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Hey Honey, Have You Seen the Road Lately?
Imagine a classic road trip. Then take away the interstates, rest stops, fast food, road signs, and traffic. What's left? The perfect American journey: Canada to Mexico by dirt. By Charles Graeber

Photo: Eastern Oregon's Alvord Desert
OFF ROAD BUT EN ROUTE: Eastern Oregon's Alvord Desert, midway through the author's Canada-to-Mexico pavement-free odyssey.

Way, way up on the top left-hand corner of the map, where the skinny screwdriver end of the Idaho Panhandle abuts the forested border with Canada, you'll find a road, marked U.S. Route 95. It's a perfectly good stretch of graded blacktop, and a Sunday drive might follow it down from the Canadian woods, cross the trestle bridge over the Moyie River, and proceed through the quaint lumber towns nestled in the Idaho wilderness. Given Monday, you might even continue on 95 south through Boise, Las Vegas, and Yuma, Arizona. It's a straight shot, just 1,700 highway miles (2,736 kilometers), and you'd be in Mexico by Tuesday evening. That's one way to do it.

Last October, my girlfriend, Bree, and I tried it another way. We started at the Canadian border at dawn, crossed the trestle, then steered our spanking new borrowed Jeep off that perfectly good paved road and into the Kaniksu National Forest. This was a logging trail, which yielded to a dirt forestry road up and over Copper Mountain. The wind through the windows came fragrant and cool, then cold, the lodgepoles turned to cedars, and by noon we had crested Canuck Peak on a track of muddy snow. The world dropped off only feet from our tires; the mountain view behind us was Canada, the land below us had become Montana.

We traversed a shelf running with snowmelt, then steered left up a rocky ridgeline that sent our vehicle bucking and creaking like a metal mustang and transformed our trunkload of gear into a lurching percussion section. Bottle jack and hand-winch, water jug and jerry can, lantern, ax, and saw—each was a drummer, and we marched to them all, up one side of the Coeur d'Alene Mountains, then down the other, wind in our ears, bugs in our teeth, rumbling and shaking like a plane in turbulence. Until dusk, when we landed in a valley and glided along a smooth stretch of pavement up to one of those big red government octagons that mean stop. So we stopped.

Suddenly, it was very quiet.

"That," Bree said, "is the first time we've been told what to do all day."

She pulled out the map and traced our last ten hours in green highlighter. "We started here," she said, indicating a dot, "and now we're here." Her finger had barely moved. On a map of Idaho, a single splotch of ketchup could eclipse our entire day's progress; on a map of North America, we hadn't moved at all.

Beneath our position, the map was veined with thousands of dotted red lines, representing thousands of dirt trails through the American West. Some were forestry roads or stagecoach routes, others access trails to logging areas or mines or power lines. Several would prove to be no better than goat paths and no wider than our wheels, and a few would be no road at all. At the bottom of these routes was the Mexican border. We had 20 days—the time we could manage away from work—to get there.

Two hundred years after Lewis and Clark crossed these mountains with the Corps of Discovery, Bree and I find ourselves gunning the same maze of peaks and alpine meadows, sleeping beside the same sparkling rivers. The view is green and endless. We drive all day, then one more, living the miles through the windshield, peek-a-booing out from the big green blanket of trees only to find gas or groceries. It's all new, uncharted, unsigned, and uncertain. Learning the rules of the unpaved road is real work. Gray clouds behind us could bury our tracks till spring, wildfires ahead threaten to block our route with lumber. I jerk our ride around rocks and trees like a horse through a steeplechase, trying not to blink; Bree studies our well-thumbed stack of dog-eared DeLorme topos like a modern Sacagawea. We have updated the pioneer's horses and grass for horsepower and gas, but to novices like us, each mile is a fresh and uncertain discovery.

"Bree," I say finally. "Don't you think it's funny that Lewis and Clark never gave Sacagawea a nickname?"

She looks up from the map. "What?" she says.

"Can you imagine? 'Good morning, Sacagawea. Care for some jerky, Sacagawea?' It's exhausting."

She just looks at me.

"You know, like Sacky, or something."

Bree looks back at her maps. "It's a mystery," she says.

In places, the mountain switchbacks are smooth and fine, and autumnal larches confetti our progress with golden needles. In others, the mountaintop topography is as obtuse as the crown of a molar. Each time trail meets trail we confront a fresh riddle. The roads become smaller and grassier until, finally, they don't look like roads at all.

I stop the car. Bree looks from the GPS to the map to the almost-road. "What's the word, Sacky?" I ask.

Bree looks over. "Is that me, now?"

"Just trying it out," I say.

"Well anyway, I think this is the track we wanted. At least on paper."

"OK," I say. "Sacky."

"I think Clark was the quiet type."

I proceed until the trail narrows to a rock ledge with waterfall washouts. It's too thin to turn, too hairy to reverse. The view from my window is straight down. I steer hard against the mountainside. Saplings scream against the doors, knocking the mirrors flat as ears. The fact is that we're not going to tip, and the Jeep can fit, barely. But that's abstract math right now. The car, like the road, is new to us; as off-roaders we're adolescents, slowly coming to understand our size, power, and limitations.

Then, finally, I do it—turn a corner, miss it, and stick a wheel over the cliff edge. The situation strikes us as an emergency, and we kill the engine. It's quiet then, just my heartbeat and the creaks of giant trees swaying in wind. This is a novel scenario for us. Obviously, there's some correct course of action here, but whatever it is, that's new to us as well. My view through the windshield is the void, and next to it Bree, assessing the situation by pressing her palms to her temples and making a doughnut shape with her mouth. She's been taking pictures constantly, but she's not taking pictures of this—maybe, I think, in case it goes tragically wrong and she needs to forget it. So when I turn the key, lock the hubs, and simply back out, it seems heroic.

"I've got a deal for you," Bree says, clutching the map. "I'll promise to keep us on the right track to Mexico if you promise to keep us on the road."

To hitch a ride and find out what else happens on this rollicking unpaved adventure, pick up the August issue of Adventure.

Photograph by Bree Fitzgerald

Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, August 2004

Wild Roads Special: The Best of the Backcountry
- Hey Honey, Have You Seen the Road Lately?
Stomping Grounds: The clash of man and elephant in northeast India
The Vanishing World of Lonnie Thompson: How glacial ice cores are unlocking the mysteries of global warming
Pelton's World: Dealing with a medical emergency overseas

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August 2004

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