Offroading: From Heaven to Hell and Back

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In 1977 an event occured that changed the face of auto insurance in the United States. The events documented in these slides show why US auto insurance companies (and Allstate Insurance in particular) no longer offer towing coverage for 4x4 vehicles as part of normal coverage. With the advent of the SUV and its subsequent popularity, one can only wonder what the average SUV owner thinks when the agent informs them that towing coverage is not included in the cost of their insurance package.


All of the following material is true. However, several names have been omitted to protect the guilty. Author does not currently condone the activities that took place in this historical account. Off roading is a dangerous sport and requires the utmost of attention and focus. Drinking while offroading is definately not encouraged.

First, a trick question:

Offroading is:

A. A passport to adventure.
B. A money sink.
C. A dangerous toy.
D. A tool.
E. All the above.

The correct answer is E, All of the Above. Yes folks, its interesting to see what a healthy dose of machismo coupled with testosterone poisoning can do to a person's life. As stated above, this story is true with the names changed. The photos included in these pages were scanned from slides taken in 1977, thus the poor quality.

The Great Blazer Debacle

  • Four Wheeling in Arizona: Introduction to Off-roading Ralph Bell style [Go]
  • My First Truck [Go]
  • Day 1: Agua Caliente Adventures: Events Preceeding the Rollover and the rollover [Go]
  • Day 2: Panic and Preparations [Go]
  • Day 3 [Go]
  • Day 4: Sunday - Still Waiting [Go]
  • Day 5: Wrecking the Wrecker [Go]
  • Day 6: Land Crusin' [Go]
  • Day 7: Don't Bring a Boy to Do A Man's Job [Go]
  • Day 8: This Really Steams Me [Go]
  • Day 9: Leap Frog [Go]
  • The Anticlimax: Epilogue to Carelessness [Go]

    Introduction to Off-Roading: Ralph Bell-style

    The goal seemed simple enough: to have a truck like most of my peers. Being born and raised in Tucson, it seemed ingrained that boys had trucks, girls had cars. This axiom of existence in Arizona was only reinforced by my parents who had two vehicles. The car for Mom and the pickup for dad.

    After I became old enough to drive, I yearned for a truck, Not any just any truck, but a four wheel drive. Tucson in the 1970's still had miles of dirt roads. The only access, it seemed was to some for of 4WD vehicle.

    My early college was at the Colorado School of Mines, in Golden Colorado - 4WD heaven. This exposure just reinforced my desires. But the reality of trying to put myself through school wend against the grain of my objective, so a truck would have to wait.

    Due to financial problems, I left Colorado and returned to my home in Tucson to attend the University of Arizona. My parents assisted me in obtaining an automobile. But as luck would have it, it turned out to be a car, not a truck. This was OK for a while, because it was my first car. Then I met Ralph Bell. Ralph was one of those people you hear stories about. Son of a dairy farmer and an agriculture major, Ralph was a true lady's man. Very handsome and a smooth talker, he never had any trouble getting the coeds to do the horizontal bop. I guess in a sense, Ralph was my idol due to his ability to get laid at will. Ralph and I roomed together for a while in a condo near campus. Ralph worked nights as a bartender at the Smuggler's Inn. He would come in hours after the bar had closed with a new babe each night. My sport used to be to get up early enough to wait in the living room to see who (or what - Ralph could be less than discriminating sometimes) would come out of his bedroom in the morning. It was great fun! The women would sneak out of his bedroom naked, with their clothes in their hands trying not to wake him only to find me sitting on the couch with a cup of coffee, smiling and saying "don't worry, he's a sound sleeper. He never wakes up when they leave".

    Ralph burned a permanent spot in my heart when he went and bought a brand new 1975 Chevy Blazer. What a hunk of iron! 350 cubic inch V8, 4 speed transmission, deluxe interior, stereo tape player. Love at first sight! But way out of my price range.

    Ralph took me for my first "real" off road ride late one afternoon in 1975. We went to the hills on the north side of town where was going to show me "what the truck would do". Well he did. We were hauling ass up and down the hills as fast as that big V8 would take us until we encountered a small obstacle. I seemed that this area had been both used and abused by four wheelers before. Consequently, some poor, misguided soul had taken a back hoe and dug a series of 3 foot wide, 4 foot deep trenches across the hill side. The purpose was, of course, to stop folks from doing just what Ralph and I were doing. During the first 45 minutes or so of our adventure, we were lucky enough to not have encountered one of these thinly disguised tank traps. However, out luck ran out.

    Ralph was shooting up the hill, petal to the metal, we caught good air at the top. Now, on the down slope side and going well over 40 mile an hour we both saw it at the same time. Oh Shit! He locks up the wheels but we're going too fast. Impact was intense. I'm glad I had my seat belt on, because we hid hard. The good news was we hit the trench perpendicular to the long axis. the bad news was both wheels were in the hole. Ralph was furious!. Screaming and cussing, he threw the truck in reverse and dumped the clutch. Lots of paint was lost from the rocks the rear tires were shooting toward the cab. Finally, he got us free, but not without damaging the front axle. Needless to say, my view of four wheeling had mellowed just a bit. But lessons are hard learned. In fact, to quote an old boss of mine, Jim Palmer: "You can't tell people shit" (CTPS) . Translated, this means that experience, not words, is the best teacher.

    Despite the damage to Ralph's truck, and ego, I had to admit the high speed trips up and down the hills were thrilling. A pure adrenaline rush. One that I sought to repeat, perhaps with my own truck if luck was with me

    My First Truck

    Fate conspired to award me my chance at playing the fool like Ralph. I had an aunt that died and left me about $20,000. Hot damn! At first with reckless abandon, then with great care, I figured out how I was going to spend my windfall. When all was considered and school debits were paid, I still had plenty left - to buy a truck.

    Gee, but what kind of truck? I know, how about a Chevy Blazer, the kind with the "real man's V8". (Where did I get this idea, anyway?).

    Being more frugal than Ralph, I decided to get a used truck. I looked in the Tucson Daily Star classified and spotted a keeper "1976 Chevy Blazer, Auto, air, clean, $8000". How could this be? The year was 1976; a used 1976 truck? I couldn't believe my luck.

    Further investigation showed that the truck belonged to a banker. When I first went to see it, he said "I get a new one every year." Cool. This one had the sum total of 17,000 miles. By looking at the tires, brand new on-road steel belted radials, it was clear that the truck was a virgin. "Only used on hunting trips up to Utah", the Banker said. I'd take care of that virginity problem soon enough. The deal was consummated and I was ecstatic! My own truck, virtually new. A 400 cubic inch V8, automatic transmission and full-time 4WD, Sky Blue (Chevy color code 120L), deluxe tan interior, the works!. The stage was set for major fun and major mischief.

    The first order of the day was to get real rubber on this beast. Those wimpy steel belted radial road tires had to go!! So, I went to the tire store and got a set of Armstrong Tru-Traks - the en vogue off road tire of the day. Bias ply, nylon, aggressive tread. You know the kind, when they pass you on the road they buzz so loud that it makes your ears hurt. Yup. And as a bonus, since they were bias ply and nylon, they developed "flat" spots over night so the first few miles of travel on them when they are cold makes the truck ride like a paint shaker until they warm up and go back into round. Yes, a true man's tire.

    The truck was purchased in September. For the next few months, I got acquainted with the truck's feel in the sand washes and on the desert trails around Tucson. A buddy of mine from Colorado, Gary Lubers and wife to be Sandy, had moved to Tucson and we had a number of occasions to explore the dirt roads in the area. But my lust for adventure was unfulfilled. In the distance, I could see dirt roads on the sides of the mountains that ring the Tucson valley. There were several in the Tucson mountains to the west that were no shown on any maps. And, there one trail I could see that seemed to go all the way to the top of the Rincon Mountains to the east of the valley.

    I decided to start on the west and work east. It took me several days and a number of foiled attempts before I found the trail head for the dirt track I could see to the West. It seemed that someone was building a house right on the saddle of the mountain. This would give a clear, if not breathtaking view of both the Tucson valley to the East and the Avra Valley to the West. I drooled in anticipation of the view as we neared the top.

    I was not disappointed, for the view was truly world class. The road to get there, however, was not. Very rough, large rocks in the middle of the trail. But, being young and stupid, it didn't stop me from shooting up the trail full blast Ralph Bell style. Those many trips to the viewpoint never ceased to give me the full adrenaline rush I sought. Fifty miles per hour up a steep trail clogged with loose rocks and sharp drop-offs. But luck was with me and nothing bad ever happened. Consequently, I grew bolder, and turned my sights to the East. Testosterone poisoning was eminent.

    Day 1: Agua Caliente Adventures

    In the clear February air, I could see the road half way across the wide Tucson Valley. Back in 1977, the air didn't suffer from the dust and auto pollution it does today, so visibility was outstanding. I finally decided that I would find and attack the road to the east. I called two friends to join me on this expedition. Having just finished by Bachelors degree, I had several weeks until I had to report to my job in San Diego, so what better time to explore the country side? My two friends, Andy Extract (fraternity brother from the School of Mines, now living in Tucson), and Sam Cotter a U of A schoolmate, showed up at my apartment about noon. The plan was to find the road, drink a few beers, and do a little shooting. We packed the beer, bullets and the .22s and took on a tank of gas.

    We headed east and took the Snyder road exit off the Mt. Lemon highway. It took several tries and an hour before we had located the correct trail head. I consulted my road map and learned that the trail seemed to head to a place called Agua Caliente Hill. Agua Caliente Hill is about 5,000 feet in elevation and lies between the Rincon Mountains to the south and the Santa Catalina Mountains to the north. This area, generically called Reddington Pass harbors deep canyons with near vertical walls. The road to the little town of Reddington is still dirt today and provides the fastest route from Reddington to Tucson. Most of the canyons in this area are only marginally negotiable and then only with ropes and technical climbing tools. Being the fool that I was, I did not have with me a topographic map, only a larger scale road map that identified only the largest of features.

    As we started up the trail, I felt the adrenaline rush coming on. But, unlike other trips, I felt uneasy. I kept the speed well under control because the trail was rough. Very rough. In fact, it was the toughest trail I had been on to this point. Still, we had many hours of light left, so we pressed on higher and higher up the face of Agua Caliente Hill. The view out the rear view mirror was commanding. As the beer took its toll, we stopped to admire both a nearby bush and the view. The warmth of the February sun was a good contrast to the chill of the wind. Though the breeze was not strong, the temperature was chilly at 3500 feet in the desert mountains.

    As we progressed up the trail it got steeper and steeper. Some rancher with a bulldozer had added berms in the trail to prevent erosion of what little trail was left. Ahead, right in the center of the trail was a large outcropping of rock. On either side of the trail, heavy stands of "Spanish Dagger" a type of tough, and sharp, cactus. Clearly, I couldn't skirt the rock. I had to take it straight on. Ever so slowly, in compound low, I inched forward. The head of the outcropping passed the front differential with no noise, so we pressed on. Then, the sickening sound of granite on steel. We came to an abrupt stop. Thinking, incorrectly, that a little forward momentum might solve the problem, I eased on the gas. I was treated to the sound of spinning tires and flying rocks. We didn't move an inch. The truck was clearly high centered on the outcropping. Moreover, since I had goosed the engine causing the tires to spin, the truck was now balanced on the outcropping, the tires having dug a hole.

    I killed the engine, got out and examined the situation. Andy and Sam were unfazed and drank another beer. I however, was starting to grasp the gravity of our current situation. I had minimal tools. The time was now about 3 PM, the sun was sinking low into the desert horizon and the chill in the air was more noticeable. I had only brought minimal tools: an army shovel and some jumper cables. And we were clearly stuck - real stuck.

    After discussions with my truck mates, we decided that we would jack up the rear axle, fill the holes under the rear tiers with rocks and see if we could get enough clearance to go over the outcropping. 20 minutes later, dirty, sweating and generally pissed, we were ready to try. Lots of noise, lots of dust, but no motion. We repeated the exercise with bigger rocks with the same results. Then I got the idea that we were attacking the wrong end of the truck. The jack and rocks should be on the uphill side and that would place the downhill wheels solidly on the ground allowing us to back off the outcropping. This maneuver worked, but backing down that very, very steep trail was a heart stopper. Visibility out the back window of the Blazer was limited, and the penalty for deviating from the trail was a flat tire from the Spanish Dagger.

    After a short but agonizing distance down the hill, I stopped and reloaded tools and passengers. We were able to back down another few hundred yards until I was able to turn around. At least I can see where I am going now. I had no desire to retrace the route we took to get to our current position. The steep, narrow trail really got the better of me and I was seeking another alternative when a trail to the north appeared. "What I god-send" I thought. I could see the Catalina Highway in the distance and the trail appeared to go straight to it. The concept of driving on a nice, wide, smooth, paved road with guard rails looked pretty good.

    Assuming the right fork went to the Mt. Lemon Highway, I took the right fork without a second thought. The trail went sharply down the side of the ridge into the arroyo below. Within 15 minutes we were crossing the cold, swift running water of Agua Caliente Wash. The crossing was uneventful. In the deepening shadows of the afternoon sun, we headed up the switch backs onto the next ridge toward the northwest. This ridge was even steeper than the previous. Whereas the trail from the previous ridge came straight down to the wash, this ridge was steep enough to force the trail to have switch backs. Despite the switch backs, the trail was still quite steep and narrower than before. Clearly, the dozer operator who cut the trail got paid by the mile not by the quality of the resulting work. Up the ridge to the crest proceeding now back to the northeast, we descended into Molino Canyon. Another water crossing. Up the far side and over the next ridge. Down again. By now, given the late hour, perhaps 4 PM, I was getting real nervous. The last upgrade had no margin for error. I had a first class, one way ticket to paranoia and I had a window seat. As we ascended the ridge, I could look out my side window and down many hundreds of feet to the running water below. But at this point, we were committed. We had no choice but to continue on the current course. Surely we would intersect the highway soon and be back on pavement. At the next bend in the road we came to the cattle tank. Rancher jargon for "a hole with water in it". By Arizona standards, this was a fair sized tank - perhaps 200 feet in diameter with trees on the far side that obscured the trail. We followed the trail around the far side of the tank only to discover that the purpose of this trail was for access to the tank - not access to the Mt. Lemon highway.

    "What a jerk" I was saying to myself when we stopped. I had been suckered in, fooled hornswoggled, misled and otherwise tricked. In my haste to not have to re-do the front slope trail I wanted to believe that this fork would take me where I wanted to go. Of course, if I had a map... No time for those thoughts now. The light is fading fast and we still have to descend the front slope. Only now there was the real possibility of having to do major portions in the dark. Not an appealing thought.

    We immediately headed back the way we came. Only now, with a true purpose - get off the hill before darkness made the passage impossible. In our infinite wisdom, we did not have any supplies for spending the night. No coats, no sleeping bags, no food and no extra water. And, being somewhat adverse to sleeping in an upright position (assuming we could find flat ground to park the truck), I wanted to get home.

    Up the ridge and back down into Molino Canyon. The shadows are deep now making the dichotomy of light and shadow hard on the eyes. From the bottom of Molino canyon to the top of the next ridge, we made good time. Then we began the descent into Agua Caliente Canyon with its steep grades and even steeper cliffs. As we descended the first switch back, I again found myself back on the paranoia plane. Only this time, I had an isle seat and couldn't see out the window. The driver side was now to the uphill face of the cliff face. Instinctively, I kept the truck close to the face. By now we had been off the road for over 5 hours and fatigue combined with the stress of steep grades was setting in - in spades. For one critical instant, the front of the Blazer went into the shadows, while the windshield was still in the sun. Wham!

    The roll was slow, almost surreal, and only lasted perhaps 5 seconds. But 5 seconds was more than enough. In the instant of reduced visibility I had hit a boulder protruding from the face with the left front wheel. The forward momentum of the truck combined with a "toward the cliff" slope on the road, cause to Blazer to corkscrew to the cliff's edge.

    The truck was leaning on the passenger side, teetering on the brink of the abyss of the north face of Agua Caliente Canyon. I remember watching as the center console between the front bucket seats disgorged its contents onto Andy. A cascade of wrenches, sockets, pliers and a flashlight fell on the side of his head. He cried out in pain and fear as we both looked down the cliff through the passenger window.

    Sam was screaming "We're going to die! Get out! Get Out!". I was shouting "Hold still, we're still rocking, if you keep moving we'll roll for sure!".

    For several very long seconds we all hung there from our seat belts like rag dolls. Finally, I said "We have to get out, but carefully". Initially, I thought we could kick out the back window, but that would require us to exit underneath the truck. Not good form. I finally decided that I would exit via the driver's side door. I managed to undo my seat belt by bracing my right leg on the transfer case lever. Once undone, I stood on the lever and pushed on the door. Hard. Harder. The door must be jammed! No, just very heavy. Finally I got it pushed up enough to get through. I was quickly followed by Andy and then Sam. With each person's exit from the Blazer, it rocked precariously. Once I was clear, I figured that my first mission was to stabilize the truck. I got behind and below to assess the situation and discovered that only the springy, resilient boughs of a Mesquite tree had saved us from certain death. As long as the branches held, the truck would not roll. Once both Andy and Sam were out of the truck and the palpitations wore off, we had to made a decision what to do.

    There was no way we could right the truck given our current set of tools. With no supplies in the truck and no flat ground in sight, it seemed that the only logical thing to do was the go for help. And fast. The twilight was thick now and would only get worse.

    We assessed what we had in the truck. One flashlight, 2 - .22 pistols, 1 - .22 rifle, ammo, tools. I decided that we would take the guns with us, leave the ammo and tools. And so we went. On foot down that steep grade toward the bottom of Agua Caliente Canyon. It took about 30 minutes to make it to the bottom of the canyon. looking back up the cliff at my once virgin truck, it looked like a speck on the hill, barely visible. Well, I said I'd fix that cherry, right?

    Once at the wash, we turned downstream to the west, the glow from the lights of Tucson visible beyond the outline of the hills. For a water course, Agua Caliente Canyon is steep. We boulder crawled for the next three hours. Down steep drop-offs, between large boulder, over logs and through cracks in the rocks. By now the moon had risen in the east - good thing too, because the batteries in the flashlight was gone belly up. Wet and cold, I was wishing for a quick end to this ordeal. I figured that once we were out of the canyon, it would be a short hike to a road, then to a house with a phone. Once at a phone, we'd call my girlfriend Holly and have her come pick us up. Seemed like a solid plan.

    We exited the canyon about 9 PM. Totally soaked from the waist down, and squeaking as we walked. The backcountry equivalent of Jim Croce's "Working at the Car Wash Blues". Finally, lights! There was a ranch house ahead. Stopping to consider how we might be viewed by the occupant of said ranch house, Sam and Andy stayed close to the road with the guns, and I went to the house to knock on the door.

    I knocked and knocked and knocked. Finally a voice said "What do you want". I explained my situation, that I rolled my truck, that I hiked down the canyon, that I wanted to call my girl friend to pick me up, that I had wet, muddy boots...

    The rancher said "Just a minute". Several minutes, actually. When I was let in, I felt very ill at ease. Couldn't really put my finger on it, but ill at ease. I called Holly. She was waiting by the phone, worried sick, and answered it on the first ring. I explained what had happened and that I wanted her to come pick us up. I tried to tell her where we were as best I could and she said she'd come ASAP. Recognizing of course, that she was on the other side of the valley and perhaps 45 minutes away.

    When I finished the phone call, I realized why I had felt so nervous: the rancher was behind me with his shotgun pointed at my back! What I didn't know was that there had been an escape from the prison camp on Mount Lemon that afternoon. And of course, if one was going to get away from the prison camp, you would come down one of the arroyos. And of course, you would have to make up some kind of bullshit story as to why you were out there in the middle of the night, wet, with muddy boots. Figuring that discretion is the better of valor, I expressed my heartfelt thanks to Mr. Rancher and hauled ass out of there. We hiked toward the Mt. Lemon highway figuring that's where we would meet Holly. We finally did, but by now it was almost midnight. Boy, were we glad to sit in a warm car. Whoever says the desert is warm even in winter obviously hasn't been there. Three hungry, wet, sad sacks of shit sitting in that car, getting a lecture from my girl friend! She's bitching about me not calling! Yo, Holly! Cellular phones wouldn't be invented for another 10 years. No pay phone in Agua Caliente canyon either.

    Needless to say, given the long walk, the cold, and the stress, I didn't have any trouble getting to sleep. But, sometimes even dreamless sleep can't hide the waking world's problems.

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