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.