Our family has been making bi-annual trips to the Colorado River for as long as I can remember. Tradition dictates that we go to the same place, a sand bar about a mile up river from Picacho on the California side. Picacho, a former mining town, is about 18 miles north of Winterhaven. Getting there requires taking the infamous Picacho Road. It’s a long, ruddy dirt road that weeds out all but the heartiest of campers. It’s a test of your vehicle as well as your nerves.
There is shorter way to get to Picacho from the west on a road called the Hyduke Mine Road. My brother John and I heard about it from a former trucker, who said he’d used it to bypass the Interstate 8 agricultural inspection station. We figured that if a trucker could do the Hyduke Mine Road, then so could we.
Our vehicle was a Chevrolet Caprice Classic; a cop car. John was driving, his future wife rode shotgun, and my girlfriend and I were sitting in the back. We assured them that this was the best way to go. The Hyduke Mine Road starts off of Ogilby Road and after about 16 miles it connects to the Picacho Road just 5 miles south of Picacho. While on Ogilby Road we saw the sign for the Hyduke written on a piece of wood and staked into the ground. We pulled onto the trailhead and assessed the situation.
To the east of us was Picacho Peak, a prominent Butte jetting out of the desert which can be seen for 100 miles on clear days. According to the map, all we had to do was keep heading towards it and pass on it’s north side. How could we get lost with such a prominent feature to navigate by?
Within the first 8 miles we encountered only a few obstacles. We crossed numerous dry washes and plowed up a few sandy embankments. These things were good for a laugh and instilled in us some confidence that this was going to be a cinch. All the while we headed for Picacho Peak. I felt a little uneasy since we hadn’t seen a soul and we were now at the midway point. 8 miles of walking in either direction would be required should there be problems with the car. On this day the temperature was about 95 degrees. We had the windows rolled up, air conditioning blasting out the cold and Van Helen tunes cranking all the while.
At this point we encountered difficulties in rapid succession. The car’s check engine light came on and drew John’s attention to the temperature gage approaching the red zone. John knew just what to do. He ordered us to roll down the windows and cranked the heater to full blast. As crazy as it seemed, shutting off the air conditioning and running the heater provided the additional cooling effort necessary for the engine to not overheat and thus leave us stranded in the desert. Grumbling passengers aside, this was a prudent move.
We came across an area where the road was washed out by a wide stream. The stream bed was now dry but the road on the other side was 24″ higher than the stream bed. “We can’t climb up that” was what we were all thinking. Out came the military shovel and a level of ingenuity that only desperation can muster. Within a half hour we’d built a ramp out of sand and rocks. John and I carefully studied the situation and decided we’d need momentum, timing, and perfect tire placement. After agreeing on the plan, John jumped in the car, gave the obligatory thumbs up, and slammed on the gas. I can still see the event so perfectly in my mind. John’s car hit the ramp and the front end made it up the bank just as planned. The rear tires rolled halfway up the ramp and the tires began to spin. The spinning tires inched up the rest of the way and finally grabbed hold, launching the car up onto the road and tearing off its muffler. After a roaring applause, pats on the back and a sigh of relief, we all jumped in the car and sped on.
Up till this point, we always had Picacho Peak in sight. This aided navigation and provided assurance to the womenfolk who’d begun to lose faith in our plan. As we headed into the foothills of the Chocolate Mountains the peak fell out of sight. Our spirits sank along with it. John and I attempted to pacify the ladies by reminding them that we carried with us camping provisions for a whole weekend. Under the worst case scenario we would simply have to camp, which is what we came out here to do anyhow. Neither of us dared point out that water, our most necessary commodity, was already running out.
We came across a deep pond with a soggy earthen dam on the south side. The road passed over the dam which was only just wide enough for the car to pass. I got out of the car to spot John as he drove over it. On his right ride was a shear drop off, on his left was this pond which slowly leaked over the dam and under his tires. It seemed that as he passed over it, the dam crumbled, the tires slipped, and ever more water began to fall over the dam. After he crossed we had the impression that we could never go back over it again. No one could, for that matter.
Later we came to a fork in the road and decided to take the left since it seemed to be more traveled. We continued on for a half mile as the road turned to thick sand. John gave it gas enough to continue on. Soon we came upon a cul-de-sac, a dead end with the thickest sand we’d seen yet. I imagined this is where we’d be forced to camp that night. Here I think is where John’s 4 wheeling instincts first manifested themselves. John slammed on the gas and whirled the car around this dead end in the widest allowable arc he could. The tires slowed and began to slip but the car continued to move forward. The car’s speed gradually increased and soon we were back at the fork. This time we made the right decision.
Stopping for a rest I took stock of our situation. I realized this was a road for 4×4 vehicles. Not cop cars. In 2 hours we’d made it about 12 miles. We lost sight of our point of reference. Each of us was sweating, dirty, and embittered. We’d long since stripped down the least layer of clothing that decency allows. The secret of the water supply was now public knowledge. The car was running poorly because the muffler was torn off. This hurt our ears because we had the windows rolled down. We couldn’t roll them up since we were in the desert with the heater running. Of course, we did this because the car was overheating, and so on. By this time, John and I felt we were way beyond the point of no return. The ladies on the other hand saw every bump and turn as a sign that we should turn back. Our stubborn refusal to turn back led to hurtful accusations and a “them vs. us” mentality which lingered well beyond the completion of the Hyduke Mine Road.
Late in the afternoon we crested a hill and took in the sight of the Picacho Peak on our right. It was close so we knew we didn’t have far to go. Proceeding down the hill we entered into White Wash. We continued on in this wash at about 30 miles per hour daring not to slow down or even turn sharply for fear of digging in and getting stuck. After some scary points where we slowed to a crawl we were within sight of the Picacho Road. We saw that the road was flanked by sand berms used to keep drainage from flowing into the road. John didn’t even consider slowing down. He hit the 2′ sand berm at full speed, smashing his way over it and onto the Picacho Road.
Our misadventure was over. We found our way to Picacho and jumped into the Colorado River to cool off.