Carbon Neutral Expedition

Story by Nathan Hindman
Photos by Nathan Hindman and Bill Green

It’s late afternoon and the sun is low on the horizon. At least, I assume that it is. A powerful dust storm has just blown in, obscuring everything in the barren desert landscape around us. Just 30 minutes ago, we were surrounded by an awe-inspiring vista of flat desert punctuated by towering sandstone monoliths and a distant glimmer of Lake Powell. But now visibility has dropped to zero, strong winds are buffeting our group of seven alternative fuel powered vehicles and our surroundings have been reduced to vague sillouettes in the thick dust. As my co-pilot, Bill Green steps out of the Land Rover Defender to take a photograph of the dust storm, he quickly disappears into the gritty dusk. Jumping back into the vehicle, he is covered in a patina of dark sandy grit which quickly falls onto the Melvill and Moon canvas seat covers. With the storm showing no signs of abating, the expedition group abandons hope of camping on a scenic overlook and retreats to a narrow protected arroyo that feeds into the nearby lake. Huddled against the steep slickrock canyon walls, we hope to find shelter from the relentless wind … all this in the name of environmental awareness.

These types of severe storms are the very thing climate scientists warn may become a frequent occurance if the world continues to contribute at its current rate to the carbon “blanket” in our atmosphere. Although there is debate as to the exact repercussions and scale from global climate change, one thing they agree on is this destabilization of climate patterns. In the fragile ecosystems like the Colorado Plateau and Sonoran Desert of the western United States, this could mean an increase in the frequency of these strong, unseasonable dust storms, which in turn deposit a dark coating of sand and grit on snow-capped peaks of the nearby Rocky Mountains, accelerating their spring snow melt, creating a terrible domino effect.

The expedition which I’m on is the Carbon Neutral Expedition. It is an environmentally-responsible overland trip, with the goal of not just raising awareness for this problem but offering a real-world demonstration of currently available solutions. The trip consists of a 900 mile off road trip from the mountains of Park City Utah to the Amado Territory Ranch located just a few miles from the US/Mexican border in Arizona. Over a week, eight vehicles will travel self-sufficiently across an overland route using renewable and “green” fuels, without adding any carbon to the Earth’s atmosphere.

The Carbon Neutral Expedition is the brainchild of Andre Schoumatoff. As the son of famed American environmental writer Alex Shoumatoff, Andre’s environmental roots run deep. Alex has made a career of documenting the vanishing places of the world and the impact that man makes on the face of the earth. This influence has obviously rubbed off on Andre. With a desire to help make the world a more sustainable place, he created this event to showcase the ability of 4×4 vehicles to run on renewable and sustainable fuels in harsh overland conditions.

Environmental activists have clung to the SUV as a symbol of man’s excesses and impact on the environment. But the Carbon Neutral Expedition vehicles clearly demonstrate that 4x4s and environmental responsibility are not necessarily at odds with each other. Vehicles such as Holt Webb of Vanishing America’s 1994 Land Rover NAS Defender 90 clearly defy this stereotype. The drivetrain has been converted to a vegetable oil powered Cummins 4BTA. With a total fuel capacity of 104 gallons, Holt’s Defender has a staggering cruising range of over 1700 miles between fill-ups, all while running on waste fuel.

The eclectic group of vehicles, spanning nearly 50 years of 4×4 history, gathered in Park City, a small resort town nestled high in the Wasatch mountains of northern Utah. For the next six days, an array of Toyotas, Land Rovers and even a Ford F-250 Super-Duty truck will travel the 1100 mile, mostly off-pavement route from these freezing temperatures and snow-capped mountain peaks to the cactus-laden heart of the Sonoran desert of southern Arizona.

Navigated by experienced Utah overlander Kurt Williams, the convoy spent its first day descending from the alpine forests and granite peaks to the steep sandstone canyons of the San Rafael Swell. The Swell’s steep upheaval from the desert floor creates for a dramatic gateway to the desert landscape of the Colorado Plateau. Traveling south through the narrow canyons, the walls are dotted with prehistoric pictographs and petroglyphs bearing testament of the native american tribes that once thrived here two thousand years ago.

The group camped the first night beside Lone Warrior, one of the largest and most well-known pictographs in the region. In keeping with the collective nature of the expedition, cooking duties were rotated throughout the group. This gave the adventurers an opportunity to show off their favorite camp dishes, while sharing the burden of cooking. The first night’s meal set the bar high with a delicious BBQ chicken courtesy of professional chef Alex Forsythe.

Across the Colorado Plateau

From Lone Warrior, the group continued its journey south across the Colorado Plateau. A rich array of geological features are on display at every turn, each one sculpted from countless millennia of wind and water. Their colorful names – hoodoos, fins and goblins – aptly describing their otherworldly appearance.

With the departure of the native american tribes from the area 700 years ago, this stretch of the plateau remained largely unseen and untouched until the Mormon pioneers crossed the area on their emigration to the Salt Lake Valley in the mid 1800s. After World War II, when mankind learned to harness the power of the atom, the area’s rich deposits of uranium became in high demand. Small industrial camps quickly popped up across the desert and with them, trails carved across the mesas and around outcrops. Scars of this heavy mining activity still dot the landscape to this day. Piles of rocks, known as tailings, fan down the side of uranium-rich cliff faces of places such as Temple Mountain, marking long abandoned mine shafts. The leftover roads form the basis for much of our expedition’s route.

Heading south, the convoy of alternative-fuel powered vehicles skirted the eastern edge of Capitol Reef National Park. Contrary to the images that would come to mind with the name “reef”, there is no overweight snorkeling tourists, tropical fish or gently lapping salt-tinged waves to be found anywhere nearby. Instead, the area is a long, flat plateau of desert scrub defined on the west side by a sharp upthrust of sandstone over a hundred miles long. The sudden vertical turn of rock erupting from the earth below makes for a bleak reminder of the slow and relentless yet violent changes that occur when tectonic plates collide.

To get across the ridge, our group traveled up the historic Burr Trail, a route used in the 19th century as a trail for moving cattle between seasonal pastures. Its narrow pathway clings to the steep slickrock edifice with severe twists and turns which, from above, provides a view that MC Escher himself would be proud of. Atop the ridge, the convoy crossed a plateau filled with the remnants of an ancient petrified forest and steep scarlet canyons.

Heading west across Capitol Reef National Park, the group encountered a brief stretch of pavement. With this brief glimmer of civilization, and the accompanying mobile phone towers nearby, cell phones suddenly sprung to life. E-mails were furiously sent and assuring calls were made home to significant others. My call went something like this. “Hi honey. I miss you. It’s beautiful out here. Everything’s fine. How has your week been … Hello? Hello?” and just as quickly, the group was plunged back into the isolation of the desert.

The expedition began its descent from the high plateau on the appropriately titled, Grand Escalante (staircase). Beginning on the southern edge of the ridge, the breathtaking route clings to a narrow winding fin which descends like a staircase into the maze of canyons below. At the bottom of the valley, our route was supposed to take us over a mountain pass and onto the northern edge of Lake Powell. However, reports of meter deep snow drifts blocking the pass forced a replanning of the route. Heading south through a lowland route, we travelled through through Kodachrome Basin. Anyone who remembers shooting photography in the pre-digital era can easily deduce how this region received its colorful, albeit commercial moniker.

Another World

As the route approached the Utah/Arizona border our convoy neared one of the regions largest and most controversial recreational destinations, Lake Powell. The reservoir was built by damming the Colorado river near Page, Arizona. Construction on the dam was finished in the early 1960s and since then it has been an important source of water and hydroelectricity for the western United States. To give a sense of the vast scale of this lake, once damming was complete it took seventeen years for the water levels to rise to their high water mark, covering an area of over 650 km2, enough water to flood the Greater London area 20 meters deep. This massive lake is now home to thousands of house boats which converge here during each summer for fishing, boating and spring break activities.

Approaching from the northwest, the landscape gives little indication that the enormous Lake Powell looms ahead in the desert. Descending from the mesas of Capitol Reef, we encountered a basin of fine talcum powder-like sand. Pale yellow sand and beige rock replaced the ruddish earth of the Canyonlands. Within a few short miles, the landscape became increasingly barren and took on a distinctly martian feel. We’re apparently not the first ones to notice this correlation. Cresting over a hill, a few miles away from civilization we stumbled upon a movie set. A Hollywood adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough’s iconic Barsoom, aka John Carter of Mars series is being filmed amid the towering mesas, using this otherworldly backdrop as a substitute for the martian landscape.

Our evening destination was a scenic outcrop overlooking Lake Powell. However, as we passed the movie set the wind sharply increased, bringing with it a rapidly approaching wall of blowing sand. Within the span of 30 minutes, the weather changed from pleasant and sunny to nearly zero visibility. Halfway to the outcrop, we determined that the top of a bluff would be about the worst place to ride out a storm and so turned into a narrow protective slot canyon to find a camping spot for the night.

On a quick side note, NEVER ride out a storm in a narrow canyon, especially in the desert. These types of quick violent desert storms can easily produce flash floods with fatal results for those caught in the wrong place. We knew that this particular canyon was very short, and we positioned ourselves in an elevated alcove on one of the canyon walls where we were unlikely to get swept away.

As fast moving storms are apt to do, the storm blew out just as quickly as it started. Within a couple of hours the tail end of the storm blew past us revealing a setting sun and a stunning view of burgundy and ochre striped masses of rock rising from Lake Powell like ancient battleships.

The next morning, the group crossed out of Utah and into Arizona. We headed into Page, AZ, a town created originally to support the Glen Canyon dam construction. This brief return to civilization allowed the group to restock necessary supplies and provided a venue for meeting up with AZ local Mike Toomey in his Toyota Four Runner and Ara Gureghain and his dog Spirit. Ara and Spirit have spent the last four years on the road traveling and living out of a BMW motorcycle and side car. Despite being in the hospital less than 24 hours prior for a kidney infection, Ara was out on the rough trail in his bike, a big grin peeking out from beneath his thick mustachioed face.

What a “Grand” Canyon

Heading south out of Page, the next destination was the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, a highlight on everyone’s itinerary. Widely regarded as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon is something that has to truly be seen in person to be appreciated. Situated in the middle of a wide flat valley, the canyon gives virtually no hint of its existence until you’re almost right up on it, which is one of the reasons we had difficulty finding it. At almost 450km long, there’s no single place to visit the canyon, but rather a seemingly infinite number of stunning vistas as the mile deep gorge cuts its meandering way through the Colorado plateau. Rather than taking the well worn and popular route within the National Park, we chose instead to travel to a more remote section of the canyon on Navajo Tribal land near a sharp bend in the canyon known as Vasey’s Paradise.

Unpaved Navajo roads have a reputation for being challenging. Completely unmarked and meandering, these dirt trails frequently spider off into an infinite number of options, some which dead end for no apparent reason, others which lead to other splits. Despite having the GPS coordinates and clearcut directions for a specific overlook, our 20 mile route lead us nowhere. We eventually stumbled across a small Navajo settlement, who pointed us to another equally stunning vista at which we could pitch our tents for the evening. After setting up at what must surely be one of the most beautiful campsites ever established, the group gathered around the campfire, shared stories and reminisced as the fading light of the sun gave way to the soft glow of starlight above the steep canyon walls and snow capped peaks in the distance.

While staggeringly beautiful, I can assure you that sleeping that close to the edge of a surely fatal fall certainly gives one pause when the urge to “go” strikes in the middle of the night. “Nah, I think I can hold it till morning” becomes the overriding thought at 3am, when faced with the thought of stumbling down a roof top tent ladder and into a deep chasm.

The next morning, we got up to watch the sunrise. To sit among the agave cactus and watch as the soft glow of the morning light ignited the steep crimson walls is truly amazing. The long fingers of sunlight reached down the ancient pockmarked ramparts, bringing to light a two billion year record of the earth’s history, while providing a gentle reminder of how insignificant of a blip each one of us is in the course of this planet’s history.

At the conclusion of this awe inspiring, yet humble display, we were faced with the daunting challenge of finding our way back out of the park and onto pavement. The fractured pathways didn’t offer any clear or concise road back, so through a combination of rudimentary GPS basemaps, dead reckoning and scouting we meandered our way back to the pavement. We kept a detailed log of turns and waypoints to find this location later, but to give you an idea of just how discombobulated the trail is, our log consisted of over 30 different way points of just the main intersections and turns.

Eventually, we found our way back to the edge of the pavement. The group would carry on to the Overland Expo at Amado Territory Ranch via a scenic route through the deserts of northern Arizona. Bill and I were volunteers for the event, an had to head directly south to help set up for the event.

The next day, as we were double checking a navigation exercise set up by the esteemed and somewhat sadistic Duncan Barbour, the group rolled into the campground dusty and tired. Despite their exhaustion and the potential for petulance that so often accompanies traveling for a week with near strangers, the entire Carbon Neutral group spent the next three days as if still in convoy. Camping, cooking and eating and carrying on together, this group was a testament to the good will and friendships found and built when like minded travelers have a common goal and mission in mind. Hopefully, it was a shining example to others that expeditions and 4x4s don’t have to be bad for the environment and that we can all do small things to help pitch in for the planet.

For more information on the expedition and it’s goal for furthering awareness of renewable fuels and reducing carbon footprint, visit carbonneutralexpedition.com.

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