Driving on a jeep trail was much different from driving on the interstate. On an interstate everything is zipping by so fast you have no time to recognize and assimilate what you see. When you're going 5-10 miles an hour you notice the things around you similar to when you're hiking.
The jeep trail I was on was nothing more than a larger version of a hiking trail. I could move when I wanted and I could stop and enjoy when I wanted. There was no asphalt, no buildings, no people. It was very much like hiking.
Environmentally it was similar to backpacking as well. There were strict rules regarding use of the trails that were enforced by fines. You simply were not allowed to take your vehicle off the trail or out of designated camp spots to reduce impact on the land.
I don't remember seeing any tracks outside of these areas. Of course, I was one of the first people on this trail that year but I think that most people that go there are conscious of the rules and their reason for being.
The trail itself would change like that of any hiking trail. Sometimes it would be what I called a "super-highway" where I'd be able to "speed" along at 25mph on packed sand, or at other times I would inch up the side of a steep cliff feeling like I was on the launch pad for the space shuttle Columbia.
Regardless of the terrain it was wonderful.
At our campsite on the second day we ran into "Rambo," the ranger that had been doing the first circuit of the season. He had been traversing the trail from the opposite direction we were taking.
Lucky for us, that day he had removed a "4 by 5" boulder in the trail that had made it impassible. I don't know how he did it but he had a big truck and, after all, he was "Rambo."
The 4-Wheeling Backpacker
Most off-roaders would never dream of strapping on a 40 - 60 pound backpack and going out in the wilderness for a week. Why would they want to put so much effort into carrying everything on their back when they could drive into the wilderness carrying the kitchen sink?
A backpacker, on the other hand, typically despises the off-road enthusiast and what he or she does to the environment. They view the average 4-wheeler as a beer guzzling, environmentally unconscious, knuckle-dragging redneck. They hate the noise and pollution that comes with a 4x4, and the wide jeep tracks that ravage the land.
Until very recently I held these same views because I've always been a backpacker. My very first backpacking trip took place in the Desolation Wilderness in California when I was still in my mother's womb.
Subsequently, I've made numerous outings to many of the great natural areas of the world. What's brought me back to the wilderness again and again is not simply the breathtaking scenery, but the soul-inspiring rapture that is engendered by the silence that is so apparent in a place that is pristine.
I always believed that taking an off-road vehicle into the wilderness was the anti-thesis of the natural experience. It wasn't until I drove a Chevy Tahoe up a jeep track to get to a hiking trail in 1999 that I discovered how fun it was.
I didn't think about off-roading much until February of 2001 when, in the dead of a long Iowa winter, I felt the itch to be in nature again. Since I was going to Colorado for a ski trip anyway, I began looking on the internet for someplace in the desert I could go backpacking because the mountains were still very much snowbound.
I discovered a viable location in Canyonlands National Park in eastern Utah but soon discovered that it was covered with 2 inches of snow. It was a problem but all was not lost. I found that there was a large network of jeep trails throughout the park and there was one in particular that looked especially adventurous.
"Hey," I thought ,"I can go on a 4-wheeling safari and test out my new Toyota 4Runner. Plus, my girlfriend won't complain about sleeping on the ground - we can lay our sleeping bags in the back of my truck!"
It seemed like a good plan, but after talking to the ranger several days later during my ski trip in Colorado, things seemed a little more ominous. "Yeah, the white rim might be impassable at this time. It can get brutal if there's ice or mud on the trail. There is a ranger out on the trail now but we won't know what the conditions are until he returns. We don't have any way to contact him"
He could have just as much said, "Yeah, Rambo's out on patrol on the Kyber Pass. We lost radio contact but we'll know more if he returns alive." Evidently, this ranger, who had been on the trail already for several days, was the first person to attempt to navigate the white rim trail this year.
Even though I felt apprehensive, the call to adventure was too strong. I told my girlfriend that we were going to the desert where it was warm and that was all there was to it. The next day I realized that maybe I should have given her a better warning as her screams reverberated through my head as I was trying to keep my 4Runner from sliding off the snowbound trail as we took a hairpin turn next to a 1000 foot cliff!
My blood pressure was definitely high at this point and I had serious doubts about completing the entire 85 mile circuit. Fortunately, the first section of snowbound switchbacks down the cliff proved to be the most difficult of our 3 day safari.
Once we got down there wasn't any snow for the rest of the trip. A combination of altitude and the north facing cliff protected the snow cover on the switchbacks.
Once we got to the bottom everything was much easier, though I typically couldn't go faster than about 10 mph. I was reminded by the experience of "watching your feet" that backpackers have. When you carry a large pack for mile after mile and hour after hour over rocky terrain, you've got to watch your feet so you don't trip and break a leg.
Similarly, I found that just as much attention was needed in steering and powering the vehicle to prevent damage to the vehicle. Of course, as with backpacking, my eyes would wander to the incredible sights around me.
To me this was becoming a backpacking trip. I had my trail. My 4Runner was my backpack - it carried everything I needed to survive, including myself. Most importantly, I had my awareness. I felt the connection to nature that I'd previously thought only the backpacker could experience.
We would camp out at night in beautiful surroundings and cook meals under the sunset. During the day we would stop the 4Runner to hike up a marked trail into the canyons or down to the river.
Yes, my 4Runner disturbed the silence for the few hours a day we rode down the trail, and at first I didn't like it, but what I discovered was magical beyond words. One afternoon we pulled into a campsite on a peninsula of land high above the Canyonlands in the heart of the park.
We had a 270 degree viewpoint in all directions of undulating canyons, red sandstone mesa's and snow-covered mountain peaks. For miles upon miles in every direction was one of the most beautiful panoramas I have ever seen. But it wasn't until I stopped the engine that the beauty fully hit me. The silence was like it had never been before. Perfectly still, nothing stirred. It was as if I was caught in time. The contrast between the noise and the silence gave this experience a depth of intensity that I will never forget.
All photos Copyright © Chris Beckley