Saturday, February 1, 2014

Montana Mountain Trail - February 1, 2014

Panoramic view from the Saddle

What a BEAUTIFUL day!!!  A beautiful day for an off-road adventure, a picnic, a few harrowing clothespin turns, and a great deal of excitement over what my truck can REALLY do!

The AZFJ forums have been ablaze with tons of great rides to do over the next few months while the weather in Arizona is gorgeous.  Problem for me is, I'm not an experienced driver, and I don't have off-road or even all-terrain tires.  I have to be super-picky about the trails I choose.

Then one day, Montana Mountain run pops up.  This was one of the first trails I wanted to go on, but was unsure, and didn't want to go by myself...glad now I didn't, but wow - what a day!

There were three FJ's - Bailey and I in the Purple Submarine, a silver FJ driven by a gentlemen, his friend, a dog and his daughter - we'll call them "Red," and the leader of the run in a black FJ - his handle is technically AYC, but we'll call him "Choy" as that is what the girls were calling him by the end of the day.  We met up at the Shell station in Gold Canyon Ranch, and started out!  AYC was voted in to head us up, and I offered to be in the back.  We are all equipped with working CB radios, and off we go...

Choy and Red head down the trail

As we first turn onto the "trail" - it is paved for quite awhile, and we miss the turn off, but quickly turn around and get back on trail.  Nobody has done this trail, with the exception of myself, some almost 20 years ago, and only half way up to Roger's Trough - a trail head that leads into the Superstition Mountains and to some very awesome Native American Ruins.  So - we're essentially the blind leading the blind.  Yay us!

We keep heading down Hewitt Canyon Road, and blow past the sign pointing to the turn off to Roger's Trough.  I slow down, radio the other two, and we turn around and head back down towards the sign again.  And we're off.  Again.  LOL

Bailey and Serenity at our first Geocache
First stop - a geocache!  It was a lovely little hike down a dry river bed, which had clearly had a number of flash floods over the last year or two...and we stop by a huge tree.  We're certain the geocache is in the trunk - but no!  A little more hiking, and Red's daughter, Serenity, finds the geocache.  We sign the log, convince Choy to sign (and tell him to later sign up at as Choy), and go back to the tree to take a picture of the girls - the tree really was awesome.  So we get ready to leave, and Red's daughter asks if she can ride with us, and we happily comply and Red offers to take to the back of the convoy - which I later sincerely appreciated!

The road up to this point is pretty much a graded dirt road with a few bumps here and there.  We're cruising along at a pretty quick pace, and then we start heading up.  Again, the road isn't bad - I'm not even nervous or being overly cautious.  The FJ is going like a champ - and I'm super-proud of my driving abilities - I'm not even in 4L (the truck is always in 4wd).  We stop about 1/2 a mile below the "summit" - the Roger's Trough trail head - for a lunch break.  We pull out the chairs, we all eat some lunch, and Bailey pulls out the Thin Mints.  We polish off a sleeve amongst the 4 adults and two children, and watch some other trucks heading up the mountain.  As we are getting ready to leave, a Sequoia comes crawling up, and stops to ask how far to the top.  We tell him it's maybe a mile at most, and he gets visibly excited and says "great - then we get to head down off of this."  We all kind of look at each other, and I tell him that the road down the back side is even worse than the road headed up the front.  The Sequoia turns around and heads back down.

Ominous snow clouds
And then it snowed.  For maybe five minutes, it snowed.  The clouds were ominous, and there were snowflakes sticking to our jackets.  And then it cleared up.  Immediately.  Like nothing had happened.


The girls sit in the back chattering away, and we bump up the hill to the Roger's Trough turnoff, where we begin the "backside" of the Montana Mountain trail.

Immediately, the trail gets much rougher, and for the first time in 20+ years, I smell clutch.  Gotta stop riding it - I get that sorted out, I calm down, and I hear the girls are still chattering away, eating the second sleeve of Thin Mints, and chowing on a large Tupperware of goldfish.  They clearly don't think we're doing anything crazy.  In fact, they are acting as though we are on a highway cruise.  I decide to use their reactions as a gauge to how well I'm doing.  

As we get over the top of the first rough hill, we are now in gorgeous pine trees, and pass a number of campsites full of wonderful people who are all smiling and waving.  We wave back, and cruise along on a slightly rougher-than-graded road with some heavy ruts here and there, but all in around, a lovely drive in absolutely beautiful back country.  I forgot that the Superstitions, at the top, are a pretty high elevation.  It was about 50 degrees outside, and gorgeous. 

Best off-road vehicles in the world!

We stop in a saddle area to take some pictures (the panoramic shot above was taken there), and decide to walk back to a geocache that is about 250 feet behind us.  So we walk.  Around the bend in the road.  And we walk further, then off onto a trail.  It was WAY more than 250 feet, but who was gorgeous, we were having fun, and the geocache was genius!  

We get back in the trucks and head out again - all the while I'm still awaiting the "steep drop offs and harrowing switchbacks" which I've read so much about.  

As we round the bend, we come upon an old burnt section of the trail - and this is where the steep drop-offs start to bother my sensibilities.  The girls are still chattering in the back like little jaybirds, but the chatter has turned to "what would happen if we rolled off the mountain?"  Sigh - thanks.  They're SO imaginative!  We had everything from plumes of flames and smoke, to magical animals that would swoop down and rescue us (Bailey has been watching WAY too much Hobbit).  They are just chat chat chatting about it, while I'm attempting not to hyperventilate, nor to show the girls I'm panicking.  
Arizona pinstripes
We come to a tight turn, a fairly easy one, but the inside of the turn (the "down the cliff" side) has eroded, and the "up" side of the road is a big rock.  I just stop. I stop dead in my tracks.  I'm breathing heavily - panicked.  Afraid to "slide" off the rock and "roll down the mountain."  And I'm certain there won't be any giant eagles saving us.  Red radios to ask if I'm okay.  I shakily reply no...and I climb out of the truck for air and perspective.  Both he and Choy come to the truck, and they keep telling me I can do it.  I'm going to be uncomfortable because I'm not going to be level for a little bit, but I can do it.  I told myself that I must be able, and there can't be much danger, or Red wouldn't let me have his daughter in my truck.  They were right.  I did it.  I didn't slide.  I was fine.  

I've done worse than that in my old Honda CRV and on quads - I had already done worse THAT DAY.  I don't know what happened there - it was the least terrifying "obstacle" of the day.  Looking back on it now, the only thing I can figure out was that if that rock had had ice or snow on it, it would have been a very dangerous turn.  But dry?  It's fine.  Build up my confidence...keep going.  Still don't like the drop offs, and I'm getting TONS of Arizona Pin-stripes on the "mountain" side of my truck...but we're good. 

So - I think we're done with the switchbacks and the harrowing pin-turns.  WRONG!  

As we come around the mountain from that burnt out area, I can look down, and see the road switch backing all the way down.  Way down.  WAYYYYYYY down.  Okay - I can do this.  I'm awesome, everyone says my truck can handle all of it.  Still not in 4L.  I can do it!

We do the first few switchbacks, and then I watch Choy do one where there is no room to really back up much, and the "inside" of the switch back has a huge, HUGE rut in it (I'm sure if Red and Choy read this, they are going to think that I'm exaggerating - but it was HUGE).  And I HAVE to go in the rut.  There isn't enough room on the trail for me to take my truck level down this portion.  And I can't turn around.  No room to go back up.  For the first time, I see an FJ articulate like nothing I've ever seen.  Choy edges forward (not very slowly either), his front driver-side tire is not even on the road, and his truck just tilts into the rut.  Back passenger tire off the road.  And he goes.  Like nothing.  I glance back at Red - I'm sure with a look of sheer terror on my face.  They both radio that I'm fine, and my truck will be perfectly fine.  Two things are keeping me calm.  The girls chattering away about the movie Frozen, and the fact that even if I do roll, I'll just tilt into the mountain.  Unfortunately, there isn't much room for recovery.  

I inch forward.  I feel my front tire leave the safety of the road.  I start worrying, but I keep inching forward.  The truck tilts into the rut.  The girls get silent.  Dead silent.  (In my head "please keep chattering girls...please").  I let out a squeak as we tilt more, back tire leaves the ground, and we slide a bit into the rut, we catch hold, and keep going.  The chattering starts.  Then I realize that Serenity is talking to me.  She says the sweetest thing - I almost started crying from a mixture of terror, relief, and overwhelming emotion.  She says "I think you're probably the second or third safest driver I know.  My dad is the safest, but you are very safe."  And on the two girls chatter about safety on the road.  If I could have reached back and hugged her, I would have.

After this, I have full confidence.  I'm STILL not in 4L, and I did all of that.  I know that for technical off-roaders, this trail is a piece of cake, but for a newbie, it isn't.   (And what the heck kind of trails are those technical folks on?  Not sure how technical I'm willing to get...)

We keep bopping down the rest of the switchbacks.  They are mostly easy - a few where I have to get a little close to the edge, but I'm okay.  Hey - I drove on three tires for like 1.4 seconds.  I can do anything!  I KNOW how cool the articulation on my truck is now.  I can do anything!!!

We get off the mountain and start the long, mostly flat trek out.  We pass a Jeep sitting in a creek bottom.  I have to rev it up to get the truck up the other side - my push bar grinds on the rocks - but the truck pushes through, we bound up the other side, and keep going.

Choy in front, AZBackroadsGirl behind
The scenery is still lovely - we drove through the river bottom for awhile (crediting Red for the photo - glad to have a picture of my truck in action).  We climbed out of the river bottom, and we drove down a dusty, well-graded road until we came out the other side.  We girls are all singing at the top of our lungs to the Frozen sound track, with interspersed conversation from the backseat about their favorite parts of the movie.  It was an uneventful last couple of miles.  

Again, my lack of confidence was won over by my truck's ability, the "can do" attitude of my trail companions for the day, and by two little girls who are experienced off-road riders, and who kept me calm through much of my day!  Thank you to Choy and Red for your help, but first and foremost, thank you to Bailey and Serenity for just being you and acting as though nothing is happening, even if I felt my life was hanging on the line! 

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