It was nearly 11 p.m. last Friday night, and I was getting bug-eyed driving south on I-15 through western Utah, aiming for the Kolob Canyons section of Zion National Park. Bug-eyed and tired, but it was a sleepy tired, not a physical tired, as the most physical things I’d done all day were lift a coffee cup and hike to see rock art. When I’d left my friends Brendan Leonard and Forest Woodward in the San Rafael Swell that afternoon to start aiming for home, Forest was heading on a 20-mile run and Brendan was settled into a rocking camp chair with his laptop on his knees. As one ranch exit after another blurred by in the dark, the campsite I’d left on the edge of the Little Grand Canyon was sounding pretty sweet indeed (see pic, above, pre-mud).
There were plenty of places along I-15 to pull over and sleep—rest stops, access roads, exit pullouts—but none of them appealed. Even though I was crashing in the dark and waking up in the dark, I wanted to sleep to the sound of wind through the pinyons and the smell of the sage, to park in a place that felt safe and natural. My memory bank (and Gaia GPS waypoint folder) is filled with freeway-close sleeping spots that I’ve sussed out or camped at previously, but the closest was north of St. George—too far if I wanted to experience sunrise in the Kolobs.
I pulled off at exit 40. The Kolob Canyons visitor center is a couple hundred yards from the interstate. Its iconic red tarmac was warm and welcoming, but the No Camping signs everywhere might as well have been written in all caps. Point taken, I headed west toward a low range of hills, hoping to find a patch of national forest, but instead saw ranches and ranchettes and a whole lot of private land. Eventually, some fresh pavement appeared on the right, heading uphill, perhaps a development to be, and I took that, and then another half mile up the road, I took another turn, into what looked like dirt and gravel road or -proto-driveway.
This is it, I thought. There were no signs, no houses, no construction equipment—just an empty patch in the middle of some pines where I could sleep for a few hours. All I had to do was drive up its gentle slope to a flatter spot. But. But all of a sudden, my wheels spun.
Wait, what? I was only in two-wheel-drive, but had just recently shod my 4Runner with BFG K02s—big, meaty treads. The road looked damp, but not wet. What was going on? Why was I spinning?
It was too late and I was too far from anywhere to take chances, so I put it in 4WD, dropped into reverse, and started backing down, only the drive was narrow, I couldn’t see squat, and in about 50 feet I found myself hard against the right side and feeling squish beneath the tires. I shifted into drive and the wheels spun.
It was time for reassessment. I grabbed my headlamp, hopped out, and sank into two inches of deep red mud. What had looked like gravel was really just small pebbles, like chocolate chips in a cookie, and the rain that swept quickly through the Swell apparently had soaked and saturated the south. Mud glommed onto my boots, turning my feet into size 18 pancakes, and the tires were packed with so much mud and grit that they were rubbing against the fender trim. The left wheels were still on the road, but the right front tire was inches deep at the start of a muddy ditch and the right rear was about to drop into the soup.
Throughout Utah and the Arizona Strip, one sees signs at the start of backcountry byways that say “Road May Be Impassable When Wet.” If you have no experience driving here, you might think, yeah, right, but this is actually a case of understatement. Roads will not only be impassable, you might end up sliding off the road and looking at a thousand-dollar pull-out if you have to call the local tow company to come from 50 miles away—and even then, days later, once it’s dried. My friend Seldom Seen Steve was heading north along the Cockscomb toward Kodachrome Basin when hit a patch of mud. His Tacoma spun a 360 like it was on freshly Zambonied ice—only pure luck kept it moving straight onto a drier patch and out of the softer mud on the side.
Southern Utah’s geology is tremendously complex, with Navajo sandstone sitting atop the Kayenta atop the Chinle. Those are just three layers of a multi-tiered rock cake, but what they all have in common is the fine grains of their constituent parts, which turn into thick, greasy mud when wet. The mud oozes into every crevice, packs hard and deep, and attracts even more mud. Those red rocks are gorgeous, but when that red dust mixes with water and turned a deep brownish-red, it’s a thing to beware—slimy, slippery, heavy, and dangerous.
Based on the warnings from Steve and other friends, I have mostly avoided wet Utah dirt. The consequences—being trapped for days, maybe wrecking your vehicle, the expense and hassle of recovery—were too steep. But still, I’d had my own experiences with it. I’d seen plenty of dried and deep tracks, like trenches left after a war, of rigs that had dug deep when wet. One time on Gooseberry Mesa, as the snow turned to sleet, my VW van started slaloming down a hill, out of my control. All I could do was not overreact, so I just rode it out, and as with Steve as the Cockscomb, luck kept it on the road.
I was wide awake now. The situation was seriousish, but not dire. Progress was temporarily impeded, but I wasn’t technically stuck. I went through the progression. Avoid the right ditch at all costs. Don’t attempt to back down any farther, or the fall line will take you into the ditch. If you’re in the ditch, the mud is too soft for the hi-lift jacket (I just got a winch, but haven’t installed it yet). Lockers won’t help because all of the wheels are caked with mud and have no traction.
I pulled the shovel off the roof and started scraping the mud of the treads, stomping around with 10-pound feet. The glop was so heavy and dense, it took between five and 10 minutes per wheel and even then the treads were still filled. In the pines that lined the road, I foraged for dead branches and sticks, and I found a deadfall that still had needles on it. It took 20 minutes to collecting material and shove it under each tire at the front and back for traction. Then, another five minutes to remove the mud from my boots before getting back in the rig. And then the moment of truth.
Putting the 4Runner in low, I gently touched the gas pedal. As if magic, as if by fate, it rolled forward without complaint. All four tires now on the road and out of the ditch, I hung halfway out the door to spot the path to the pavement and backed the remaining 50 feet to safety.
On the spectrum of adventures, this was a minor one, a mere blip, one more bit of knowledge and experience to put into the memory banks of the computer. Utah mud is the real deal, and I thought I had a healthy respect, but this time it snuck up on me until it was almost too late. Maybe I should have better planned a place to sleep, or maybe I should have tested the dirt road before I pulled onto it, but really, the only regret I have is that I didn’t take pictures, because the mud caked onto the tires had to be seen to be believed.
I slept next to the freeway on an access road pullout. In the morning, there were three other vehicles there and two people sleeping on the ground in bivvies next to their Outback. Thirty yards away, big rigs blew by on the highway. It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t quiet, but it also wasn’t a ditch filled with red dirty epoxy. And I spent the morning hiking in Zion instead of looking for someone to yank me out of the muck.
Photo of 4Runner pre-mud by Steve Casimiro