Unemployment is a tricky thing. Searching for work really is a full-time “job”. It’s easy to get burned out, so an outlet of some sort is always beneficial. My outlet this past fall was getting out of Dodge…or the suburbs, rather. I’d jump in the truck and search for dirt as quickly as possible, leaving any stress back on pavement.
At first, my outlet was a handful of spots where I’d return time after time to relax and unwind. Over time, all that sitting began to evoke a lot of thought and therefore returning stress, so I found myself visiting my good ol’ pasttime of driving. At first it was little challenges. How long can I spend off-pavement (legally) in the time I have before needing to head back home? You see, I’ve spent many years doing basically the opposite of this. I know well or have vaguely forgotten virtually every smoothly paved road within 100 miles that has more than a couple nice curves. I’ve explored and heel-toe down-shifted into just about every one of those curves. I never paid much attention to the gravel, dirt, and mud I often rolled past…until now.
Quickly I was amidst an in-depth mapping project to find and document unpaved roads and trails in the area. Some of these areas needed to be shared, so I started putting together a route. The route grew and grew. It became too much for a single day, so the logical response was to integrate a spot to camp overnight. The great camping spots along the way were of the primitive sort, so it would have to be just me and the munchkin. And since the munchkin would be coming, I might as well make this a bit of a scavenger hunt, to keep his eyes up and outside during the long drive instead of reading or coloring. He’ll love filling in the answers. Event planning was in full force, and the first Back Road Nomad Tour (BRNT) was born.
I kept the invitations to small group of people who I knew would provide good feedback and not be idiots. The participants were coming from all over, so I figured I’d give the option of also camping the night before at Erwin Park. It is a city park at the edge of the DFW sprawl. That soon won’t be the case unfortunately.
The day came, and even with limiting the group size to 5 or 6 rigs, I quickly came to recognize during “crunch-time”, that I have a lot to learn about efficiency. Packing efficiency to be exact. While I was first to camp in order to pitch a tent/reserve our spot, I still hadn’t packed. By the time I made it back (only 5 minutes from my house, mind you), darkness had fallen, and the most efficient of the group had already arrived in their Jeep WJ, popped the rooftop tent (RTT) above the customized WWII-era trailer, and was fully in relaxation mode with a beverage. Shortly after, another arrived in his immaculate LX460, a.k.a. the 5-star Land Cruiser, and flipped open his RTT. The last finally made it in later that evening with the stature only a modded Jeep Wrangler Unlimited (JKU) can present, effortlessly announcing itself the boss of the trails. Luckily the driver didn’t carry the same ego. He and his buddy were quickly set up with a small backpacking style tent and a hammock. The evening flew by. I realized it was late, scrambled to get the munchkin to sleep, chatted by the fire some more, and we all crashed.
The next morning was a blur. After a couple hours of flailing 7 yr-old ninja limbs keeping me awake, I finally got some sleep. Too much sleep even, as I awoke to most everyone having already had their coffee and starting on breakfast. Priority one, coffee. Check. Then breakfast for the munchkin. My new friends with the sweet off-road trailer graciously shared a breakfast burrito stuffed full of eggs, cheese, and potatoes. Delicious. It was perfect timing too, as I realized it already was 9:30 and well after when I had planned on hitting the road. After what seemed like forever to tear down and pack up (remember my lack of efficiency?), we finally hit the road. Let’s see if my route and scavenger hunt questions will entertain elementary school graduates.
A few roads and questions in, we stopped at one of the scavenger hunt questions. Feedback was good. The route forward was a bit questionable. We crawled through an open gate, down a path, and…well, nothing. It basically ended. Time to jump out and look around, as even I was thrown off a bit. Of all my exploring this area, only once had I fully navigated the path due to muddy ruts and holes large enough to swallow all but a monster truck or farm tractor. The one time I did make it through this portion of the route during the planning stages, I was going the opposite direction. After a couple minutes of looking around, it clicked. That’s not the gate I came through! It’s too nice and missing a cattle guard. The JKU navigator spotted the other gate at that moment as well and nicely held it open for the group until we all passed through.
The Jeep JKU wasn’t a fan of taking “the line”. Basically that just meant “gravel road” up to this point, and it was quite entertaining to periodically see the JKU veer off the gravel and into a nice, angled, suspension test through the ungraded, roadside dirt. Nevermind the already ever-present dust for me at the back of the pack. Go ahead and multiply that by 3 during these excursions.
We continued down an unmaintained “road” which was basically a connector between many fields along a treeline. Treelines mean shade, and as many of us know, unmaintained Texas roads and shade equal mud (and worse, muddy clay). Fortunately most of the road was dry as a kiln until it wasn’t. The road declined into a low-lying area covered in water. The “line” looked messy, but shouldn’t be an issue for the brawny Wrangler. Even if we then had issues, the Jeep’s winch would get us through with no problem. Remember what I said about the JKU and the “the line”. Yep. That applied here too. We all watched as the big Jeep veered left into the bigger pool of water and slowed, slowed, slowed, aaaand stopped. For several minutes, the Jeep slung mud forward and backward, slowly changing it’s angle with the road each time, finally scratching and crawling it’s way back on the trail. It was an impressive show. Unfortunately in the excitement of it all, I didn’t get a single photo. The rest of us stayed to the right, in the ruts, and made it through with only a little wheelspin. Well…except the big LX. It seemed to effortlessly cruise right through without a worry in the world. To this day, most of us believe the driver never even had to put down his glass of champagne. It was such an amazingly capable and comfortable truck.
We barely made it 100 yards before stopping, and I saw people out of their trucks. “This makes that last part look easy” are the words I hear while opening my door. True statement. Tractor tire ruts. Big ones. Dry on top but muddy clay at the bottom. We assessed, moved a couple logs, and the big JKU danced the dry ridges and across a small mud hole with no issues. It was fun watching the WJ pull his trailer through. A little wheelspin through the mud, but cakewalk. No problem for my Xterra either. We don’t think the Lexus yet knew it was off-road.
And then our first hiccup. The dominant JKU seems to be leaking power steering fluid. We were soon back on our way, Lloyd the Jeep driver getting a bit of an arm workout when the motor spun under 2000 RPM.
The rest of the day was mostly uneventful. Great scenery was to be had…or as much as possible in North Texas.
More countryside and the Jeep off the road again.
We stopped for lunch out of our trucks at Hagerman Wildlife Refuge where my son promptly extracted a tooth with his peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Arriving near the campsite for the night, I jumped in front of the group to guide everyone down the trails, as I suspected things could get a bit sketchy based on the day’s earlier events, especially if it was wet. No problems though.
The next few hours were a consistent reminder that I need to better organize my gear and upgrade to a tent offering a quicker setup. As the munchkin gets older and more self-reliant, camp setup will become easier too. It was great nonetheless.
Darkness had settled and we gathered around the old military trailer setup. Periodically we’d hear vehicles revving their engines in the distance while playing on the muddy trails. On one of these occasions, Grayson stated “That sounds like a Toyota V8”. Hmmm…maybe so, but the conversation went on. About 30 seconds went by before it occurred to me that another one of our Dustball Rally buddies, Brandon, was to be arriving that night in his modded Tundra…aka the “THUNDRA”. Text messages and calls to him went unanswered for a bit before my phone rang. Indeed, the THUNDRA (with rear tires at the wear bars) had taken a wrong and unfortunate turn down a particularly muddy trail. Out came my recovery strap and the Xterra promptly had him on his way. Unfortunately, the quick and muddy series of events precluded, or at least distracted, me from taking any photos.
We loaded up as the mist began to fall and were back on the road. We lost a couple rigs due to prior commitments early in the morning, but we had gained the THUNDRA and another friend in his Explorer.
On our way we went, turning on countless back roads. We even stopped for a little sight-seeing. The grandeur of a scene sometimes doesn’t quite come across in a photo.
The THUNDRA’s traction control obviously wasn’t working, and apparently he needed new tires anyway.
This was a much shorter day, overall had smoother roads, and our speeds reflected it. Getting to the lunch spot, the end of the event, was the priority.
Events such as this tend to be focused on the adventure of it all. I think that certainly is a high point but not .the. high point. Relationships have a beautiful way of enriching the adventure, and that’s certainly what occurred this weekend. While unemployment had taken it’s stress toll during the planning, the relationships forged over these couple days are worth their weight in gold. So get out there, invite a few friends, take some family, and enjoy the outdoors. You’ll thank me later.