Cooper Ridge, WA

Like many of my adventures, this one starts with a map. I can spend an indeterminable amount of time staring at my growing collection of maps. I like maps. On one of my maps, I found this road that winds up the mountains north of Chelan, traces along a ridge-line, and comes down the mountains on the other side. Here’s a map of said road for your viewing pleasure.

I’m co-piloted by my brother James and we leave Chelan to climb the mountain standing before us. I use a combination of paper maps and GPS to navigate through the maze of mostly unmarked roads branching off in random directions. Staying on the intended path is an important part of not getting lost.

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The road is easy to drive and easy on the bottom; it’s made up of this soft ashy dirt that makes for a smooth ride. I air down the tires to a cushy 20 psi for extra traction and additional comfort. Wildflowers line the sides of the road and we can see for miles on either sides of the ridge as we cruise along with open windows at a cool 10 miles per hour. This drive is so easy and comfortable that I might not have anything to write about. Do scenic drives count as adventure?

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In 2015, wildfires swept through Chelan County, leaving behind 90,000 acres of burnt land. Barbecued trees stand as testament to the severity of the 2015 wildfires. As we drive further along the road, the damage from the fire becomes more apparent. We turn a corner and we’re faced with a sight unlike anything we’ve seen before.

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We find ourselves in the middle of a forest of charcoal-black trees. The leafless trees look dead and uninviting, branches permanently twisted from the excruciating heat of the flames. The grim scene is contrasted by an expansive carpet of purple wildflowers with light green leaves, lively and bright, forming a paradoxical wonderland of life and death.

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Wild lupine, coincidentally, thrives after fires according to a credible online source. Lupine seeds are so tough that pressure changes from fires cause water to penetrate the seed and start germination. This is a special place.

We turn off the ridge road and head down the mountain. Though uneventful, it was a scenic drive.

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“Um… ok?” The road is gone. There’s a huge washout where the road used to be. In its place is a pit filled with huge dislodged rocks and uprooted trees. This can’t be happening! We’re so close to getting to the bottom of this mountain. We’ve come too far to turn around and climb back up to the ridge. It’s not supposed to be like this!

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On the left of the road is a steep sandy hill where vehicles with mud tires have climbed to get around the massive washout. James and I disembark the Xterra to investigate on foot. The hill is steep and the dirt is loose. I don’t think the Xterra can climb this. Beyond the hill is a mild off-road trail that joins the road on the other side of the washout.

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We hike along the off-road trail to the other side of the washout. From here, you can really see how big this thing is. I can’t even see the other side of the road from here! The road is blocked off on this side of the road. The big sign reads “ROAD CLOSED” and behind it is a barrier of boulders to stop people from driving off the ledge and to their doom. There’s a gap around one of the boulders that I think is wide enough for the Xterra. If I can get over the hill, the rest is no big deal. I think I want to try climbing the hill.

As we’re hiking back to the Xterra, I’m flip-flopping about attempting to climb the hill. I really don’t want to go all the way back up the mountain, but I certainly don’t want to get stuck out here. Turning around would be the safest thing to do, but I really want to try some real off-roading. “I’m gonna try it!”

With James as my spotter, I climb into the driver’s seat and engage 4 low. I crawl the Xterra into the ditch off the edge of the road and point the car towards the hill. If I fail to climb this hill, I worry that my low hanging tow hitch will burrow itself into the ditch as I fall backwards down the hill. With sweaty palms, I throw it into first and engage the clutch with half throttle. The Xterra lurches up the sandy hill, all four tires working to find grip through open diffs. Everything in the car is jumping around behind me as the Xterra bounces up the largest obstacle it has ever faced. I holler with excitement, with a victorious fist held high out the window, as the Xterra crests the hill in a glorious cloud of dust. We did it! I can’t believe it!

James hops back in the car and I cautiously steer the Xterra along the path to the other side of the road. All that’s left is to get around the stone barrier. I underestimated the tilt angle of the path and the Xterra gets into a nasty lean, throwing all its content into the right side of the car. I think I would have tipped it over if it weren’t for my trusty spotter directing me to steer away from the slope on a “C” shaped path around the rock. In hindsight, getting around the rock barrier was more risky than climbing the hill. The “what if” scenarios of laying the Xterra on its side haunt my mind. I could have done so many things to reduce the risk of tipping the car over. I could have laid my Maxtrax on the path of the downhill tires, I could have taken the canoe off the roof to bring the center of gravity down. But, it didn’t tip over. I feel like I dodged a bullet.

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That just goes to show that adventure finds you when you least expect it; true adventure can’t be planned. It’s those unplanned and unexpected adventures that are the most memorable and leave you wanting more. I want more.

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