Mark D Stephens: Adventurer, writer, photographer, ambassador of the sonoran desert
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Box Canyon and the Coke Ovens:
A Jeep Trail Through the Sonoran Desert of Arizona

Rubicon Jeep off roadingMy friend, Russ, and I spent our high school years learning about cars: we both figured out how to drive manual transmission, change the oil, and (of course) install killer stereos together. Back then, we both dreamed of some day owning a Jeep; and we vowed that we would be responsible enough to kick each others ass if the doors were still on it on a gorgeous day. And we promised each other that we would spend every weekend on a trail, exploring the desert, camping, and only accepting women who enjoyed the same. This is what buddies do for each other until the real stuff of life knocks the ideas of John Denver-style “rocky mountain highs” out of your head and gives you a mortgage, a kid or two, and a honey-do list.

Now that over ten years have passed since Russ had his Dodge Ram 50 and I had my Fiat Spyder, we found out on this trip through Box Canyon and to the Coke Ovens the damned, hideous, brutal truth: we’re growing up.

Coke Ovens of Arizona near FlorenceWhen we pulled off of the trail before entering Box Canyon to let air out of our tires [a practice known among SUV off road drivers as “airing down” to allow for better traction and a smoother ride], Russ and his girlfriend, Amber, told us that they were getting married in two months. In his absolute Russ-style of sentimentality, he said, “Yeah, uh, leave the weekend of April 17th open, ‘cuz we’re getting married. You and Skidplate Steve are my groomsmen, and you’ll have to decide who the best man is.” Yes, we’re growing up and staying the same all at once, aren’t we?

Yet, this trip through Box Canyon and on to the Coke Ovens was one that spent months in the making; growing up means fewer weekends to screw around in the Jeeps and even fewer consecutive days open for a real-live camping opportunity. Therefore, Russ concocted this grandiose plan to drive through Box Canyon, go all the way to the Coke Ovens, then follow a trail out to Highway 177 through the White Canyon Wilderness area, and end up in Superior, Jeep on the trail to the Coke Ovens ArizonaArizona to eat dinner at our favorite pizza joint: Eduardo’s Pizza. Getting older means having to cram more stuff into one day because you woke up one morning and realized you were staring down the barrel of the big three-oh.

Everything has changed since those days when we sat in his driveway, tinkering on the engine of my Fiat, or his Dodge. While we did eventually get Jeeps, we don’t spend every weekend on the trails. Before this Box Canyon trip, we hadn’t been out in months. Even though Brooke and I don’t have any kids yet, Russ and Amber do. And it’s a strange, awakening thing to see your old high school buddy as a dad. The great part of growing up is having a wider range of feelings: I’m part sad about seeing our worlds slowly drift apart, but I’m happy, ecstatic even, to have one more adventure-packed day with one hell of a best friend. This is why, really, that I come out and get on the trail.

Sonoran Desert viewWhen Russ planned this trip, he said to me, “Well screw it, ‘cuz everyone and everything can kiss my ass; we’re goin’ off roading, baby. Leave that weekend open, or I’m leaving you behind.” It seems that our friendship thrives on such challenges to each other, because I knew that I would not miss this for anything. It also seems that despite the fewer opportunities to go off-roading, car tinkering, or plain ol’ beer drinkin’ together, our friendship gets stronger over the years.

Russ and I also share a passion for David Wilcox music. Here are the lyrics to a song of his that are perfectly appropriate for Russ and I:

Say good-bye to your twenties
Tomorrow is the Big 3-0
For my birthday present
I've got a place where we can go
It's a lesson in motion
To ride the wildest ride
We're gonna climb to the top of the roller coaster
And look down the other side

So let me ride in the front car
And you ride right behind
And I'll click my snapshot camera
At exactly the right time
Shoot back over my shoulder
Catch the fear no one can hide
When we tip the top of the roller coaster
And look down the other side
Over the hill

So when the prints come back
We can look at that unmistakable birthday fear
Like your younger days are over now
And its all down hill from here

It was a happy birthday
You surprised us all
So take a look at this glossy picture
I framed it for your wall
It's the moment of truth
It's the top of your youth
The camera don't lie
You might be screaming
But there's a meaning
In the laughter in your eyes
It seems to be saying
Of course there will be fear
But this is why we stand in line
Spend that time
Make that climb
To finally feel the other side
And it's all down hill from here

We're gonna climb to the top of the roller coaster
And look down the other side

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Mark D. Stephens: Adventurer, Writer, Photgrapher and Ambassador of the Sonoran Desert