How to Cross a Wash When It’s Running and Other Bad Ideas


Of course it’s a bad idea; the standard rule is never to cross a desert wash when it’s running, whether you think you know how to do it or not. What if you’re wrong, eh? Many a driver has misjudged the depth and force of flash flood waters ripping down through the crumbling clay and sand. Bad, bad idea!

On the other hand, I’ve had plenty of bad ideas in this lifetime. Ask anyone who knows me.

August 10, 2015. I was stuck in the checkout line at Walmart in Sierra Vista when my wife called from our off grid homestead in southern Cochise County, Arizona. She stated unequivocally, “You’re not going to be able to get back in (home)! It’s coming down like crazy out here! Hail the size of nickels! I can’t even get out to shut down the generator; I almost fell twice, right on the patio!”

“Let the generator run,” I advised, mentally chuckling at the image of a hail of nickels. “If that crashes, I can replace it for under two thousand dollars. One trip to the hospital for you will cost more than that.” Putting it that way might sound cold to the reader, but dollars and cents are things my redhead understands; her dementia has not impaired her overall economic common sense one little bit. “As for getting across the wash, I’ll take a look when I get there, and we’ll see. If I have to, I’ll park the white truck on the town side like some of the neighbors do during the monsoon months, hike in once the water level is down, and drive the green truck back to get the groceries.”

“Okay. I’ll be okay if I have to be alone all night…but okay.”

“You won’t have to be alone,” I promised. “I may end up with muddy boots, but at least I am wearing my boots.”

Walmart turned out to be a little weirder than usual. It took me three tries in three different checkout lanes to finally make it out the door. By the time Silver (white truck) and I rolled past the fire station on Highway 92 and down into the valley, the storm was over. A few light sprinkles hit the windshield, the pavement was noticeably wet, but the thunder boomer had done its thing and gone its way. At the turnoff to Paloma Trail, the GMC pickup slipped its electronic way into four wheel drive. Merrily we went, mildly surprised at how solid the footing remained despite the muddy runoff water sluicing down both sides of the dirt road.

Unsurprisingly, the wash was indeed running.

Even less surprisingly, I knew I was going to drive across that itty bitty flash flood. As you’re reading this, you know I made it all right…but what on Earth would inspire me to risk driving through water like this, eh?

August 10, 2015, at around 4:00 p.m. , the wash on Paloma Trail in southern Cochise County (Arizona) is definitely running.

August 10, 2015, at around 4:00 p.m. , the wash on Paloma Trail in southern Cochise County (Arizona) is definitely running.

That’s an excellent question. Here’s the answer in several parts:

1. The photos above are at least partially “tricky photographer stuff”. No, they’re not doctored in any way, but they are chosen and cropped to present the power of the flash flood as ferociously and powerfully as possible. When you back up to get a wider view, it looks something like this:

Putting the running wash into perspective.  You can see a lone pair of vehicle tracks on the far side,

Putting the running wash into perspective. You can see a lone pair of vehicle tracks on the far side,

2. I drive across this wash more days than not. On every trip, out to town and back in to reach our home, I not only cross the wash; I study it. How high is the water backed up on the upstream side? How rough is the crossing? How far has the cut bank on the downstream side progressed in its effort to wipe the crossing out entirely? How far above ground are the plant tops growing in the wash and on either side of the wash? This is not idle curiosity; I want to know so that I understand the underlying road conditions when the road is lying under water…and for the most part, I do.

3. As I studied the flowing water before crossing, it became clear to me that the overall depth of flow where I’d be running the truck was not much more than a foot deep (no problem at all for the high-clearance GMC) and thirty to thirty-five feet across. The flow was obviously strong, but if we (the truck and I) hit it hard and fast, we’d power right on across with no problem…unless there was a narrow, hidden cut right in the middle of all that, waiting eagerly to snatch a tire or two and maybe break an axle.

4. A hidden cut in the crossing could only have happened if there had been two storms, the leading one running a narrow “slice” of water down through there before the larger storm followed with a wider water front. But Pam assured me there had been just the one storm, a regular ring-dang-doozy, lasting about an hour from start to finish. Ergo, no hidden cut.

So I figured we were good to go. It had taken me less than a minute to think this all through. If I was going to cross, it had better be now…because (a) there could well be another, deeper flood of water moving our way even now, and (b) all that water running over the cut bank on the downstream side would keep on eroding, eroding, eroding…. Six hours from now, who knew? There might be no crossing left for a while, as has happened in past years.

Oh, who am I kidding? I just like to do stupid stuff and get away with it, right? So there I was, as the old story line goes…hammer down!

My pickup tracks are clear where they lead down into the wash but harder to see on this side, giving the impression that we were swallowed by the flood.

My pickup tracks are clear where they lead down into the wash but harder to see on this side, giving the impression that we were swallowed by the flood.

Once well up and away from the flooding wash, I parked the truck and got out to take these photos. I was on my way back to the truck when a much more sensible neighbor drove up on the other side…and parked to wait until the water went down, like anyone with a brain would do. True, this next photo makes it look like there’s hardly any water at all, no cut bank or anything, but the fellow in the Ford is not fooled.

A much wiser neighbor parks above the wash to wait for the flood to pass before crossing.

A much wiser neighbor parks above the wash to wait for the flood to pass before crossing.

For this to be a proper cautionary tale about not crossing washes when they’re running, something icky should have happened, right? Well…yes. And it did. Only not to me, or at least not to me this time and not at the big wash on Paloma Trail. Instead, it happened to a neighbor while pulling out of a driveway onto Paloma Trail. The storm had magically cut a deep little tire catcher, hidden beneath the inevitable muddy water disguise. Tire go boom-splat into new mini-ditch, vehicle go…nowhere.

Sneaky erosion traps vehicle tire.

Sneaky erosion traps vehicle tire.

Moral of the story? Let’s see…never run with scissors (makes you wonder how all those sword-combat people managed, back in the day), Murphy’s Law is still very much in force, and oh yeah, when it comes to crossing a wash when the water is running, it’s a very bad idea.

So do as I say, not as I do.

Safely across the wash and homeward bound...this time.

Safely across the wash and homeward bound…this time.

11 thoughts on “How to Cross a Wash When It’s Running and Other Bad Ideas

  1. I was at Wal-mart at the same time apparently. I stayed in the van while my kids went in though. The road home was fine on our end. Of course, it doesn’t seem to get bad if I stay on the main road. If I took Nevada or took Nucci to Ramsey, it might be different though.
    I had to go take Rodger to get his pain meds, since he broke his arm yesterday. The brake caliper came off and flew down into the spokes of his motor bike while he was going down a hill and he flipped over the handlebars, crashed and burned. He has lumps and bumps all over too.

  2. Driving down through the valley, I had the impression that most of the heavy hitting rain landed south of Hereford Road. But hey, Rodger broke his arm? Ouch! Is there anything he hasn’t broken over the years? First time I ever heard of a brake caliper coming off like that, but then I never did that many miles on a bicycle, either.

  3. Here we go again! Your rainy season really plays havoc with the road leading to your property. At least you got your grocery shopping done before the next big one hits!

    I’m sure Pam was relieved to see you home safe and sound.

  4. She was definitely relieved, yes. Willing to cowgirl up if she had to, but fiercely relieved. I checked the undercut on the cut bank along the downstream edge of the trail across the wash today. It cuts in about a foot farther than the surface shows. So far, we’ve had about six feet of earth “cut out”. If we get that much more, the crossing may well become impassable once again.

  5. I seldom use my lap top any more because the phone lets me do most of what I need to on it. Today I had the laptop up and running, I thought I’d check to see if there were new chapters. I saw this wash post and funny enough I can see all the uncropped photos in my email, but when I click on ghost32 to read this in a better format all photos are cropped nicely, the photos are great either way. lol. yeah about not driving in those circumstances….. I have 4 stories myself about water and driving through it… lol…

  6. The water in the wash reminds me of the Colorado river near Junction and the part I could see from my camper at Herons nest campground in brown the water would get during snow melt and how fast the current was, even though it looked sleepy. Being from Mn and all the water there and growing up playing in the lakes and rivers I understand water pretty good, AS LONG as its not the ocean…lol different kettle of fish, not even lake superior is like the ocean, its very moody, usually bad moods. I’ve never seen it look happy, I’ve seen the ocean look happy.

  7. Interesting, Mary. First, that you can see the uncropped photos in any form, since I can’t (after cropping them). Sure goes to show you the utter lack of privacy online, eh? No way in Hell will I ever own a smart phone, though; my Luddite DNA draws the line there. Hate touch screens with a passion and absolutely require a big rock-and-roll keyboard.

    I well know the Colorado River between Junction and Silt. My last job was truck driving for Production Transport, headquartered in Junction. Trucks were yarded at DeBeque. I had a work apartment in Rifle for 4 months (Dec. 2006-Mar. 2007), then got my wife over from the east side (Ordway) and bought a house in Parachute. We hauled water to and from rig sites all through that area, including a fair bit up on the Roan Plateau.

    I’ve seen the ocean look happy, too, but I’m no expert on any of the Great Lakes. Nor do I want to be.

  8. My brother custom made this lap top, I have no idea what is in it I got it in 2010 and it had a retinal scanner built in and who knows what else. I’m not sure how common that feature is, I find it stranger than the fingerprint option that was on another laptop. Oh well I have strange electronics. I remember you and I passing comment about trucking parachute and Silt before. I too don’t intend to have much to do with the great lakes. I did like the summer weather in Erie PA never got too hot for me unlike Florida… I get way too hot with all the humidity nasty stuff

  9. I was born in Florida but was smart enough to get out of there by the time I was 6 months old….

    Seems to me I read somewhere that Windows 10 has facial recognition, at least as an option.

    Forgot that was you I talked with about Parachute/Silt, etc. Been a while. 🙂

  10. I got this laptop in 2010 it has windows 7 professional edition…and the scan thing on it hmmm…OK take credit for your parents decision to leave fl. At least you got a much better education in the north .lol my dad was in the Navy at key west, mom went home to have me I could have been born here too lol

  11. Heh. It wasn’t really my parent’s decision to leave Florida; it was the U. S. Navy’s. Shipped him out to go fight (World War II) in the South Pacific.

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