Tomorrow we’re supposed to cross into Arizona and return to the civilized, predictable world of pavement. The day after that, a plane will deliver us from Las Vegas to Detroit, back to our daily routine and roads so familiar we know where the potholes are. But today — right now — we are not where we want to be.
To the best of our knowledge, we are somewhere in the lower right quadrant of page 50 in DeLorme’s Utah Atlas and Gazetteer. What we know for certain is that Utah stands 350 miles tall, our trip odometer shows 586 miles, and we are nowhere near our final destination — Arizona. We do not know how far it is to the border, what route we’ll follow to get there, or how long it will take. That uncertainty is causing a lot of anxiety right now.
Four days earlier, photographer Sandon Voelker and I drove a Ford F-150 SVT Raptor from Salt Lake City to a desolate dirt road in northern Utah. We crossed into Idaho, performed a six-point U-turn, and began heading south. Our goal is to trek from Utah’s northern border to its southern border without using a single paved road. We will follow dirt roads, gravel roads, two-tracks, fire roads, trails, and barely visible creases in the earth as the ultimate test of the ultimate factory off-roader. In the first four days, our unroad trip has been everything we fantasized about: gnarly trails, beautiful topography, and enough unexpected twists to keep things interesting.
We wish now that we had given ourselves more time to do the drive. Rain liquefies the earth beneath us, and night erases the surrounding landscape. Prospects for making serious progress tonight are shot. If it weren’t for the saturated ground, this rutted road would be a cakewalk for the Raptor. Instead, its BFGoodrich tires are caked in mud so thick that it prevents the 6.2-liter V-8 from putting any power to the ground. Steering inputs are largely meaningless; it’d be just as effective to open the door and drag a boot through the slop.
We should be calling it a night. Just minutes ago we pinched the exhaust tips and pushed in the front fascia while crossing a creek. Cosmetic damage like this merely makes the Raptor that much more off-road friendly, but it doesn’t do anything for already-frazzled nerves. We press on, though, because even speeds of 6 to 12 mph register as meaningful forward progress in our mental state.
The foliage opens up around one corner and the creek that we’ve already tramped through half a dozen times now runs parallel to us, ten feet below on our right. The road, canted toward the water and glimmering with slick mud, forms a perfect chute into the cleft. That the truck is going to slide toward and possibly over the drop-off is all very obvious, and yet it’s not so inevitable that I’m ready to call it quits. I stop the truck and offer Voelker the opportunity to get out. “I wouldn’t hold it against you if you wanted to watch rather than participate,” I say. We would likely survive the fall. The truck would not. Voelker cinches his seatbelt to signify his faith.
Likely that faith is in the truck and not the driver, because we’re soon proceeding just as predicted: at an angle to the road and in a direction that has nothing to do with the orientation of the front tires. It’s the straightest, most perfect four-wheel drift you’ve never seen. I grunt and swear as I saw at the steering wheel and feather the throttle, but it’s clear that we won’t make it twenty more feet in the right direction — forward — before we cover four more feet in the wrong direction — toward the ledge. My instincts kick in — my wrong instincts. I stab the brake pedal. The Raptor is no longer sliding; it’s rotating. The right rear wheel slips over the edge.
The problem with the Ford F-150 SVT Raptor — if you can call it a problem — is that you couldn’t buy one in 1856. If the Mormons had access to Fox Racing shocks, a locking rear differential, a 411-hp V-8, and 12.1 inches of rear suspension travel, the treacherous slog from the Midwest to what’s now Utah would have made a hell of a motorsports event. Instead of lugging heavy handcarts through deadly weather and unforgiving terrain, Brigham Young’s persecuted brethren could have crisscrossed the whole of the United States to confirm that, yes, the Salt Lake Valley really was the least desirable plot of land west of the Mississippi.
One and a half centuries later, the Raptor is unquestionably the best way to experience Utah in its entirety. This state’s incredible beauty is amplified by its sheer diversity. There’s no better way to appreciate that than by connecting each landscape through the seamless clines. The northeast, where we start our adventure, is a land of arid rolling hills, a blanket of dusty oranges dotted with sun-faded green scrub. Overhead, cotton clouds glow on a soft blue background as far as we can see in every direction. We skim over wide dirt roads as we head for the northern border and enter a supersize kennel of barbed wire strung between improvised fence posts. This is ranching country, where the business relies on the courtesy of unaccountable strangers to keep inventory from wandering off. Signs on several gates kindly request “please close gate behind you.”
We’re prepared to drive an extra ten miles just to guarantee that our trip is truly border-to-border, but that proves unnecessary. Someone has marked the state line with a sign by the side of the road: a platter-sized Idaho, painted red, white, and blue. Utah, on the reverse side, is hemorrhaging rust from two dozen bullet wounds. Out here, the only reminder that we’re living in a man-made world is a sun-bleached Busch Light can and a string of utility poles stretching to the horizon. We flip the truck around, zero the trip odometer, and head back the way we came.
We retrace our tracks for the first six miles before turning off into the unknown. For now, though, the unknown is well-mapped and well-marked. Voelker traces a finger on the map to chart our progress and calls out turns a half mile before they appear as the Raptor soaks up the dirt road at 50 and 60 mph. Our first uncertain decision leads down a much rougher, slower trail. We slow to 30 and then 15 mph until eventually we’re crawling along at a cow’s pace. The Raptor’s navigation system places us on a mapped route, and yet it isn’t so much a road in front of us as a seven-foot berth between the shrubbery. We grin with excitement. Ten minutes later, the smirks are wiped away when we realize that we’re heading the wrong way. There will be several more wrong turns before the day is over, but we generally make good progress in the right direction. A steer’s skull found along the route becomes a hood ornament, and the Raptor’s tires touch pavement twice — but only to cross over two state highways. The sun is dropping quickly when we reach a gate marked with a no-trespassing sign that threatens certain prosecution. Stumped, we stop for the night and pitch our tent in a field of crusty cow pies.
I had spent days poring over DeLorme’s Utah atlas, dated National Geographic software, and Google Earth satellite imagery trying to connect the lines on one map with the lines on another map. I had spoken with a Utah State Parks trails specialist and read through the online diary from a trans-American ATV trip. Yet even as we began this adventure, it wasn’t clear just how we were going to cross Utah without using paved roads. The uncertainty is what makes the whole trip worthwhile. This is a fantasy escape from the modern world, where digital likes, mentions, and shares pass for social interaction.
After less than seven hours of driving, we’re scratching our heads. We knew there would be gates in livestock country but weren’t expecting them to impede our progress. Now we have to decide: is the no-trespassing sign there to deter off-roading and hunting on private land, or does the gate stand in front of a private road? I’m of the mind that if a road shows up on a map, we’re going to drive on it, but in our first standoff, Utah calls our bluff. Never mind that we can see the far side of this particular fenced-in plot less than half a mile away, I spend the morning plotting a new route. If we continue south in Utah, we’re bound to bump into Deseret Land and Livestock, a 200,000-acre ranch owned by the Mormon church that has no room for our truck. Instead, we turn east and head toward Wyoming.
Leaving Utah, we scramble up some short, steep hills, squeeze between thorny bushes, and dip into long, open valleys. The Raptor bounces along the two-tracks, weedy brush scraping at its skid-plate-protected underside as we move farther from major highways and civilization. These trails don’t show up on our map, but Ford’s navigation system displays the route as if it’s no different from a Salt Lake City thoroughfare. When the path dead-ends at a small shack servicing a natural-gas pipeline, the eight-inch touchscreen suggests that the road continues, so we skirt around the fenced
perimeter and carry on. The road definitely does not continue but the power lines do, and the utility company must keep the foliage in check because the scrub isn’t more than knee-high. The earth takes a sharp turn skyward, and the surface becomes peppered with loose rocks of all sizes. I select low range, lock the rear differential, and call up the Raptor’s off-road mode, which smooths out the throttle mapping, raises shift points, dials back the ABS threshold, and deactivates stability control. Despite the hardware and software to tackle any terrain, the Raptor can’t compensate for my lack of experience. It takes three tries to find the right line and speed to make it over an eight-inch step on the 25-degree-angle slope.
When we crest the hill, we’re surprised to be looking at a small town that is actually a gas production facility. There are acres of pipes, stacks, and steel buildings and a network of maintained dirt roads. Voelker is dragging open a gate separating us from the road when a local drives by. He glares from his Chevy, trying to determine who we are, what we’re doing, and whether we belong here. In the rural West, though, a sweet truck must be enough to vouch for a stranger, because he never slows below 5 mph and eventually drives off.
The dirt road leads to a lower elevation, where a set of heavy equipment hogging the road brings us to a stop. We’ve seen several trucks out in the field, but this crew isn’t servicing the pipeline. They are actively paving the very road we’re driving on. It’s a spirit-sapping moment. If we turn around, we’d have to head six hours back to this morning’s start. We’ve come too far and used up too much of our day to retreat. We drive on, our disappointment and frustration apparent from the silence inside the truck. There’s less than a mile of pavement, but had we arrived a month earlier, there likely would have been no pavement at all.
We leave the tame dirt road to cross meadows that feed into the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, which is rife with white-barked quaking aspens. It’s easy to mistake these trees for birches, but unlike the birch’s flaky skin, the quaking aspen’s bark is shrink-wrapped tight to its trunk. We also can’t help but notice a trio of corrugated steel huts that look like temporary housing, although there are no signs of people. Several miles down the road, we pass twenty yards from a man repairing a split-rail fence made of tree limbs. He looks up from his work, mouth slightly open to complete the look of bewilderment on his face. Clearly, visitors are a rare sight here, and we get the feeling we’re not wanted. A friendly wave defuses the tension as we lock our eyes down the road and calmly disappear into the woods.
An hour later, we have another theory as to why our fence fixer was so confused: he knew we were headed for a dead end. We’re happily humming along, having just cut through three fallen trees with a folding saw, when we come upon a massive metal gate. Not only is it secured shut; we’re locked out. We rattle the combination lock and try a few four-digit codes. We inspect the hinges and try to lift the gate off its post. Then we contemplate calling the phone number posted on a nearby tree and pleading for merciful compassion. I walk back a quarter mile to a faint two-track that splits off from the main trail. It traces a sweeping arc that spits out fifty yards from the gate — on the far side. We feel lucky.
The trail expert from Utah State Parks had warned us that we’d be forced onto pavement once we hit the national forests. We figured he was merely underestimating our stubbornness; surely there were fire roads and service trails through the trees. So after passing back into Utah, we throw away the first few hours of Day Three bombing down dirt roads in hopes of finding a path we can drive. Instead we find campgrounds and hiking-trail parking lots. The only vehicle trails are locked down and restricted to park service use. Some trails even prohibit bicycles despite the fact that they’re wide enough for a Jeep. We’re in a true wilderness area, and nobody is interested in a cyclist, let alone a 6.2-liter V-8, interrupting their nature walk. We accept defeat and aim for State Route 150.
The Raptor covers thirty miles of pavement before we can return to the good stuff, but as we wend our way south, we encounter yet another construction crew paving over the road we’re on. It appears that the Raptor’s natural habitat is rapidly disappearing. When we eventually reach Skyline Drive, it’s a relief to see that the road is unpaved. While our path to this point has wobbled east and west almost as much as it has extended south, Skyline gives us sixty-some miles in the right direction. According to the atlas, it’s a fairly major road, so assuming that we’re done with any excitement for the day, I pass the driving duties to Voelker. I’ve driven roughly twenty-four hours in two and a half days, and my legs ache like I just finished a marathon. The constant jostle of off-roading has caused the ten gas cans to wear down the paint in the bed of the truck to bare metal. Fighting the head-toss has led to an incredible tension in my neck and shoulders. I’m grateful for a break. Plus, I suspect Voelker has become bored riding shotgun.
His boredom is quickly cured when we pass a sign warning that the road becomes a “natural surface.” Sure enough, our path degrades into a bona fide off-road trail. Huge rocks, deep ruts, and thick mud slow our progress. From the passenger’s seat, I marvel at the Wasatch Plateau, an unexceptional flatland made magical by being located at an altitude of 10,000 feet. Rippling fields fall off abruptly with spectacular vistas of the San Pitch and Valley Mountains to the west. Even better, the setting sun casts strange purple, orange, and deep green hues on thickets of slender subalpine evergreens. It’s Utah as imagined by Dr. Seuss. Engrossed in our surroundings, I don’t quite appreciate what Voelker is going through in the driver’s seat. The road regularly narrows to a single car width and passes within inches of 100- and 200-foot drops. It’s a baptism by fire for this off-roading virgin as the mud saps his control over the truck’s behavior. I won’t know the fear going through his mind until I have my turn in similar conditions tomorrow.
By our not-very-precise measure, we’re halfway to Arizona at the start of the fourth day. We’ve covered four pages in the atlas and have four to go. The final five miles of Skyline Drive are a civilized, gravel-covered road — at least until we stumble across a small whoop in the road. When piloting a Raptor, you’re always looking for opportunities to get your 6016-pound truck airborne, and I make a half-dozen passes at 60 mph. Each time, the Raptor launches and lands as gracefully as a Mercedes-Benz S-Class thumping over a squirrel. While it’s impressively light on its feet, the Raptor is also predictably thirsty. We’ve used a little more than half of the 76 gallons of gasoline we started with, and even though yesterday’s on-road stint helped boost our average indicated fuel economy from 7.3 mpg to 9.1 mpg, it’s clear that if we don’t refill our jerry cans, we’ll come up ten or so gallons short of Arizona. We make our third concession to pavement to find fuel in the town of Salina.
We make steady progress through the afternoon. The roads through Fishlake National Forest aren’t exactly fast, but they also aren’t so rough as to require single-digit speeds. We reach our highest altitude of 11,483 feet, which provides a great vista of the desert that lies ahead, and we cherish a long streak with few obstacles and no major navigation errors. At about 3 p.m., we hit a dead end at an ATV trail that is too narrow for the Raptor. The last ninety minutes have been a complete waste of time, and that thought burns as we retrace our tracks. It’s even more annoying when our detour includes yet another stretch of pavement before we can cut back to the same trail three miles south of where we were stopped. This is why we’ll keep driving past dark, on a road that’s getting muddier, in a truck that I increasingly have less control over. It’s why I push on when I know we should stop. It’s how I end up behind the wheel of a truck that is now sliding toward certain disaster with the swollen creek ten feet directly below the Raptor’s right rear tire.
Jabbing the brake pedal has made the situation much worse, and I quickly take the opposite tack: more throttle. The front tires slip and spin, mud sprays off the treads, and the Raptor claws its way forward. The fourth wheel rejoins us on planet earth and helps us power up the slight incline. There’s no backing off the gas until we’re on flat ground and flanked by trees that will keep us from sliding off the road. We stop and have a “did that just happen?” moment.
Despite that near miss, we keep at it for another hour. I drive with a more aggressive throttle, and Voelker does his best imitation of a rally co-driver, using the navigation system to read out turns in advance. Never mind that we’re moving at less than 10 mph. I assume it’s some kind of survival mechanism that makes him feel like he has the slightest bit of control from the passenger’s seat. At least the road is slightly less hostile. It’s still slippery, and I’m still fighting momentum and the tires’ reluctance to bite, but we won’t see another drop-off as severe as the last one. We finally call it quits when another off-camber road nearly pushes us down a gentler slope into a ravine. Mentally exhausted, I step outside and instantly understand what the truck was struggling with. My boots are now carrying two inches of mud on the soles and get heavier with every step. We pitch the tent in the bed of the truck to keep it out of the slop and eat reconstituted risotto as raindrops tap on the nylon. I say a silent prayer for the precipitation to stop, knowing that we may not be going anywhere tomorrow if the rain keeps up. I send an “I love you” text message to my girlfriend, knowing full well that it won’t find a cell tower to ride out of this valley. Then I lay down to sleep. It seems like hours before I can calm my pounding heart.
Waiting proves to be the right decision. By 9 a.m., the clouds have burned off. By 10 a.m., the ground has started to dry and Voelker has scraped pounds of mud off of the Raptor’s tires. Daytime visibility will also make the route less daunting and more predictable. Before we leave, though, I walk back over last night’s route for about a quarter mile and inspect the tire tracks from the close call that led us to pull over for the night. Seeing how far we drifted from our intended path has me wondering what it looks like back at the creek. I think about how close we came to hiking out of this valley and about the call I’d be making to Ford PR: “Your truck is upside down in a foot of water. Oh, and you’ll probably need a helicopter if you want it back.” We’re fortunate to be driving out of here and just as fortunate that the final eight miles on this particular trail are uneventful.
When we cross State Route 12, we’re running along the western edge of Bryce Canyon National Park. Pine forests have given way to spectacular coral-colored rock formations, and the mud has turned into hard-packed gravel. The roads here have been groomed for the Hertz-driving masses, and that’s just fine by us. The scenery is just as picturesque as anything so far, even if we never actually enter the park. The final page of the atlas looks relatively straightforward until we encounter a locked gate, the likes of which we haven’t seen in two days. I comb the map, but every alternative includes a single-dashed line. We’ve already been burned by these routes at least three times — they typically turn out to be ATV trails — and I can tell that Voelker’s tolerance for near-death experiences and hours-long detours to nowhere is growing thin. Rather than risk another night in the tent and a missed flight home, we aim for U.S. 89. We drive sixty miles on the paved road with the guilt of a dog that just raided the kitchen trash can. Within minutes of returning to the dirt, we’re three miles from the border and smack in front of yet another locked gate. This one includes a phone number and an offer to tour this fine desert property for a mere $15 a head. We pass and drive parallel to the border for five miles in search of any dirt road that will take us to Arizona.
The road we choose winds through a sort-of neighborhood, but it’s the fire hydrants — not the houses — that tell us we’re close to returning to the civilized world. The road twists around, and we wonder whether we’re actually going to pass over the Arizona border without knowing it, but a thin orange line eventually appears on the Raptor’s navigation system. We weren’t able to avoid paved roads completely, but in 822.1 miles we found plenty of challenges for the Raptor. It climbed rocky mountains, powered through thick mud, and bounded over dirt roads. It can make a driver feel invincible, and yet it led me through one of the most humbling experiences in my life. Most of all, though, I admire the Raptor’s ability to go anywhere. It took us places we otherwise never would have experienced and rescued us from a couple of places we didn’t want to be. After forty-two hours of driving, we’re ready for it to carry us out of Utah.