of the bouncies.
I was working too many hours to be much help, so my wife made all of the arrangements. In retrospect, one of her best decisions was to fly into Salt Lake City (saving mucho time and stress) and renting a full size, 12 passenger Chevy 3500 van. She figured that we would be spending much time together, very close together, in the vehicle and more seats gave us more options.
Our itinerary was pretty loose. Our plan was to set up a base-camp by renting hotel rooms in towns close to multiple attractions. We planned to stay at each base-camp several days. Then we could sprawl out and relax while making expeditions to the nearby attractions.
Our adventure occurred while traveling from Cedar City, Utah (Zion Canyon, Cedar Breaks, Shakespeare Festival, Bryce Canyon) to Vernal, Utah (white water rafting, Flaming Gorge).
Studying the Utah State Highway map I saw two possible routes. One backtracked 200 miles toward Salt Lake City and then east. The other shot east across the state on I-70 and then took a secondary road north to Vernal. The attraction of the second route is that it took us along roads we had not traveled and would let us ‘nip’ Colorado, thereby adding to the bragging rights of the number of states my kids had visited. That may not be important to you or me, but it was important to my kids. Part of making family vacations work is to have every kid feel like they got something that was personally important to them. After a little discussion with the kids, the I-70 and then north option won.
We set off from Cedar City, Utah at 9:00 in the morning. Each kid had their normal suitcase and their own daypack. The daypacks held snack foods (trail mix, Quaker Oat Square cereal, granola bars, gummy worms) a water bottle, windbreaker, chap stick, sunblock, Gameboy etc. In the van we had 6 gallon jugs of water and a sack of travel food; bagels, summer sausage, jar of peanut butter, apples.
Sidebar: Cedar City is at about 5800 feet of elevation and gets many vacationers from Las Vegas who want to escape the heat. EVERY vehicle with NV plates had a beer cooler in the back seat filled with bottled water. The cooler kept the bottles from migrating around the vehicle and kept things tidy. Full size vans have raised, removable seating. The downside of gallon jugs is that they are nearly spherical and quickly traverse the length of the van during aggressive breaking events. End sidebar:
Things went great. We topped off the fuel tank every time we made a potty stop…that is, about every 2-to-3 hours. We never dropped below ¾ tank. The ride was smooth and pleasant except for some nasty road-chatter on I-70 between mile markers 100 and 110. The AC was much appreciated.
And then we hopped off I-70 about10 miles shy of the Colorado border. We paralleled the freeway for about 15 miles and then turned north toward Baxter Pass.
The road went from paved-to-graded gravel-to-ungraded gravel-to-fist-sized crushed rock-to-dried, rutted gumbo. Then it pointed up into switchbacks and became a two-track with a drop-off on one side and raw rock on the other. At its scariest, the washouts extended into the middle of the outside wheel track and there were football sized rocks strewn across the two track we had to weave our way through. There was not much room to weave and not enough room on the outside (drivers side) to hop out and move all the rocks. A flat tire on a 10% grade two-track was did not sound like fun.
The south-to-north passage starts on the leeward (dry) side of the pass and ends on the windward (damper) side. We ran into a couple of dirt bikers north of the pass. They assured us that, indeed, the road we were on was the one depicted on the Utah State Highway map. They told us we were lucky to have beaten the rain storm blowing in from the north-west because rain turns gumbo to grease. Further down the road there were places where sunflowers were growing in the middle of the two-track. The sunflower plants were 15" to 18" tall. The road to Baxter Pass would not even qualify as a driveway in the mid-West.
Pictures attached. Picture up the road is from a switchback. Road got significantly worse at higher elevation. Picture of cattle was at another low elevation swichback. Panoramas were from summit.
Things we did right:
-We had provisions. The kids kept their cool when our 6 hour trip stretched to more than 10 hours. It is infinitely easier for the driver to stay cool and to not drive faster than the conditions permit when all the passengers are relaxed. The kids were even OK with the idea of parking for the night if we had to.
This point cannot be over emphasized. I believe most survival situations are the consequence of poor decisions. The bad decisions occur when the decision maker is hurried and stressed.
-We had enough vehicle. The van was not the least bit bogged down. I believe the 3500 is a full one ton van and is built on a truck chassis. We had 6 people and luggage in it….maybe 1200 pounds total. My wife did a great job specifying this vehicle.
-The Chevy 3500 has great visibility. I could pick and choose my way through the rutted gumbo/caliche and washouts. I was looking DOWN at the road.
-We were never in jeopardy of running out of gas
-We did not hurry. I drove extended stretches where I never exceeded 10 mph. I needed to be able to come to a stop and pick out my path for the next 100 yards or so. This was mostly in the dried gumbo/caliche. Some stretches had three sets of ruts. Two from the tires and one from the diffy case. These ruts were diagonally transected by ruts cut by running water.
Things we did wrong:
-I did not research the route enough. Roads are much scarcer in western states than in eastern states. So the highway department will show even crappy roads if that is the only alternative within 60 miles.
-I should have turned back when the road degraded beyond graded gravel. There is an anecdote about boiling frogs. Throw them into boiling water and they jump out. Put them in a pot and put the pot on the fire and they never notice the water getting hot. I got frogged on this one. We got lucky and we made it through. But it does not take much imagination to see that it was due to luck. "Luck counts but only fools count on luck." -Prof Al Andry
-Anybody traveling off the Interstate in the western US should carry a shovel and a bow saw (at a cost of less than $20). The Bureau of Land Management properties are liberally sprinkled with cattle gates. These are I-beam and steel pipe affairs laid across 24 inch deep, dry ditches. Cattle refuse to cross them because their hooves slip off the pipes and they get wedgies when their delicate underparts hit the pipe (Please don’t flame me. This is a non-technical word picture of how cattle gates work) Many of the cattle gates were pretty roughed up. It would have been impossible to extricate the front end of the van from one of these without the ability to shovel half a yard of dirt/fill under the tires. Yup! It would have taken 4 hours but it can/would have been done. But only if you have a shovel.
-Don’t count on cell phones for communication. More than once I would be driving up some of the most beautiful canyon scenery on earth when I would hear the excited cry "I’ve got a bar!!!!" Nope, they were not looking at the scenery. They were looking at their cell phones. Even when they "Got a bar" they seldom got to complete the call before they dropped out.
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