Don’t Get Stuck Redux

Coming up with 26 column ideas a year can be harder than you might think, especially after five years. I often look to my earlier columns for inspiration. About a year ago, I wrote “Don’t Get Stuck,” a story about 4×4 driving classes that could teach me safe backroad driving and recovery skills, and wouldn’t you know it: I attended a class like that this past November.

I was invited to a 10-hour “off-roadeo” in Moab, Utah, and of course, I accepted (then again, I would say yes to a vegan weenie roast or a mud wrestling tournament in beautiful Moab, so this shouldn’t surprise you). Still, I was apprehensive. As an active outdoorsperson (because as Coloradans, aren’t we all?) I worried about the impact of 4×4 vehicles on the precious natural aspects of the backcountry. And I wasn’t alone, because among all the discussion about technique, the guides eventually got around to addressing that very subject.

The best part of the off-roadeo was that I didn’t have to bring my own vehicle, which was a good thing, because my little Suzuki SX4 isn’t exactly a rock-crawling machine. Instead, the vehicles were provided as loaners. Ten hours seems like a long time, and it is when you’re working, but on the backroads east of Arches National Park, north of the Colorado River, the time flew.

I got pretty good at controlled braking on steep, rutted sections of trail that tilted the 4×4 onto just three tires at the Bronco Off-Roadeo in Moab.

I was late out of the gate because I didn’t know that I had to have my foot on the brake to start the engine (not necessary in my Suzuki). And oh yeah, the off-road vehicle had a push-button start (this was also new to me). Among a party of eight, I trailed behind but with a guide up front and another bringing up the rear, there was no fear of getting lost.

Off the pavement and into the desert, I learned a lot more. First off, I couldn’t just flip from 2H, or 2-High, which I used to go fast in 2-wheel drive on the dry pavement, to 4L (4-Low) or even 4H or 4A (4-High, Advanced 4×4) without stopping the vehicle and shifting into neutral. My current vehicle has a rocker switch for AWD, so this was new to me. Also, unlike my little SX4, the locking differentials, or lockers, didn’t kick in automatically as needed – I had to use the hero switches on the dashboard to engage the front and rear lockers individually. Granted, this ability provided more control and was far superior; it was just new to me. I also learned how to use “trail control” which is like cruise control at very low speeds, as slow as 1 mph, which is as fast as I could go on some sections of the trail. By trail I mean road. The terminology was also new – I think of trail as something I walk on, not drive on.

The trail comprised a mix of dirt, gravel, rocks, and slickrock. I always thought slickrock was slick, but the guides explained that it was slick for original cross-country visitors to the West who drove wagons with wooden, metal-banded wheels. For bike tires, and 4×4 tires, it provides excellent traction. Speaking of traction: combined with momentum, it’s what’s required to get up the steep sections. So, less air pressure in the tires (we aired down from 30+ to 20 pounds per tire) gave us more traction.

My earlier worries about impact were addressed by the guides. Access to places like the Utah desert, they told us, depends on responsible off-roading. That means sticking to the trail and off the cryptobiotic soil. We were instructed to follow the main trail, even when easier routes appeared alongside it, to avoid widening the trail. We were also told, and reminded again after stopping for lunch, to pick up after ourselves and leave nothing behind. I couldn’t help thinking that the off-roading protocols sounded a lot like hiking protocols.

The other guidance was around recovery gear and methods. Here again, the conversation reminded me of the same rules I follow for hiking, rock climbing, and mountaineering: Have the right gear and know how to use it.

I went to the off-roadeo wondering if off-roading was for me, and my answer is no, not exactly. I had a blast, but I still prefer putting hand and foot (rather than wheel and tire) to rock and trail. However, the skills I learned from the guides and behind the wheel will come in handy to get me from home to trailhead and back again safely. It was worth the time, it was different than anything I’ve ever done, and it was a whole lot of fun.

This blog first appeared as a column in the November 23, 2021 Gazette North Springs Edition.

A few videos of my Moab Off-Roadeo adventure:

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