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
"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
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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