A Disaster Road Trip Story

Maybe it’s because it’s been months since I’ve gotten behind the wheel of a car, but all I can think about lately is road trips. I keep romanticizing the idea of taking off on a half-day trek on beautiful scenic highways through obscure towns. But in reality, I know road trips can be awful.

In fact, one of the worst travel experiences I’ve ever had was on a road trip through the wild west of the good ol’ US of A. It was several years ago in the middle of a hot summer. We rented a car in Denver, Colorado. And I had only two stops in mind: the Four Corners and Antelope Canyon, which is almost 10 hours outside of Denver. The trip was intended to go through Colorado, Arizona, and Utah. Though for a brief moment in the Four Corners, we would also technically be in New Mexico.

The Jeep

Though it was mostly enjoyable and successful, in that I went everywhere I wanted to go, technology was not the most cooperative on the open road. For starters, the rental company gave me a Jeep, despite the fact that I had requested something small or midsize. I hate Jeeps. I think they’re outrageously inconvenient unless you’re going mudding. They eat up gas, and I hate driving a car that feels like a two-ton elephant.

disaster road trip

But to make matters worse, just a couple of hours outside of Denver, the tire pressure light came on. Now, as a human being, I have a lot of soft skills. But there’s absolutely nothing going on up here by way of useful or practical aptitude. To this day, I need to call someone to help me put air my tires. So 5 years ago in the middle of the desert, I had no idea what I was doing. We stopped at a gas station, and thankfully someone helped us and we moved on.

It was several more hours into the trip that the light came back on. Now fearing that one of the tires had some kind of leak, we called the rental agency. They said the nearest office where we could exchange the car was in Salt Lake City, which was completely in the opposite direction that we were driving in. So I kept going, hoping to find a place to stop in Moab, Utah to get the car checked. Though Moab was absolutely lovely, it’s a small town. So there is one mechanic in the city and he works until 2 pm.

I can’t for the life of me remember how this dawned on me. But it wasn’t until the next day, after a night of rest and gambling at some random casino, that I realized that the light only came on when the iPod was plugged into the car. Thank you, Jeep, for your amazing mechanical ingenuity. Though slightly inconvenient and it almost made us turn right around and go back, that actually was not the worst part of the trip.

The map

Actually, between that and the end of the trip, everything went off without a hitch. After realizing that the light was malfunctioning, the drive was less stressful. We spent a couple of days driving through gorgeous red rocks and arid flat lands. The Four Corners Monument was super fun and campy. The roadside dives were delicious. And Antelope Canyon was more stunning and exhilarating than I could have imagined.

wilson arch utah
Wilson Arch in Moab, Utah.

So on the route back, we were far more relaxed, and we had a whole day to return. If you’ve ever driven around in the middle of actual nowhere, you know that cell phone service is spotty. And though I had Google Maps on the whole way, sometimes we were driving through a dead zone and were on our own. But being the savvy travelers that we are, we printed turn by turn directions for such an event.

The thing about turn by turn directions printed on paper is that if you miss one turn, you’re fucked. Which is precisely what happened, and that’s where my travel nightmare began. I intended to drive straight back into Denver the last day, and we had just enough time to do it while it was still daylight. But when the cell service tapped out, we had to go by the paper directions.

I knew something was amiss when we didn’t see the Utah state line. At some point, we had to switch highways to go northbound and in a short few minutes, we would be seeing a bright sign welcoming us to the state. We didn’t. And we thought that was odd, but we were chatting and listening to music and figured we had missed it.

It wasn’t until we reached a traffic circle TWO HOURS later that we saw a sign that showed “US 191 South” continuing at the second exit of the circle in the same direction we were going.

“Tell me we didn’t just drive in the opposite direction for two hours…” I asked with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Just to be sure, we got off and asked a gas station attendant how to get to Utah. He pointed right back up the road we just came from. There are only a couple of times in my life where I have uncontrollably lost my temper. That was one of them. I was furious for not realizing sooner. For knowing we were supposed to see the Utah state sign and not caring when we didn’t. And I was driving 100 mph like a bat out of hell trying to make up the lost time and trying to cool off.

utah sign
There it is! There’s the fucking sign!

But that actually wasn’t the worst part of the trip.

The darkness

The problem with that little 4-hour detour is that it totally derailed the plan we had to get back to Denver before it got dark. And if you’ve never driven through the highways in Arizona and Utah, it looks like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In the light of day, all you see is road kill. Just hundreds of rats, squirrels, and rabbits exploded to bits on the road. Occasionally, you’ll see the carcass of a deer or at least the massive pool of blood where a deer carcass used to be.

utah disaster road trip

And when the light of the sun starts to fade, the road quickly becomes pitch black because there are no street lamps anywhere. It’s just the headlights of your car and the glowing eyes of animals peering at you from both sides of the highway. So I became increasingly concerned about the possibility of a deer jumping in front of the car.

It wasn’t until a rabbit darted in front of us that my stress boiled over. After swerving so hard to avoid it that the Jeep stood on two wheels, I couldn’t even be sure that I hadn’t killed it. I slowed down to a crawl. If there had been any bikers on the road, they would have passed me. But I couldn’t risk killing an animal.

“If I kill a deer today, my life is over,” I repeated over and over, shaking from fear.

Eventually, we came back around to Moab. I was exhausted and suddenly, I felt a wave of relief. We could spend the night there and drive the rest of the way the next morning. God bless Utah.

Only problem? Moab is tiny and apparently popular on 4th of July weekend. Everywhere we went, we saw signs that said No Vacancy. Any place that didn’t have a sign turned us away. I’ll never forget that I later found out Aaron Paul was there that weekend. And as much as I loved him on Breaking Bad, I resented the hell out of him for taking a hotel room that could have been mine.

It began to dawn on me that I had no choice but to keep driving. Though I always joke about my anxiety, most people wouldn’t know I have any from looking at me. I generally keep my cool unless you know me very well and you know I’m always internally freaking out about something. But that night, my anxiety completely swallowed me up. That was the closest I’ve ever come to having a full blown panic attack.

I somehow kept driving at 20 miles per hour, crying and hyperventilating while clutching my navigator’s entire arm for comfort and keeping my eyes peeled for wildlife that I did not intend to kill that night. Every time we came to a deer crossing sign (which was every 7 feet), my anxiety intensified and I would slow down even more.

road trip hell

I drove for what felt like an eternity in hell before we reached a point in the highway on the other side of the Colorado state line that had lights. By that point, my sobs had died down to manageable whimpers, and I was about to drop dead from the exhaustion and how emotionally drained I was. It would have been another 4 hours to Denver, so I stopped at the first place that would take us.

Thankfully, we made it back to Denver on that malfunctioning Jeep the next day. And unless I did unknowingly take out that rabbit that almost killed us, I think I left the wildlife of Utah intact. So there’s that. But what a shitshow.