travelog 8

White Rim Road

The ranger of Canyonlands National Park responsible for the area Island in the Sky, who issues our Backcountry Use Permit (charging $25 for a 14 days backcountry use), looks at us a little bit doubtingly as we show him our PocoLoco and ask him, if we might encounter some problems with its size on the well-known famous White Rim Road (that track is a MUST for every serious four-wheel driver visiting Canyonlands). He has to ask one of his colleagues, who seems to have more experience on the backcountry tracks. The other one walks out, takes a closer look to our vehicle and tells us, that it might just fit on a few very narrow spots - but he was not sure at all. So we decide to book five nights in campsites along the approximately 100 miles (160 kilometers) long route, pay our fees (a wise system: once paid, nothing can be reimbursed if you don't succeed in driving the planned route!) and start our trip. Along the route there are about seven campgrounds (with one to three campsites), where it is allowed to stay overnight (certainly only with the proper permit). On each campground there is a small restroom and because of the limited campsites you are absolutely alone. If there is more than one campsite, the next one is a few hundred yards away. Only fools drive the whole White Rim within one day. We are sometimes happy, when we are obliged to drive only 10-20 miles a day.

Taking the uncommon route over the "back-door entrance", we drive in over the north-west, in the direction of the Green River. It's a particularly good dirt road over a wide mesa (with the - for this region - typical name Horsethief Mesa), until we reach the canyon edge and have the possibility to take a look downwards. The track falls steeply down the canyon wall, turns in narrow switchbacks and disappears out of our sight. Happy landing! Martin, who doesn't have good head for heights, says: "I will drive down, so I don't have the problem looking down the steep walls as copilot!". For the next days that will be our standard: he is driving because of the reason mentioned.

Although two vehicles climb up the steep track, although it is getting fairly tight in one spot or another and although it is necessary to pull back several times within the narrow switchbacks - we reach the canyon bottom, the valley of the Green River, within half an hour. We think we have mastered one of the problematic spots. But we will have to learn otherwise!

Shortly after the National Park boundary, driving along the shore of the Green River, we meet a land surveyor in a government vehicle who stares at our vehicle doubtingly and tells us finally, that PocoLoco would be definitely too big for the narrow spots coming up. We reply that a ranger told us that it might fit and that we drive very carefully - after all, PocoLoco represents our rolling home, which we wouldn't risk unnecessarily. After warning us once again, we drive ahead.

Suddenly it's getting narrow and narrower. Finally there are also nice rock overhangs looming into the track, which itself has only a width of about 10 feet. As our PocoLoco has a width of 8.25 feet, there are another 1.75 feet to pass. First of all, Julia tests the edge of the track which steeply falls down into the big, wide and gurgling Green River - the edge works out to be fairly hard and so we decide to try it with our 12 metric tons. Martin engages one of the 32 gears - one of the slowest - and creeps with our rolling home, the right tires always at the edge of the precipice, with one eye always looking into the mirrors and watching the left-hand sidewall of the vehicle so that it doesn't touch the overhanging rock. And it fits! Only 1 inch is missing and it would have been a big scratch (or even more). Bathed in sweat, we realize, that we forgot to take a picture at the right moment - and that makes us angry!

Convinced we have already passed the infamous narrow spot, we parked our PocoLoco for two nights on a remote, peaceful campsite in Taylor Canyon just below the well-known rock formation Zeus and Moses, surrounded by a gorgeous scenery. The gnats bother us a little bit, particularly when there is no wind at all. They are tiny insects, practically unseeable, whose bites lead to awfully itching patches. And the best of all: they creep between your hairs and leave their itching products preferably on your scalp - very comfortable!!!

Although another off-roader, traveling with his son, warned us that the track and the curves we intended to drive will be too narrow (they encountered some spots with rock overhangs), we drive it nevertheless. The track gets narrow, very narrow sometimes, but we proceed normally. There are steep switchbacks to drive up, then there are steep canyon walls on either side of the vehicle - one looming up, the other falling nearly vertically down several hundred feet - where we have to drive very slowly and very carefully. We pass spots, where other people trained with their 4x4-pickups (the normal vehicle on this track) and left deep holes or grooves/channels (afterwards washed out by rain). But for us with the Unimog and its ground-clearance absolutely no challenge. And we get rewarded by fantastic views and besides one off-road vehicle every 2 or 3 hours we are absolutely alone.

But we don't have to wait for a long time - the next challenge arises fast. Once again it is a place where we have to move to the outermost edge of the steeply-falling canyon rim, because of another rock overhang reaching into the track. Naturally the edge is already washed out and has some deep grooves. You have to sweat and fear, but on the other hand: you don't want to drive back. We succeed - but we have always to think on the matter, that we might come to a too narrow spot and that we would have to turn around and then what?! Then you have to drive all these nasty spots again - only in the other direction, whether you want to or not.

The most terrifying hill for normal off-roaders, Murphy's Hogback, is a little bit steep and rocky, but we find it easy to drive with the right gear. Only (once again) a rock overhang gives us some minor problems (see picture), but we are already familiar with that. On the top of Murphy's Hogback we camp for one night on one of the three possible sites. The whole evening a strong wind blows and shakes on our rolling home. We try to take our pictures of the western part of the White Rim (the view is absolutely terrific!), but we don't know if the results are usable, as the wind continuously shakes our camera and tripod.

Under the critical gaze of 18 eyes, Julia drives down Murphy's Hogback in the morning. Some young, doubting, American machos asked Martin, if it is the right choice to let a woman undertake that dangerous task. They stop warning and they take their pictures as they realize that this woman even finds the right gear.

The track gets very uncomfortable, because it is uneven, not maintained and because there are a lot of slickrock spots to pass. We proceed very slowly and need 5 hours for only 9 miles. We reach the next campsite, White Crack (the southernmost point of the White Rim), in the late afternoon. It is warm and nearly windless, practically no clouds to see and we explore the surrounding rocks to find the best location to take photographs in the evening. Julia finds this location (see picture), but Martin declined an invitation to join her there. We have read about this place in a book, that Indian people lived here in ancient times. We now understand why. It is one of the most peaceful places, and one of the spots with the most terrific views of the whole Southwest we have seen. A picture cannot show that sufficiently (have a look to the Picture Gallery, Unimog section and look for "White Crack"). A 360-degree roundshot will be scanned and published in the Picture Gallery within the next months (the film must be developed first).

In the next morning we start early, because we have to cover around 20 miles (30 kilometers) to reach the next campsite called "Airport". The track is complicated to drive with such a big vehicle because at practically every slickrock we have to switch into the lower gear-group and we have to crawl over the uneven surface. More than once there are narrow spots at the edge of the canyon rim to pass. One of these spots, the most spectacular one, has been captured by Julia with the digital camera - while Martin doesn't even know what's below him - under the big sandstone ledge there is nothing, only air!

Again and again we have to drive over slickrock ledges, slowly creeping. Deep grooves in the sandstone are the results of uncautious off-road-drivers, who didn't know their vehicle and damaged oil pan or differential box. From time to time an exhaust pipe or another car part lies on the track, witnesses of an unneccessarily hard driving-style. We don't lose anything, but on the other hand we are also proceeding very slowly. But that is always better than to shake the household apart.

It is evening when we arrive at "Airport" und we have to tie up everything because a real thunderstorm shakes our home. Despite an incredible heat (it's June and it's summer) we have to close our windows, only letting small slits open - otherwise we would sit on a pile of sand within a few hours. Nevertheless superfine sand enters and we have to clean the whole interior of our PocoLoco the next morning. During the night it's raining and we fear that we probably could have problems driving the next day. In this part of the world the soil gets very sticky when combined with water, and this combination leads to full tire profiles and soapy tracks. We speak from experience recalling our New Mexico trip in wintertime. But the next morning sun shines again, the tracks are getting dry very fast and so we leave the White Rim on the eastern side towards Moab.

We succeeded in surrounding the White Rim with our PocoLoco. No one would have thought it possible!

June 1998

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen