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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Utah Part II: Hail Mary Pass

We've been pretty lucky in our travels. We've gotten a couple of flat tires over the years (both in Death Valley by the way--be sure to check your spare before you go there) and once lost a transmission in Yosemite (but that was more our fault for ignoring the signs of trouble before we left); the entire 9,000 mile trip to Alaska resulted in a single chip on the windshield. But the incident on our trip to Utah in 2006 was truly the most terrifying thing that has ever happened to us on the road.

I love Utah. I love the red landscapes and the weird sandstone features. I love to hang out in Moab at the cool cafe there and watch the strange mixture of mountain bikes, jeeps and new age people go by. I love that you can drive to Zion National Park in May and have a lovely hike in 70 degree weather, then drive up the road the next day to Bryce Canyon and freeze your sunburned hide in the snow and ice there. I love that even though the prevailing religion of the state doesn't believe in caffeine or alcohol, they make up for it by having the absolute best milkshakes made anywhere on the planet.

It was May 2006, and after visiting Arches, Canyonlands and Dinosaur National Parks it was time to head home. Not being fond of taking main highways when a smaller more scenic route is available, we chose a winding route through rural Utah that would ultimately land us back on Highway 50 through Nevada (a far more interesting way across Nevada--highly recommended).

The Shoe Tree on Highway 50 in Nevada, "The Loneliest Road in America"
Sadly, a vandal chopped the tree down on New Year's in 2011.

We worked our way west from Dinosaur NP on Highway 6, a narrow road through some beautiful mountain areas. We continued on 6, skirting around the lower Salt Lake area, avoiding the more crowded urban areas in favor of the farmlands and mountains to the south. Crossing the fields on our approach to the last mountain range before the border of Nevada appeared, we saw some ominous clouds ahead. They were pitch black and were building before our eyes. In no time, we could see lightning flashes in those black clouds, and the wind started to push the truck around as well.

Growing up in California, just 20 feet above sea level, neither Mark or I have much experience with what you might call real weather. The worst that Mother Nature has thrown at us at home is the occasional torrential rain, and only in the winter time; thunderstorms are extremely rare. I have seen it snow only twice in my lifetime in my hometown, and that melted the minute it hit the pavement. So we approached the storm with caution, but also with little experience driving in those conditions.

After passing through the tiny town of Goshen, the highway slowly rose up in elevation, changing from farm fields to cattle pastures. Rain started to spatter on the windshield and the wind was still rocking the truck. We rolled the windows down a little just to see if we could hear thunder and try to figure out how far off it was. It seemed to be getting cold awfully quickly, especially since we were still dressed in our shorts and t-shirts from our desert departure that morning. As we rose in elevation, we thought we could make out snowflakes mixed in with the rain. Oh great.

As we approached the pass, little bits of hail started bouncing off the windshield. Just a few, mixed into the rain. We slowed down a little, rounded a sharp turn, and found the road covered an inch deep in a layer of hail. We were traveling about 45mph, about 10 miles under the speed limit, but that was far too fast. The truck went into the turn, then, into a strange, almost graceful glide sideways down the road. We were almost to the top of the pass, with a steep drop off on one side and a fairly steep mountainside running up the other. There wasn't much room on the shoulders and, more worrisome, there had been some light traffic up to this point. We were sliding straight toward the right side, the one with the steep drop off into the canyon below. Mark had the steering wheel in a death grip and was trying everything he could to change our direction, but the truck at this point was rolling on a thousand marbles. Just at the edge of the pavement, one of the back wheels caught and the truck spun in the other direction, crossed the oncoming traffic lane and rolled straight into the side of the mountain.

When things like this happen, the strangest thoughts go through your head. It probably only lasted about five seconds, but I clearly remember thinking about where I should hold my arms, because I had read that airbags will break them if you hold onto the dashboard during a crash. I don't know why it seemed so important not to break my arms when, if we had gone over the cliff, we most likely would have had much bigger problems. Like being resuscitated.

As it turned out, the mountain side of the road had just enough slope at it's base that the truck's front wheels followed it up the incline before hitting, which slowed it down just enough that the impact didn't set off the airbags. However, when we hit, the camper lifted up out of the bed of the truck, tilted forward, then slammed back down, making a horrific noise. The engine died but the radio kept playing, leaving us sitting there staring at the small bits of bushes, dirt and rocks scattered on our hood to the accompaniment of Elvis Presley crooning Wooden Heart, a polka-esque tune that was far too peppy for the occasion. I've hated that song ever since.

Once we finished checking for damage on each other, we got out to check the truck. The front bumper was buried in the mountain and the back end was wedged into the dirt. The rear of the truck was sticking out into the roadway--not a safe place to be even on a clear day, as we were on a blind curve. A woman slowly drove by, pulled over down the road, and walked up to ask if we were ok. She said she had driven through just a little earlier and very nearly ended up like we had.

Good old Ford, the engine started up on the first try, but when put into reverse, it wouldn't budge. Mark put it in 4 wheel low and, after moving a few rocks and rocking it a couple times, got it free from the mountain. We slowly made our way through the pass and down into the town of Eureka, Utah. As we pulled into an empty parking lot there, he noticed in the rear view mirror the camper was kind of rocking back and forth in the turns. It was then we realized the camper was sticking out from the bed about 6 inches, where formerly it had been flush with the end of the bed.

Four Wheel Campers are secured to the bed of the truck by four turnbuckles; one on each corner. In order to reach them there are little access cubbies--two accessible in the aisle of the camper, and two under the bench seat on the other side. When we opened the door, the inside of the camper was total mayhem. Everything had fallen out of the cupboards and fridge, the bench seat back had come loose and was laying on top of the food and our gear, and the firewood was mixed in with everything making it even more unpleasant to untangle. It was still lightly raining (thankfully the hail had stopped) and we had to unload everything in order to get to the turnbuckles. It was cold and wet and we were still in our desert clothes, but I think I was shaking more from the trauma of what could have been than the cold. One by one, Mark reached in to find the turnbuckles were not attached, and in one case, was actually missing. We had just driven two miles downhill on a winding road with a camper loose and hanging off the back of the truck. A whole new layer of retroactive fear hit the pit of our stomachs.

The impact had actually ripped one of the eye bolts at the front of the truck clear out of the camper. We tried pushing the camper back into place, but it was too heavy to budge. The town of Eureka was tiny, so even if it wasn't Sunday and closed up tight for the day there probably wasn't much help to be found there. After considerable swearing, Mark ended up using a spare turnbuckle, linking two together and fastening those to the bed on the remaining back eye bolts.

We very slowly and cautiously made our way down the mountain and through the flatlands toward Nevada. The wind had died down, the sun came out, and infuriatingly, it turned into a pleasant day. We stopped at Great Basin National Park in Nevada, just on the other side of the Utah state line and found a camp spot there.
Great Basin Campground, with Wheeler Peak in the the background.

We always stop at Great Basin because, a) it's a great park, b) it's always got space, and c) it's exactly one full day's drive from home. The campground is located in a grove of pinyon pines up the side of Wheeler Peak, a 13,000 ft mountain that is a sight for sore eyes after crossing the state of Nevada on Highway 50. After setting up camp and off-loading some of our gear, Mark drove the truck to the top of the steepest hill in the campground. From there he told me to let the truck roll downhill, then hit the brakes hard while he pushed on the back of the camper. We did this a few times and got it back into place. He was able to get two of the turnbuckles strapped in tight and with that, we were able to make it home in one piece. When we got home we took the camper off the truck and found the missing turnbuckle; it had come off the eye bolt and been thrown underneath the camper when it had bucked forward.

We are huge and loyal fans of Four Wheel Campers. They are light (700 lbs dry weight), low-profile (helping the center of gravity stay low), and tough as nails. We have abused ours for 10 years and it's still going strong. Mark was able to fix the torn-out turnbuckle and reinforce the rest himself and it's held up ever since. In fact, the accident put a long dent in the front rail of the truck bed, but the camper itself has hardly a scratch. Here are some photos of the damage:

The impact pushed the bottom of the bumper up and in, and pushed the
 transmission cooler into the radiator.

The trailer hookup bent when the rear end dipped down as the front end went up the slope.

The eye bolt that tore out of the camper.

The hole it left.

The force of the impact bent the other eye bolts, both in the bottom of the camper and the bed of the truck.

The turnbuckles tried their best to hold on (the upper right hook is what they should all look like)

Everything worked out ok in the end. The truck still ran fine (and still does), the radiator only got dented, not punctured. After the initial shock wore off I teased Mark about running into the mountain on purpose so he could get the winch bumper he had been talking about for years. Hail still makes me reflexively grab the edge of the seat and hold tight.

Mark and his dream winch bumper, finally a reality.

If you happen to go through Utah on highway 6, be sure to stop at the top of Homansville Pass (6480'). Look for the indent in the hillside at the blind curve; our front license plate is buried at about bumper level somewhere in there.