Skip to main content
| Reda Anderson | Trip Reports

2007 Trip Reports - Challenging trip to Arizona

Neal & Marian's Challenging trip to Arizona


Leader:  Marian Johns

Written By Reda Anderson

It appears that the gods were bored one day and just for fun intentionally created an extraordinary obstacle course which four unwary Desert Explorer vehicles happened upon.

            Meeting in Quartzsite, Arizona the second day after Christmas were the participants and their vehicles: 1) Neal and Marian Johns (Toyota pick-up with a pop-up camper); 2) Reda Anderson (2007 Nissan Xterra with Off Road Package); 3) Jim Watson (2007 FJ Cruiser, lifted); and 4) Charles and Mary Hughes (Toyota pick-up with a pop-up camper).

            The objective was to tour the same back roads near the Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness, northeast of Tucson, that Neal and Marian Johns had explored ten years previously. (See DeLorme Atlas, Arizona, pages 60 D3, 68 A1, 2, 3 and 67 A6.)  A relaxing drive on easily passable dirt roads with spectacular scenery was anticipated.  In that endeavor, we experienced several untoward incidents.

            The trip began benignly. Reda’s friend, Larry Lowe, met us in Mesa, AZ. Larry led us to a primitive campsite east of Mesa in the Superstition Mountains, eight miles to the end of Peralta Road, a well-graded gravel road. Larry built a magnificent campfire with twigs and one ironwood log, partially split into four pieces that amazingly lasted all evening. We bid adieu to Larry in the morning after a short hike, and journeyed southeast on highway 60.

            Near Superior, we visited the site of Old Pinal City and checked out the wagon ruts on the freight road into town, the overlook of the river and a nearby shelter cave.

            Just northwest of Safford, on highway 70, we turned off the pavement southwest onto Klondyke Road, then northwest onto Aravaipa Road so replete with mines it’s called the Aravaipa Mining District.  And then the first significant mishap occurred. 

            Reda pulled up out of Aravaipa Creek and drove straight assuming the road continued dead ahead. It did not. To her right was a hole large enough to tip her sideways and consume a third of the Xterra.

            “I’m in trouble here,” she exclaimed on the CB. 

            “Should we come back?” Neal asked.

            “I’ll have to be yanked out.”

            Reda was embarrassed. If she had been paying attention to her driving instead of the scenery, going into the pit would have been totally avoidable. The yank strapping procedure took under half an hour and we continued. 

            From Aravaipa Road, we turned south onto Turkey Creek Road but missed the cliff dwellings. Working our way through the north end of the Galiuro Mountains, somehow it seemed the group would experience a mildly rough stretch for no more than few hundred yards then the road roughened and something else would happen.

            Big and small boulders of every configuration to crawl over any which way. Tail draggers. Deep ruts to fill.  Rugged staircases. Washouts, some visible, some not. Four foot high drop offs stretching across the road. Narrow areas with a hill to the left and heavy boulders to the right which had to be dug out and moved in order to pass. And sneaky wet spots that look like nothing but then unexpectedly cause a vehicle to slide. And, that was the cause of the second significant mishap.

            Marian was meandering up a slight grade, on a smooth road, through what felt like a Sunday drive through the countryside. Suddenly she hit a wet spot and the Toyota started to skid off the side of the road, down an embankment. 

            Everyone jumped to attention trying to hold the Toyota from continuing its slide down the hill. Reda was pushing on the front of the vehicle when she slipped on the sloppy mud. Her fall/slide downhill was stopped when she grabbed onto a good sized clump of tall grass. After that, Reda became mostly an observer preferring to tend to various bruising and swelling aches and pains.

            Jim Watson moved his FJ Cruiser to the front of Marian’s Toyota. Charles Hughes moved his vehicle to the Toyota’s rear. Yank strapped front and rear, Marian’s vehicle was able to be pulled slightly back onto what appeared to be mostly stable ground. Jim’s strap was then slackened. Reda immediately shouted, “She’s going down!  She’s sliding!  She’s sliding!” The front end had slid again, this time about 18 inches toward downhill merely by loosening the front yank strap.  Trouble refused to take a holiday. The strap was again tightened. These were very exciting moments for everyone. 

After two hours of pushing and pulling, yanking here and there, putting rocks by the wheels to stabilize the vehicle, and occasionally yelling at each other, it was decided to try to pull the Toyota backwards up the embankment. That worked and to everyone’s relief it was on solid ground once again.

            The road that continued ahead was a muddy mess and absolutely impassible. We back tracked a mile to a deserted cabin with enough flat ground for us to make camp.  The evening temperature dropped fast. In the morning it was 19 degrees. The water inside the Xterra had frozen during the night; the Handi Wipes were also frozen, into one solid block.

            There was some brief discussion about continuing the same way on the same road before the mud unfroze, but that thought was quickly abandoned.

            As the vehicles crawled up an alternate hill, things looked promising. The road was fairly good, comparatively speaking, the sun was shining, and the worst was over.  But, the farther we traveled, the badder the bad road got. This was not just bad, but miserable.

            The boulders we were forced to straddle increased in size and complexity. We inched along at a snails pace for miles, barely getting out of low gear, low range for more than a few minutes. It was frequently necessary to apply the brakes going down grade. When the Xterra would go too fast even in low-low, the HDC (Hill Descent Control) system was applied simply by pressing the appropriate switch on the dash. Guiding the Xterra, with feet off the brakes, the vehicle did the braking automatically.  Marvelous invention.

            None of us had ever seen anything like this road. The washouts became more severe. Then Marian warned, “There’s a washout on the left. You have to go high to the right,” meaning partially up the hill to the right. Following her instructions, Reda did just that, stopping a few car lengths ahead of the washout to wait for Jim.

            “Jim, there’s a big washout on the left. You have to go high to the right,” Reda warned.

            “Where’s the washout?” he asked. That’s interesting. He was quite close but asked where it was.

            “Between us. Right there,” she pointed.

            Jim made it through fine. Reda continued up the worst all possible hills, rockier and more unbelievable than the rest. And that’s when the third significant incident happened just as unexpectedly as the prior two.

            Charles and Mary Hughes’ left rear tire dropped into the washout and stayed. The left front tire was on solid ground but the front right tire was dangling more than four feet in the air. We did not want to believe that this had happened. It was one scary sight to see. 

            Scarier yet to see were Neal and Jim climbing on top of the front bumper. The rest of us grabbed the same bumper and attempted to pull it down. Try as we might, our combined weight was not enough to lower the front right tire to the ground.

            Next, a yank strap connected Jim’s vehicle to Charles’ Toyota. Jim tightened the strap and then gunned the FJ Cruiser big time. The Toyota righted itself.  Jim yanked again a few times and the Toyota was out of the washout.

            But the Hughes’ had heard a loud noise just after the Toyota went into the washout. The vehicle wasn’t drivable. For hours, the Toyota was examined in minute detail in an effort to determine what had caused the noise. Apparently, it had suffered a broken rear axle. 

            What to do? We were 16 torturous miles from Mammoth, the nearest town. Even so, with a population of about 1,800, it was unlikely Mammoth would have the necessary parts; they would have to come from Tucson the nearest large city.  It was Sunday.  Everything was closed anyway. Monday was New Years Eve.  People would probably be working a shortened day. What to do?

            Charles decided to stay with the vehicle. After all, he is an ex-cop, and knew well if the Toyota wasn’t guarded, it would be stripped. Oh, he would have the shell of the Toyota, but in short order, no tires, no camper, nothing else.

            So, reluctantly, Mary hopped into Jim’s FJ Cruiser with her overnight gear as she needed to get home to her job as an Elderhostel guide. The three vehicles with their extra passenger continued to climb up the steep grade to what we hoped was level ground and the top of the mountain. 

            We were able to continue only a few tenths of a mile stopping mid-mountain due to darkness.  Thankfully we came to a small flat campsite where the three vehicles could fit safely, in close proximity to each other, for the night.

            The next morning it was more of the same. We toiled mile by mile but the roads, as they straightened and flattened, became braided. Guessing which way to go, we went north, southeast, southwest, east, all over. We were lost.

            Until, that is, the black spot on the far hill got larger. A black truck! We were saved. Four hunters had come in from Mammoth, eight miles south. Neal explained our plight. The driver is the brother-in-law of a mechanic. We breathed a sigh of relief when the mechanic told us, via a cell phone call, that he would be willing to find parts and repair the Hughes’ vehicle. We would go directly to the mechanic’s house. The hunters pointed us in the right direction and we were off with great enthusiasm and renewed spirit. 

             We finally arrived in the city of Mammoth, Pinal County, Arizona. In Mammoth you can buy a three bedroom, two bath, 1,100 square foot little cottage on a fenced corner lot for $49,000, but you can’t buy Verizon cell phone access. It had been prearranged that Charles would use Neal’s satellite phone to call us at noon. We got no call, and then realized we had no cell phone service. 

            We tried many times to reach Charles but could not get cell service any where in town. Unable to reach us by cell phone at the prearranged noon hour and gravely concerned that we had not made it off the mountain, Charles Hughes called the Sheriff to report the situation.  Then he waited.

            The mechanic had introduced himself as Chief. Thirty-year-old Chief (Serapio Rodriguez) knew the area well. From a friend, for $200, he was able to get a complete Toyota rear end, intending to use what ever parts might be needed and return the leftovers.  Allowing at least a couple of hours to fix the axle once they’d gotten to Charles, and a minimum of two hours return to town, it was decided the repair crew would set out the following morning.  Charles would spend New Years Eve on the mountain, stranded.

            On New Years day, at 8:30 in the morning, Neal, Marian, and two mechanics left Mammoth and headed towards Charles.  At 9:00 p.m., the Toyota was fixed and ready to go. Rather than stay overnight, the vehicles labored in the dark sometimes towing the Toyota. Finally, out of the boonies, they arrived in Mammoth at 1:00 a.m.

            Extreme four wheeling. The average age of the group is late 60s. What were we doin’ on this mountain? Why weren’t we home reading the proverbial good book or watching TV? If you’re reading this, you’re a Member of the Desert Explorers.  You know why we do the things we do.  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

And now, “The rest of the story” by Marian Johns.

            Neal and I made this same trip nine years ago with Desert Explorers, Don Putnam, Bill Ott, Warren Alknis and Allan Wicker. It had some challenging spots, but was nothing like it is today. Reda suggested we call it the “Road to Hell”. I believe it’s the worst trail I’ve been on with the possible exception of California’s Rubicon. The adage “A picture is worth a thousand words.” just doesn’t apply in this case. Neither pictures nor words can adequately describe what we faced on this trail. Locals have dubbed the worst section Carpet Hill because of the numerous carpets remnants left by Guadalupe Salazar to help negotiate that incredibly steep, washed-out and boulder-strewn hill in a two wheel drive many years ago. At the beginning of this part of the trip – in Aravaipa Creek and Turkey Creek, we noted a drastic change in the canyon bottoms. The old road was essentially gone. Everything was topsy-turvy – trees uprooted, boulders and debris lodged against standing trees – a general mess. It was obvious a tremendous flood had occurred since we had been there nine years earlier. In fact, I found out later, that’s exactly what happened in late July of 2006. All of south central Arizona experienced record-breaking rains and floods. 

            Adding insult to injury, Feliz, one of the two huskies we brought along, had an accident in the truck front seat where I left her when Reda and I walked (stumbled) back down the steep trail to the Hughes’ disabled vehicle. Later, when I returned to our truck, I had a smelly mess to clean up. Neal’s poor GPS took a direct hit.

            In retrospect, our journey back to rescue Charles with Serapio, the mechanic, was comical. Alas, Serapio’s old truck was deathly ill. First, he and his 16 year old helper, Nick, had to stop and add water to the radiator. Next they stopped to add transmission fluid. Once a 4x4, their truck had the front driveshaft removed. They brought it along and at the first steep rough section tried to reinstall it, but unfortunately things underneath had rusted so badly that that idea was given up. They tried and failed to continue in two wheel drive. That’s when we took the lead and towed them up the next several hills. Eventually they had to leave their truck; the Toyota rear end was loaded into our camper with Serapio and Nick crammed in back with it. We would have saved at least an hour if we hadn’t made all the stops trying to nurse Serapio’s truck along.

            At the top of the worst and steepest last half mile, they happily opted to walk down the rest of the way. Charles was ecstatic to see us and couldn’t believe we made it back so soon. Serapio found a damaged ring and pinion in the rear differential. It took him from about noon until 9:00 p.m. to complete the job. Wouldn’t you know, Murphy’s Law had a hand in things – Four bolts didn’t quite match up and he had to put smaller ones in at a slight angle. This meant a weakened drive-train and Charles found himself in another predicament. Eventually, it was decided that we would strap him behind our truck and semi-tow him up Carpet Hill to where it was more level and he could continue under his own power. That towing feat had our mechanics in awe of our little Toyota truck. 

         I should add that Reda and her new Nissan Xterra did a marvelous job driving that “road to hell” as did Jim in his new Toyota FJ Cruiser. At one point, Reda made an interesting statement - “The trouble with this road is all other roads will now seem boring.”

          One more “adding insult to injury” event happened after we and Charles made it back to Mammoth. It was 1:00 a.m. and we were on the way out to a camping spot. First, I sort of blew a stop sign and then we inadvertently got on a one-way street going the wrong way. Next thing we knew, Charles was nailed by the local sheriff and we heard him say on the CB, “I’m being pulled over by a cop!” Luckily, he only got a warning.

            The memory of our experience is already mellowing – not that I ever intend to repeat this trip. But now that we are safely home, we can congratulate ourselves on facing and overcoming a real challenge.

            So ends the saga of Marian’s promised, Easy, Warm, and Scenic Trip.