As I stepped out of the truck somewhere in the middle of the Mojave desert, miles from a cell signal and any semblance of a real road, I instantly realized two things: 1) my shoe apparently has a hole in it, and 2) off-roading at breakneck speeds is incredibly stressful, but diabolically fun.
When Toyota invited me to drive from Palm Springs to Las Vegas using a minimum number of roads, it sounded pretty fun. But when they told me I’d be driving with off-road racer Ryan Millen and living legend Ivan “The Ironman” Stewart, my bag was already packed.
I crossed the Mojave with the original Ironman. This is what it’s like.
A brief background on Ivan, for those that don’t remember: He won the Baja 500. Seventeen times. Those off-road races with trucks jumping hills you watched as a kid, and the Ivan "Ironman" Stewart's Super Off Road arcade game that used to cost a quarter? Yeah, that’s him. If there’s anyone on earth that you want with you while crossing a desert for the very first time, it’s him.
A recent tropical storm rendered the beginning of our route virtually impassable, forcing us to take a slightly more paved road…at first.
Then we hit the dirt. The first thing Ivan tells me is that, when it’s wide open and flat like this, the most important thing is just to stay out of the dust of whoever’s in front of you. At first, I don’t really understand what that means…
Until it suddenly makes sense. Tailgate in the dirt and you won’t see small things like shrubs, low power lines, or boobie traps. Yeah, boobie traps.
Ivan tells me that—not in the Mojave so much, but in the Baja 1000 in Mexico—local residents get bored (and inebriated) in the middle of the day, and construct boobie traps to keep themselves entertained. If you see a group of people standing around in a place you wouldn’t normally see a crash, watch out.
We go further into the desert and the landscape begins to shift. It’s obvious that Ryan Millen—himself an heir to a multi-generational legacy of offroading legends—spent plenty of time studying the desert to ensure the route was just challenging enough to push guys like me to my limits, but not so tough that I’d be left to rot with the tarantulas.
That tarantula thing? I wasn't kidding.
We take a brief break to switch drivers and vehicles, and then it’s go time on all sorts of challenging terrain. The first rule of desert racing that Ivan tells me? “Don’t kill your truck.”
Ivan teaches me that the single most important thing is concentration, because there are a million things that could destroy your vehicle in an instant. He coaches me on how to read the terrain, to look at mountains and see where water would typically run—that’s where ditches will be and you'll have to be ready for them.
If the soil’s discolored, it’s probably wet, which means there could be a suspension-breaking trench if you’re not ready for it. “Look ahead and find the smoothest route you can take,” Ivan says, “and don’t worry about going fast."
Don't go fast? Isn't that the point?
But Ivan's so right it's scary. After stopping to let the group go ahead, I nail it, weaving left to right and back again every few seconds, never slowing down much, but constantly searching the earth hundreds of feet ahead for the smoothest path.
I'm going almost highway speeds now, and see a three inch jagged rock a couple hundred feet up on the left that's a threat. As is the steeper ditch on the right. I'm calculating the risk of a blowout vs having to slow down when I spot a narrow pathway between a couple shrubs off on my left. It's smooth. And in a fraction of a second, I take it. It's a much better route.
After catching up to everyone, we slow it down a bit.
Suddenly, I'm hit by the realization that racing through a desert is basically the same as driving on a race track, except with a little more room. Keeping your truck in one piece means knowing what you can get away with, without killing the suspension. You're constantly shifting the weight of the vehicle—you never brake hard, but you pop off the brakes quickly right before a bump so the front bounces up, giving the suspension more space with which to work.
Sometimes you use your right foot to hold the brake while hitting the accelerator, so that you deliberately prevent the suspension from doing its job, lest you start bouncing around like a pinball.
After a brief stop for lunch, I set back off on my own with Ivan no longer there to impart his decades of wisdom on me. I’m in a Tacoma now, more or less talking to myself as I repeat everything Ivan said while I put my foot down and go flat out in a sandy path surrounded by debris on one side and trees and telephone poles on the other.
...Let the sand dictate where it goes...Tap the brake if it starts to slide too much, but stay on the gas...Remember to watch for changes in the color of the dirt. Don’t...oh sh*t. What was the "don’t!?"
Don’t hit any sharp rocks.
Thankfully, I didn't pop a tire on a clandestine jagged boulder. That honor belonged to a couple of Canadian journalists.
When we finally reach the other side, we're basically home free. I’m a city boy, and my idea of wilderness involves either flying over it, or mowing my yard. Still, I find myself sad to be leaving the desert where so much adventurous driving can be had.
But it's back on roads. And hey, Las Vegas is just a few miles away, so it’s not all bad.