Auto-Biography: Derrick Cave – Probing the Promaster’s Off-Road Capabilities (and Thankful To Have Made It Back)

(Here’s wishing you all a Happy Thanksgiving. And here’s a story for you when things get a little slow. )

I need to be more careful of what I wish for. Having witnessed our first two children’s home births, I developed a desire to deliver a baby myself. And that’s just what I ended up doing some nine years later when our third child decided to arrive in a hurry before the midwife could get to our house. It had its moments, but worked out in the end.

During our recent 1700 mile tour of the wilds of Eastern Oregon in our new Promaster van, I chickened out on a planned back roads trip to Shirk Ranch, because I was a bit concerned about the condition of the primitive road, having had some hairy moments on the 25 mile overland detour to the South Harney Lake hot spring. The van was new, it’s not 4WD, it has a long wheelbase (159″), and I really didn’t want to have to call for a wrecker (if there was cell coverage) from the middle of nowhere.

Since then I came to regret that decision and developed a hankering to find out just what the Promaster could handle in terms of rough back roads. This past weekend I found out, in considerable detail; I now know its capabilities and limitations all too well. And due to the latter, I feel somewhat lucky to have made it home, and in the van.

Derrick Cave plays a special role in our family in Oregon. When my older son Ted (above) dropped out of sixth grade to home school in the spring of 1995, he and I decided to kick that off his geology, geography, history and automobile driving studies with a big trip to explore Eastern Oregon. We packed my Coleman tent in our ’85 Jeep Cherokee (the perfect vehicle for the trip), and headed east. Our first night out was at Derrick Cave, a quarter-mile long lava tube cave, formed when the outer layer of a lava flow cools and hardens while the hot inner layer continues to flow and melt its way deeper into the ground. This results in a tunnel-like cave.

On that trip we also visited and climbed into Fort Rock, a massive volcanic tuff ring (picture from the web).

We also explored Crack In The Ground, Hole-in-the-Ground, Big Hole, and The Lost Forest. A deep first immersion in geology for one day, before we headed off to the John Day Fossil Beds and other attractions further east. We both fell in love with Eastern Oregon.

And we’ve been back to Derrick Cave several times since, the last time with my younger brother in the Chinook about eight years ago. One time I even took five teenage boys (three from Austria) and all our gear for an extended camping trip in the ’92 Dodge Caravan. The way we always went was from the south, from the Fort Rock-Christmas Valley area, the blue route in this Google map (14 miles).

It starts out as a good gravel road past the BLM regional office, and gets progressively more primitive, with one moderately challenging uphill section that was a bit of a stretch in the Caravan, given the load. This shot from the web shows a Honda Civic coming down it, in the spring when the road is moist and more compacted. A couple of miles before the cave, the road goes through a ranch, and one has to open and close gates to keep the cows in.

When Stephanie had to fly out last week to Iowa to stay with her mom due to medical issues, I decided to take Will back to Derrick Cave, as he’s been hankering for a trip in the new van. He could only be gone Saturday night, so we couldn’t plan on going much further. But I decided to approach from the north this time, so that we could also stop at South Ice Cave and spend more time on back roads. As in fulfilling that desire.

This route starts in La Pine, and heads east on NFR (National Forest Road) 22, which is paved for the first 20 miles or so. After that there’s gravel, and eventually the roads become more and more primitive (dirt). We never saw another person once we left La Pine. I had taken part of this route once going north from Derrick Cave in the Cherokee, and remembered that it had a few tricky steep and rocky sections, but since we would be going downhill, I figured the Promaster could handle it, going slowly.

And then we would head down and out to the south on the better roads I was familiar with (first map). I knew there was a certain risk element, especially this late in the year when there’s hardly anyone out, but the weather was perfect; sunny, and it hadn’t rained out there yet, so the roads would be dry, meaning no mud holes to swallow us up.

I’ve been showing you Google maps, but I’m a bit old school and rely on my Oregon Road and Recreation Atlas (as well as another one, the DeLorme Atlas and Gazateer), and here’s the route (in blue) I planned to take from South Ice Cave, where we had our lunch. The (big) problem with these maps is that (a) it doesn’t show all the roads out there, and (b) not all pictured road segments are numbered (National Forest Roads are all numbered). That means one has to guess at times. That can be a major problem.

To bring this point home, here’s a close-up of this same route using Google maps, which shows the warren of other roads (there’s a lot of them), but doesn’t give the numbers, calling them “unnamed road”. That’s one of the reasons I don’t use Google in the first place, and rely on the recreation paper atlas. It’s easy to take a wrong turn.

The first problem happened when we suddenly ran into a closed wire-fence gate (at the red arrow), with a BLM sign saying “Seasonal Closure – Dec.1 – March 15”. What? It’s only November 17! And it’s dry and sunny! And this wasn’t just an easily-opened one; it was pretty solidly wired together. Dang!

So I had to figure out a new route on the atlas, short of heading home.

The yellow line shows my new route, backtracking to FS23, then up to Fox Butte and then down FR2235, which is also Derrick Cave Road (some of the time). So far so good. That is, until we had headed south on 2235 several miles, and hit a pretty nasty rocky downhill segment (upper red marking). We took it slow and easy, and navigated around the tallest rocks, not wanting to knock of my underfloor graywater tank, or worse.

I told Will to shoot a video. It came out terrible, a combination of a cheap $50 phone and difficult lighting. But one gets a sense of the rocks and movement, if not the terrain outside.

And then a mile or two later we hit another one (second red segment); this one was scary. Steep, curving, the road tilted heavily to avoid huge rocks, giant ruts, and more rocks. Yikes! But going back up the previous section was not a good option either. So I took a deep breath and plunged ahead, very slowly and gingerly, knowing we were now committed to a one way trip. Will was too…something…to shoot a video; my risk tolerance is bigger than his, at least in these kinds of things. I should have made him get out to shoot me going down. We made it ok, but I knew there was no going back up this chute.

We finally got to the Derrick Cave pull off, parked, and hiked the last quarter mile to the cave. Here’s Will ready to plunge in with one of the two little cheap flashlights I remembered to buy at the last minute.

A little ways in there are a couple of “skylights”, where the tube’s ceiling collapsed. It’s wonderful looking up from the dark cave into the bright sunshine out there and the trees overhead. A very different perspective on things.

I didn’t take any shots inside, but here’s one from the web. Someone else is gazing up at the sunny world overhead before plunging into the dark abyss.

If you’d like to take a tour of the whole cave, someone has uploaded videos. When the kids were younger, we would go all the way to the very end, on our bellies. This time, we stopped a bit short of that. But to honor a tradition, at the end of the cave we always turn our flashlights off to experience…true, utter, absolute darkness. It’s pretty intense. Not for the claustrophobic.

Having satiated ourselves on darkness and lavacicles, we drove further down the road a mile or two, to a mini-tuff ring (in the background), a great camping spot.

We climbed up the jagged lava formation and Will took this shot of the van down below. Yes, that’s a massive set of three power lines back there, which sends Bonneville Power Administration hydro power from the Columbia River down to Southern Oregon (and beyond). I took the dog for a long walk up in the hills beyond them, and even in this intensely dry weather, the crackling of the lines overhead was very audible.

It was shaping up to be a very pleasant trip. We’d cook our traditional Niedermeyer pan-fried burritos, read the stack of New Yorkers I brought along, step outside to howl at the moon, spend a pleasant night snoozing, and then have an easy drive down Derrick Cave Road to Fort Rock, see a few other sights, and head home. Or so we thought.

(from the web)

At about 1:30, I became aware of the dog being agitated by the back door. Did I forget to let him go pee before bed? Or did he hear an animal? I got up and took him out. By this time the moon had set and the stars were absolutely…stellar. Mind blowing, actually. 5,000 feet up, perfectly dry air, and no lights anywhere. One forgets, living in town.

The dog ran around a bit, agitated, but didn’t do anything. Hmm; must have been an animal.

At what turned out to be about 3:30, I was awakened from a deep sleep by the dog jumping around in the van. I smelled something terrible. I opened my eyes and in the dim light from the inverter control panel, I saw him jumping up on the driver’s seat, facing the window. What the…? He’s never done that. And then he lifted his tail and shot out a geyser of liquid, like out of a hose. It landed on the side of the passenger seat and the floor between them. This was highly irregular; he’s never done anything like this. The overpowering stench made it certain this was unfortunately not a bad dream.

I really didn’t want to believe this was real. Fortunately I had brought a fresh roll of paper towels. I opened the top of the toilet box to get out the 5 gallon poo bucket (we hadn’t used it), which had a plastic bag in it. When I lifted out the bucket, I saw that there was a good inch of pee on the bottom of the plywood toilet box I had built. Will had not understood how it works, and had pulled the plastic poo bag over the urine diverter, which meant that our several evening pee sessions had not gone into the one gallon pee bottle, but were diverted to the floor of the unit. Great; we get to clean up pee and poo!

I cleaned up the diarrhea as best as I could, but some of it was unreachable in the many nooks and crannies of the framework under the seat. Then the urine was sponged up; that was relatively easy. By this time it was getting on about 4:30, and I couldn’t imagine getting back to sleep, with that powerful stench from the remnants that were unreachable. So I decided to just get a very early start home. Will stayed in his sleeping bag.

I drove in the darkness a couple of miles. I could see a single light in the distance from the ranch we would be crossing through. Then I passed a sign that said “Locked Gate Ahead”. What?? It’s never been locked; one just closes it after passing. But when I got to the gate, it was a newer one, and a very sturdy one, and very solidly locked with a chain and two padlocks. WTF? Another early seasonal road closure? I couldn’t believe it; we were now trapped.

This presented a very real problem, as there was no way I could get back up those difficult sections. Will got out his phone and Googled “Derrick Cave Road Closure” and told me that the road had been closed permanently in 2014(!) by the ranch owners, since there had never actually been an easement over it. It had just been traditional to let folks through. Shoot; back in the cold war, part of the cave had been designated a fallout shelter, and food and water were stored in it for that purpose. And there was no easement to get there? I guess the rancher got tired of what was an ever-increasing number of folks driving through in the summer, and undoubtedly a few inconsiderate ones didn’t close the gates.

Will regurgitated a line to me that I had often used on him when he was younger; “Failure to prepare is preparing for failure”, by the famous UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. True that.

While Will went back to sleep, I considered my options. Which weren’t many. Some, like running down and over the barbed wire fence were appealing initially, but lost their appeal with further consideration. Did I want to get busted for trespassing and damaging a fence? Would the cows get out? Was there another locked gate at the other end of the property, and if so, then I would be trapped inside the ranch. Not such a good idea.

I settled on an early morning visit to the ranch (seen here from above) to plead for mercy as the best bet. I drifted off for maybe an hour, read for a while, then after it got light, made breakfast. At about 8:20, I hopped the fence and walked down the road to the ranch. I passed four horses; folks here still herd their cows on the very rugged open range here with horses. They eyed me keenly. I was preparing for the inevitable greeting of barking dogs (I left our dog behind). No such luck. There was a pickup in front of the house, but the driveway that obviously is used regularly was empty. I went to the door and knocked. No answer. Nobody home. Gone for the weekend, or? The cows in the paddocks now eyed me, although not as keenly as the horses.

I walked down the road to the gate at the other end. It was open. Now my idea of breaking through the fence had a resurgence in appeal. But not for long; I really didn’t feel right about that. I suppose if we couldn’t get out any other way…

I decided that we could always call 911 to get connected to some local authority that might be able to find the ranch owner. Or maybe the BLM had access to one of the two padlocks?

But this was going to be a messy drawn-out affair, and I decided not to pursue that before we at least gave it a shot to get out via the way we had come. Maybe I’m underestimating the Promaster’s capabilities? Worst case, we back down and call for help.

So we headed back the way we came. And when we got to that difficult section, I just went for it. But the dirt out here turns to a fine dust after a whole season without any rain, and the front wheels just couldn’t get enough traction. If it had been moist and compacted, or consistently rockier, we might have had a chance, but the deep pockets of powdery sand between the rocks made it impossible. I got perhaps a third of the way up. My mission to probe the Promaster’s limits was a success; I had run squarely up against them.

The old Dodge Chinook might have made it, with its dual rear tires and RWD. I once surprised a bunch of Jeep and 4×4 owners camping in a very remote lake by driving up a similar rough, steep rocky road (not this one pictured). I knew that this was a trade-off with the Promaster.

Yes, a Mercedes Sprinter 4×4 would have likely made it, although its 4×4 system is not really a true off-road system, but just the 4-Matic with three open  differentials and electronic brake intervention on spinning wheels. The real thing involves locking or limited-slip differentials. Still.

These Sprinter 4x4s are the current fashion-status vehicle out here in the West, the equivalent of driving a Coupe deVille in the early 60s and a Mercedes 450SEL in the 70s. This one in my neighborhood ferries kids to school, but I’ve never seen it dirty. I bet my Promaster has more dirt under its belt than 90% of these. But they look cool, if way too tall in my eyes.

And they are expensive and not easy to come by, as it’s a limited production option, and one not even currently available until the next gen Sprinter goes back in production in the spring of 2019. Used ones? How about this 2016 Sprinter 4×4 conversion for sale at a mere $128,950? I’ve got a total of $37k into my new Promaster, including all the hardware/materials for the conversion.

I suppose a RWD Ford Transit with the optional dual rear wheels might have scaled this obstacle. Maybe. Maybe not. But the FWD Promaster sure wasn’t going to. It was part of the trade-off for its other advantages in packaging and price.

So I backed down a hundred yards or so to where I could turn around, and headed back with my tail between my legs. About a mile down the road Will said: “Google maps says if you take this road off to the right here, it shows a continuous route out to another road that runs back down into the valley to Fort Rock.

He showed me the phone. Yes, I could see that, but I also saw several issues with it. As per my paper map, it would presumably take us via that closed off seasonal closure gate. And it was a long way to go, on a route I had no experience with, and no idea if the roads were passable or not. Google will find a road, but won’t identify them and guarantee you’ll get there. As a matter of fact, a few people have come to their demise by following back roads from Google maps in the winter and never getting back out.

This satellite version of part of the route shows the terrain, and some of the other roads in the area (this was not available up there to us, because we were now out of cell range and his map was in memory and working from GPS). But then what other options were there? It was the only possible other way out. So off we went, and the road was not too bad.

We eventually got up to the higher plateau, and passed a small road turning off to the right. My intuition told me that it just might get us back to the roads we came in on from La Pine, but Will lobbied to keep going this way. Ok; let’s try it your way. But after several very slow miles bumping along, and an increasing number of tricky sections, I realized this might be another trap, and a worse one at that. We had several more miles ahead of us before we would even start heading down and meet NFR18, a better road. And now we were out of cell range.


This was the low point of the trip. I stopped the van and got out to ponder our predicament. Will was getting increasingly anxious. Our gas was getting lowish. I really didn’t want to be stuck out here in the middle of nowhere, with the nearest human some 30-40 rough miles away. I had never yet gotten stuck or lost out in the boonies, and I was really struggling with the possibility of this being the first time.

We had gone a long way, but could still turn back and probably make it to the ranch, and call for help there. Or we could try that other little road we passed a few miles back. Let’s give that a shot.

So we backtracked (white line), and took that turn off. It wasn’t much more than a couple of tracks through the trees, but it was flat, and Lo! After a mile or two (blue line), we hit NFR700! That was very encouraging, but I was still worried about hitting that closed gate. But we never did hit it, as somehow the route was a bit different than the one we tried to take on the way in.

When we passed this fenced off champion giant Western Juniper, I knew we were on the right track, as I’d seen it on the map as a landmark.

And when we hit NFR23, I knew we were home free. The improved gravel road looked like a freeway to us. And it just got better and better. On paved road 22, about three miles from La Pine, we saw the first other human on the whole trip: a white National Forest 4×4 pickup and its driver, heading the other way. Off to close more roads, ahead of the posted schedule? These NF guys are so efficient!

After a hearty mid-day meal at a cafe in La Pine, we gassed up and headed home. All’s well that ends well.

Postscript: Although cell coverage was spotty, I’m going to make a point to use Google maps in addition to my paper maps. I’ve been zooming in on this Google satellite image (maximum zoom here), and on a large monitor, it’s pretty impressive the amount of detail available. One can see every tree, downed tree trunk, and even each sage bush. And it puts the roads into context of the geography, in satellite mode. I do need to switch my cell service to Verizon, as my current discount service (Ting, on Sprint’s network) has less coverage and doesn’t give me anything but voice and text when I’m away from major towns and cities.

But I’m still going to keep my two big atlases in the van too.