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Driving With Your Dad Actually Is One of Life’s Simplest Joys

He’s got an old piece of crap Ford diesel F-250 parked alongside it. The long-bed Ford has seen many better days. The suspension is sagging, and the engine sounds like its got cockle-burrs caught in its throat. Besides, it’s set up to haul heavy trailers, not off-road.  My dad and I are arguing. I’ve got a new Toyota Tacoma with the off-roading package in the motel parking lot.

It is 4 a.m., it’s raining like a mother outside, and we’re headed out into the primitive New Mexico countryside far from any help. It will be muddy. Like, mega-muddy. The chances of us getting stuck are pretty good. The chances of us getting stuck in the Ford are absolute, I tell him.

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“Oh, Jason, you think you know everything,” he retorts.

“I do this for a living . . . ” I begin, and he rolls his eyes. But when he walks outside into the rain, he fits his six-foot-three frame into the passenger side of the Tacoma.

We’re silent as I pull out of the motel parking lot, rain drumming hard on the metal roof. We’re on the border of New Mexico and Arizona, here to hunt elk using old-timey black-powder rifles. My father and I haven’t hunted together in years—in fact, I haven’t hunted at all in a long time, and we’re both rather ambivalent about the actual shooting part. Mostly it is an easy excuse for us to spend time together. To walk around the woods, slowly, and to drive around the rough forested countryside. It is vast, and it is unforgiving.

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I’ve been looking forward to the driving part. My dad’s foot has been bothering him, and he warned me beforehand that he wouldn’t be able to walk too many miles. Which means we’d be doing a fair amount of unhurried motoring, scanning for signs of game. I was good with that. That pace, arms hanging out the open windows, is just about the best place to talk. To genuinely catch up, tell stories, reminisce, and get to know each other again. To filter out distractions like cell phones (no cell signals out this way), other traffic, and the urge to speed to our destination. Hell, we wouldn’t even have a destination.

I navigate 15 or so miles of asphalt road to the community of Luna (population 158) and then onto a dirt road headed into public lands. It’s still dark out, but great forks of lightning are cracking down. It’s the kind of lightning I’ve only ever seen in the New Mexico’s high desert, worthy of an Ansel Adams photograph.

We’ve been walking on the tops of those buttes in the last couple of days, and I’ve marveled at the number of trees I’ve seen split clean apart, halved from top to bottom, victims of exactly this kind of weather. Our plan had been to drive up to the top of one of those peaks on a really rough, steep road. Dad would drop me off, and I’d walk down the ridge.

I’ re-thinking that whole plan now. Unless the weather changes soon, the top of a butte would be a bad place to be. And I’m not sure we’ll even be able to drive to the top with the roads turned to muck.

I set off, and the truck starts sliding around. The soil is more like clay, and once it gets wet it turns into a tire-sucking mess.

“The Ford woulda been better,” dad mumbles.

“The long wheelbase would never have made it up the steep road,” I start in. “And the Tacoma has a lot more ground clearance, and . . . ” I go on for a while, listing the various reasons that my choice is better. The Ford isn’t even dad’s truck. It’s a loaner given to him while he gets his GMC Sierra fixed. So I don’t know why he’s defending it.

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He sighs. Obviously my subtext isn’t so sub-texty. I think I know more about trucks and off-roading than my father does. I’ve gotten instruction from some of the best off-roaders around, and I’ve driven rough roads all around the world.

So, dad, when it comes to this, I know better. Deal with it.

But, do I really? After all, my dad was my original off-road instructor. The man who had me “hop out” and lock the hubs to engage four-wheel-drive from the time I was old enough to follow instructions. We forded many a river in our GMC Sierra, and climbed many a steep rock pile in an old Willys. Whatever I first knew about off-roading came from him, and he is very, very good at it. He never needed an instructor. He just went out and did it.

Many of my most cherished memories with dad have been our off-piste drives.

Many of my most cherished memories with dad have been our off-piste drives. Some went well, like the time we got over Colorado’s Black Bear pass in a truck.  Other’s not so much. (The time we had to walk all the way home through the high desert after breaking a tie rod in the Willys.) But we always had a story. And we always have a good time.

Now I’m see-sawing the wheel of the Tacoma as we break tracks down the mucky road. I get pretty sideways at one point, recover, and sneak a look over at dad. Even at the age of 43, it’s nice to get a little driving validation from the old man.

We finally arrive at the steep mountain path. The weather has let up. It’s no longer raining or lightning. But the road is narrow and off-camber and it’s going to be slippery. “What do you think?” I ask.

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Dad shrugs.  “Give ‘er a try,” he says.

I aim the truck upwards, careful to never let it come to a complete stop but not allow the tires to spin, either. We grind our way up, working to find the best traction, until we reach the end of the road, a gravel pit. We’ve made it.

My dad knows this country well, and he points over three mountains. “Walk all the way down that ridge. Then go over the top of those peaks. You’ll eventually come out by a water tank. I’ll be parked there. Maybe you’ll scare out some game. Go quiet.”

I take out my gun from the truck and pull on a jacket.

For a moment, I’m concerned. “You okay with the truck? I don’t want you to get stuck. Go slow but don’t come to a full stop.”

He gets in the driver’s side and takes off, moving more quickly than I would have.

Dad nods, amused. “I’ll be fine. See you over there.” Then he gets in the driver’s side and takes off, moving more quickly than I would have. I watch the tail lights drop over the edge.

What am I worried about? I suppose he could get stuck out there by himself with no help. But, then, he managed it all long before I came along. I’m being silly. Protective even.

I wait until it’s light enough to see, and begin walking slowly through the woods. I trudge up and over the two peaks. There’s no elk up here. Not even any sign. But the sun rises over the mountains and it’s gorgeous and I stop for a while and eat a granola bar. Eventually I figure I’m just above the place where the water tanks should be, and dad is presumably parked.

I drop off the mountain and realize I’m a bit lost. I hit a dirt road and begin following it, thinking—well, hoping—it will lead me to the water tanks.

And, after awhile, it does. I can see the tanks through the trees. For a second I get anxious, and then I glimpse red—the paint of the truck.

Dad is there, sitting on the tailgate, looking relaxed. I put my gun in the bed and tell him about my foray. “Didn’t see a thing. Pretty country though.”

“Yeah, it’s beautiful out here,” he says, puts his arm around my shoulders. “Just good to be out here with you.”

And it is. I smile. “Glad you made it. So, how was the truck?”

He nods, slowly. Smiles. “The Ford would have been better.”

Jason Harper, a contributing editor to Road & Track, has tested and written on cars for two decades. His scariest drive was a rally race in an original Lancia 037, his first drive of a supercar was the Porsche Carrera GT, and the only time he’s gotten a speeding ticket was in a base Mini Cooper. His column, Harper’s Bizarre, runs every Wednesday.


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