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36 Hours of Adventure: In Pursuit of the Pines

They say that the grass is always greener on the other side, but in Arizona that expression is usually true. With plenty of sun and very little rain, many parts of our wonderful state are well… brown. I can live with this for the most part, as our seemingly endless miles of back roads and superb selection of outdoor activities makes up for it, but every so often I reach a point where one more minute of dirt and rock just might kill me. This was exactly where I found myself last week, and so with storms rolling in we packed up the Excursion and headed North in pursuit of the pines.

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This was our first camping trip in the new 7.3L Excursion project, and with no lift, sagging springs, and just a slightly larger set of BFG Mud-Terrains, we had hoped for good weather. Of course mother nature always has a sense of humor, and despite the forecast monsoons were looming on the horizon. We snapped a few photos as the rain began pattering on the windows, and then headed towards Williams before the roads became rivers.

By the time we had reached the pines the weather had caught us and sheets of water were covering the landscape. We made our way down forest road after forest road until it finally let up near sycamore rim, a perfect place to stretch our legs while enjoying the scent of fresh rain in the cool forest.

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Checking our map for places we had never been, we decided to turn East and head out onto the plains. Here we found logging and ranch roads that were unfortunately covered in mud, but it couldn’t distract us from the views or colorful flora which were equally spectacular.

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We did try our best to be responsible in the mud, but when the road disappeared into a low wash we couldn’t help but make a little splash.

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You know those times when you look at a map and say “yeah, I think that will go through” when you really have no idea? This was one of those times. We first made our way onto a power line road, but soon turned off onto an annoyingly bumpy bit of trail with plenty of rock and the occasional deep ditch thrown in for surprise. Nothing was really challenging if you took it slow, but our backs definitely felt the effects of the old suspension with each and every jolt. As the miles went on though the trail became narrower, the rocks became bigger, and the holes became deeper.

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If it hadn’t been clear we were on the path less traveled before, it certainly was now. Pulling out into a clearing we were greeted by one of the most beautiful yet bizarre back roads I have ever seen. It was covered in relatively new growth thanks to the recent rains, and from a distance it almost appeared to be mowed grass. Of course this was not the case, but we made sure not to drive on it all the same. It was the path’s untraveled nature that made it so stunning, and we intended to keep it that way.

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After hours on the rocks and bumps, the graded gravel roads and mountains of Flagstaff were a welcome site. We kicked it back into two-wheel drive and set a nice pace on the dusty track towards town and hopefully, our camp site for the night. We didn’t find it right away, but we did stumble upon those greener pastures. 

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Image above and below by Ashlie Pollard

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As the sun dropped we began to realize that our choices for camps were slim, so I took a chance and made the scramble up a narrow two track that disappeared into the trees. Although it ended up requiring a four point turn to maneuver the Ford bus back around and there was no campsite, the views were definitely worth it.

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By the time we did find a spot just off the road, the sun was setting and the rain was only taking a brief hiatus now and then to allow the mosquitoes to devour us. We must have lost a few pounds in blood. With no awning for the rain and not enough bug spray in the world, we decided to kick back and listen to some audio books in the truck before getting some rest.

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Sleep came slow that night thanks to some rather noisy animals, so the morning routine came even slower. The sunrise photography was totally missed, egg burritos were skipped in favor of some peanut butter toast with cold milk, and the hike was exchanged for some time napping in the hammock. It wasn’t exactly productive, but it was just what we needed.

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Unfortunately the weekend is always too short, and with our final day of relaxation drawing to a close we decided to try our luck at something new, stand up paddle boards. It wasn’t exactly pretty, but after a few falls each we were making our way around the lake. Even the dog made it on for a turn, though I paddled sitting down for that one. It was a perfect end to our weekend adventure, and I was able to return home with my need for green grass and pine trees totally satisfied… well at least until next week.

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Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, Chris didn’t receive a real taste of the outdoors until moving to Prescott, Arizona, in 2009. While working on his business degree, he learned to fly and spent his weekends exploring the Arizona desert and high country. It was there that he fell in love with backcountry travel and four-wheel drive vehicles, eventually leading him to Overland Journal and Expedition Portal. After several years of honing his skills in writing, photography, and off-road driving, Chris now works for the company full time as Expedition Portal's Managing Editor.