The story starts at the end, with my pretty much peeing in my pants (no, actually peeing in my pants) at the grocery store. Why was I peeing in my pants in the grocery store? Because I hate grocery store bathrooms and try not to use them if I don’t have to. I really just wanted to pee at my house, and I hadn’t been home in six hours. I peed more recently than six hours ago, but I peed on the side of a mountain while my car was perched on top a scree field of loose rock, staring into a valley painted with color-changing aspens and wondering what the fuck I was going to do if I reached a spot of more-impassable “road.” I really wanted to get home.
So what was I doing on the side of a mountain on a one-lane dirt/rock road anyhow? Why, searching for photo opportunities, of course. Aspens are phenomenally beautiful, what with their quaking and shimmering and the more so, I have discovered, now that they are changing colors — from summer’s green, to yellow, to the first hints of autumn’s oranges and reds. I proposed the idea of an aspen-shooting adventure to a friend of mine, thinking perhaps we’d undertake a short hike or frolic through the woods, find ourselves on a bald hilltop somewhere in the hinterlands of the National Forest with the setting sun’s rays reflected in momentary bursts on the twisting leaves of the aspens, and I would find the perfect fall picture.
As the one with the car, I was obviously driving, and never having driven up Cottonwood Pass, as suggested, I proceeded as directed. Washboard gravel gave way to open range and packed dirt. At the top of the pass we turned left, heading farther uphill, into the Forest and ATV territory. I follow the obvious car road through twists and turns, along steep drop offs and through pine and aspen groves, enthralled by the drastic ridgelines along the horizons and the paintbrush splats of bright yellow glowing out of the dense pine and brush below.
But eventually the road turns rougher, the rocks on the road that were golfballs are now tennis balls, now softballs, now soccer balls. The divots and tire tracks in the road deepen and what could have passed for shoulders disappear completely. I pass the last three points of no return and, after miraculously navigating more than my fair share of what, after heavy rains, would have been dramatic puddles but on such a dry afternoon were nothing more than a busted suspension waiting to happen, we reach the crest of a hill.
And by crest of a hill, I meant crest of a hill: the drop off was so sharp, so steep, I insisted on getting out of the car, walking the next hundred yards to plan my line, and begin kicking rocks out of the way. The downhill was the longest few miles of my life; every few hundred yards I would pull the e-brake, we’d get out and move rocks, and I would get back in the car and roll down, riding the brakes, praying, sliding, bouncing, turning quickly to avoid the jagged rock on the left and then the dried up rivulet on the right, then chose between bottoming out on the left or bottoming out on the right. Halfway down I got out again, directing my friend which rocks to move as I hyperventilated and weighed worst-case scenarios against each other. What if I took the whole undercarriage of the car out? What if I broke the suspension? What if I pop a tire, or bend a wheel? What if I lose my brakes? What if I end up perched on a boulder, not a single wheel touching the ground? What if I get somewhere impassable, can’t turn around, or worse, can turn around but can’t get back up the scree field I just slid down with five inches of clearance? WHERE THE FUCK AM I?
I can see the highway off the right, but the road is curving left; all I can see is more rocks, more dirt, more troughs, more potential for disaster with every passing meter, and we appear to be proceeding into deeper depths of forest and forgotten, abandoned land.
I’m panic-pressing the clutch even though I’m coasting down in neutral. Dust is flying into every orifice in my body and every rock I bounce over ricochets through my skeleton; is this the one that’s going to end it all? I’m driving down a staircase of granite boulders buried so far underground they’re barely there. I’m sweating, breathing, my heart rate is through the roof and I’m doing rapid illogical panicked budgetary calculations for what at this point seems the inevitability of me literally tearing to shreds the underside of the car that isn’t actually mine to begin with. Thank god the insurance company doesn’t know I’m doing this, I realize.
The grade of the hill starts to level out a bit, my heart rate slows, and my friend points out my salvation; a familiar canyon off to the right, and a moment later, a maintained, graveled dirt road running perpendicular to the spawn of Satan I was tumbling down with my last, dying breaths. I stop at the end, get out, and look back up at what had, moments before, passed for a road. I do the requisite check of the underside, sides, front, and back of the car. Aside from the thick, impenetrable coat of dust and a few much-looser probably-pointless plastic pieces and the scraps along the side of the car from the high alpine desert brush I was forced to drive a little too close to (by which I mean on top of), we had emerged more or less unscathed. Lesson learned.
We stopped by the Colorado River just before getting back on the “highway” and watched some men fishing. I stalled twice starting in second. That’s how shaken I was. I pulled a U-turn in the next town to hit up the Dari Delite, the closest ice cream shop this side of the continental divide and still a solid 25 miles away.
There we sat, halfway home, dust-covered and surrounded by sunset and alpenglow, licking cones of soft serve twist, shooting the shit and discussing life, love, and the pursuit of pursuits, reveling in the last moments of late summer’s adventures. And the car still runs.