Rediscovering my off-road roots through snow and sand
Celebrating the new year with a family trip on the trail to Death Valley
Writing this piece reminded me of a short story I recall having read in the fifth grade. After a brief Google search, I couldn't quite find the exact story, but the premise centered on a young girl in an Asian-American household who rejected her Chinese heritage. She carried on with her life for years and years until realizing her mistake by the time she became a young adult. Despite all the successes she had in her life, the rejection of her own roots forever stood as one her biggest regrets.
I bring that up as before I seriously got into cars, I grew up as a child of the dirt. Fast & Furious and Need for Speed stood in the background of my childhood as I went with my dad on countless off-road excursions. Nearly every high-octane adventure I went on often resulted in dirt under my nails and dust in my hair. From pre-running on a lake bed in my dad's Frontier to rock crawling through the Spring Mountains in his JK Wrangler and even hitting the tabletops at the now-defunct motocross park near Boulder City.
As the years carried on, my tastes slowly evolved. Now I dream of lapping a lightly-modified Shelby GT350 around Laguna Seca or maybe cruising the Pacific Coast Highway in an E28 M5. I still carried immense respect for the off-road community, but the niche always took a back seat in my mind. It wasn't something I regretted forfeiting, but I always felt it would be nice to one day reconnect. Now, as the year bows out, the time came to get back in touch with my roots in the best way possible: some real adventuring. Just like the good old days.
These winding dirt roads seem perfectly fit for a Safari 911, wouldn't you say?
New Year's Eve was a rare day. For the first time in seemingly forever, my parents and I were all free to spend time together. For a single day, we weren't smothered by our ceaseless work (I'm a university student and parts salesman at a Toyota dealer, and my parents are in the medical profession). My dad, who's been a longtime mountain biker and is now balls deep in the ongoing overlanding craze, offers to take the family on our first off-road expedition in ages.
Departing at 7:00 a.m., we boarded my dad's freshly-lifted Silverado 1500 RST and made our way towards the mining town of Beatty. After a brief hiatus at a truck stop for some candied nuts and caffeine, we continued on towards the entrance of Titus Canyon, a popular and scenic method for entering Death Valley.
With a capable truck and a bed full of emergency gear, the family came prepared. Tire pressures? Lowered. Drive mode? Off-Road. Me? Caffeinated. Hotel? Trivago.
The washboard roads that comprised much the trail seemed like they'd make the perfect rally stage. I couldn't stop dreaming of ways to take these dirt paths at ludicrous speed in a Raptors or perhaps a homebrewed rally car. Even on a pathway typically taken at a leisurely pace, the wannabe track rat within me loomed overhead constantly whispering that I return with something turbo and all-wheel drive.
No! No hooning on this trip. No wannabe McCrae antics. We're here to admire nature and cruise at a normal heart rate. Take in the scenes and enjoy some nice routes in a nice truck because that's what we're supposed to do in this scenario, right?
After a few miles, the route began winding and undulating more as we trekked into the nearby hills, and what would pass as a countryside road quickly evolved into a climb towards the clouds; the Stelvio Pass sans the asphalt. Nature and the winter season even decided to throw us some snow for a bit of that razzle-dazzle.
The view was incredible to say the least. Snow laid before us. The rocks of the mountain, which was spotted in various shades of black, and brown, contrasted against the frosted trail. Over the cliffside was a mesmerizing vista of the desert terrain fit to serve as a desktop screensaver.
A neat little treat down below is the ghost town of Leadfield, notable for having been established then almost immediately dying in less than two years. There stand only a small handful of buildings, and the mineshafts in the hills behind the town are blocked off to prevent idiots like myself from inevitably getting lost in what's likely a labyrinth inside.
My dad's Silverado carried along unfazed by any of the obstacles that may inconvenience a Safari 911. Despite not being a Trail Boss or Z71 truck, it attacked every terrain change with relative ease. While it could have cleared the large rocks and deep sand we encountered without its four-inch lift or 35-inch Toyo tires, they undoubtedly helped and ensured they would never be a problem, ever. The four-wheel drive was seamless and competent in Auto, quietly shuffling power between the front and rear wheels like a trick all-wheel drive system. No lockers, no problem.
My dad's Silverado RST was modified with a 4" ReadyLIFT kit, 18" Black Rhino wheels, and 35" Toyo Open Country R/T tires.
Along the trail were other urban escapists in their charming variety of utes. There were old, overland-built 4Runners on massive tires and tasteful wheels, stock Wranglers, a TRD Off-Road Tacoma, and even a stock Subaru Forester. How pleasant it was to see an unmolested Subaru outside of a commercial keeping pace with more brawny metal.
Admittedly, it was hard to admire the scenery or the other drivers' machines when I had my mom shrieking in the back seat that she's afraid of heights. Come on, mom. It's only a few-hundred foot drop. The sagebrush will cushion our fall.
Equally as beautiful as the mountain view was the canyon that awaited us. It started as a wide river bed section littered with gravel and brush. As we carried along, the canyon walls narrowed further and further the vast space is reduced to roughly a car lane and a half. The perfect setting for an ambush scene in an old Western film.
The gravel smoothed back out into another washboard road by the time the canyon closed in. No more threat of getting stuck in a gravel trap, just the new threat of being crushed by whatever boulder Wile E. Coyote decides to yeet off the several-hundred foot rock walls.
This is the part in video games where you encounter all the loot to prepare for the upcoming boss battle.
The dirt path zig-zagged through the canyon like a slalom course with the world's largest cones. Millions of years of rock formation was cut away for us to dissect with our own eyes, and if we were lucky, we'd even spot old Native American petroglyphs too. Or at least the ones that weren't vandalized with names, smiley faces, and penises.
After briefly being smothered by stone, the canyon almost immediately gave way to a gaping maw that deposited us onto the final dirt road. We clocked off a few miles enjoying the ability to pick up some speed and kick up dust with all 277 of our horsepower. Soon, we reacquainted our Toyos with that sweet, grippy tarmac.
We found a small pull-off in the canyon to soak in the views on foot.
Down the road and heading south towards Badwater Basin, we pulled off at a rest stop for a homemade lunch, too impatient to wait on encountering a camp site or proper picnic ground of sorts. We had driven for hours at this point and conquered Titus Canyon. We earned the break.
My mom, usually a stay-at-home binge watcher on her off days, stood wide-eyed and starstruck at that world that existed outside our living room. My 12-year old brother on the other hand, while excited to keep travelling, stood wide-eyed for a solid fifteen minutes before unsheathing ye ol' Nintendo Switch. Kids these days.
My dad, being the dad and alpha Chad that he is, was quick to whip out the mini fridge and bite-sized camping grill out of the truck bed. Nothing flexes harder on other travelers than enjoying medium rare steak and hot dogs on the side of the road.
We ventured further south, edging closer to Badwater Basin, a section of Death Valley notable for its snow-white salt flats and stories of supposed explorers who died attempting to satiate their thirst with the salted spring water (Upon returning home, I learned the more widely accepted story for the region's name is of a surveyor's mule who simply refused to drink from the spring).
Alongside the Badwater salt flats, the Silverado ticks cool from a long day traversing the desertscape.
The sun began to lower at the lowest point in America, but we decided to make one last stop to brew some coffee in the bed of the truck and admiring the sunset over the salt-encrusted sands. The waning sunlight glistened beautifully off the silver GT-R and white Cayman GTS in the parking lot, and a Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia sat pretty on the side of the road. The Silverado ticked cool as the family I warmed up with a few cups of (overly) strong instant coffee.
The family workhorse stands unchallenged by the day's excursion. Hi, mom. Hi, dad.
Is it a bit of a back-handed compliment to say Death Valley is as intriguing and picturesque as it is empty and boring? I encourage anyone who has never visited the national park to give it a shot and see for yourselves. Find a spot to hike or picnic. It's a trip worth taking but for opposite reasons of why you'd visit any other place. The kicker is the vast emptiness of the desert; it's interesting because there is nothing. Maybe the sand dunes will tickle or fancy, or maybe you'll find a pretty stone you'd wanna take as a memento. Living up to its name as a hostile wasteland inept at supporting all but a few stubborn speckles of life, it's incredible to venture and see everything yet nothing at all.
More importantly, the day struck a chord rooted deep in my childhood, and good grief, am I sucker for nostalgia. It had been years since I experienced such a joy ride even if it was at 15 miles per hour in a diesel truck that barely turned three-thousand revs. Sure, it wasn't a rock trail in my dad's old Wrangler, but it was still a treat nonetheless, even with my dad driving as I rode shotgun. It's a different kind of fun from carving corners in my Mustang, and the feeling of not being bound to the pavement adds a level of freedom no sports car can match.
Will I be hunting for used V8 Raptors or putting a deposit down on a Bronco? Nah. As blasphemous as it may be in my hometown to trade all-terrain versatility for on-road dynamism, I belong on the pavement. But if I ever yearn for something a little different, more adventurous, I know the dirt I was baptized in won't disappoint. In fact, I sometimes feel bad for turning my back because it never disappointed before. Perhaps taking up amateur rallying in the future should be in order.