(c) Pablo Rey. Published in OutdoorX4 Magazine, Issue 12, December 2015
After 15 years living full-time around the world in a 1991 Mitsubishi Delica 4×4 called ‘La Cucaracha’, Pablo Rey begins to share his nomadic way of life with OutdoorX4.
Some months ago, at the close of the last Overland Expo West, I was introduced to Bill Burke, instructor of the International 4WD Association (I4WDA) and member of the 1991 U.S. Camel Trophy Team in Tanzania. That was the right place and the right year for 4WD masochist mud lovers. We talked about the thrill of adventurous driving in places where you cannot make any hotel reservation because nobody is expecting you, about crossing paths with a herd of wild elephants on forgotten jungle trails, and about meeting strangers in faraway places. It was natural; sooner or later we would start to talk about the secret places, those ones not listed in the guidebooks.
‘I’d love to write about certain islands or remote places where we’ve been during the last 15 years on the road,’ I told him. ‘But I’m afraid they could get lost too. They should be protected from outsiders.’
‘When I guide people, there is a moment when I ask them to turn off the GPS’, he said with a look of complicity.
During the last weeks I’ve been remembering his words while thinking on my first article for OutdoorX4. I was hesitating about whether I should write about the road in Southern Utah that Bill had recommended to us. He had also given us a topographic map with his own handwritten notes, something he had never done before. I don’t know, however, if he gave it to us because we get on well, or because his dog Henry had eaten half of our Utah map.
How can I keep my word to Bill and, at the same time, keep my word to OutdoorX4’s Editor about sending him good stories for the magazine? How should I write this article about this beautiful lost place in the U.S. without betraying any of them?
Why not recommend that people get lost, make less precise plans, hit any road without knowing if it is the right one? What if I only give a few GPS points? Just a few names, a starting place: San Juan River, close to Mexican Hat, for instance. It could be a good way to start playing with maps, so everyone can find his own trail and discover his own lost paradise.
We’ve been four and a half years driving in the U.S., Mexico and Canada and one of our preferred places in this part of Planet Earth is Southern Utah. The big plateau of the Colorado River -eroded into spectacular canyons and arches that stand up in defiance of logic, imagination and gravity- is a unique playground in the world. Every time we return, we find new zigzags, hidings, secondary roads, muddy tracks and rocky trails we haven’t seen before. When I’m there, I always make plans for the next time, for the day I’ll come back with a motorbike or a kayak. I highlight trails on paper maps with colorful markers and add some points on my offline maps in my tablet. And sometimes we just go, “What the hell, let’s see what we find here,” taking our house on wheels to places where you should carry only light 4WD rigs.
The Valley of the Gods had been in my bucket list for some time. Just the name was a good reason to detour to this 17-mile road into the Monticello BLM lands. Actually, we discovered it was an unpaved highway, a flat and well maintained dirt road we could have driven in a Ferrari without risking a scratch. Here, the adventure wasn’t on the road, the adventure was on the sides of it. The vertical sandstone walls make up a fantasy landscape where you can let your imagination fly and see a woman in a bathtub instead of some balancing rocks; a giant fowl laying eggs on the top of a hill; a war ship in a long bluff; and even seven sailors wearing a beret keeping an eye on the entrance to the valley.
The road, slightly wet after the intense rains of May, was taking us towards its end on road 163, when we bumped into two 4WDs coming in the opposite direction. Their occupants were waving their hands out the windows to stop us. They warned us, “You cannot cross! There is a wash! There is seven feet of water! It’s better to turn around!” We decided to keep going. If we could not cross, at least the show would be spectacular.
On the other side of the wash there were three men dressed in Mad Max motorcycle clothes, watching the brown water as if it was full of piranhas. Two other 4WD rigs, with big tires and big engines -certainly more powerful than our little Cucaracha Diesel 2.4- were waiting for the first courageous one to cross. I took off my boots off and started to walk across like I used to do in Africa, looking for big rocks or treacherous holes. Africa is the best school: you find yourself so often at a dead end that sometimes you have no other choice than to gather courage and keep going.
But there was nothing in this wash. The water level reached my ankle. So I understood the seven feet of water were long, not deep. I kept walking thru different parts, looking for the danger. There had to be a mortal trap I had not seen yet; an anaconda the size of an RV or a hole so deep that would drop us into China.
But there was not even a branch that could menace our radiator. It was absurd. There were only 10 centimeters deep of fast water. Suddenly, one of the motorcyclists, six feet tall, calls to me. As I already have my feet wet, he wants me to walk next to him and to hold him in case he falls from his bike in the wash. The amazing beauty of nature in Southern Utah attracts everybody.
Adventure could be at any corner. The word can have so many meanings…
Related link: La Cucaracha, a house on wheels
The sun was setting down when we left Bluff with extra diesel and a weeks’s food supply. It was our last chance to stock up before getting lost in Manti-La Sal National Forest. From the west Comb Ridge access, it is easy to find the two tracks running along both sides of that magnificent ridge, raised millions of years ago by seismic movement. It is the gigantic stern of a fossilized Titanic, the most beautiful landscape you can find after a brutal cataclysm.
Today Comb Ridge is an isolated and little travelled area, tinted in a supernatural red color by the sunset rays. After we set camp, we start to play with the walls of the cliff that reflect our voices in an echo charged with magic. We jump from boulder to boulder greeting the sun that shines under the clouds in a long, slow greeting. Soon it will fade into the horizon. We make a toast with two mugs full of sparkling sangria, something that doesn’t exist in Spain. Life is full of moments.
“This is bad, but makes me laugh,” says Anna, with her eyes shining in the warm light of sunset.
We are approaching, step by step, the places Bill had marked on his map. His secret perfect roads were muddy and empty, with zigzags between trees, mountains and precipices. It was a real paradise for outdoor people, with petroglyphs, abandoned First American houses hanging over cliffs, old watch towers and black bears wandering along solitary tracks. We were arriving, getting deeper and deeper in Manti-La Sal National Forest.
I understand, people get worried and safety is always a consideration. But for the explorer inside, getting lost is the best way to discover places you never knew existed. For the good, or the bad, it is an infallible way to be surprised and find new challenges; like an unexpected wash. Getting lost is a chance to experience some uncertainty in an over-insured world, and this place is in the middle of the U.S.
The impressive landscapes of Southern Utah are there waiting for the next explorer. It’s easy to get there, but if you want to discover its wonders, you have to let go and turn left or right where your gut commands. I’m sorry, I may have said too much. I have to keep my word.
On year 2000, Pablo Rey (Buenos Aires) and Anna Callau (Barcelona) quit their jobs and rented out their apartment in Spain to travel around the world during four years. Four somehow turned into fifteen. The couple, living out of their small 4WD van, a.k.a. La Cucaracha, has travelled more than 220,000 miles, passing through 60 countries, with no end in sight.
After leaving Southern Europe, these committed nomads have driven through the Middle East, Africa —from North to South, the entire American continent —from Tierra del Fuego (at the Southern tip of Patagonia) to the Arctic Ocean in Alaska, before settling in for a couple of years of discovery in North America. Getting here was no small feat. They crossed the Atlantic Ocean from South Africa to Argentina in a fishing vessel, survived elephant and Kalashnikov attacks in Africa and paddled down an Amazon river in a 6-log wooden raft. Their engine broke down in the middle of the Sudanese Sahara and froze at 15,000 feet during a very cold winter in the Bolivian Altiplano, and that’s just scratching the surface.
In 15 years they have met, shared food and stayed with some truly amazing and hospitable people. Whether in a house, hut, tent or under the stars, the take away is the same, in whatever culture, remove the dogma and indoctrination and you realize that we are all the same, one big human family living in a beautiful, albeit fragile, Earthly home.
Pablo has written three books in Spanish; one has been translated into English, Around the World in 10 Years: The Book of Independence, available at Kindle and Amazon.com. Download the first pages here!
Follow the latest adventures of Pablo and Anna on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube @viajeros4x4x4