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Story Time: Clear Lake

A recollection from week one of our trip.

The air was unseasonably hot on this October afternoon. We were hurtling down the Scenic 101 on our way to a campsite in the hills overlooking Clear Lake, California. From there, the stars were supposedly amazing, and from the few online sources I could find, the spot was very secluded. Remote wilderness was just what we were looking for.

We bobbed along the lakeside road, exclaiming over the beautiful views while reporting every detail to Jill's parents over the phone. Our GPS steered us left into the hills, and the phone signal started to get shaky. We said our goodbyes just as the call dropped and we were left in silence, winding through vineyards and orchards.

Online, I had found this site on one of my forums, where a user had described it as "far off the pavement, but ok with his Toyota Forerunner." While we were not too familiar with our car's off-road performance, we were pretty sure it would work out. The temperature climbed with us into the hills, and the vegetation turned to black as we approached the edge of what used to be a pretty severe fire.

Just after a sharp turn past one last vineyard, we could see the end of the pavement.  Our wheels hit gravel, and then it became apparent that this route was not maintained in any capacity. We slowed down and swerved about to avoid massive potholes as the road inclined steeply. Things had become quite narrow at this point, windy too, and we struggled to maintain speed in our heavy little bus. I was in first gear, fighting to keep the car high enough in its rev range. (This is not a truck.) We groaned to a stop at the crest of a hill where we could at last see the lake. Our engine had risen in temperature considerably so we decided to give it a rest while we took some pictures. Our trusty Element cooled back down, and we trundled on. At this point, much of the land was badly scorched, and we could see all of Clear Lake and the surrounding hills. I was truly excited, we were only going higher, and the views were sure to be spectacular.

Maintaining a steady 15 to 20mph in first gear, we were handling everything just fine. I could feel the back wheels pushing us through soft dirt, and we slid about every corner, but the car tracked well and our temperature was now stable. I had just sort-of figured out where the limits were. As we crested a hill and pointed our nose down, we saw that the road was blocked by a massive puddle. This may not seem like a big deal, but our car doesn't have chunky tires, very much ground clearance, low gears, or true 4X4. We came to a stop and stared down the puddle. There were trees nearby and I had tie downs with ratchets... I also had some 2X4s in the top carrier if we needed to make some traction... I had seen enough YouTube videos to maybe figure something out if we got stuck. All of this passed though my head in the blink of an eye just before I gunned it, faster than Jill could remind me that our windows were rolled down.

It turned out the puddle was deep... and very muddy. Very muddy. Our bumper was in the mud, fast, and the bed platform strained against its tie downs. But then the wheels dug in... and then the front of the car sort of bounced out... The rear followed suit and we were, fairly undramatically, driving on soft dirt again. I am not sure that Jill could every truly describe my grin; I love driving through puddles.

We chattered on about how brilliantly our car had performed and continued on our way. Just as we rounded a corner we saw some orange off in the distance. Some sort of sign. I slowed to a stop and we hopped out to have a look. From what we read, the forest we were just heading into was closed to all non-authorized personnel, due to the fire, with a $10,000 fine for being caught in violation. I looked at our map and sure enough, our campsite we situated at the edge of the border. We were crestfallen. We turned around, looking sadly at our muddy car. It was all for naught.


Note the not-at-all foreboding, charred countryside


  1. What a disappointment. The Honda Element has certainly proven itself though.


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