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.