Monsoon Downpour on International Border Road: The Joys of Dangerous Driving

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Ah, the psychology of the human male! Monsoon rain, pouring down on International Border Road. My name is Fred, and I’m addicted to dangerous driving. The joys of conquering the supposedly unconquerable challenge of spitting back in Nature’s face…ah-h-h! Nothing like it!

Like most addicts, though, I tend to hide my need, my adrenaline fueled habit, the dark underbelly of the beast. As a teenager, sure, it was fine and dandy to race the other kids in town with a “sleeper” ’52 Chevy and its hopped-up six cylinder engine. We all did that ’cause kids are, you know…stupid.

It’s a mammalian thing. From playful kittens to young Indian warriors on the warpath, looking for coup to count and horses to steal, youths are expected to kick up their heels a bit. Then when we get older, that’s supposed to go away.

For some of us, it doesn’t.

Ask any NASCAR driver.

Or ask daredevil Evel Knievel, except that Evel’s passed on, so you’ll have to ask his daredevil son, what’s-his-name.

Like any good reader with a PhD in psychological counseling, you ask, “So, Ghost, how do you go about hiding something like that? What are your cover up techniques?”

I’m glad you asked.

For me, there’s really only one covering technique worth considering. I’ve used it my entire life. It’s simply this:

I have to make it look like the dangerous driving I do is necessary, not recreational.

Huh? Say what?

It’s really quite simple. If I were a professional race car driver, that would be my cover. I could drive 200 mph in bumper to bumper traffic around tight left hand turns because that was how I made my living, fed my family, kept the mortgage paid. Since I’m not Danica Patrick (in any sense of the word), however, the parameters have to be adjusted slightly.

On the rodeo circuit in the 1960’s, needing to make it to the next rodeo on time provided great cover. One example: I disqualified on a bull in Polson, Montana, one fine June evening in 1965 (didn’t buck off but did slap the bull with my free hand). In Butte, 150 miles away, I’d ridden my second of two bulls the night before, and the field of riders was thin enough that I expected to place in Butte.

There would be a paycheck.

My friend Jack Kelley had agreed to pick up the check for me when the Rodeo Secretary passed out the winnings, but hey.

With me at the wheel, we tore through those mountains between the two towns in record time, hurtling our ’56 Chevy Bel Air around tight curves on two lane roads in the middle of the night where jet black Angus cows were known to provide zero warning before launching a thousand pounds of beef through your windshield.

The joys of dangerous driving, indeed.

We pulled into the rodeo grounds at Butte a little bit late, but not too late. Jack had already collected my check (2nd place, a nice chunk of change)…but he’d not yet pulled out. He handed me the precious piece of paper, we both grinned, and I was floating on air. High as a kite.

WINNER!

See? That’s the kind of cover we’re talking about. For me, there has to be an excuse. It can be a little thin, as it was that night, but as long as I can convince myself the need is real, we’re good to go.

And go. And go.

Today (July 16, 2013) was no exception.

When the Paloma Trail road washed out, Nature herself provided this old adrenaline-addicted cowboy with all the cover he needed. To access Highway 92 just north of our place (at mile marker 341) used to be a 3 to 5 minute drive. Now it’s a bit longer–an hour at least, ranging upward to overnight if the washes on International Border Road are running.

You can get stranded out there, waiting for the waters to go down. Sometimes the flash floods will ease off within minutes after a monsoon cloudburst; sometimes they’ll run hard all night, swift and deep and dangerous enough to shove the burliest vehicle down-country and roll it a few times, possibly drowning the occupant.

Perfect.

I was out of our driveway, headed for all those fun and games, at 8:22 a.m. Our GMC pickup with its newly installed headache rack carried two empty 100# propane bottles, six empty gas cans, and a driver with an empty head.

Come to think of it, my stomach was empty, too. Country Kitchen would have liver and onions. M-m-m…!

“Figure eight hours,” I’d told Pam, “with a margin for error. I hope to be back by five o’clock.”

“If you make it,” she replied, thinking about the sky. There was no blue showing; it was all cloud cover, threatening rain even then.

“If I get stopped at a wash that’s running too deep to cross on the way back, I’ll just hunker down.”

Already, I was having a very good day.

Our 1996 4wd pickup truck, home from the flash flood wars with a load of propane, gasoline, and other goodies. The green machine showed its mettle today.

Our 1996 4wd pickup truck, home from the flash flood wars with a load of propane, gasoline, and other goodies. The green machine showed its mettle today.

To town and around

Going out, the road wasn’t too bad. It rained last night, but most of the washes were dry or nearly so. There were two tricky spots, one snot-slick strip of mud with cut banks bordering both edges even before reaching the Ladd ranch gates, plus one of the washes, which did have about five inches of water running through it.

But these were nothing the truck and its adrenaline junkie driver couldn’t handle. The hardcore proposition would be presented on the return run.

And boy howdy, was it ever.

After a quick stop to pick up my stepson’s propane tank at his place–which used to be seven minutes away and this morning was an hour and seven minutes away–the entire Sierra Vista run was routine. Time consuming, but routine.

At Barnett’s, where we buy our propane, it became obvious I should have built a headache rack for the truck four years ago. All this time, I’d been hauling tanks in the back of the Subaru Outback. At the supply point, each tank would get dragged out of the car, filled, then shoved back in there again.

Not so with the truck.

Instead, with all three big tanks secured vertically to the headache rack, Robert (the attendant) simply climbed up into the truck bed and went to work, filling the tanks where they stood.

Wow. There’s a message in there somewhere.

It was around 2:30 when the GMC nosed back southward, headed down Highway 92, hitting for home. The skies opened up then, sheets of rain pouring down.

Fortunately, that sploosh was over–mostly–by the time I reached Zach’s, allowing me to drop off his freshly filled propane tank without getting soaked. A little damp around the ears, but not soaked.

Pam had called on the cell phone. Rain was heading for the Border Fort; she had the wind in her face and the storm wall coming in fast from the Chiricahua Mountains to the east. The truck and I were minutes from home, or would have been, had Paloma Trail been open.

Instead, the only option was to head on into the teeth of the storm, straight toward Bisbee.

The rain hit hard, the windshield wipers barely able to keep up–

–and then the wipers quit.

Just like that. Going-going-going-not!

Visibility zero.

All I could see through the water-sheeted windshield were blurs of yellow to the left front (dividing line between the two lanes of Highway 92) and a blur of white to the right front (marking the shoulder).

I kept going. Not fast, but straight ahead. Pulling over might have been a great idea, but there’s not a lot of shoulder right there. At least, if somebody rearended the truck, the presumption of guilt in court would be on them.

Dark blur. Somebody did pull over.

I make it past the parked vehicle, never once seeing the taillights. They must have been on; once in front of him, it was obvious he did have his headlights on. But the rain was so fierce that red taillights simply vanished behind the waterfall.

Time to pull over. In the rear view mirror, the other vehicle’s headlights at least provided some estimate of the shoulder width–which was not much. Certainly not enough to get all the way out of the driving lane.

But something.

Other cars and pickups go on by the two of us. One, three, five or so.

The four way flasher on the truck is stuck. Button won’t go down. I settle for using the right turn signal. That, at least, still works.

Time passes. The rain slackens enough to provide a bit of forward visibility through the windshield. Time to go.

Moving, the visibility disappears again. Willie Nelson, singing On The Road Again, driving blind as Stevie Wonder.

Wonder why the wipers quit. Fuse, maybe.

-K-zing!- The wipers suddenly start up again, still on high, swiping furiously. I can see!

There was nothing wrong with the wipers at all, except that the longer passenger side blade had gone too far, gotten stuck somehow–and then miraculously jolted loose.

Cool. I will definitely take my miracles where I find them.

By the time the GMC and I reach the Chevron station at Bisbee and pull in to fill the six gas cans, plus top off the truck, the rain has eased all the way down to a gentle Oregon style drizzle. That’s good; it means the likelihood of getting water in the gas cans while filling them is reduced considerably.

One last stop at Burger King, four Memphis barbecue pulled pork sandwiches to go. We’d figured to buy ten or so, freeze a bunch of them, but the odds on me getting all the way back home this afternoon are–Pam and I agree–not good.

There’s not even any guarantee I’ll be allowed to access International Border Road at all. Maybe they’ll have the gate locked, Road Flooded, Closed for Safety, Get a Room.

No. No problem there. The gate is open, nobody in sight. The green machine and I head on west.

This time, I decide, I’ll count the washes. It’s a bit under nine miles from Naco to our cutoff through the Ladd ranch. How many washes are there in that stretch, really? Seems like a lot, but what’s the actual number?

The number, it turns out, is far higher than I’d realized.

At wash #22 by my count, the odds against getting home before tomorrow morning suddenly skyrocket. The first two washes had been dry, or nearly so, with no more than a few inches of water running in the others.

Now, however, there’s a problem. Wash #22 is running hard enough to worry the Border Patrol drivers that run this road every day. I’ve passed several BP units, all of them heading back, most likely called into the Naco station because of the flash flooding.

Wonder why the wipers quit. Fuse, maybe.

-K-zing!- The wipers suddenly start up again, still on high, swiping furiously. I can see!

There was nothing wrong with the wipers at all, except that the longer passenger side blade had gone too far, gotten stuck somehow–and then miraculously jolted loose.

Cool. I will definitely take my miracles where I find them.

By the time the GMC and I reach the Chevron station at Bisbee and pull in to fill the six gas cans, plus top off the truck, the rain has eased all the way down to a gentle Oregon style drizzle. That’s good; it means the likelihood of getting water in the gas cans while filling them is reduced considerably.

One last stop at Burger King, four Memphis barbecue pulled pork sandwiches to go. We’d figured to buy ten or so, freeze a bunch of them, but the odds on me getting all the way back home this afternoon are–Pam and I agree–not good.

There’s not even any guarantee I’ll be allowed to access International Border Road at all. Maybe they’ll have the gate locked, Road Flooded, Closed for Safety, Get a Room.

No. No problem there. The gate is open, nobody in sight. The green machine and I head on west.

This time, I decide, I’ll count the washes. It’s a bit under nine miles from Naco to our cutoff through the Ladd ranch. How many washes are there in that stretch, really? Seems like a lot, but what’s the actual number?

The number, it turns out, is far higher than I’d realized.

At wash #22 by my count, the odds against getting home before tomorrow morning suddenly skyrocket. The first two washes had been dry, or nearly so, with no more than a few inches of water running in the others.

Now, however, there’s a problem. Wash #22 is running hard enough to worry the Border Patrol drivers that run this road every day. I’ve passed several BP units, all of them heading back, most likely called into the Naco station because of the flash flooding.

Wash #22 (by my count) west of Naco on International Border Road is running strongly enough to persuade BP drivers to think it over before crossing.

Wash #22 (by my count) west of Naco on International Border Road is running strongly enough to persuade BP drivers to think it over before crossing.

BP crosses the wash

I hadn’t been parked for more than fifteen minutes or so when the Border Patrol drivers decided to try crossing the wash.

Out came the Canon PowerShot, clicking as quickly as the digital camera would cycle (which isn’t all that quickly), recording the crossing.

The first officer across stopped to chat with me for a moment. He wanted to know about the first wash after I came on the line. I assured him that one hadn’t even been running when I came through–but of course we both knew that didn’t mean a whole lot. If it had been running like a mother, these three men and their trucks might be stuck in the field twiddling their thumbs for hours until it went down. The other way around, the 20 minutes or so between my crossing and their approach might make all the difference.

To the west, they’d seen no problems yet. The five inches or so in this wash (what I termed #22) was as deep as it got.

So far.

With all three BP units clear, I put the GMC in gear and headed on through. No problem. I’d hit one of the earlier washes a little fast, splashed a wave of water up in front of the grille higher than the hood, but that was the only real excitement on the Border Road.

So far.

The Border Patrol trucks decide to cross the flash flooding wash on International Border Road. Note that the driver has positioned his vehicle well over on the upstream side of the water. This is done regardless of the direction of travel.

The Border Patrol trucks decide to cross the flash flooding wash on International Border Road. Note that the driver has positioned his vehicle well over on the upstream side of the water. This is done regardless of the direction of travel.

Horseshoe 2

That was wash #22.

Wash #28, which I believe was (and is) the Horseshoe 2 wash (though I didn’t look for the sign to make sure)…was another matter altogether.

Horseshoe 2 is a huge wash, providing a major portion of the water that–some distance downstream–blew out our Paloma Trail concrete. When it’s flash flooding, as much as any of them and more than most, it’s not to be trifled with.

Since BP’s passage through the area, eastbound, it had gotten serious about me spitting in Mother Nature’s face.

I called Pam. “May be here till morning,” I told her. “Looks like a good hundred yards across. Water is squirting through the border fence posts as high as four feet. At the far end, the water could be as much as three feet deep. And fast, too. There’s a freaking lot of water coming through here.”

“Do you have everything locked up?”

“Of course. Honey, there’s only one set of door locks on this truck.”

We still had some light left. It wasn’t yet quite 5:00 p.m. But if I were stranded out here overnight, she didn’t want any evil border boogeyman sneaking up on her dude in the dark.

For a time, I kicked back, alternately eyeballing the water, taking pictures, and reading my book. It’s a good one, Stand and Protect, by fellow Hubber K.T. Banks. I’d read it before, years prior to meeting K.T. here online.

Eventually…Hey, I thought, I do believe the water’s dropping a bit.

Which it was.

Time to get Kick Buttowski daredevil dangerous?

Maybe. Maybe not yet. Maybe…the worst part was going to be at the far end. I’d seen one huge something come floating down the temporary river on the Mexican side, a full sized tree or mega-bush or some such. Vegetation had been forced into Arizona between the posts. Most importantly, there were sand bar (or mud bar) ridges formed by muddy water forcing through those gaps, depositing soil along the way.

The water would not likely stop us…but if the GMC got hung up on one of those sand bars, it would be all over but the shouting.

I might not drown, but I’d look like an idiot for trying to cross in the first place and totaling the truck. If it got stuck, the water would eventually blow the jimmy off the side of the concrete apron. I’d get wet, maybe half drown, and mostly I’d run around the rest of my live long days with -IDIOT!- stamped on my forehead.

But that’s one of the joys of dangerous driving. If there’s no risk, no chance of ending up looking like a fool, what’s the point?

Success = awesome. Failure = reputation for being retarded. Take your pick.

Talk about motivation.

Time to go.

There was no safe way to ease through this one. I’d have to start into the wash at moderate speed, decent rpm’s, then gun it about midway, to have some power going when we hit those sandbar ridges.

KA-WHAMMITY-BAMMITY-ROOSTERTAIL-TRIPLE SLAM!! Bucking like a monkey with an addict on its back, the truck bounced like a Brahma bull coming out of the chute with a firecracker up his a**. How’s that for mixed metaphors?

Around the second or third ridge, we nosedived over the far side, down into the water; it felt like we were going submarine and never coming back up.

I couldn’t push the footfeed down any harder. The 350 V-8 roared, the wheels caught traction…

…and we made it.

On the far side, still driving, phoning Pam even while one-handing the GMC through the next, totally harmless wash, I yelled into the phone,

“GOD BLESS GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION!!” There was no way to tone my voice down; on the adrenaline I had going right then, I could have whupped MIke Tyson and run rings around Usain Bolt. “I’M THROUGH THE HORSESHOE TWO! DAMN, BABY, THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WERE DOING WHEN THEY DESIGNED THIS TRUCK! I’VE ROOSTER TAILED THIS THING, WATER UP THE WAZOO, DON’T KNOW HOW THEY DID IT, BUT NOT ONE DROP OF WATER IN THE AIR CLEANER!”

I was, in other words, mildly euphoric.

My first view of the Horseshoe 2 wash (at least, I think it was the Horseshoe 2), 100 yards across and running strongly. The border fence here is 14 feet high, the water (at this moment) as much as 2 to 3 feet deep across the concrete.

My first view of the Horseshoe 2 wash (at least, I think it was the Horseshoe 2), 100 yards across and running strongly. The border fence here is 14 feet high, the water (at this moment) as much as 2 to 3 feet deep across the concrete.


A closer look. Perhaps thirty minutes after this photo was taken, the flow had slackened just a bit, and I crossed over--the truck jouncing hard over the far-end sandbars.

A closer look. Perhaps thirty minutes after this photo was taken, the flow had slackened just a bit, and I crossed over–the truck jouncing hard over the far-end sandbars.


The double hitter

By this time, it was obvious Pam and I’d made the right decision when we bought the GMC from a Montana neighbor in 2002. “We’re keeping these two green machines, the truck and the Subaru, forever,” I told her in 2006, and she agreed.

No more trading for newer models. Ever.

But I’d never truly tested the truck. The Outback, yes. That beast has ducked a five point buck standing in the middle of the road, been wrecked without either rolling or becoming undriveable, and in general paid its dues as a member of the family.

Today, it was the truck’s turn.

What a mudder!

Which, I suppose, makes me a mudder trucker.

Not that we were done yet. Not quite. There wouldn’t be anything else as rough as the Horseshoe Two, but the “double wash”, #30 and #31, did present a small challenge.

For one thing, a Jeep (or similar SUV, whatever) was parked on the other side, waiting it out.

I called Pam again. “I think the near wash is going to slow down enough, after a while, but the problem is that I can’t see all the way down into the far wash from here. It wouldn’t be a really great idea to be stuck in the middle.”

While waiting, thinking it over, I got out the camcorder.

Home

Not all that much later, after the video was recorded, the water hitting the near wash was down enough to be clearly and easily passable.

The far wash was still a bit of a concern, but the Jeep (or whatever) didn’t look like it wanted to be the first guinea pig, so…

…off we went.

It wasn’t bad at all. In fact, after Horseshoe 2, it was a piece of cake.

The guys in the other vehicle, two men, were eyeballing the washes as I motored on past them.

The Subaru Outback would have been clobbered by Horseshoe 2. Their Jeep looked like it would weigh in (as a mudder) somewhere in between our two vehicles, the car and the truck. Would they run into trouble at Horsehoe?

I had no clue. Not my concern. If they’d rolled down a window, wanting to talk, I’d have stopped to tell them what I knew. But one general guy rule is: If it’s not going to kill anybody, don’t offer another dude any data he doesn’t ask for.

We get along better that way.

One final kind-of-ugly wash, probably eight inches of water, and we were done with International Border Road for the day.

I was sailing, sailing, over the silvery moon.

John Ladd’s ranch gates were as good as the pearly gates to me–with one exception. There sure are a lot of folks out here who obviously never ranched and never learned to tie knots. When I go through one of John’s gates, I tie it back closed (with the rope he’s provided) using a double half hitch on a bight, making sure it’s both cinched down tightly for the cows and easy to open for the next guy.

These others…well, some of them do tie sort-of-a-knot, and no doubt some of them are as skilled (and dedicated) as I am or more so.

But some are just plain silly.

Today’s “knots”, when I came across them, were not even knots at all. The rope had just been sort of…hung over itself. It wouldn’t take a stiff wind or a cow rubbing on the gate to open it. Heck, a jack rabbit scratching its butt could do it.

The little slick spot I’d noted going out was…nothing. I was back on the very tip top of my driving game; that track was as good as an eight lane paved boulevard.

On our own property, the eroded, rutted entrance to our driveway was avoided entirely. I just took the truck cross country, cut a new driveway. Maybe, whenever Paloma Trail gets fixed, we’ll order a few truckloads of rock and gravel it that way.

At the house, honking on the way in, unlocking the security door at around 5:30 p.m., stepping inside (it was still raining), I hollered out two things to my long-suffering wife.

The first was, “HONEY, I’M HO-OME!”

The second was double barreled: “GOD BLESS GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION!” and “DAMN, I’M GOOD!!”

Am I addicted to the joys of dangerous driving?

Yeah. You could say that.

But please, don’t tell anybody.

Post Script

I didn’t even think to check the truck’s load until we were parked at the Border Fort. Impressively, the headache rack held position perfectly, not jumping over the little bolt heads I’d installed in the truck bed to hold the bottom of the rack forward where it belonged. The loaded propane tanks were still upright and secure, with the clothesline rope (that ran across behind the tanks in case the bungee cords weren’t enough) stretched out about four inches.

Which means the tanks did -sproing!- back against the rope hard, stretching the bungees, when we bounce-jounced across the Horseshoe Two wash. But the rope also did its job, keeping the tanks from doing any more than that, no harm, no foul.

Damn, I’m good.

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