The Next Generation
I can still hear that god-awful sound.
My daughter, Hannah, was just 3. She was in the back seat of our shiny, red four-wheel-drive Trooper, blissfully connected to her personal cassette player and plugged snugly into her car seat.
Our beefy new family car was one of those crossbreeds that mix the brawn of a four-wheeler with the comfort of a well-appointed station wagon. The windows were up. The air was on. My wife, Lynn, and I probably had a Windham Hill tape or some such thing playing as we set off on our first backcountry motoring adventure, a trek on one of the many dirt routes through Canyonlands National Park's exotic red chasms.
We could have joined the crowded jeep safari that descends on Moab, Utah, each April. But we're more solitary types. Besides, our daily driver didn't have oversized tires, a lift kit or winch. It never would. And it would always spend more time hauling groceries and ballerinas around town than battling backroads.
Jungle Jim I was not. Jungle James, maybe.
Yet I did want adventure.
In a previous life, I'd fed my craving for exploring new places by backpacking, tossing a sleeping bag into my '65 VW Bug or sticking out my thumb. But as boomers tended to do, I got responsible. The limits of two weeks' vacation, the baggage of family outings, the ball and chain of lawn care and, frankly, falling way out of shape seemed to bring those days to an end.
But my yearning for adventure and discovery never waned.
Then I discovered where those automotive hybrids called sport-utility vehicles could take my family safely, competently and comfortably.
I didn't want macho jeeper outings with Bubba and the boys. I wanted my family along, despite my Connecticut-bred wife's anxiety about this latest mid-life crisis thing of mine.
"You mean four-wheeling?" she queried. "With our child?"
"No no no," I assured her.
Actually, I meant yes, sort of. She equated four-wheel drive with flying mud, automotive gymnastics, and general environmental and mechanical delinquency. But that's not what I had in mind. I just wanted to use the genuine off-highway abilities of our new family car to see and experience places our Honda wagon would never be able to take us.
So one warm day during Easter Week we descended into Utah's red-rock Canyon Country. Coloring pens in hand, paper propped up, Hannah was ready for the rocks. But not the rolls.
Suddenly our Trooper pitched from one side to the other as we went over a rock protruding from a dusty track. Instantly we heard the kind of sound that bodes ill when you're far from civilization.
Heavy metal against sedimentary rock? No. Just Hannah's head making solid contact with the window beside her.
The window was unscathed. Her head, she announced, was not, at least not by her diagnosis. But there was no harm done that a picnic and occasional rest stops didn't cure.
That exhilarating introduction to backcountry driving occurred many years ago. Since then we and our family-style 4x4 have logged countless miles discovering the unpaved byways of the West, especially Idaho.
The idea of traveling without getting off the blacktop is unthinkable for us now. Likewise the idea of ever owning just a car.
Backcountry driving isn't just for Bubba. Modern SUVs _ those Ford Explorers, Toyota 4Runners, Nissan Pathfinders, Chevy Blazers and such _ have made recreational motoring safely, comfortably and responsibly on unpaved roads a safe, comfortable and convenient adventure possible for almost everyone, year-round.
Remote cultural and historic sites are more accessible than ever before, from little-visited ghost towns to ancient Native American rock art that is reached via roads that are unkind, if not impassable, to passenger cars. Hannah is a cranky 14 now. She has to share the back seat with her 7-year-old brother, Land, too.
Trying to keep kids, especially teen-agers, happy on road trips has always been tough. But there are things one can do to make touring the backcountry as fun and interesting for them as it is for you.
Probably the best piece of advice is to stop often.
Children love water. Bring rain boots or sandals. Let them play for a few minutes now and then at the little streams and ponds you'll see along the way. In the northern Sierras, pick up a gold pan at a souvenir store and do a little streamside panning. On springtime forays into the desert, bring a wildflower identification book and a magnifying glass. Along the coast, bring binoculars for viewing seals and whales. Trips that include ghost towns will be big hits.
Get books on the geology and history of the area. Photocopy the area on the map where you'll be going. Get each child an inexpensive compass. Let them help you navigate, identify peaks, creeks and other landmarks.
Bring at least one personal cassette player and plenty of tapes. An inexpensive point-and-shoot camera can also help keep the peace in the back seat. If you have a responsible, licensed teenage driver on board, let him or her drive the safer and easier stretches. The sooner they learn backcountry driving skills, the longer they'll remain eager participants.
Bring snacks and drinks. Cups should have secure tops that you can poke straws through. Plastic garbage bags, paper towels, changes of clothing (particularly socks) and wet wipes are good to have along, too.
We've learned not to make driving the point of our outings down the backroads of the West. We plan on seeing some sights. We'll hike to a hilltop, unload the mountain bikes or camp. And as my parents used to do with long Sunday drives, we make it our excuse to escape, together.
(Tony Huegel, who lives in Idaho Falls, Idaho, is the author of the guidebook series Backcountry drives for the whole family. The series includes Idaho Off-road ($10.95), Utah Byways ($16.95), California Coastal Byways ($18.95), California Desert Byways ($18.95) and Sierra Nevada Byways ($10.95). The books, available at local and online bookstores. You can find out more about his books at http://www.backcountrybyways.com/.
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