By Vaughn Hadenfeldt
The Moki Dugway. Photo by Paul Martini.
Most folks commute to work in heavy traffic, on multi-lane paved highways at high speeds and standstill rush hour crawls. My work commute often occurs on the Moki Dugway. “Moki” is an early Spanish – and later Mormon pioneer – term used to describe Hopi or Puebloan Indians. “Dugway” is a trail or roadway excavated or constructed to allow passage off steep, inaccessible terrain. The Moki Dugway is a dirt section of Highway 261 that switchbacks and gains 1200 ft. in three miles. The Valley of the Gods spreads out from its base and the Cedar Mesa/Grand Gulch Plateau is at the top. From my home in Bluff, it’s about a 20-mile drive west to where the Dugway starts its 11% serpentine grade up the Cedar Mesa Escarpment. In 1956 Texas Zinc Minerals Corporation spent three million dollars to link a more direct route for hauling uranium ore from the Happy Jack Mine on Cedar Mesa to the processing mill in Halchita, just across the San Juan River from Mexican Hat. When the uranium bust came the state ended up with a road that doesn’t meet normal standards and requires a lot of maintenance. Today, this spectacular, if not disconcerting-for-some, road has become a major tourist attraction and is touted by AAA as a scenic, must-do drive.
As I head up the Moki with clients I often tell a running storyline of occurrences involving this stretch of roadway. Starting at the bottom curve I recall the nighttime emergency call to our Bluff Volunteer Fire Department to respond to an auto accident. The Sheriff’s office radio briefing relays that a car has gone off the Moki Dugway and people are “off a cliff”. I suit up at the station and drive an emergency quick-response truck back to my place to grab some climbing gear in case we have to perform some kind of technical rescue. As we arrive with lights and siren, it turns out to be a one-car wreck at this first curve. Two drunk men had almost made it the whole way down before missing the last curve and smashing their car along the roadside cliff bank. It wasn’t a serious crash but the two had decided to flee the scene. As they ran in the darkness they stumbled off a steep embankment and catapulted into rocks and bushes. They were thoroughly thrashed but had just crawled back to the road as we arrived. It was a bit comical; we had no extraction, clean-up or other fireman duties to perform at the scene. We waited for EMTs to check them out, the state trooper to arrest them and the tow truck to haul off the vehicle. We went back to the Bluff fire station, parked the vehicles in the bays and all went home to bed.
As we drive farther up the road there is a pullout that brings up another memory. One February, my friend Roch who worked for the Patagonia Clothing Company in California gave me a call. It was almost Superbowl weekend and he wondered if I was planning to watch the game. I reminded him of my lack of interest in such sports and said I had no plans for game time; I didn’t even know what teams were playing. He then suggested that he and a friend whom I’d never met could come out and do some hiking and camping with me. I said that sounded great and we’d go find something to do. I wasn’t sure what a trip up on the mesa top would be like considering the snowfall we’d had so far that winter. Roch and his friend, Lee, arrived the day before the big game and the next morning we headed up the Dugway in my truck.
Some of the switchbacks were icy and when we topped out on the mesa at about 6500’ it was a winter wonderland. Since we were there I figured we’d try four-wheel-driving out several miles on a snowy dirt road that dead ends at Muley Point. Muley Point is at the south end of Cedar Mesa and overlooks the San Juan River 2000 ft. below and the sandstone formations of Monument Valley loom off in the distance. This is a view that photographers consider a must-visit to capture sweeping panoramas. The drive wasn’t too bad. We drove to the first overlook, parked and did a hike along the escarpment. By late afternoon, the snow was melting and the wind was picking up. This is a great place to camp but not in the winter with a howling wind. After tromping in the snow and contemplating an uncomfortable – if not brutal – overnight we started to wimp out and decided to bail back to Bluff. The dirt road was no longer frozen and I barely augured my truck back to the pavement. Clouds came in and the view off the Moki became intermittently shrouded in fog banks. As we headed back down the Dugway I spotted a pullout that was clear of snow because of its southern exposure and it was also somewhat protected from the wind. Instead of continuing to Bluff, I suggested we park and spend the night tailgating and watching our own superbowl of storm clouds and fog banks.
In the middle of the night an eighteen-wheeler drove by but couldn’t make the last, steep icy bend above us. The trucker spent a lot of time repeatedly backing up and then taking runs forward hoping to gain enough momentum to negotiate the icy patch. After several attempts I’m considering that I should crawl out of my sleeping bag and hike up and see if I can help him out. Fortunately, while I’m still contemplating such a silly thought, the trucker finally spins enough tires to burn his way through. Just after he disappears the only other vehicle of the night comes charging up the road. It could have been a mess if the semi bottleneck was still there to greet this speeding motorist.
In the morning we’re brewing up some newfangled hot drink called “chai” that Roch has brought from California. Roch is a banjo player and he’s been offering up some morning tunes. As he’s playing I hear a vehicle driving toward us. I turn to Lee and say, “Just wait, I bet a guy will slam on his brakes, jump out with a mandolin and want to play with Roch.” Lee just gives me a weird look. A couple minutes later a pickup truck drives by as Roch is walking back to put his banjo in its case. The truck just barely passes our roadside hovel when it pulls over and stops. A man leaps out and yells at Roch, “don’t put that away!” as he heads to his camper shell, reaches in and pulls out a guitar case. He comes over and he and Roch start jamming on the Moki. Lee turns to me and says, “how did you know that would happen?” I had no clue why I had blurted out such a comment. I had never seen this guy before but I told Lee, “it has to do with being an all-knowing outdoor professional.” I then remembered that I had predicted a mandolin, not a guitar!
Two of my favorite Moki Dugway stories come from Bluff old-timer Melvin Gaines. When Melvin returned from the Korean War he became a heavy equipment operator for the Utah state highway department. He maintained the Moki as a state road crew employee for 30 years. Many years ago, Melvin was driving his road grader on the Moki when he noticed a woman standing next to her car that was parked in the middle of the road. Melvin pulled over and asked, “Lady, you got car problems?” She frantically replied, “Yes. I can’t drive up or down! Can you drive my car to the top?” Melvin could tell she was totally freaked out driving on the steep, winding road with airy views and no guardrails. Melvin replied, “Lady, I don’t have time for this I’m working here. I’m sorry but I can’t be drivin’ your car.” The woman immediately started to cry and Melvin, being a good old boy, decided he better help her out. He walked over and got in her car and said, “Well, get in lady, let’s go.” She responded with, “Oh no, I can’t ride! I’ll walk to the top. Just leave the keys in it.” Melvin wasn’t real happy but he drove off. While driving his pants were getting wetter and wetter from the seat. The woman had peed her pants from fear! Melvin parked her car, walked back down passing the woman as she was walking up, his pants almost dried by now. After Melvin told his story he stated, “That’s the last time I ever helped anybody on the Moki Dugway.”
Another time while on his road grader Melvin became the slow-down “bumper car” for a uranium ore truck that was losing its brakes. He said,” It was working pretty good until we approached a sharp curve.” In order to not be pushed off the cliff Melvin dropped the graders blade and got stopped, but not until his front wheels were sticking out over the cliffy road edge. Melvin then told me,” I climbed out of my grader and went back and kind of thumped that trucker around a bit.”
At the top of the Dugway, below the first switchback lies a pickup truck wedged in a boulder field. Two Navajo brothers had spent the day cutting firewood and had overloaded each of their pickups and were heading off the Mesa back to their homes on the Navajo reservation. Cedar Mesa has become a major wood gathering area for the Utah Strip of the Navajo Reservation since the Dugway was built. At nightfall the two headed down the Moki but as soon as the lead truck got to the first curve its headlights disappeared over the cliff edge.
The brother following behind would later say, “I saw my brother’s truck go woof, right off of there”. After seeing where the truck tumbled to a stop it’s hard to imagine that his brother only suffered cuts, bruises and a broken leg. What had happened was his truck had such a heavy rear-end load that at the moment when he went to turn the front tires they weren’t making contact with the road! I can empathize because I had once driven a ranch truck that was overloaded behind the rear tires and hit a bumpy section of road experiencing the same front-tire levitation leaving the front tires turning in the air with the steering wheel spinning freely and giving me a bad feeling. Fortunately I wasn’t trying to turn and there were no drop-offs.
Another story from the old uranium days is about an ore truck driver who lost his brakes and took a long, steep ride off the cliff not far from where the Navajo wood cutters’ truck still lies. Remnants of the ore truck wreckage still can be seen. It’s hard to imagine anyone could have survived. I suspect he jumped out during the ride. He was the last truck in a convoy heading to the Halchita mill and no one saw him go over the edge. He wasn’t missed until he didn’t show up at the mill. When workers went back to look for him they found him shaken and beat up on the roadside. After the wreck he somehow crawled back up and was waiting for help. He soon quit his job, moved to the Midwest and was killed in his truck by a train. You’d think after surviving the Moki plunge; karma would have been in his favor not to have a fatal truck wreck.
As you approach the Moki Dugway from either above or below there are highway signs warning drivers of the narrow, steep grades. The signs further recommend but don’t prohibit large vehicles from using this roadway. The first time I ever towed a stock trailer up the Moki I was following Fred Blackburn. Both of us were pulling trailers loaded with llamas, a mule and a horse. I have to admit that negotiating that road had me really gripped. Many of the switchback curves are so tight you need to take up both narrow lanes to make the bend. It gave me a better appreciation for the early uranium ore haulers and the semi- truck drivers that continue to use this road even today. I finally cornered one of these truck drivers who uses the Moki and asked him why he didn’t use Highway 95 instead. He explained that the highway to the north, which is paved all the way and would get him to the same destinations, has a lot of tedious ups and downs that require a lot of downshifting. The Moki gets him directly on the mesa top and after that it’s a cruise. I pointed out how crazy it seemed when opposing traffic was severely impaired with his choice of hogging the Dugway. He shrugged his shoulders and drove off.
I’ve often witnessed the classic scenario of “Fred and Myrtle” in their Winnebago in full survival mode driving the Dugway. Myrtle’s screaming at Fred. Fred has a death-grip on the steering wheel; Myrtle’s wondering how she could be married to a guy who ignores warning signs and is driving their home on wheels on the roadway to hell! I’ve been confronted and challenged by occasional semi trucks but the convoy of three oncoming semis hauling hay was the worst. Thankfully, Fred and Myrtle weren’t there for that one!
I’ve been delayed with clients while film companies shot car-chase shootouts and Cadillac commercials. I’ve had to turn around when heavy rains washed the road out or work my way to the top through debris flows in four-wheel drive. I once followed a semi that left miles of grooves across the mesa top and all the way off the Dugway from driving on his rims after losing a couple of tires from blowouts. It made me think of what the highway patrolman once said to my buddy driving down a highway on bald tires. “Son, you’re driving on imagination.”
Occasionally I’ve had clients who refused to return via the Moki Dugway and demanded I take the long paved highway route through Blanding back to Bluff. Best of all I had an Earthwatch volunteer riding in my passenger seat ask me, “Remind me again what you told me the name of this road is? Did you call it the Monkey Driveway?” “Yes,” I said, “your memory serves you well.”
Vaughn Hadenfeldt was a backcountry guide in the area for 40 years. He currently serves on the Board of Directors for Friends of Cedar Mesa.