October 11, 2003

By Michael Strickland

The "S" in SUV

If you're an SUV owner like me, chances are you've never taken your sport utility vehicle off-road. Years of using my vehicle for utilitarian purposes went by before I finally utilized it for sporting purposes by getting off the pavement. Now, it cracks me up to see a soccer mom in a Ford Expedition gingerly driving over a speed bump in a strip mall at two miles per hour, completely unaware of what her vehicle is capable of.

Admittedly, I didn't have a clear idea of my SUV's capabilities either, until last spring. On impulse, I signed up for a trip to Joshua Tree National Park led by Total Escape Adventures. I'd "listened in" to the travel company's discussion forum for several months, and was eager to meet what seemed like a fun group of people. Little did I know I'd be putting my Ford Explorer through its paces.

After an evening of food, wine and campfire conversation, we woke up to a warm Mojave Desert day and climbed into our SUVs. In my passenger seat sat trip leader Lory, an off-road enthusiast and veteran of many off-road races. I followed Dana, owner/founder of Total Escape, who pulled her lime-green Isuzu Amigo off the pavement and onto a dirt road marked "4-Wheel Drive Vehicles Only." Hitting a bumpy stretch of washboard-like dirt, my vehicle started shaking like an F-14 breaking the sound barrier. The plastic fittings of my instrument panel vibrated crazily, giving me the first tingles of concern. Soon, our caravan stopped to air down our tires to about 18 psi, which lessened the bumpiness of the road (Dana carried an onboard air compressor under her hood).

The road worsened steadily as we ventured deeper into the desert, leaving behind the national park and entering BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land. My concern grew as my vehicle navigated turn after bumpy turn and climbed over ever-larger rocks. My confidence kept pace, however, as I became more comfortable with the off-road obstacles, thanks in part to pointers provided by Lory.

The biggest of such obstacles came when we reached a wash that bisected our way. The road dipped down into a small gully, turned at the bottom, then sloped right back up again. Large rocks encrusted the road like a minefield, requiring an extra degree of care to avoid bottoming out on them or blowing a tire. The trick, however, was that the slope of the far side also required a high enough rate of speed—and a quick turn—to avoid spinning out and getting stuck at the bottom of the wash. In short, the obstacle required just the right mix of careful yet quick maneuvering. Lory volunteered to steer us through this spot, but I was ready to put my new skills to work. After closely studying the terrain and choosing my path, I put the SUV into drive and moved forward. Threading my way through the rocks, gunning the accelerator and cranking the wheel at just the right moment, I vaulted up the far side and reached safety. We all shouted victoriously.

It wasn't much further that Dana herself judged the road too rough to continue. We turned around and backtracked back to camp. But we'd tasted enough dirt for me to gain a whole new appreciation for my vehicle and its capabilities. Since then, I ignore speed bumps and barely flinch when I take my Explorer on bumpy dirt roads. And I can't help looking around at all the SUVs sharing the road with me, wondering how many of them have ever touched dirt.

Read more about the Joshua Tree trip and see photos at Travels to Distant [Strick]Lands.


©2003 Michael Strickland ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

What is "The Daily Strick"?

I have long called myself a writer, but too often I don't do what a writer must do daily: write. So you, dear reader, are the beneficiary of my resolution to make a positive change in at least one area of my life. Every single day of this new year (almost), I will write something, anything, and post it here. It is my intention to use this daily exercise to jump-start my too-long-dormant creative energies, and perhaps generate some worthwhile material this year. Hopefully you will find at least an occasional amusement or insight in my daily musings.

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October Columns:

10/31: Halloween's History
10/30: Good GDP, Still No Jobs
10/29: Disaster
10/27: Ash Monday
10/26: En Fuego
10/25: Diving in the Desert
10/24: Dead Car Canyon
10/23: Reflections
10/21: Le Métro
10/20: Pain
10/17: Jury Duty
10/15: Labor Pains
10/14: The Business of Losing
10/13: Owls and Jobs
10/12: Hooked
10/11: The "S" in SUV
10/9: Flee the City
10/8: Sore Losers
10/5: Turkeys
10/4: It's Not the Economy, Stupid
10/2: Focus
10/1: Twenty Years
Previous months in The Archive

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