Monday, May 2, 2011

Impassable When Wet

Writing this blog, I frequently offer advice. My intentions are good - I am simply trying to share my experiences. So the irony is not lost on me when I fail to heed my own "good" counsel, and wind up hoist by my own petard.

Such was the case on a recent visit to southern Utah. I typically take a week or more each spring to escape Flagstaff in search of recreation in the high desert, and one (usually) practical shortcut involves Cottonwood Canyon Road. I wrote about this very scenic dirt road nearly two years ago in this blog post, extolling the twin virtues of magnificent scenery and an expeditious link between U.S. Highway 89 and Utah Highway 12.

In nearly every post involving backroad travels in the Four Corners region I caution travelers to be especially wary of wet weather, as many routes pass through geological formations consisting of shale, siltstone, or clay. These roads are notorious for becoming quite literally impossible to drive when wet, and should be avoided when rain is threatening.

Cottonwood Canyon is definitely one of those places, and when thinking clearly I will choose a different route when rain or accumulating snow are in the forecast.

So why exactly with a 70% chance of precipitation did I find myself driving north, towards the rain clouds shown in the picture above? I can only explain my folly with the following rationalization: it won't happen to me.

In my defense, I really believed any rainfall would be light and scattered - certainly not enough to cause problems. I also rationalized that if the road did get bad, my camper was fully stocked, and the worst thing that could happen would be that I would have to wait it out. Hah.

Another reason I used to justify my lack of concern was a desire to hike the canyons along the road, including the Cottonwood Narrows and Round Valley Draw. These short but splendid slot canyons would be the kickoff activities for my week long excursion, and I stubbornly clung to the notion that I could accomplish those modest goals. I did in fact get to hike the Narrows, but that is another post.

Driving along I found a spot to camp just south of the lower Narrows entrance without encountering any rain. I did get in a quick guerrilla hike of the canyon, and made it back to the truck before dark. I had dinner, read a bit, and went to sleep with anticipation for the next days plans.

I was awakened around 3:00 a.m. by the sound of steady rain drumming on the roof of the camper. As I lay awake I tried consciously to will the downpour to stop, which it did after about 45 minutes. Afterwards I stepped outside to see just how wet it was, and I was hopeful that by morning it would dry out enough to let me get going again.

The day dawned dark and cloudy, and I realized that I might be stuck there after all. Although I had considered the possibility of having to wait out the storm, I really did not want to accept that as reality. I seesawed back and forth over whether to try and get out, and despite having every good reason in the world for staying put, I decided to leave.

I packed up and pulled out. The skies above me were ominous, and my direction of travel had me heading directly for the blackest clouds. Sure enough before I'd gone 5 miles the rain began in earnest. As I rounded a corner and began the descent of a shallow dip, I realized I was no longer in control of the vehicle. With a sinking feeling I knew I'd made a mistake as I struggled to keep my truck on the road.

What makes the clay of many Utah back ways so pernicious is how it first turns your tires into racing slicks, and then makes the road surface into an ice rink. This stuff is heavy, and once it cakes on it stays on. After giving it some thought, I think a good analogy is to say it's like trying to drive on butter with Teflon tires.

I finally slid to a halt, thankful to still be on the road. I resolved then and there to listen to my inner voice next time, and settled in to wait it out. After about 30 minutes, I heard another vehicle and looked back to see an SUV approach. The car was yawing from side to side, struggling to stay on the road as I had earlier. Although I was parked as far to the right as possible, I feared the wayward driver might not be able to pass safely. I watched nervously as the car neared and then came to a sliding stop behind me.

When the young woman behind the wheel opened the door and got out, I told her I was not going anywhere. She looked kind of surprised, but motioned to her boyfriend in the passenger seat who also got out and walked over. I explained to them the situation as I saw it, and if they attempted to drive out in either direction there were steep and dangerous hills to negotiate. Wisdom dictated the best course was to stay put (I actually said this).

They discussed it briefly, obviously not taking anything I'd said seriously. The boyfriend climbed into the driver's seat and told the young woman they should try it anyway. I watched as they slewed around me and continued on to the north, weaving an uncertain course that looked like it was bound to end badly. After a few minutes they drove out of sight, and I silently wished them well.

The rain slowed and eventually stopped, and lo! and behold, the sun came out. My hopes began to rise as I watched the mud intently, looking for elusive signs of drying. I waited, and waited some more. About an hour later, the same car I had seen earlier came by in the opposite direction and continued on, this time heading south. They did not stop, so I had no idea what they found. I was growing impatient, and I convinced myself that enough time had passed to try forging onward.

I started off heading north, and immediately noted that the road still felt exceptionally greasy. I should have stopped right there, but then again I can be obsessively single minded. I made it less than an 1/8th of a mile before finding my Waterloo - a shallow ditch with an off-angle cant that swallowed the rear end of my truck as easily as if I had driven into on purpose. I was stuck - really stuck.

I am usually polite, well mannered, and some would even say articulate. I can say at that point I was articulating, but the words I used weren't polite and the vehemence I hurled at the sky would have blistered the paint off an aircraft carrier at 50 miles. I was really ticked off, mostly at myself for ignorant willfulness. When I got out to survey the situation, I stepped into mud that rose to the middle of my calf. The undercarriage of my four wheel drive truck was level with the edge of the road, and I knew the rear axle was buried.

Realizing there would be no AAA road service along to get me out, I grabbed my shovel (I am at least smart enough to carry a shovel) and began mucking out the wheels. As I said earlier, this stuff is heavy, and it stuck to the shovel like glue. I worked like a man possessed, clearing as much slop away from each tire as possible. I then collected some of the thankfully abundant dead sagebrush from the surrounding area and laid it in front of each wheel to provide some traction.

After 30 minutes of swearing and shoveling, I was ready to make the attempt. By now I am spattered in mud, but that is not my concern. I want out, and badly. I gently accelerate, giving the wheels a chance to grab. After a moment the truck begins a grudging ascent out of the ditch then slides sideways and back into the hole, this time 10 feet further down the road. For a moment I hang my head in despair, sure that I am being unfairly punished for my wrongheadedness.

Once again I grab my shovel and repeat the process, but this time I make sure to clear the mud away along a path that will get me back onto a level section of road. It takes longer and when I'm finished I am exhausted, but I'm ready to try again. Apparently I've convinced the higher powers that I'm serious, because this attempt succeeds, and I jubilantly park the truck once again on the road.

Convinced by now that trying to go anywhere is sheer folly, I am reminded of a tongue in cheek prayer I heard somewhere: "Lord, grant me patience, and I want it now, dammit". I reconcile myself to enforced stasis, and grab a book. Soon, I see the couple who have passed me twice returning from the south. They stop and get out of the car. The young man looks a little sheepish as he admits that there is no escape in either direction. We then spend the next 30 minutes getting to know each other a little better.

Soon we hear the sound of another car, and watch amazed as this vehicle narrowly escapes the sucking quagmire that claimed me earlier. He stops, and comes over. He tells us there is yet another car behind him, but this poor couple is driving a two wheel drive rental car and has barely managed to get this far. No sooner than he said it than we witnessed the hapless driver attempt the approach to the mudhole, only to get hopelessly stuck. I grab the shovel and the group begins walking through the muck to help him out.

Our little group of castaways is stranded at about the midway point on Cottonwood Canyon road, and most folks are not really prepared to spend the night. The young couple have camping gear and food, but aside from them and myself no one else has much of anything. It looks pretty grim, especially for the folks in the rental car who have some snack crackers and a bottle of water to share.

Afternoon wears on, and fortunately no more rain has fallen, although I know from checking weather prior to my departure there is still a chance for more precipitation in the forecast. The others in the group elect to take a walk down the road to see what hazards await, but I have been down this way many times and know of at least two steep hills to negotiate. After my previous folly I am o.k. with waiting.

Eventually the scouting party returns with the news that they are going for it. Looking around it does appear that some drying has occurred, but I am going to let them be the guinea pigs for this experiment. I figure if they go on and I don't see them again, they either made it or I'll find them in a ditch later on. Saying goodbye and good luck, I watch as the intrepid travelers drive off.

The afternoon stretches into early evening, and I watch as a line of dark clouds appears in the west. It has been a couple of hours since the others left, and I really believe that by now the road has firmed up enough to make a run for it. Whatever patience I may have possessed earlier has disappeared, and I decide I can't wait any longer. I start off once again, apprehensively watching the approaching storm and hoping that this is it.

And, it was. The hills that concerned me were still just a bit tricky, but other than that the rest of the 18 miles were dry enough. When I finally hit pavement at the turnoff to Kodachrome Basin State Park, I felt the knot unclench in my gut, and I waved goodbye with a single finger to the black bellied cumulus sailing overhead.

So there you have it. The sign says "Impassable When Wet" I advise you to believe it.


  1. I loved your story folk !! I have passed this road about 10 days ago but thanks God it was dry so I got out pretty easy. Still, I remember at least a couple of points uphill and downhill with a lot of sands that were difficult to pass even if not wet... and I had a SUV !!!
    Definetly this is a hard road, but the beautiful scenery, always changing and always surprising, make it worth a try !!!!!!

  2. My brother and I did the exact same thing back in 1999, we had to walk along side of the truck to keep it off the mountain and out of the ditch.