FATCO Shows Us A Great Time Closing Down the Ranch
After three days and 300 miles, we loaded the cars onto the trailer in Hurricane, Utah, to make the five-hour voyage home. Little did I know the adventure we just experienced would become a permanent fixture in my memory. The terrain, the people, the camaraderie, the endless laughs: It all began to soak in as we drove down the highway. This trip was a bucket list item I never knew I had.
Frank Smith, head honcho from Family Adventure Tour Company (FATCO), invited our crew on a ride, and we jumped at the chance to experience a three day round trip excursion from the Sand Hollow area, to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Admittedly, I was a bit nervous. Not about breakdowns or driving talent, but about spending non-stop time with 30 people I had never met. My saving grace was the USM team included two of my best friends, their significant others, and one chatty, rambunctious 7-year-old. At the very worst, we could make our own fun along the way.
As our departure date neared, but our preparation lagged, an email from the FATCO team jump-started the process. Their impeccable itinerary didn’t miss a beat, including lugging guests gear from stop to stop, meals on point, and sight-seeing options galore. While a gracious offer from FATCO, we opted to cram all our luggage, camera gear, tools, parts, and fuel into our three cars, sparing just enough room for bodies. We picked up a new Kawasaki Teryx KRX 1000 on the drive up for myself and my sidekick. Would a brand new unprepped car survive through the abuse? Would it have enough room for gear? We were about to find out. Rounding out the brigade, Brandon and Elizabeth hopped in the Polaris RZR PRO XP 4, and the Hook family made their way in the trusty 2019 Polaris RZR XP Turbo dialed in with every bolt-on and strap-on under the sun.
The prior few months of late nights and dragging mornings had us all worn out, so a mental break was long overdue for the entire crew. After arriving in Hurricane Friday night, FATCO got us checked in to our hotel and called it a day. The 7 AM drivers meeting came early, wedded duo Frank and Misti Smith went through details, itinerary and safety for the trip ahead. With Frank as the leader and Misti pulling up the tail end, a parade of UTVs roared down the streets of Hurricane en route to the trailhead. We finally made it.
As the pavement diminished from under us, we meandered through a fast and fun sand wash. With the wind barely moving, the 16 UTVs made a lot of dust, so we were all thankful for our helmets to keep the majority of that out of our eyes and lungs. The group paused on the trail only a few miles from the start, and the air cleared. Frank was out of the car and standing atop a ridge spotting. One at a time, each car took its turn climbing up a four-foot rock littered wall where line selection meant everything. It was my turn—I leaned on the throttle with a far-from-perfect selection. The Kawi grunted and pulled us to the top without hesitation. All smiles from the passenger seat, and the stress from life and work were already fading as we succumbed to the present moment.
Winding through the countryside, our standard wide open throttle pace needed to be tamed. We had a long way to go, and this was only the start. With the ride being mellow thus far, I had the realization that this trip was more about the people we were with and the views from the cockpit, and less about driver skill. The seemingly endless fields were lined with mesas that almost touched the sky above. Moving on, we found ourselves climbing out of the valley floor along the Honeymoon Trail. Frank explained this trail was used by early settlers to make their way to St. George, UT, where they would solemnize their vows in the newly completed St. George Temple. Crawling up this trail in UTVs wasn’t very difficult, but the consequences were high if you made a mistake. I couldn’t imagine doing it with horse and carriage.
Arriving at the top of the mountain, the group gathered and exited the vehicles for a break. Overlooking Colorado City, AZ, the view was something out of a National Geographic Magazine. After our oohs and aahs, we set off dropping down the other side of the mountain, where we encountered some technical rock descents while weaving and bobbing through the trees. There were many option lines on this trail, and those lacking good communication in the car found themselves quickly lost in the trees. It was very apparent that Frank and Misti had run into this problem before, and came prepared. They radioed back and forth, and after a few minutes, the misguided were back on track. Finishing our descent, we landed in a wide-open wash. Frank’s voice came over the radio once again. “Go as fast as you want through this wash. When you get to the white pipe, turn right.” You don’t have to tell us twice to hang it out there. We smashed the gas and battled back and forth. By the end, we were all smiles and laughter.
Popping out of the wash, we ran a few graded dirt roads until we were back on the tarmac and approaching our lunch stop in Colorado City. Sitting on the stateline between Arizona and Utah and founded in 1913, the area is home to a community of residents whose vast majority are fundamentalist mormons. As we passed the tall walls hiding Zion’s Most Wanted Bed and Breakfast, Frank shared this was the prior residence of the community’s former leader, Warren Jeffs, who is now imprisoned. Frank and Misti were a wealth of knowledge about the area, which added pops of unexpected engagement with the crew along the way. We ate from the impressive spread FATCO layed out, including everything needed for the perfect sandwich, while we gazed at the edge of Zion National Park hoovering over us.
The rest of the day was spent winding our way across a majestic ridgeline with terrain keeping you on your toes, covering red rock to sand and back again over the course of 20 miles. Not far from our destination for the night, we took a quick stop to gather everyone. My gas light had been flashing at me for about 30 miles, so I splashed in some fuel out of our Giant Loop gas bags. On this long of a trip and uncertain fueling options, carrying spare gas is a must. Day one of riding came to a close as we descended down the ridgeline into Mt. Carmel Junction, UT. Taking over the parking lot of the Best Western, the filthy drivers climbed out of their cars with not a frown in sight. With dinner reservations at 7 PM, we parted ways, washed off the dirt, and changed into fresh clothes for a quick bite, great conversations, and then it was off to our rooms.
The morning alarm rang, indicating the start of day two, which was about to unveil the most unreal scenery of the trip. The FATCO crew had the to-go sandwich table ready for us to assemble our lunch, and the gas station next door was stocked with everything else we needed to replenish our stash. The next two days would take us through some very remote country, and we had to make sure no one got hangry along the way. We set off alongside the beautiful East Fork Virgin River, weaving in and out of the tree cover completely surrounded by towering cliffs and mountains as we went back and forth across the river. Even with the almost freezing temperatures of mid-October, she was still running, and at times nearly came sneaking through the floorboard.
Frank continued to lead the pack as I trailed him just outside of his dust, but I took a wrong turn somewhere. The detour ended up being one of my favorite moments of the trip. Instead of running the high line, the Kawasaki was pinched between a 200ft vertical cliff to the left and a river to the right as the trail narrowed. Having a rough idea where Frank was, I led the rest of the pack his way. Spotting him stopped across the river, I found a path that led in the right direction. Exiting the river there were two lines: easy and not-so-easy. Opting for fun, I pushed the Kawi into low and hit the rooted ledge. It was a rough hit that killed the little momentum I had, high centering the Kawi. I worked the wheel and throttle and finally unlodged the car. One more time with a little more gusto popped the Kawi to the top of the root-filled ledge. After watching my two attempts, most took the easy way, but neither Keith nor Brandon would shy away from a challenge. They both took two stabs at the line and made it, unaware of the group filming and laughing as the “kids” played.
Leaving the river, we found ourselves staring up a massive sand hill. Throughout the whole trip, Frank was great about explaining an obstacle to help drivers make the best decisions for themselves. This time was no different. You could charge straight up the sand hill or take the easy way. One at a time, most took the optional easy line, but again, a few tried the steep line with success. This hill was where I found the limits of the Kawasaki. It just didn’t have the pep in its step to get up the steep line. Brandon, on the other hand, made the steep, sandy trail look easy in the RZR PRO XP 4. The EFX tires dug into the soft sand putting the power where it needed to be.
With only a few cars left, one of the drivers hit the hill carrying some massive speed, creating his own impossible path to the left of the actual line. After the steam ran out, he was forced to back down. The soft sand sucked them toward the adjacent canyon and the UTV became tipsy. This situation was about to go really wrong, and without hesitation, the entire gang lept into action running down the hill. Hooking a winch line around the roof to anchor the car, he was able to continue back down the hill without fear of a rollover. Once safe, the realization set in that this wasn’t a normal tour bus style adventure. This was a group of people who were bound and determined to get everyone back safe while having the time of their lives in the process.
Frank ran ahead to clear the next line for oncoming traffic. The Daytona Section, as the route was called, was a lengthy berm track trail that begged for the skinny pedal. Keith and Brandon had some time on this trail from a prior event, but it was all new to me. I stuck on Keith’s bumper as if he were towing me, and most of the time could see nothing but his LED whips and tail lights. A high-risk follow the leader, if you will. Keith pushed old faithful hard, and with a few bicycles and blown corners later, we hopped out pumped with adrenaline. With the group on a heart pumping high, we positioned for a picture just before the infamous “Finish the one you’re on!” call-out from Frank… meaning time to hit the trail. We ran side-by-side at 60mph, bobbing and weaving through the fields, dodging cow patties along the way to the lunch break.
On the way, a fellow driver had been having some issues with a check engine light on his Polaris, and Frank was quick to jump in. Knowing most of the common problems, Frank swapped the belt out and cleared the code and we were ready to roll. Not only was the FATCO team well organized and prepared, but they also had good mechanical knowledge of each vehicle to make sure their clients had a great time without worry of breakdowns.
No matter the trail, the views never grew stagnant. Frank kept things interesting at every turn, and let us in on a new section of trail he was working on where the smooth graded road turned into beat down shrubs and black volcanic rock. What felt like a hundred miles of tire-eating black rock, we made it through the section without any issues. Back on the fire road, Keith and I found each other side-by-side again, sliding through the corners and down the mountain trail ending up at Mt. Trumbull Schoolhouse. Built in 1918, the school house held a special place in Misti’s heart. Her great grandfather taught in this school, and you could feel the nostalgia walking through it with her. After a few minutes, kids will be kids… and we spotted the playground. Of course, we had to jump on the seesaws and swings; recess was the only class I was good at.
With daylight dwindling, we had to make tracks. The sunset would not wait for us at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and our group was hell-bent on seeing that wonder of the world lit up. Rowing the shifter into high, we made time. Just past the Bar 10 Ranch Lodge, our accommodations for the night, we hammered down as we watched the sun drop. Cresting the last hill to make our final descent to the rim, our jaws dropped as we gazed at the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. We were all speechless. For the full story on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Bar 10 Ranch, and sleeping in covered wagons, check out this month’s destination article HERE.
Well into the dark, we all returned route and congregated back in the ranch house for a homemade meal prepared by the staff, some adult beverages, and amazing conversation. The fears I had going into the ride had been washed away. The entire group meshed very well together, and everyone was so nice and welcoming. We sat around the fireplace chatting about past rides, future rides, and life in general while getting to know each other one conversation at a time. Not only was this trip about exploring new areas of the country, but it also got me out of my comfort zone, allowing me to make new friends along the way.
The last day on trail had arrived, beckoning us to load up and head back to reality. Like any other trip, the fun had to end at some point, but we were all savoring every moment until it did. One at a time, we ran the UTVs down the dirt road to put gas in them, and with one last mechanical check, we headed north. Fast flowing trails made the miles tick by quickly. Frank would occasionally come over the radio and call out a danger. A few times I would heed his warning, and a few times I would downplay the concern. I was now very comfortable in the Kawasaki and could see in the distance Brandon and Keith were just as comfortable in their cars. This day felt like a fun, fast-paced ride at home with the boys. Brandon used all the horsepower to do big-dirt flinging slides around every corner, and Keith and I were wide open throttle down every straight away. Then it happened. One of the UTVs brought the whole group to a halt on the side of the road.
Frank quickly doubled back to try and solve the issue. The overheated UTV was beyond repair, and they had to figure out how to extract it from the middle of nowhere. FATCO comes prepared for situations like this, and with a quick call from the satellite phone, the support truck was en route. We patiently waited. Once Paige (Frank and Misti’s daughter) arrived in the truck, the entire crew went to work unloading gear from the 18-foot flatbed trailer. As people loaded bags and parts into the bed of the truck and their UTVs, the broken vehicle limped onto the trailer. A bummer for Frank’s dad, Ted—his day behind the wheel was over just like that. At least an open seat in another car would keep him out of the support truck for the remaining miles.
Strapping back in and preparing to depart from the support truck, Frank made the decision to take the shorter, faster route back to Hurricane. We had lost some time with the mishap and needed to make it up. Back on the throttle, we raced through mile after mile of graded roads littered with impressive silt beds I have only seen in Mexico. As you enter the pool of baby powder already blind from dust, the only option is to stay in the throttle and hope the car in front of you isn’t parked in the middle of the trail. There was beginning to be a distinct theme to this trip. Ride trails nobody else was on and eat lunch in the middle of nowhere with a group of awesome people. We dusted off and enjoyed the lunch stop, once again, chatting about the ride, life, and the pursuit of happiness. I think I have found my happiness in multi-day adventure rides.
Making our way off the valley floor, the dirt trail turned to rocks. A few last technical climbs before getting back to the trailers and the whole group was running close together, crawling our way up the mountain side as the radio chatter increased. The weight of the adventure was finally starting to set in. Nobody was excited to be so close to the trailers, but everyone was ecstatic we got through it with minimal issues and a ton of new campfire stories. Out of the sand wash and onto the tarmac, we were back in Hurricane, UT.
Stepping out of the car one last time, it was done—16 UTVs, one flat tire, one replaced belt, one overheated car, 307 miles. It all adds up to a lifetime of memories. After cars were loaded on the trailers and gear was stowed away, we showered and headed for dinner. The table was quiet, but not because of the food. In our own way, I think we were all reflecting on what we just experienced. The FATCO Closing Down The Ranch Adventure: a check mark off the newly found bucket list.
We can’t thank Frank, Misti, Paige, Ted, and all the participants enough for letting us experience this adventure with you. This was an incredible adventure, team building experience, and opportunity that we are all so grateful we were apart of. We cannot wait to join you for more trips in 2020!