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.