(Ahem. Todd has let me know that he thinks I may have been a bit too harsh with poor Mike. Please rest assured that I did not de-friend him on Facebook and that I would happily follow him out into the desert again. On foot. Also, Heather only cried a little bit. She really is the most awesome chick around.)
In fact, he is a liar-faced liar. Who lies a lot.
Who is this evil Mike Swenson, and what did he do to inspire such wrath?
Mike is the executive director of the Utah Shared Access Alliance. He joined our campaign during our final push, and was all kinds of awesome. I thought he was one of the good guys. I thought he could be trusted.
Right after the election, he came to us and proposed that we all go on an ATV trip together as a reward for all of our hard work. “I know this incredible trail in the San Rafael Swell. You’ll get to see some of the most rugged, remote scenery in Utah. It’s about 60 miles round trip, and you’ll be about as far from civilization as you can get. Don’t worry, it’s an easy trail and we’ll take our time to stop and enjoy the views around us, so make sure you bring your cameras. We won’t be doing anything crazy. You won’t even need a helmet. You’re going to have a blast!”
In hindsight, I should have realized that the words easy, rugged, and remote do not belong in the same sentence. I should also have done my research, because this morning when I googled the name of the trail we were on, this is what I found: “The [Behind the Reef trail] is rated ‘most difficult’ by the State Parks and Recreation. This trail has steep inclines and declines, very narrow paths, and extreme heights…be ready for the adrenaline.” Descriptive words from other websites included “dangerous,” “roll-overs,” “scary,” “thrill-seeking,” and “caution.”
If only I had done my research ahead of time…
Here are a few other things you need to know:
I took Emma and Sarah along with me, thinking that it would be a good mother-daughter bonding trip.
victims adventurers included Bill (field director) and his sweet wife Karen, Heather (deputy field director), her husband, and three of her children, Casey (policy director), Greg (hmm…not sure what his official title was), and Mike’s father, brother, and father-in-law. Those related to Mike had lots of four-wheeling experience. The rest of us were total newbies.
We got off to a very late start, thanks to missed alarm clocks, loading difficulties, and a blow-out.
I was borrowing my parents’ four wheelers. The one I was on was like driving a tank. I knew I was in trouble as we were unloading our quads and everyone else was zipping around, taking tight turns and doing figure-eights on their brand new, low to the ground machines, while it took all of my strength to manage a long, slow turn on my dinosaur. My spidey senses were tingling. This is not going to go well.
We started off on the trail, which was quite pleasant for the first ten minutes or so. There were just enough bumps and turns to keep things interesting. And then, we started to climb. I spent the next seven hours in abject terror. I don’t think there was a single moment of the ride when all of four of my tires were on the ground at the same time. We went straight up, straight down, straight sideways, all while riding over ginormous boulders. Poor little Emma was bouncing around behind me like one of those paddle balls that you win at cheap carnivals. What’s that? You think I’m exaggerating? Here is a picture from the actual trail:
We drove down that boulder. It was one of the smoother sections of the trail.
Occasionally, we would take brief breaks to patch up our wounds and comfort the traumatized
parents children. During these brief respites from horror, Mike would say comforting things like, “Yeah, this is little bit rougher than I remembered it being.” Or, “Don’t worry, the worst is behind us. It’ll only get easier from here.” Or “We’re almost there. You can practically see our trucks from here.”
What he meant was, “Holy crap, I’m never going to get these greenhorns out alive.” And, “That first part was easy compared to the pathway of doom that lies before us. It’s only going to get worse from here.” And “We only have 5 more hours of freezing pain and paralyzing fear before we are almost back to the winding road that will eventually take us back to our trucks.”
I am so going to de-friend him on Facebook. I have also turned his name into a new swear word.
There were two short sections of the trail that I refused to drive, so I made Mike drive them for me. Both times, he admitted that I definitely had the most challenging machine of the group, and that it was way “tippier” than the others. And he got off my quad and back on his own, safe four-wheeler as fast as he could.
When I was going downhill, I would literally be standing on the brake using every ounce of strength in my tiny Grover arms to keep my quad on the trail. I would have a near-death experience several times an hour. And I wasn’t the only one.
Heather, aka Superwoman, is normally cool as cucumber. I have never seen stress take her down. She does triathlons, for Pete’s sake. And yet, after hitting giant rocks and nearly rolling off the cliffs on two different occasions, she had had enough. At one point, we had just gone down the boulder pictured above and were taking a breather. We were freezing, it was getting dark, we were standing in water, and Mike said, “Okay, we’re about two thirds of the way done. All we have to do now is go back up that ridge and over that other side, and then down to the road.” The ridge he was talking about was steep, covered in snow, and there was no way any of us could imagine an actual trail on it. Heather started to cry.
After what seemed like an eternity later, we made it over the ridge of death (mostly – Heather finally couldn’t take any more, so she had someone else drive her quad down, which meant that I couldn’t chicken out or we would have been trapped there all night), and were finally on an actual road. This was a moment that I had been anticipating for the entire ride.
It was now pitch black. And freezing, literally. And the rest of group was going really fast, but the dinosaurs that Sarah and I were riding weren’t capable of true speed, so we kept getting left in the dust. Literally. Sarah was wishing that she would just fall down a cliff and die, because she thought it would be better than slowly freezing to death as coyotes gnawed off her legs while she was lost in the desert.
On the other hand, despite the sheet of ice covering my face, the road was my favorite part. I would totally take freezing to death over being crushed to a bloody pulp while falling to my death down a steep, steep drop off from which my body could never be recovered.
We would take breaks every fifteen minutes or so to make sure that no one was developing hypothermia. Nope, only a few mild cases of frostbite. (Kidding! I think.) After the second road stop, Heather was begging Mike to let her stay behind and start a fire for her poor family. Her husband, a six-foot-plus manly man, was limping around with a flowered scarf covering his face to keep warm. Greg and Casey were hugging each other and quietly sobbing. A moaning Sarah was slumped over her seat. Karen was no longer speaking to any of us. And Emma was frozen to her seat.
I totally thought we were about to become a Lifetime Movie of the Week.
But somehow, we all made it through. As we were loading up our four-wheelers, Mike came up to me and said, “Mea Culpa. That was a little more hard core than I thought it was going to be. But just think, now you’ll be able to handle any trail. You’re a pro. ” Translation: Please don’t de-friend me on Facebook.
Today I can’t move my arms, Sarah is walking like an eighty year old, and Emma is suffering from PTSD, but we are still alive.
I am totally going to have to try it again next year. But I think I’ll use a different four wheeler.
You can stop reading now if you want. The rest of this post just contains some visual aids for those of you who still don’t believe me.
I really wanted to show you what this trail is like, so I did an search on you tube, but the only video I found was 18 minutes long, and I didn’t want to inflict it upon you. This trail was in the same general area, and is quite similar to what we were experiencing, with a few exceptions. First of all, there were no flat sandy stretches on our trail. Our trail was much more rocky and steep. Secondly, the people on the video are all older, and driving at a reasonable speed. Mike doesn’t know what a reasonable speed is. And third, you will notice that the people on the video are helping each other. My group was not helpful. Whenever we got into sticky situations they would (a) watch our terrified faces and laugh, or (b) go on without us, leaving us to the coyotes. I’m guessing that Mike thought that as long as he didn’t actually witness our deaths, he wouldn’t be held responsible. (Disclaimer: I actually only watched about the first two minutes of the video. I have a short attention span. The good news is that you only need to watch the first two minutes, too.)
While I was searching for a video of our trail, I came across lots of other trails in the area with names like “Curse Canyon,” and “Helldorado,” and “Devil’s Race Track,” and my personal favorite, “Five Miles of Hell,” which was an offshoot of our trail, and was clearly marked with several warning signs. Basically they said, “If you are foolish enough to attempt this trail, you will die. Turn back now.”
As for the scenery, it really was breathtaking the whole two times I dared to look up from the trail. The rest of the time I was too busy trying not to die to notice anything around me. Here are some more pictures, just so you’ll understand why anyone would possibly be crazy enough to undertake this course. (These were not taken by me – in fact, none us took any pictures. We were so focused on survival that we couldn’t remember to pull out our cameras. Also, keep in mind that the pictures were taken by people while they were on the trail. In some of the pics, you can see what looks like nice, easy sandy trails at the bottoms of the canyons. Those were not actual trails. I don’t know why. Maybe because they would have been too easy.)
(We drove down this part. It was actually one of the easiest sections of the trail.)
(The ever popular River of Despair. I think you can see the next part of the trail right above the darker section of the ridge in the background.)