High (very high) adventure
By By Otha Barham / outdoors editor
June 25, 2004
In 1842 Kit Carson guided John Charles Fremont on his expedition into the Rocky Mountains. In 1865 Jim Bridger guided the Powder River expedition. In 1869 John Wesley Powell led the first expedition down the canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers, exploring unknown territory in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. In 1984 my son John and I crossed the continental divide through the woods in a restored mid-century jeep.
Okay, these aren't events of similar historical significance, but adventure is adventure any way you slice it. And for John and me this was high adventure.
My father and I had bought the old Willys from Bill Lewis in Meridian not long after John was born. We made a top for it out of a discarded metal light cover from a service station on 8th street. We invaded the Kemper County deer woods with the thing and spent the ensuing years making a pile of memories, some of which I detail in my book, "Here Where We Belong."
When we moved to Colorado in the eighties, I towed the old jeep west and John and I rebuilt it from the ground up. We put a Warne overdrive in it which gave us 12 forward gear options. With oversize tires and chrome wheels, we had both trail worthiness and class.
But one of the most appreciated improvements was brakes. We had not needed brakes in the Kemper County flatwoods because when you needed to stop there you simply took your foot off the gas pedal and the mud would mire you to a stop forthwith. However in the Rocky Mountains brakes are a major requirement, trust me on this.
John and I studied the blank spaces on the topographical maps of the Eastern Slope of the Rockies that lay west of our home. The areas of no recorded roads intrigued us. We wondered if it would be possible to venture beyond the roads and drive the jeep all the way across the continental divide. After all, the thing would practically climb a tree if you put it in a low enough gear.
I don't recall what we told my wife, Lurey, that kept her from calling the authorities to stop this foolhardy endeavor. "Going out for a drive," I suppose, or something similar. (When we returned we didn't mention the tunnel that skirted the edge of a thousand foot precipice or the abandoned trestle supported by hundred-year-old poles.)
When we left the end of the last public road, we left civilization. Well before we reached timberline, we saw only occasional evidence of former human life. The U. S. Forest Service manages this high country, and the rules prevent anyone from building a house up there. Of course since the gold has been depleted for the most part, there is very little reason to want to build up where your lungs get overworked, unless your bent is hermitry
We traveled old logging and mining roads for the most part, ever keeping our eyes to the west. We knew there were villages scattered about on the West Slope, but had only a smattering of faith that we could reach one of them. But every time doubt threatened success due to some obstacle, we gritted our teeth and plunged on.
One obstacle was the huge pile of soil and rocks that blocked the tunnel, which was strangely situated right at the edge of a cliff. I suppose the Forest Service created the mound to keep people out. When the jeep's four wheels crawled over the giant heap, the little six-volt headlights showed no abyss or cave-in ahead, so we crept forward with caution, trusting that we wouldn't cause the tunnel and half the mountain to give way and send us plummeting to the forest below. Luckily, the far end of the tunnel was open, with only another enormous rock pile to negotiate.
Somewhere up there where the earth touches the clouds, we crossed the divide. Then we picked our way slowly down hill at every opportunity. We switched back a lot when trails would play out.
Finally we ran completely out of trails. We crossed a meadow here and a burn there and just kept the jeep pointed west, and downward of course. Finally we found a forest road and it led to pavement that we thought we recognized. We hung a right and drove into downtown Winter Park, our adventure completed.
Assuredly it was not one of those daring campaigns that explored the wild west. But I believe it was okay for us to feel just a teeny bit like Lewis and Clark
(Note: Otha Barham's book, "Here Where We Belong," is available for $11.22 plus $1.85 shipping and $.78 tax for Mississippi residents by writing him at 3100 38th Street, Meridian, MS 39305, or phoning (601) 482-4440.)