Dave’s Cosmically Bad Road Trip

After finishing grad school at University of Michigan in 1982, I took a job teaching at a small tribal college on the Navajo Indian Reservation in northern Arizona. Although set in a beautiful location, the college was very isolated. I quickly made friends with other teachers, some of whom owned homes in Durango, Colorado, that fantastic Rocky Mountain town in southwestern Colorado, where we often escaped to for skiing, hiking, and just to maintain our sanity. Friends invited me to use some nice guest quarters at their Durango home whenever I wanted, so I got into the habit of driving up to Durango regularly to enjoy the outdoors, the town, and reconnect with civilization. I eventually quit my teaching job and moved to Durango, where I quickly fell in love with river running, took whitewater kayak lessons, and fell in with a crowd of other youngish river fanatics. I became a skilled whitewater boatman, and got hired by various river companies as a guide, rowing tourists down gorgeous western river canyons on multi-day wilderness trips. The time I spent rafting in the West were the best days of my life, a conclusion that I only arrived at after it was over.

Working for river companies isn’t always about being on the water. Shuttling vehicles and equipment around is a necessary part of the business, and I occasionally got hired to drive trucks, gear, and clients to and from rivers. One shuttle trip that I worked was an adventure that I’ll never forget. This tale takes place in 1987.

A company in Durango needed someone to go up to Vernal, Utah, and drive a truck loaded with gear back to Durango. I was available and jumped at the chance to drive through some of America’s most beautiful landscape, and get paid for it. I drove up to Vernal with another rafting team who were going to run the Green River through Desolation Canyon. After spending the night in a motel with the group, the next morning they dropped me off at a storage yard where river companies left vehicles and equipment to be picked up and shuttled home later. It was a blistering hot day, temperatures in the mid-90’s.

The owner of the storage yard let me in and led me back to the vehicle I was going to drive. The truck was a fifteen-year-old Chevy flatbed stake truck with dual rear wheels. I’d driven this truck before and didn’t mind at all that it was kinda funky and decrepit, but I was shocked at the size of the load. There were at least 6 big rafts, deflated and bundled up, plus coolers, equipment boxes, oars, river gear of all sorts. The load had been carelessly tossed on the flatbed, so the storage yard owner and I unloaded and reloaded the gear into a more compact, tighter arrangement. I found some boat lines in the gear boxes, and lashed the gear down as best I could. The truck was still overloaded, though I figured it could handle the trip if I took care on the highway.

The storage yard guy suggested that I take the long way around to get back to Durango, rather than go over the much shorter mountain pass route we usually took on shuttle trips. I decided to just go the shorter route. This was my first bad decision. While gassing up the rig in Vernal, I checked the oil, and was a little disturbed when I pulled out the dipstick, the oil was solid black and sludgy. It clearly hadn’t been changed in ages. I considered changing the oil, but decided against it, another bad decision. I just topped off the oil, and got on the highway, headed west to Duchesne, where I turned south on Utah Rt 191, which climbs up and over very rugged terrain.

Duchesne, Utah is at an elevation above sea level of 5200 feet. My route over the mountains would top out at 9200 feet, so I would be gaining 4000 feet of altitude in 22 miles. This gain in elevation is a challenge for any vehicle, but especially so for an old, overloaded flatbed truck. As I climbed up the road, which tracked along the bottom of a narrow canyon, I was sweltering in the midday heat. I noticed the truck engine losing power, and the temperature gauge started to climb ominously. After a few miles, I could feel the engine heat coming through the dashboard of the old Chevy truck, especially around my feet and lower legs, which began to get fried. The truck engine began to ‘lug’, straining to maintain power, which is always a bad sign. And, I began to smell that distinctive odor of burning grease. So I pulled over under some cottonwood trees, and opened the hood of the truck. Oil and grease on the engine block was smoking, so I stayed in the shade for about thirty minutes. When I got back on the road, the same alarming heat and smell developed, so I slowed down to ten miles an hour and crawled uphill, stopping every three or four miles. I actually drove with the truck hood opened about a foot so that air would be scooped into the engine well to cool the engine. Proceeding like this, at a very slow pace and stopping whenever it seemed necessary, I traveled 22 miles in about three hours. At times, I seriously considered turning around and going back down to Duchesne to troubleshoot the truck’s problems, but I decided to just keep going.

After topping out at 9200 feet, I stopped at some corrals where I found a water well set up to fill tanks for livestock. The views in all directions were spectacular. I stayed there for an hour, pouring water over myself to cool off, observed by some range steers that stared at me dumbly the whole time. The engine cooled enough to ease my concerns, and I started off on the downhill side, headed toward the town of Helper, Utah. The road tracked along a creek that was running enough to attract fly-fisherman and tourists driving Rvs or trucks with camper shells. I felt pretty relieved at this point, and figured my troubles were behind me, and it would be smooth sailing from there on.

I soon became concerned that the brakes were overheating from being constantly applied, so I slowed way down, to about 20-30 miles an hour, since I knew that if the brakes overheated, the brake pads would melt and glaze over, losing their grip, and the rotors might even warp. So I used the transmission to slow the truck down, downshifting whenever possible to take the load off the brakes. Of course this puts ‘back-pressure’ on the entire engine exhaust system, which, if overdone long enough, might cause the pistons to foul and fail, or simply build up heat to a point where the engine head gasket would blow out, or maybe even cause the engine block to crack. As I struggled to maintain the right balance between braking and downshifting the transmission, my knuckles were white from gripping the steering wheel, and I was very nervous.

This area of Utah is in Carbon County, so-named due to the extensive mineral resources to be found there, and the area is dotted with mining operations, extracting various minerals, but most especially coal. The road I was now driving down was the site of the Helper Mine, which was actually several distinct mining operations spread out over the area. The main mine is an underground shaft complex, and the mine mouth opens out onto the highway. When I passed the mine mouth facilities, it was now 4 o’clock in the afternoon, exactly when the mine shift changes. Soon, a line of cars and trucks crowded up behind me, and I could see angry miners flashing their lights and giving me the middle finger salute. Many tried to pass me on the steep downhill grade, nearly crashing into other miners driving up to the mine for the evening shift. I turned off as often as possible to let drivers by, but soon, more vehicles jammed up behind me, and I eventually just stopped looking in the mirrors.

On one short stretch of clear road, a pickup truck forced its way past me. I looked at the occupants, two Ute Indians who obviously had cracked open beers as soon as they left the mine parking lot. The Ute in the passenger seat gave me the finger and hurled a half-full beer at me, which passed right through the driver side window and sprayed beer all over the truck cab. I instinctively hit the brakes, fortuitously since another car coming uphill forced the Indians to swerve back into my lane. I remember this moment very clearly as being a close brush with death, and of course, my stress level climbed sky high.

Thankfully, I arrived at the Helper power station complex, a coal-burning electrical generating operation, and turned off into the parking lot. 20 or 30 cars went past, the occupants flipping me the bird, that universally recognized gesture of insult. After the crowd of vehicles had passed, I continued on and turned onto Utah Rt 6, a four-lane highway, and drove on down to Price, Utah, where I pulled into a travel center with gas pumps to fill the tank and get some food. A local sheriff drove in and parked, so I told him about the Indians and the beer can. My impression was that he couldn’t care less about the problems of some long-hair river rat, who was probably a drugged-out pervert, a greenie, and a commie to boot.

With the truck cooled off, gassed up, and some food in me, I felt relieved and fortified for the long drive ahead. Whatever timetable I’d imagined for the trip was now completely blown, and I had six hours of travel ahead of me. It was now 7:00pm, and the sun was low on the western horizon. I left Price, passed through Wellington, came over the hill south of town and pulled into view of the vast empty basin ahead of me. This stretch of road is one of those places in the West that is notable for its beauty and desolation. The highway passes through vast empty stretches of desert landscape, dotted with creosote bush, cactus, and low brush. There is no human presence along this lonely highway except for derelict buildings that once housed some dubious enterprise. One of these is an equipment yard full of old abandoned trucks, dozers, and mining gear left over from the days of the uranium boom in the 60’s. When the bottom fell out of the uranium market in the 60’s, many mining outfits went belly up and simply parked their equipment and drove away. After two decades of metal scavengers and baking sun, this storage yard, covering about fifteen acres, now stood like a monument to the ultimate futility of man’s attempts to harness nature for his own use. Every time I passed this boneyard of dead gear, I felt a certain melancholy.

The basin I was now traversing was only 50 miles or so, but feels like it goes on forever. Halfway down, the Price River bisects the valley from West to East, eventually joining the Green River in Desolation Canyon. About 99.9% of the time, the ‘river’ is actually a nearly dry sand wash, with maybe a trickle of moisture in the center. But occasionally heavy rains many miles to the West would saturate the desert landscape, little rivulets coalescing into larger flows, coalescing again and again, and pouring into the wash in such volume that a eight-foot high wall of water will roar down the wash, scouring away anything in its path, tearing brush out of the banks, dislodging boulders that roll along in the flash flood, and sweeping up any human stupid enough to have camped in the flat, inviting sandy wash bottom. Its always a bad idea to camp in a dry wash, but some tourists do anyway.

The highway crosses over the Price River wash on two trestle bridges, then climbs gradually up the other side to Green River, Utah, a lush oasis in the middle of the dry Utah landscape, watered by the Green River that exits Desolation and Gray Canyons from the northeast. From two or three miles away, as I approached the wash and the bridges, I saw a cloud of some sort hovering around the bridges. It couldn’t be fog in this dry arid July heat. I figured someone must be camped near the bridges, probably in the dry wash, and had built a big fire. Something about it just seemed very strange. I continued on towards the bridges and the cloud, and drove straight into the cloud at about 60 miles per hour.

When I hit the cloud, I felt a distinct ‘whump’ on the front of the truck, and immediately was engulfed in a dense shower of bugs. The cloud was actually a swarm of insects who, awakened from hibernation by recent summer rains that had moistened the dry wash sand, had emerged to experience their short-lived life cycle, hatching, reproducing, and dying all in the space of a few days. The truck windshield was totally covered with smashed bugs, and the cab of the truck was full of them. These flying bugs were all over me, in my hair, my beard, in my shorts. It was awful. When I emerged on the other side of the bridges and exited the cloud, I frantically stopped by the side of the road and leaped out of the truck. Smashed bugs covered the front of the vehicle and had totally covered the windshield. There were several other cars and trucks, including a big semi-tractor trailer, pulled over, everyone looking a little shook and awed by the mess on their vehicles. My windshield wipers barely touched the mess, so I used a shirt to wipe away the goo as best I could. I did my best to sweep the bugs out of the truck cab, climbed back in, and continued on down to Green River. At the town, I pulled into a gas station that had a three-bay car wash. There were about 20 cars and trucks already lined up, all covered in bugs, so it took a while for me to get my rig into one of the bays. I washed off as much crud as I could, and I opened the hood and blasted water to dislodge the dead and living bugs that clogged the radiator. I in no way cleaned all the bugs off that truck, but just enough to see out the windows and clear the radiator grill so that the engine wouldn’t overheat. This experience in Green River killed at least another hour, and when I finally got back on the road, the last rays of sunlight were fading fast.

In the dark, I drove down Rt 191 towards Moab, stopped briefly to eat something, then took off south towards Monticello, where I turned east onto Rt 491. By now I was totally exhausted and not a little stressed out, so I pulled off the road at a rest stop. I set up some sleeping gear and threw a bug screen over myself and crashed out. I was simply too tired to drive safely; I had to get some rest.

About 11:00pm, I was awakened by loud shouting and a flashlight shining in my face. A Utah State Police patrolman rousted me from my sleeping bag and proceeded to berate me for being ‘a vagrant’, and didn’t I know that I couldn’t camp here, and what the hell was I doing in the great state of Utah anyway, etc. This cop was the meanest cop I’ve ever encountered, and he was pushing me around while he yelled in my face. At one point he actually put me in the back of the police cruiser for a few minutes. I did my best to keep my cool, and explained myself as calmly as I could. He suddenly told me to get out of the cruiser, back in my truck, and get out of there, and never come back. This cop was a disturbed individual, in my opinion, and enjoyed terrorizing me in the dark along that empty stretch of road. He followed me until I hit the Colorado state line, then turned back. Shaken and angry, I drove on until I got to Dove Creek (self-proclaimed ‘Pinto Bean Capitol of the World’), where I turned out into a side road and crashed out in my sleeping bag.

I slept until first light, then got up, poured a jug of water over me to wash off the sweat and grime, and headed on down to Cortez, Colorado, where I ate breakfast in a small diner on main street. Then I drove east towards Durango on Rt 160. I’ve driven this stretch of beautiful highway many times in my life, and I began to feel a lot better. On the east side of Mancos, Colorado, the road climbs steeply up over a high ridge. The truck engine began to lug again, and the temperature gauge rose alarmingly, so I took my time inching up the hill in the morning sun, eventually topping out at Hesperus. Then I drove down the long steep incline to Durango, nursing the brakes and downshifting to take the load off the brakes. When I crossed over the Animas River bridge into Durango, I was unbelievably relieved. I turned left up the riverside road and pulled into the river company parking lot, killed the engine and stumbled out of the truck.

Several river guides, all friends of mine, were busy in the parking lot, loading up rafts, gear, and food coolers, in preparation for a busy day of rowing tourists down the Animas River on half-day trips. Everyone stopped and came over and just walked around the Chevy flatbed truck in awe. The truck still had a covering of dead bugs in places. The smell of overheated engine grease wafted out of the engine well. The big load in back was of particular amusement. The river company owner’s wife came out of the office and told me “You look like hell, Dave.” As I sat drinking coffee and eating donuts, I recounted my adventures of the 24 previous hours. Everyone just shook their heads. When the company owner showed up, he heard my tale, then commented that maybe it was time for a new truck. I pointedly remarked that, although I was glad to row rafts on the rivers for him, I was unlikely to ever drive shuttle for him again.

In fact, another shuttle driver drove that truck out on another gear haul a week later, and it quit on a remote dirt road that accessed the San Juan River takeout on Lake Powell, and stranded the driver for a day until some BLM rangers chanced to find him, baking in the sun out in the middle of nowhere.