Easter Jeep Safari
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Easter Jeep Safari

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Barely out of the comforter, the curtain rises in the hotel room, and with it a certain astonishment: a snowstorm! The last thing I expected to see in Utah. Even though I’d arrived in Salt Lake City the day before, thinking I’d get some rest, the weather was obviously as jet-lagged as I was. Just enough time to enjoy a breakfast that I hope will keep me warm, and I’m off to the hotel lobby to meet up with Bill, BF Goodrich’s international relations manager. First we take a cab to Impulse, a well-known local 4×4 tuner, to pick up a magnificent Jeep Gladiator specially prepared for the tire manufacturer. It’s behind the wheel that we take on our first mission: visit a Walmart to stock up on food for our days in the desert. Shopping isn’t all fun and games, but discovering a supermarket built on the scale of its own country has its effect. With the back loaded with victuals, we set off for Moab. The plan is: 4 hours on the road at 70 mph, the speed imposed by the imposing KM3 off-road tires, a pass at an altitude of over 2000 m swept by wind and snow, a score of body-built deer on the road, or at least what’s left of them, and finally: the canyons!

The arrival in Moab, a former mining town, is worthy of a Western: a main street, shops lined up on either side reminiscent of the “old small towns” of the turn of the century; and above all, 4WDs absolutely everywhere! Of all shapes and sounds. It’s easy to see that we’re among enthusiasts here, and we’re here to have fun! Now that it has emerged from its mining era, Moab has turned completely to nature-based tourism: climbers, hikers, mountain bikers, UTVs and 4WDs live together in respect and good humor, enjoying the county’s 800 km of trails.

After lunch at a real Mexican taco joint (no question of a deep-fried cordon bleu patty, a real Mexican meal!), we can take a breather at the hotel. And what a hotel! Hoodoo Moab by Hilton, a name that lulled our teenage years. The room is huge, unless I’m the one who’s tiny… Two king-size beds, because why not, it’s America, and above all a bay window overlooking the pool. I’m definitely in the United States. For a moment, I catch myself blaming myself for not having brought my swimsuit, before remembering that the thermometer is barely flirting with 5 degrees. A briefing to explain the program for the next three days, dinner and bedtime.

DAY 2

Chicken Corner, Dead Horse Point, Thelma & Louise Point

Let the adventure begin! Let’s face it, the 7-hour time difference woke me up well before my alarm. Head to Cliffhanger Garage to pick up our latest-generation Jeep Wranglers. After signing the umpteenth waiver, we activate the BFG On Trail app and set off on the first trail of the Easter Jeep Safari: a 6-hour round trip to Chicken Corner. I thought “Chicken Corner” was a funny name for a destination, until I realized why…

Aboard the Wranglers, I have the pleasure of riding with Justin, a Chinese BFG ambassador who’s a huge fan of off-roading and the competitions that go with it. We soon leave the main Moab road and head up the Colorado. The start was given less than five minutes ago, and here we are, already in the gorge of a canyon, with the famous river as our right-hand neighbor. A monochrome of orange and gray contrasting with the blue sky. On this road, we pass the first processions of dozens of Jeeps driving in the opposite direction. Everyone puts on a big smile, and the tone is set: we’re here to enjoy ourselves.

What can we say about Wranglers? Perhaps its technical features – an automatic gearbox, a compressed V6, light steering – make it a modern car, with a disconcerting ease of use… Far too easy for my taste, as I’m used to “fight” with my 1997 Defender 110 300TDI.

Landscapes go by, each more grandiose than the last. The immensity and preservation of these spaces are indescribable. A real movie. Speaking of preservation, Americans have remarkable common sense. The only instructions are to ride in the tracks, not to run full speed into puddles, and not to litter. And you know what? Not a single piece of garbage on the day’s six-hour run, just big smiles and people happy to be there, enjoying the space. The county has indeed put a lot of emphasis on discovering its nature, and I’m surprised by the infrastructure that’s been put in place: there are clean, dry toilets in the middle of the desert! It would be great to have the same dynamic in France…

Chicken Corner! Here we go. The trail turns out to be a dead end. The dozen or so of us then have to turn back between a cliff on one side, and 150 m of open space on the other. This is no time for sweaty palms.

Once the vehicles have been parked, as best as we can, it’s time to take to the footpath. The trail, or rather the single. A single on the edge of a precipice, which, in the middle of a blind bend, fades away. So here I am, on tiptoe, with my hands clinging to the wall to get past that famous Chicken Corner! Basically, if you’re chicken, you pack up your pride and turn around and head for the car. Take heart, this ritual passage is worth it a hundred times over. The reward on the other side of the wall is breathtaking: on the right, the Colorado River curves around a cliff in a huge bend, and on the left, a plain with rocky monuments in the background. This panorama is straight out of a Western. And not being one for nags, for the first time in my life I could have imagined myself doing a 400 m start-stop with a mustang heading for the horizon… Time to drool over the scenery a little longer, take a few photos and climb a rock to get an even more spectacular view and try to impress a few Americans (I can’t help myself) and it’s already time to turn back towards the hotel and my double double beds.

On our second day of adventure, the weather was glorious, but the cold all the more biting. The rest of the program: we plan to make our way to Dead Horse Point via Thelma & Louise Point. No doubt you’ve already got plenty of images in your head when you read these names. The trail once again exceeded my expectations. There’s no need to hide the fact that finding myself on Thelma & Louise Point, the point of view of the film of the same name, took me by storm. Especially as we were able to park as close to the precipice as we wanted, without restriction. Are the Americans crazy or do they trust the common sense of trail users? Needless to say, in Europe, there would certainly have been paid parking 500 m from the viewpoint, or even a paid shuttle service from the parking lot. There’s no one there, just the Jeep, the precipice, the view and your responsibility. What a feeling of freedom, I love it.

After a few hours of dust and stones, the Wranglers and their KM3s and KO2s finally get through a few technical sections with disconcerting ease. Everyone concentrates and talkie exchanges are rare. Before the last big climb in the Jeep, Charlene Bower shares a final reminder on the talkie: “it’s all about momentum, not speed”. We arrive at the bottom of a cliff. The road that winds its way through meter after meter of this immense wall immediately commands respect. This is not the time to put a wheel on the outside of a hairpin bend. In fact, I’d had the foresight to hand over the steering wheel to Justin just before our ascent. And as a good student of the Laskoshow school, I realized that part of the Wranglers’ roof could be removed. Justin was instructed not to stop while I tried to slide my part of the roof onto the back seat. Done, belt off, standing in the cockpit, camera in hand, I’m enjoying the moment 110%!

The arrival at Dead Horse Point is surprising: we leave the track and join a pretty two-way road. We pass a mini-toll marking our entrance to the park and set off along a huge straight stretch towards the viewpoint. We’re high up, the temperature is fluctuating between -1 and 0, and we’re half in a convertible… As much as it’s possible to remove the roof while driving at low speed on the slopes, it’s unthinkable to try to put it back on the tarmac at higher speeds. We grit our teeth, but have no regrets.

The viewpoint is fully equipped, with all the necessary services. If you lean out a little, you can see the whole track we’ve taken to get here – what a sight! We pretend to topple over the fence, take a few photo memories and then it’s time to head back to the hotel, under a fine snow that starts to fall and makes the experience even more magical. After this extraordinary day, I thought I’d seen it all, but I wasn’t even close…

Back to Cliffhanger Garage, where we swap our Wranglers for UTVs. After filling out a waiver, again, putting on a helmet, I have the pleasure of finding myself in the company of Gabby Downing: a professional off-road and drift racer, no less! This is the first time I’ve been in a two-seater Can-Am, or even a UTV at all. The rear differential is constantly locked, the gearbox automatic and the sound horrible. Wanting sensations, I got them, even if not the ones I was hoping for. By the way, UTVs are the latest thing to hit the trails in Utah, and it seems they don’t have a very good reputation, as they’re often driven by neophytes with little respect for off-road customs. By way of comparison, imagine jet ski rentals in Palavas in summer – you get the picture.

We redouble our smiles and politeness on the road to Sand Flats. If we think of Moab as the Disneyland of 4WDs, Sand Flats would be Space Mountain: an immense, relatively flat desert, where huge rocks stand lazily, absolutely round in every way. You drive at a snail’s pace, in the midst of hundreds of other road users on bikes, motorcycles or 4WDs. All in an atmosphere of mutual help and sharing. It’s great. Inclined planes in all directions to test the limits of tire grip and suspension flexibility. Here everything goes smoothly, and it’s easy to find the route: just follow the tire tracks. At the time, I was amazed and very focused on my driving, and had no idea where this trail was going…

Hell’s Gate! Ever heard of it?! Yes, you have! You’ve probably already seen these 4x4s that climb to the end of a canyon and often end up on 3 wheels, sometimes 2 and occasionally on the roof thirty meters below! When we arrived at Hell’s Gate I exploded with joy, probably because I was the only one in the group who didn’t know we’d get there. A Roman arena atmosphere: people sit picnicking on either side of the canyon, watching the suitor who dares to face the wall. The trucks are huge, the tracks as wide as possible, the tires disproportionately large. They take off. The first ones go by smoothly, some stop on 3 wheels, ready to tip over, everyone holds their breath. But between the behemoths, original 4x4s, and even Jeep Willys without roll bars, climb this crazy challenge without difficulty. I understand that experience and driving technique are the key words here.

I position myself at the bottom of the canyon with my camera, hoping to convey the danger of this wall and the courage of the drivers who face it. A father and his two sons set off in a barely modified Wrangler, with a roll bar and tires wider than the original, and off they go. At 3/4 of the way up, he stops. Spectators higher up raise their voices to see if everything is okay. The man doesn’t respond, confident, and engages a gear to drive off again. The Jeep moves back a metre quickly, standing up on its two rear wheels. At that moment, my eye is in the viewfinder of my camera. I’m zoomed in all the way and I’m not really aware of distances anymore. Seeing the Jeep tip backwards, I run and climb the wall without looking back.
At the same time, the Jeep continues to straighten up, and when its rear bumper finally hits the slope, it comes to rest on its left side, slides a little and comes to a halt. In the worst place. Everyone is on their feet. Some manage to get close enough to the Wranglers to make sure the passengers are okay. The crew is very calm and nobody seems to be hurt. The reflex is often to put one arm out when you come to lie on your side…

Suddenly I notice a man at the top of the canyon. Truth be told, he was pretty hard to miss, with his kilt, cap and moustache. Amazingly calm, he set about managing the family’s recovery from A to Z. As I got closer to the action, I noticed that his Jeep was the only one parked in the opposite direction to the others at the top of the canyon, where his winch was located. I understand that this curious guy must spend a good part of his days here, rescuing people in trouble. In twenty minutes and with the utmost care, the Jeep was back on its wheels and towed to the top! Damage was minimal, with a bent rear-view mirror, a hole in the tarpaulin and a few more scars on the bodywork. After refilling the engine oil from top to bottom, the whole family was ready to hit the slopes! What a great adventure!

It’s with these extraordinary memories anchored in my “core memory” that my journey back to France slowly begins; with the burning desire to tell my friends all about it as faithfully as possible. But as is often the case when you have such a privileged experience, adjectives are in short supply…

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