Overlandia: Driving Down Dirt Roads

Michael stood about halfway across the creek, cold muddy water lapping at mid-thigh. Once the water had gotten to his knees, the decision was made, but still, I sat there with hands on the wheel, engine idling, running through the options and possible outcomes one more time. Even with lifted springs, the Westy’s rear-mounted engine sat low to the ground. Flooding and stalling were likely, and the van, for all its strengths, lacks a winch. And there was no guarantee continuing on the dirt road would get us to Big Bear, anyway.

Going back wasn’t appealing, either. We’d come 25 miles on rugged, bone-jarring tracks all the way from Joshua Tree in an attempt to push through to the mountain basin of Big Bear Lake, and if we got skunked we’d have to retrace our steps, drive back to Palm Springs, and come home the long way. At the end of a long day, it would suck.

Not only that, this would be the third strike.

We’d woken that morning in a familiar stretch of woods that on this particular day strangely unfamiliar. Up there on Black Mountain, a stream of pickup trucks had rumbled through in the soy milk pre-dawn light with camo-clad drivers and hunting rifles clearly visible. Deer hunting in Southern Cal? News to me.

We loaded up the 1990 Vanagon Syncro, one of the 1,500 four-wheel-drive vans VW imported in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and followed them down the mountain, opposite of home. Maps showed a dead end after a mile of dirt, so I’d never headed down that way. But the hunters knew something I didn’t. I passed the PCT and kept descending through the darkened canopy. Pines stretched in all directions, ridges veered off, and the scratches of humanity that I knew to be not so far away, the Indian casino, the wind turbines of Palm Springs, were hidden. It felt wild, slightly primeval, around each turn something new.

But after six miles, the road came to an end. Strike one. I three-pointed the van and growled back up the mountain.

I’ve never met a dirt road I didn’t like. I’ve loved them, every one, even the nastiest washboarded highways to hell, the most rugged stairstepping rip-off-your-crankcase tracks, and the swampy, axle-sucking bogs. I muse about dirt roads the way a single guy might wonder about pretty girls on the subway, curiosity tugging at me until I act. If we’re on a family road trip and I pass a dirt road and start to take my foot off the gas, my wife and kids shout “noooooo” in unison. If I’m alone and there’s time, I slam on the brakes and head into the dirt; if I’m not or I don’t, I make a note, set a waypoint, scribble on the map.

Hiking, backpacking, trail running, mountain biking, backcountry touring, all of these pursuits combine physical effort and tests of strength and endurance, plus the promise of some kind of endorphin release, in addition to the payoff of seeing someplace new, but off-road driving, or more accurately, dirt-road driving, is about pure exploration. Well, no — it’s also about getting to places where you get out of the rig and go deeper. But driving as I’m talking about it is about discovery, about seeing for yourself, about taking that blank spot on the map and making it known.

After getting shut down on Black Mountain, we retraced our route, made it back to pavement, and pushed south out of Idyllwild, looping through the small, burly chain of desert peaks via a southern pass. We dropped into Palm Desert, started sweating in the now-sweltering heat, and made the decision to come into Joshua Tree National Park from the south via a little used road. Twenty miles later, we pulled off the freeway only to find the road gated and locked, with a sign declaring a rock slide, washout, and uncertain future.

Strike two.

In a lifetime of getting lost, getting stuck, and getting broken, not one off-road adventure can be termed a failure. I’ve been locked in behind a gate by a pot-growing libertarian who thought I was stealing his weed. I’ve dented steel bumpers and ripped off fenders. I’ve had to rely on the kindness of strangers to get out of mud holes and I’ve limped home with wheezing engines. I’ve driven down more dead ends than I can count. And yet everyone of those adventures and misadventures added to my knowledge of the world, sometimes to the geography, geology, and topography of this amazing country, sometimes to the limits of my vehicle or driving abilities. I blush when my family tells stories about the time I got the van stuck in soft sand next to a river in Northern California and it was only when passing rednecks in a winch-clad Bronco spotted my wife in a bikini that we got out, but inside I shrug, knowing that getting stuck is only a fail if you don’t learn from it. “Forward progress temporarily impeded” is my term, anyway — not stuck.

So, I sat there looking at Michael trying to keep his shorts dry and hopping around from the cold. There was only one decision, but still. It’s nice to think you have options.

I wave him in, backed up through the rushes, and climbed back out of the hollow to retrace our steps. The gazetteer showed another track heading north after about four miles, but the outcome was uncertain; when we got there we took it. The road got much worse, big steps and loose cobbles, and I kept thinking, not for the first time, the deeper you get, the deeper you get. It would be a hell of a long way back. But then we scraped bottom crossing a dry creek, and things smoothed out after that. In a mile, we passed a Subaru Outback, in a couple more we hit pavement. The road to Big Bear.

It was a success. But you know what? I would have called it that no matter what happened.

Overlandia is the art, science, and romance of driving in the dirt.

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