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Lost on Mount Lemmon

An Off-Road Driving Adventure

Mount Lemmon, in Arizona, may be the most southerly ski resort in the U.S. My wife Ana and I weren't planning to ski, but after driving into Tucson and enjoying the 78-degree December weather for a while, we decided it would be a nice contrast to drive up and see the snow that is hidden up there so close to the desert. An hour later, we had stared at the snow on Mount Lemmon's slopes for a while, and we were ready for the next adventure.

"Is there another way off the mountain?" I asked a group of young skiers. There wasn't, as far as they knew. We would have to drive the main road back down into Tucson. There was that dirt road I saw, though, about a mile back the way we came. Maybe that went down the mountain.

The Back Side of Mount Lemmon

Sure enough, the road was where I remembered it, and it seemed to go somewhere. The first sign, however, said, "Caution: Road Is Not Maintained." We had guessed that, since it was a two-track. We had done a little off-road driving already on the trip, so we figured the van could handle it.

We hadn't gone a mile before another sign warned us of the "Landslide Danger." Then there was a sign announcing that there were bears in the area. Then we met the only other car we would see in the next fourteen hours. He was coming up the road. Windows down, we asked "How is the road?" He didn't answer right away, and seemed to be staring off into space with a look... well, traumatized is the word that came to mind.

"It's interesting," he finally said, adding, "Do you have four-wheel drive?" We didn't, but we had more clearance than his car, and a little experience in off-road driving, so I figured we'd be okay. We thanked him, and he drove off mumbling to himself.

Mount Lemmon Warning Signs

"Forest Fire Damage," the next sign read. There had been several forest fires in the area recently, which left burnt trees on the road, and damage from erosion. We came to a stream, and the culvert was gone - washed out of the eroding hillside. By going slowly, and watching exactly where the tires were, we were able to cross through the water, and not slip off the mountainside. Then the road got worse.

"Washouts Ahead," the next sign read. A little late, we thought. There were more streams to cross, and trees to avoid. Then the road got better, except for patches of ice that started to appear. This wouldn't have worried us much, if it weren't for the death-drop a yard to the left of the van. Since the edge was on the left, Ana got the pleasure of looking down hundreds of feet while I tried not to let the van slide on the ice. I didn't want to slow down too much, however, since it was getting dark, and we didn't seem to be off Mount Lemmon yet.

I turned up the radio. It was tuned into a station from Mexico. The music was contagious, so I started to dance in my seat while driving, which was more fun for me than for Ana, who seemed to have an obsession with the view out her window. When we were finally past the icy parts, it was just too dark to drive safely. We found a level place off the road.

Chupacabra on Mount Lemmon

We cooked ramen noodles, ate them with crackers, and climbed into the fold-out bed. It had taken hours to get this far, and we didn't even know where we were. In the morning we would continue, and hopefully find the highway on the north side of Mount Lemmon. Not a car passed by all night.

"There's something breathing outside the window," Ana told me. It was four in the morning, and we were in the middle nowhere. I didn't feel like driving, and I didn't feel like going outside to see what was there - if there was anything.

"Don't worry," I mumbled, half-asleep. "It's just Chupacabra." Chupacabra, in case you didn't know, is a famous goat-blood-sucking monster that appears from time to time in the ranching areas of Mexico and the desert southwest of the United States. It has glowing red eyes, and has been known to sink it's fangs into human necks as well the usual livestock victims. I went back to sleep, and Ana stayed awake, not appreciating my sense of humor.

There was something breathing outside the window. I had to go to the bathroom (the bushes) in the morning, and there was chupacabra. He had turned himself into a two-thousand-pound cow, and was standing near the van. I apologized to Ana for not believing her. We found the highway an hour later.

Off Road Driving Tips

Exploring off road can be a lot of fun if you are prepared. As we learned driving off the backside of Mount Lemmon in Arizona, it can take more time than the map might indicate to get where you are going. So be sure to follow these simple guidelines:

*Bring a general highway map, so you'll know where you are when you reach pavement again.
*Start with a full tank of gas.
*Have food and lots of water.
*Check your spare tire; be sure it is inflated.
*Know the capabilities of your car.
*If you have a cell phone, bring it, just in case.

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