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From The ExPo Vault: Dust and Snow in the American West

Five months. That’s how long it took me to crack. Just five months and the concrete jungle surrounding my Dallas apartment had driven me insane. A train rolled by every 15 minutes, passing cars echoed in a constant hum, and the view outside my window was nothing but a continuous reminder of the city in which I was trapped. I had lived amidst Arizona’s wide-open spaces for the last 8 years, and I missed the dusty dirt roads, clean mountain air, and glowing gold sunsets desperately. I needed a dose of their medicine, a taste of that freedom once more. To put it simply, the West was on my mind, and I HAD to go.

Small Streams and Overland Dreams

We arrived in Arizona the day before Overland Expo West, and wearily drove into a campsite outside of Sedona for the night. It was nothing more than a dirt patch and a place to crash, but it landed us close to Oak Creek, our destination for the following morning. Stephen, my co-driver for the trip, is an avid fly-fisherman, and he wanted to try his hand at a few of Arizona’s streams. Thanks to their clear water and small size, these creeks and rivers are notoriously tricky to fish, but we weren’t going to let that scare us off. After picking up some state licenses the next day, we made our way through the canyons and down to the water.

The weather couldn’t have been better. The warm desert sun heated us as we wandered through the cool creek, and the soothing sounds of rippling water could be heard echoing off the cliff walls. We had been warned that the fishing wasn’t exactly great that time of year, but as some of the few intrepid fishermen of the desert, we persevered, hoping our endurance would pay off.

It didn’t.

As the local fly-shops had predicted, we caught nothing. Fortunately, it was so nice out that neither of us really cared. It was enough to just cast and soak in the solitude while pushing all thoughts of work and the city from our minds. As the sun moved lower in the sky, we hiked back to the Excursion, loaded up our gear, and pointed the truck toward Flagstaff and the Overland Expo.

The next few days were packed with amazing vehicles, gear, and people. World travelers and weekend warriors alike congregated around their dream trucks, and each evening crowds would converge on small campfires to celebrate their passion for wandering. It didn’t take long for us to reunite with old friends, make a few new ones, and establish a plan for our journey after the event: a short trip through Utah and Colorado. We met up with AT Overland in their two RAM 2500s, Equipt Outfitters in their 200 Series Land Cruiser, and Restop in their Tacoma early Monday morning and departed to the north.

(To read our coverage of Overland Expo West 2017, click here)

Homage to the Gods

As we crested the hill, a strange horizon filled our windscreens. Small sandstone structures were rising from the red dirt, while massive monoliths pierced the distant sky. We were entering Valley of the Gods. This amazing landscape always feels Martianesque, but as our trucks rolled down the dusty dirt roads, I realized that recent rains made it feel more alien than ever. Instead of the unbroken plains of red sand, the surroundings were now dotted with splashes of vibrant green. Here and there, small shrubs and trees were thriving in the moist soil, positively glowing in comparison to their surroundings. The effect was powerful.

The narrow tracks leading through the valley are covered in a fine orange silt, which swirls around your vehicle and quickly coats everything in a thin layer of dust. Of course, it also looks epic, so no one ever seems to mind. Who doesn’t love a dusty dirt road?

By the time we established camp, the sun was beginning to drop low in the sky, and everyone began grabbing their cameras. Golden hour was always stunning here, but thanks to the bright greens and oranges on this visit and the scattered clouds overhead, we all knew we would be in for a treat.

After the excitement of the day, many of us had trouble getting to sleep. I could hear people stirring in their vehicles until the early hours of the morning, and that didn’t make our sunrise alarms any easier. Still, Paul from Equipt Expedition Outfitters was rolling out at dawn, and we all wanted to see him off. After some hugs and goodbyes we waved and snapped a few last photos of his Land Cruiser driving into the sunrise.

The Rim Rocker

“Closed. Are you sure?” “Uh, yeah.” Apparently, they were sure. After leaving Valley of the Gods, our plan was to hit Moab and pick up one of the newest trails in the area, the Rim Rocker. This 160-mile track stretches from Montrose, Colorado, to Moab, Utah, or at least it was supposed to, but a large chunk was apparently off-limits until further notice. We pulled out the map and quickly formed a new plan. Our camp for that night was just over the Colorado border; luckily, it was relatively unaffected by the closures. Most of the next day’s trails would be open as well, but toward evening there could be trouble. We would just have to cross that bridge when we met those waters. Well, technically we’d have to just ford those waters, because there was no bridge, but you get the idea. The group grabbed a quick bite to eat and set out for our next escape: a mountain lake nestled between the trees.

Because we hadn’t had enough disappointment while fishing a few days ago, Stephen and I set out to try our hand on the lake as soon as we reached camp. I let him wander in first since he had waders, and was glad I did. Moments after entering the lake, he took a single step that dropped him from knee deep to chest deep icy water, soaking most of his gear. I looked down at my camera and promptly decided to return to shore. I didn’t need to fish that bad. Stephen, on the other hand, grabbed my flask of whiskey, took a warming swig, and found a nearby stump to cast from.

As evening closed in, we hiked back to camp where the rest of our group had already started a fire, and thankfully, dinner. The smell of seasoned chicken wafted through the air, and before long tacos were being served with sides of fresh guacamole, and pico de gallo.

We awoke to the sounds of engines turning over all around the camp. Dense clouds had rolled in overnight, and a light mist was now falling over the forest. Apparently, nobody felt like hanging around on a cold, wet morning, so they decided to get an early start. We had a lot of ground to cover, and little idea of what we would encounter, so that suited us just fine. Hot coffee, warm motors, and camp inspection complete, we turned back onto the Rim Rocker and into Colorado.

As it turned out, the trail was beautiful. Grand vistas of far-off red rock plateaus, green rivers winding through scenic valleys, and narrow shelf roads along steep cliffs were all part of a days drive down the Rim Rocker. The brewing rain and snowstorms gave the landscape a dramatic backdrop I doubt any of us will forget. Unfortunately, the weather eventually did more than just threaten storms; it unleashed them.

The roads beneath us became slick, and we were forced to air down to maintain traction and avoid damaging the trail. The creeks and streams began to swell, and our mild water crossings were getting deeper and deeper by the minute. Eventually, we encountered one we just weren’t sure we could all cross. Mario from AT Overland took the first go. His RAM 2500 with an AEV lift and 37-inch all-terrains was our largest vehicle and would have the best chance of making it. As soon as his tires disappeared beneath the water, we knew the rest of us couldn’t cross. We waved him the no go, and he turned back through the torrent to our shore.

We inspected some alternate routes and discussed taking a higher track through the mountains, but it was already starting to snow at lower elevations, and we decided it would be too risky around high cliffs. There was nothing left to do at that point but to call it a day. The group packed up and headed for a local diner, where we watched the snow build outside and exchanged our final farewells before parting ways.

Winter’s Last Hurrah

Frozen soup sucks. Logically, of course, I had always known this, but it hadn’t really occurred to me until I went to prepare a steaming hot cup of it in the morning, only to find that the box had frozen into an ultra tasty soupsicle. Yay. I cut the cardboard with my knife and attempted to peel it away from the slippery block of chicken noodle. It sort of worked. I then dumped it into a pot and took a walk around my snow-dusted camp, the sun rising over the hills as I did. This wouldn’t be the most traditional breakfast, but it was warm and packed with calories, two things I’d definitely want before driving into the snow-covered mountains ahead.

I was born and raised in Texas, and despite an intense, irrational loyalty to the state, I must admit that it lacks two things I love: snow and mountains. My goal for the day was to seek out both, and it didn’t take me long. Just 30 minutes after leaving camp, light flurries began to fall, followed by larger and larger flakes. The accumulation increased with the elevation, and by the time I reached the mountain pass, it was looking like a winter wonderland. I shifted the Excursion into four-wheel drive, and slowly made my way forward, a smile plastered on my face.

Sadly, the magic couldn’t last forever. The white powder eventually faded back to slush, which faded to green grass and sunshine, signs of the warmer weather to come. I was satisfied with my final taste of winter though. It was now time to prepare myself for the Texas heat, and I knew of just the place.

The Great Sand Sea

I hauled myself up the final stretch of the dune, wheezing heavily and cursing myself for being so out of shape. This had to be difficult for everyone, right? A kid flew past me, climbing so fast he nearly ate a faceful of sand when he stumbled. I reassured myself it was just his youth. I glanced back at my footprints leading up the face of this spiteful spit of sand, and felt a pang of disappointment knowing my camera gear was at the base. This summit would have been an epic shot. Still, the camera was heavy and breakable, and I was about to slide my way down this dune on a waxed death trap known as a sandboard.

I snapped a few photos with my iPhone, made a quick video just in case I died, and prepared myself for the trip down. The next few minutes went something like this.

  • I strap into the bindings; my feet hang off both sides. That’s a problem.
  • I can just lift my toes, right? It will be fine.
  • It’s not fine, I can’t lift my toes. I eat sand.
  • New plan. Lean back further on the board.
  • It sort of works; I hop and scoot my way toward the edge like an awkward penguin.
  • The drop is very steep. I go anyway.
  • The board starts sliding slowly down the sand.
  • This isn’t so bad—it’s actually kind of fun.
  • It speeds up.
  • Hmmm, this is a little fast.
  • It’s still speeding up.
  • Yeah, this is too fast, I should slow down.
  • I attempt to slow down. I fail.
  • I’m now hurtling toward my death.
  • I bail.
  • An explosion of sand engulfs me as I flip end over end like an uncontrollable slinky.
  • It’s an all you can eat sand buffet.
  • It’s crunchy.
  • I eventually reach the bottom and slide to a slow and humiliating stop, where I pause to contemplate my failure.
  • Another kid rips by me on his sandboard.
  • Darn kids.

This cycle of momentary triumph followed by disappointing pain continued until I finally completed one full ride down the dune unscathed, at which point I retired to take photos of other people’s attempts to conquer the sand. I was relieved to find they looked equally ridiculous.

As afternoon set in, I began to realize that my time out West was almost gone. I had just 2 days to return back to the traffic-packed city from which I’d come, and nearly 700 miles of highway to drive to get there. As much as I dreaded returning, there were still a few dirt roads to explore, and a night of camping to be enjoyed. With the dunes in my rearview and mountains in my windscreen, I pointed the Excursion east and headed for home.

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 Senior Editor while living full-time on the road.