“Buy the ticket. Take the ride.” – Hunter S. Thompson
Stanton Perry, my driving partner for an epic 1977 on-and-off-the-road trip, hailed from Palm Beach, Florida. We met in 1971 at Avon Old Farms School, the boys’ boarding school in Connecticut where we became fast friends and then life-long BFFs.
In those days, Stan spent his Thanksgivings with our family and then, after my folks bought a condo in Palm Beach for my grandmother, I spent most of my winter and spring breaks in Florida. Stan and I were also college roommates at Syracuse University in 1975. Though we grew up in very different circumstances, we both had absent fathers, lenient mothers and a high tolerance for risk, making us very compatible friends.
In July of 1976, I moved to Arizona and shed my 1973 Oldsmobile 442 for a new blue Jeep CJ-7 and then set about exploring my new state, both on and off the road. A year later, Stan followed and bought his own Jeep CJ-7. The day after Stan received his new Jeep, we left on what was to become our 1977 Epic Road trip across the American West—our last such adventure before getting serious about life. I was 23 and Stan, 21. We took to the road in Stan’s new CJ-7, who we named Bob (mine was Alice) and camped out every night of the three weeks (save one night at a Howard Johnson’s Hotel in Salt Lake City). The plan was to keep off interstate highways as much as possible, explore interesting and scenic roads, visit my parents who were summering at the Aspen Institute, and visit my uncle and cousins in northern California. We made no advance reservations; we just took to the road and winged it.
It was our “fear and loathing” trip, fueled by gasoline and beer; our last blast before we would have to get jobs and join the adult world. We camped in truly amazing places—some accessible only by Jeep—got kicked out of at least one restaurant, nearly got struck by lightning camping atop a mountain, and in one instance, nearly died in a hole…literally. Here is what happened…
Owning a Jeep CJ is a ticket to explore dangerous roads that are, for the most part, not maintained for public use. Having had my Jeep for a full year before we embarked on our trip and having spent some time exploring such roads and, in some cases, bounding through the desert on no road at all, I sort of knew what to look out for.
After we had spent quality time camping in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado and stayed in our lone hotel in Salt Lake City, we headed west to Lake Tahoe along Central Nevada’s two-lane U.S. Route 50, dubbed, “the loneliest road in America,” by Life Magazine. Somewhere along that road, we arrived at a state historical marker number 202 posted by the Reno chapter of the Daughters of the American Colonists, which read, “FAIRVIEW 1905 – 1917, 1-1/2 MILES SOUTH” signifying an off-the-road ghost town, “that boasted 27 saloons, hotels, banks, assay offices, a newspaper, post office and a miner’s union hall.” We were intrigued and decided to leave the highway to check it out.
Now, for our younger readers, please note: there was no way out in the middle of “the loneliest road in America” to call anybody to say, “hey, we are going off the road in the middle of BFE to explore a ghost town.” In fact, nobody knew what highway we were on. All anybody knew was that we were on our way to California from Salt Lake City. In those days, there were no mobile phones, just public pay phones at gas stations, restaurants and rest stops. It was, actually, not until 1983 that the first mobile phones went on sale in the U.S. at almost $4,000 a pop. We did have a CB Radio, however, but neither of us thought to call a trucker, and have them contact their office to call our parents and tell them where we were, not that they or we would anyway, so off we went.
We started off by folding down the windshield, which one can do with a CJ. We rolled back the canvas top, put the canvas doors behind the front seats, disengaged the windshield and folded it forward to rest on the hood supports. This gave us a clear and unobstructed view of everything around us, except that it did make it more difficult to see the road in front of us—a technicality we ignored, cuz we were just cruising on a lonely, historic road toward a ghost town in the middle of the desert; what trouble could we possibly get into? After a good distance, we noticed what appeared to be mines dug out of the rock cliffs along the driver’s side of the Jeep, but no big city, no big anything. That is when we decided, “hey let’s drive off the road and just bushwhack through the scrub.” Great idea…
Stan was driving, and I was navigating, keeping a watchful eye on the desert head of us for large rocks which might cause damage to the vehicle. As we rounded a corner, off to the left of us was the enormous, concrete foundation of a multi-tiered milling facility on the slope nearby. It was the first sign we had seen that there was a substantial mining operation there and Stan just kept on driving as he was looking at it. I was also taken by the view but quickly glanced back to where we were going and suddenly saw a gaping hole in the scrub right in front of us. I yelled as loud as I could, “STOP!” Lucky for us, Stan slammed on the brakes and we stopped just inches from the edge of a vertical mine shaft large enough to swallow the entire vehicle and then some. We unbuckled and got out and here horrified to find that the opening had no fence, no cover, no nothing to prevent someone from falling in. Using our dinky flashlight, and peering into the abyss about twenty feet down, there appeared to be a decomposed wooden trestle with some cabling likely used to haul up ore many years ago. We dropped some large rocks over the edge and it was very long time before we heard anything and then a distant “sploosh” of the rocks hitting water. So, we very carefully backed Bob up and went back to the gravel road, took some photos of other old mine buildings and decided that maybe we should be on our way…
On the return to the loneliest highway, we could just not stop thinking and talking about what would have happened had we gone over that edge and plunged down into that dark, likely scorpion and black widow-infested vertical shaft. Silver mining shafts are often hundreds to thousands of feet deep. If we had tumbled down and got wedged in the shaft and survived the plunge, it would have been a slow, horrifying death. No one would have known, and we would have simply disappeared. I had chilling nightmares for months.
For our current trip, driving in a Tesla Model 3 Long Range, I have selected many great driving roads, some risky, though all maintained for public use, including the following five (descriptions are taken, sometimes directly, from the dangerousroads.org website):
- Independence Pass (July 6) a winding mountain road with sharp and blind curves and hairpin switchbacks at the summit of the ridge of the Sawatch Range between Aspen and Twin Lakes on Colorado 82. The road is narrow and steep with a 6.5% grade. The road to reach the pass is narrow, twisting, often without guardrails and at 12,100ft. (above sea level), Independence pass is the highest paved mountain pass in the State.
- Trail Ridge Road (July 6) is a stretch of U.S. Highway 34 with a length of 38 miles, in the Rocky Mountain National Park. The road climbs up Milner Pass, Trail Ridge, Fall River Pass and Iceberg Pass and is the highest continuous paved road in the USA.
- Going-to-the-Sun Road (July 13) is the only road that crosses Glacier National Park in Montana, going over the Continental Divide at Logan Pass and is heralded as one of the most scenic drives in the world. The road is also incredibly dangerous featuring twisting turns and ridiculously narrow lanes and, in many places, bordered on one side by cliffs and the other side by a drop of many hundreds of feet, unprotected by guardrails.
- Icefields Parkway (July 15) in the Canadian Rockies is one of the most beautiful drives in the world and one of the highlights of our trip. It runs 144 miles from Lake Louise in Banff National Park to Jasper in Jasper National Park and is one of Canada’s national treasures, featuring more than 100 ancient glaciers, waterfalls cascading from dramatic rock spires and emerald lakes. The road encompasses miles of stunning views through twisty hair pin corners, high elevations and steep grades.
- Sea to Sky Highway (July 17) is part of British Columbia Highway 99 between Pemberton, British Columbia and Horseshoe Bay, West Vancouver in Canada. While the road encompasses miles of stunning views through twisty hair pin corners, high elevations and steep grades, it also has a fearsome reputation, as many motorists have lost their lives on it due to inclement weather, poor visibility, speeding, passing slower vehicles, or drunk driving. Local media have called it variously the “Killer Highway”, the “Highway of Death”, and the “Ski-And-Die Highway. Lucky we are driving in summer and in a Tesla Model 3, one of the safest cars in the world.
- Nacimiento-Fergusson Road (July 29) is a 24.2-mile road from the Pacific Coast Highway 1 near Big Sur across the Santa Lucia Mountain Range in the Los Padres National Forest. The road is steep, narrow with blind corners and the last part of the road has more than 100 turns with precipitous drops and no guardrails.
My tolerance for taking physical risks certainly has receded a lot since my adolescence, but I still like driving a fast car on a twisty road. As I contemplate taking my testosterone-fueled 17-year-old son down these “dangerous” paved roads, I reflect on my own experience and wonder…who should drive?
“Screw it, let’s do it!” – Richard Branson