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  1. #1

    Default Mini Cooper vs. Monument Valley

    This May, my boyfriend got a new Mini Cooper S. After breaking it in for 2 months driving around Philadelphia, he and I packed it up and set out on a 6-week cross-country road trip. Although the trip offered a ton of great back-roads moments, the one that’s most worth sharing happened when we were visiting Monument Valley. We drove through the area on the highway, and then pulled into the visitors’ center to get a closer look. When we stopped at the booth to pay the $10 entrance fee, the Navajo woman in the booth looked the Mini up and down and paused before handing us the information sheet and road map. The park includes a 17-mile dirt road that takes you in among the massive red rock formations populating Monument Valley. The drive is supposed to take about 2 hours, since the road conditions aren’t great and the speed limit is 15 mph for the entire length of the road.

    We took the map and told the woman in the booth that we were undecided about whether we’d take the whole drive. The woman looked down at the car again, and said, “you know, I’m not sure you should try it in that.” My boyfriend (perceiving her comment as a challenge) asked, "why not?” The woman leaned down and said “look, if you really want to do it, just be careful. Make sure you go slow – in a car that low, you shouldn't even be going 15 mph out there.” We thanked her for the tip and drove on to the parking area.

    We hadn’t been planning on spending 2 hours driving around there (we were on our way to the Grand Canyon's North Rim), so I was ready to just take pictures from the viewing areas at the visitors’ center and then head to our next destination. But the woman’s comments had piqued my boyfriend's interest, so he convinced me to at least try the first half mile of the scenic loop. As we approached the start of the drive, we noticed that the cars coming back the other way were all huge SUVs or trucks, and all of them were completely coated in a thick layer of red dust. We also saw some people riding in an official tour truck, driven by a Navajo guide. When the tourists got out of the truck, they appeared to be dazed and out of breath.

    But we forged ahead. Just before we got going on the dreaded dirt road, my boyfriend made eye contact with the driver of a truck that was coming off the road. The driver shrugged his shoulders and waved his hand back and forth at me, as if to warn us and say “I don’t know about that….” Within 10 seconds of getting on the dirt road, we could see why the woman at the booth and the other driver were concerned. This wasn’t just a normal unpaved road. It was a red dirt path that had obviously seen decades of use without any maintenance. As a result, it was basically blanketed with potholes. Actually, “potholes” doesn’t really describe these things – they were huge, and they were deep, and the Mini could have easily gotten stuck in one if we hit it head on.

    The other problem with the road that we hadn’t anticipated was that the first quarter mile or so was a relatively steep and curving downhill stretch, and to exit the touring loop – no matter how far we went on it – we’d have to come back up that same steep stretch. My boyfriend managed to navigate a course down the hill that avoided most of the largest holes in the road, but it wasn’t easy, and it was slow going. The first spot we came to where there was room to pull to the side, we stopped. We took pictures of the Mini being dwarfed by the giant red monoliths, and then we decided to try getting out of there.

    I wasn’t confident that we’d make it back up the hill. I hadn’t seen another small or mid-sized car come down the road in either direction, and even the SUVs were driving extra cautiously, sometimes spinning their tires. My boyfriend was confident, though. He knew that the Mini had a feature called "Sport mode" that gave us some extra "juice" and better "steering response" (I think those are the terms he used -- I'm no car expert…). With that, he was able to steer us back up to civilization, and the Mini escaped unscathed. Except for a hefty coating of red dust. A Navajo guard standing at the exit to the path seemed to be staring at the Mini in disbelief when we emerged at the top of the hill. When we got back to the parking lot, we pulled in alongside a string of 3 SUVs, all of which were coated in red dust too, like a road tripper's badge of honor. When we got out of the Mini and looked at it next to the other larger cars, my boyfriend was so proud that he snapped a picture of the line of cars with the Mini parked at the end.

    Unfortunately, our digital camera’s memory card freaked out and our pictures from that leg of our journey got destroyed. We lost pictures of the Grand Canyon, Four Corners, and the Valley of the Gods too, but the most devastating loss was the hard-earned pictures of the Mini in Monument Valley.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    May 2003
    Location
    Green County, Wisconsin
    Posts
    13,063

    Default excellent

    Thanks for sharing the story, I loved it.

    Its also an excellent reminder that while 4 wheel drive is considered virtually essential for many people who would never think about driving off pavement, there are many many situations where good driving skills with 2 wheel drive are far more important than the ability to have 4 wheels spin!

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Oct 2008
    Location
    Joplin MO
    Posts
    9,270

    Default

    Oh, definitely agree! I've taken 2 wheel drive where I had no business doing so, and have never had to get assistance!

    Most 4 wheel drive vehicles have open front differentials, and you can very easily find one front wheel spinning uselessly while the other one just sits there. Ground clearance is a lot more important. My current vehicle is a 2 wheel drive F-150 with a limited slip rear - and I have no fear of taking it on 4wd-recommended roads.

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Mar 2005
    Location
    Tucson, AZ
    Posts
    9,358

    Default Skill and Patience vs Brute Force

    A recurring theme in the shared experiences of people who have met extensive and varied driving challenges is that both brains and brawn have their place, but that when the chips are down Skill and Patience are a much better ace-in-the-hole. In my years of driving in Maine and 'lake effect' New York State, I never drove anything more impressive than a Subaru with all season tires, but would regularly pass big foot jeeps that had left the road. My daughter and I recently drove a "high clearance SUV only" road in a family minivan without incident. There are limits of course, and better equipment should always be a help, but equipment is simply no substitute for skill and experience, and a healthy dose of sang-froid. So get out there and get some experience! (Before you tackle the big stuff!)

    AZBuck

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Oct 2008
    Location
    Joplin MO
    Posts
    9,270

    Default

    If any of you have been to Hawaii, you may appreciate this - back in the late 70's before they barricaded the "road", I drove a stock VW Bug all the way around Kaena Point from the Dillingham side to the washout most of the way around - and back!

  6. #6

    Default

    Another great backroad we discovered in the Mini was Nacimiento Road in Big Sur. It cuts east from the Pacific Coast Highway south of Big Sur Village. It's very narrow -- I'm not sure 2 large SUVs would be able to pass one another without touching -- and it winds high up into the mountains and Los Padres National Forest. The day we drove it, we stopped pretty soon after turning onto it, took great pictures of the Pacific Coast Highway winding below us along the coast, then drove further and ended up above the clouds, with the coast and the highway no longer visible. Very fun drive and cool scenery. We camped at a national forest service campgrounds about 11 miles back from the start of the road, along Nacimiento Creek ($10 for a tent site). A really fun, spur-of-the-moment detour from our main route.

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Jan 1998
    Location
    Las Vegas, Nevada
    Posts
    10,059

    Default Nacimiento Road

    Yeah, that's been of my favorite scenic byways for many years.

    mark

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Jan 1998
    Location
    Las Vegas, Nevada
    Posts
    10,059

    Default Skill always trumps equipment

    When I was a back-country ranger, a lifetime or two ago, I often used my front-wheel drive Fiat-128 to get to locations where one would only expect to see 4x4s and other high-clearance vehicles. With strong nerves you can often get to places you have no business driving to. I know that approach road well -- mentioned above in the Monument Valley Tribal Park -- I've seen it "eat" SUV's with inexperienced drivers. There is a serious disincentive for the park to fix the road -- they would much rather have tourists pay for their tour vehicles -- NEVER ATTEMPT THIS ROAD if it's rained in the last four hours. There's one section that makes a perfect slide and it will ruin your day....

    mark

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