I woke up early Monday morning after a restful night, finally. The sun was just beginning to peak over the horizon as I made my way through the deep sand down to the kitchen to get some coffee started. I've got my gear out, but as a few other early birds join me near the fire I get to chatting again and lose track of time. That's okay, KenB10101 made me a cup of his most incredible cafe mocha made with mexican chocolate and it is so incredibly rich and satisfying that I want to make it last forever. Sometimes the priorities just need to be rearranged.
Our campsite is still shaded from the high cliff wall on the east, but I can see the sun playing across the hills in the distance.
It was another slow and easy morning in camp; when there's that many people and several small children you just have to expect a relaxed pace. A few people in the group (the younger guys) decided they didn't want to wait any longer and they head out on their own to finish up the trail while the rest of us finished packing up.
We were going to take a quick detour to the lava tubes, but rather than backtrack to the Mojave Road the way we came, WayOfLife had found another trail that would take us out to Aiken Mile Road and give us a more technical route. We started on Indian Springs, but I'm not sure of the name of the trail we turned on, or if it even has a name because it didn't show on my gps. Up the side of a volcanic hill on a steep, narrow, very washed out and crumbling track. That will definitely wake you up! When the line of jeeps stopped I knew that we had reached the first real obstacle and we all got out to take a look.
WayOfLife called it a rut, I called it a cavern - it was a huge chasm in the surface of the earth about five feet deep and six feet across. I was in the middle of the line of jeeps and as I watched the jeeps ahead of me tackle it with WayOfLife spotting, all I could say was "Holy s**t, Are you kidding me?" Yeah, I'm still a wuss. If you've ever seen a jeep tackle this kind of obstacle you know that they flex and contort every which way possible and if you didn't know any better you'd swear they were going to roll (and sometimes do!) But I'm learning to trust my jeep because, as some of the guys remind me, it's bigger and better built than most of the jeeps that run with us and is capable of handling just about anything I throw its way. The only limiting factor is the driver.
So into the chasm I go and as I start climbing out the other side all of a sudden WayOfLife has this look on face. Oh-oh, I think. "Am I okay?" He's just looking at me with..this look. Now I'm starting to get nervous. "Am I okay?" I call out again. "Yeah, yeah, you're fine" he tells me. Hehe, he waited until I was safely on the other side to let me know what happened; I had never disconnected because we were running an easy trail and there should've been no need to, and I forgot about that when we got on this trail. As I climbed out of the "rut" my front passenger tire was about four feet in the air. WayOfLifette took some great photos with my tired in the air, and I learned to pay more attention to what I was doing.
Next was a four foot rocky drop into a wash, and I wisely disconnected my sway bar to make the crossing. Bill said it wasn't fair that I got to have all the fun, so I let him take the wheel so I could shoot. After watching Toad and me tackle the rut, several of the other women wanted to take the wheel for this obstacle so we had a big driver switch.
One thing I've learned about photographing rock crawling is that it's almost impossible to convey the difficulty of the obstacle and how extreme it is. Every time we look back at the photos we laugh because it looks so easy, but we know how intimidating it was IRL. So here's Bill crossing the wash, and mind you this is about a four foot drop, but he makes it look like nothing. The only clue is the amount of flex.
First he eases the front tire onto the rock:
Then the rear tire:
A couple of the guys decide to take a harder line and the rest of us wince as their rear bumper smacks solidly on the rock ledge when they drop into the wash. Here's Trailbud taking the hard line, and you can see the dropoff under his jeep:
There are more photos of the jeeps making this crossing in the Mojave Road gallery on my website here.
On to the lava tubes. Since we had already been, I was giving WayOfLife directions via CB as to landmarks to find the spot we were most likely to find sufficient parking for our group, and to Jana so she could take Aiken Mine Road up to the trailhead to drop off JeepCacher so he didn't have to hobble as far on his one good leg. Bill, Toad and BullFrog decided to wait at the jeeps since they had already been to the lava tubes, while I escorted the group up the hill and into the lava tube. After a few minutes I went back to the jeep to join Bill for a little snack and grab this pano shot:
You can see that we had mostly cloud cover all day. Bleh!
From the lava tubes we took Aiken Mine Road out to Kelbaker Road where we aired up and reconnected to head into Baker so the people who didn't have jerry cans could gas up before finishing the trail. That's when I found out that because I took on that deep run without disconnecting, I had bent my discos and they wouldn't reconnect. WayOfLife helped unbolt everything so we could use a rock and a hammer to pound everything together and rebolt them in. That'll teach me to pay more attention when I'm wheeling. When I got back home I ordered new JKS Quicker Disconnects to replace my bent ont.
A lot of folks decided to grab some lunch while we were in town, and the lines at the fast food places were horrendous. The town of Baker was a mobscene and we could see that traffic on the 15 was bumper to bumper heading back west. We lost an hour by the time everyone who needed to got gas and or food; it was now three in the afternoon and we got concerned about having enough time to finish the Mojave Road and still make it home before midnight. With traffic that bad it could easily take over six hours to get home, as I had found out Friday night driving out here. We lost more time debating on a plan, and most of the group decided to join the traffic and head home. There were six jeeps left: us, the WayOfLifes, Toad and BullFrog, Mazzman and Susie, the JeepCachers, and Ben101010 and Susan. The last thing I wanted to do was sit on the 15 for the next several hours, and WayOfLife proposed taking trails home as far we could. JeepCacher knew of a trail that ran parallel to the 15 that should take us out near the 40 somewhere(?), and if that worked, from there he could navigate us through back roads all the way to the 91. Sounds like a plan!
It was a great trail, wide open, deep sand twisting and turning and fast running as it wound its way across the desert floor. We were making good time and had covered some good distance with WayOfLife leading the way when he got on the CB and announced that we had a problem. We had reached a stream crossing and there was a bridge, except that the bridge was out so the road was closed. WTF? We hadn't expected to find a real bridge on this trail. We were all dreading the thought of having to turn around when WayOfLifette noticed a trail a short distance away that crossed the stream and we let out a collective sigh of relieft. I'll just note that we strongly believe in Tread Lightly, so although it would've been easy enough for our jeeps to just cross the stream at any point, we will only ride on existing trails so as not to cause any damage to the environment.
Across the stream we continued making our way through the desert until signs of civilation began popping up, first an occasional building here and there, then an honest-to-god small rural town. When we reached the surface roads JeepCacher navigated through backroads to get us closer to home. All I know is that we ran along historic Route 66 for a while and as the sun was setting and we were driving through some great rural countryside, I was peering out my window at all the wonderful subjects that I vowed to return to photograph. Tonight we just had to concentrate on getting home.
It was well past dark and we had successfully avoided traffic when we reached the point where we had to split up and head in different directions to return to our respective homes. We stopped for gas and WayOfLife proposed sitting down to enjoy a relaxing meal since we had made such good time. There was a new restaurant across the street and I wish I could remember the name because the food was good and the service was great. I am always hesitant to patronize a "real" establishment when I've been out on the trail for a few days, but they welcomed us warmly. We thought that maybe they had put us in a private room to keep us away from the other patrons, but the service was extremely attentive and we had a great time retelling stories from the trip. After dinner we grabbed some Starbucks, said our goodbyes and then Bill and I followed WayOfLife back to south Orange County while the others head off in other directions.
It was a fantastic trip even though I didn't use the camera nearly as much as I would've liked. But there are still many more photos from the trip on my website here.
And tomorrow morning we're heading out to finish up the stretch we never got to do on this trip, across Soda Dry Lake and through Afton Canyon.