Everybody we knew was convinced: a 4×4 road trip is something you do before you have kids, and you do not bring your dog. Of course, we didn’t listen. Starting in Guatemala, Central America, we set north for the Western United States, where we spent two months exploring the backcountry in our compact home on wheels. This is the true story about everything you should see and everything you shouldn’t do. The most important thing, though: please do try it for yourself.>
My husband, Cyril, and I had always loved traveling and off-road exploring, but when we had our daughter, Elin, even a trip to the supermarket became a challenge. It didn’t take long, though, before our travel urge caught up with us. We had lived in Guatemala for around a decade, so for a change of scenery we decided to go to the Western US. It took several months to pimp out our Defender, but boy was it worth it. We installed a pop-up top, where Cyril and I could sleep, a gas kitchen, as well as storage compartments. For Elin we bought a portable crib and for our dog, Nelson, a mattress.
Eventually, our new mobile home was ready to hit the road north: first through the rest of Guatemala and then gigantic Mexico. Friends and family were astounded. They couldn’t grasp the idea of doing a road trip instead of an all-inclusive package to Cancun. Our friends also kept asking us, “What did you just say, you’re bringing your dog?” First they were outraged then they pitied us, as if to say, “I have a good shrink I can recommend.” I responded with another question: “Would you leave your child at home for two months?” By then they would definitely hand over the shrink’s business card.
The truth is, however, that Nelson was like our first child and is spoiled like a royal lap dog. But, in his defense, he can do more things than sleeping on the sofa and eating vanilla ice cream. Cyril has taken him to more business meetings than is healthy for anyone – human or canine – and he has hiked volcanoes more times than we have (since he keeps running up and down – eh, what happened to German Shepherds being smart…?).
Since we wanted to focus our trip on the US, Mexico was done in six days. It was so hot that Cyril installed a personal fan for Nelson. Nelson kept pushing his head so close to the fan that his long ears almost got mauled by the blades. It never happened, though, so I give some credit to his intelligence.
Getting the necessary paper work for Nelson had been a headache in Guatemala so we were worried that some over-zealous customs officer would find a reason to deny our dear doggie’s entrance to the big country of the north.
“Nice dog,” the customs officers said and didn’t even glance at the papers.
I guess they have more important things to worry about than potentially illegal German Shepherds.
A great enthusiast of wildlife, Cyril had read an article in National Geographic about the former mining town of Ruby, Arizona, and how you could easily spot Gila monsters there. Since we were close by, we decided to check it out. A windy dirt road led us further into a remote and isolated backcountry. As we passed, we stirred up a cloud of dust that completely covered the low bushes along the road. After the turnoff to a recreation area, we were alone. There were no houses, no road signs, and no people to ask where Ruby was. Should we turn around? It was getting late. Then, as we turned a curve, we spotted a bunch of run-down buildings. The entrance gate was covered with hand-painted death skulls and the message that no ATVs were welcome. I got a feeling this wasn’t the ordinary quaint outdoor museum you would see back in Scandinavia. It was completely quiet and not a single person could be seen. Slowly we followed the signs to the entrance building. Some scribbles on a plank informed us that the caretaker was out on the premises and that we should honk the horn and wait. We looked around. The place was as exciting looking as a deserted barn from the fifties. Glowing orange against the horizon, the sun told us that we had to get going. After a few minutes back on the main road, a huge dust cloud suddenly appeared in the back mirror. As a roaring engine was getting closer I pulled over to let the car pass. But this car didn’t intend to pass. Suddenly there was a loud bang in the back and our car flung forward. We had been rammed from behind. I couldn’t grasp what had just happened. An old rusty Chevrolet pulled up by my side. The driver’s chest was bare except for the beard that hung down to his navel. With rolling Chihuahua eyes, he stared at me and then yelled:
“You don’t drive onto private property and then just leave! It said, ‘Honk the horn and then wait.”
So it was the caretaker from Ruby who had just rammed us. I got a flash from The Shining with Jack Nicholson going berserk at the empty hotel. As I thought of how far away we were from other people, a wave of fear rose inside me. There was no one to help us.
Meanwhile, Cyril was inspecting the damages to the Defender. Noticing a significant dent and a broken brake light, he went furious and shouted at the man, something about him being sick. The caretaker responded by screaming even louder.
”If you want to see something really sick then I can kill you and throw you down one of the mineshafts on my property!”
The situation was spinning out of control. The caretaker was either completely crazy or on drugs. Or probably both. I squeezed my hands around the steering wheel and tried to remain calm. Then a clicking noise. The caretaker had just cocked his gun.
A mix of intense survival and mother instincts overwhelmed me. I was not going to let this man hurt my family. Blood was racing through my veins while my mind went a hundred miles an hour. Suddenly an escape tactic occurred to me: stress my role as a mother. I told him that we simply didn’t have time to stop at the mine because our daughter was not feeling well. I hoped that even a drugged weirdo with serious anger management issues might have some basic human feelings. It worked. He looked at me slightly skeptically but didn’t say anything. Cyril got in the car and I quickly put it in gear and drove off in tense silence. Behind every curve I expected the caretaker to come stampeding out from some shortcut, shooting at us from his wagging Chevy truck, screaming, “Ye-aaaah boy!” I felt like I was watching Deliverance or some other American movie about crazy rednecks. It was all so absurd I couldn’t help myself from breaking out laughing.
About half an hour later, we saw the first signs of civilization, a group of sun-bleached houses around a quiet grocery store. There was nobody around. Like another movie cliché, the village had the eerie feeling of a post nuclear blast where, up until recently, everything was completely normal. We decided not to stop, enough creepy movies for the day and besides, if there had been any survivors in this godforsaken, post-atomic holocaust place, they were bound to be Rubyman’s drinking buddies. A few miles later, I spotted a large white and green truck coming up behind us: the border patrol. We waved them down. Very helpful and friendly, they offered to escort us to the next town and immediately called the Sheriff.
After completing the legal formalities, our trip continued towards northern Arizona. Pine trees and cooler temperatures slowly replaced the saguaro cacti and the desert heat. Nelson came back from hibernation mode. As we hiked in the mountains above Flagstaff he dug into some leftover snowdrifts as happy as a child on a sugar rush. Elin, who had just learned how to walk, stumbled around in the grass, eating and spitting peaches in that lovely way only a parent can appreciate. Being European, I was fascinated by how quickly the climate changed due to altitude. In Utah, as we moved down, the heat crept up on us again like an unwanted admirer. The lonely desert scenery also revived the sense of being the last people on earth that I had in southern Arizona. The Defender cut through red, sandy dunes and ochre colored mountains decorated with the remains of animals that have fallen victim to thirst or predators. We set up camp next to a creek in one of the many Cottonwood Canyons the western United States seems to produce and drifted to sleep under a million stars in a cold sky. There couldn’t be a better way to end a day.
To be continued….
Tech sheet 2007 Defender 110
When moving two adults, an infant, and a large dog into a Defender 110 for months at a time with the intent of traveling through isolated wild country, the preparation of the vehicle is essential. Our Land Rover had to be livable without sacrificing its extraordinary 4×4 capabilities.
- 1. Sleeping: For sleeping we decided to equip our Landy with a Dormobile pop-up top. First developed in the UK in the ‘60s, the pop-up system is still basically unchanged two generations later. The fiberglass roof top is supported by a stainless steel structure fitted with a canopy that opens from left to right in an accordion like shape. Access to the sleeping bay is from the inside of the vehicle (as opposed to the outside with a roof tent) and it allows for full standing in the middle of the vehicle. These features are very practical for all sorts of situations: bad weather, mosquitoes or even for a middle of the night emergency “relocation”. Our daughter’s sleeping was one of our main concerns. We spent a great deal of time trying to figure out a comfortable and safe solution. At the end we bought a cheap foldable crib at Baby’s “R” Us. It sits right behind the front seats at night and it folds away during the day. This system proved to work perfectly all along.
- 2. Eating: For cooking we installed a stainless steel gas stove and sink unit (also from Dormobile, UK) and an ARB freezer-fridge.
- 3. Storage: We handmade cabinets and chests for storing of our gear (food, clothing, tools, photo equipment, etc). We used ACM (aluminum composite panel) cladding material for its lightweight, resistance and durability. All the cabinet hardware is marine grade.
- 4. 4×4 enhancements: To support all the extra weight and get better clearance the original suspension was replaced by an Old Man Emu heavy duty shocks and springs kit. Both differentials were upgraded with ARB air lockers. We also have mounted an ARB front bull bar and a Warn winch. For the wheels we fitted a set of Firestone Destination M/T tires. In difficult driving situations we found all these improvements were invaluable (i.e. Palisades Glaciers!). They gave us the confidence needed to venture into hard to access places.
- 5. Hygiene: An eight-gallon travel shower that heats up in the sun. Not exactly a spa treatment, but it does wonders to your mental health.