Kevan was in trouble. The Dolores River was swollen with rushing snowmelt, and he was floating down the center of it in his overland-built 2006 Toyota Tacoma. Brandon and I watched, helpless as the truck tilted nose down. The water was thick and brown, heavy with sediment washed from the sandstone cliffs framing the sky above the reeds and cottonwoods where we stood.
The engine screamed, the tires grabbing nothing but water as Kevan sawed at the wheel, desperate for traction. Later, he’d tell us the river leaked in past the door seals, cold as death and rising. By some miracle, the truck found its footing, and for one clear moment, it looked as if Kevan might pull off the impossible, claw his way to the exit on the other side, and meet us in Grand Junction, Colorado. But none of us was that lucky. The Tacoma bogged in sand some 50 yards from the far bank. He was stuck, with water licking over the hood. It wasn’t long before the truck died altogether.
That was three years ago. Three years since Brandon Fitch, Kevan Ray, and I nearly drowned there in the Utah desert. In the interim, Ray walked away from a lifetime of off-roading and overlanding, abandoning a pastime that had dominated his adult life. Then Toyota unveiled the Tacoma TRD Pro. It was time to go back to that river.
“Power was down, my windows rolled themselves up, my horn went on uncontrollably, the wipers turned themselves on. It was terrifying.”
Ray’s now-deceased Tacoma followed a familiar path, one that’s made the midsize pickup a favorite among overlanders and off-roaders alike. He bought the truck in 2015, his fourth Toyota pickup, and threw a raft of parts at it in preparation for a trip from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Arizona and into Utah, where he and his fiancée would meet Fitch and me just north of Moab.
“I cannot for the life of me recall the order of things because it was just a blitz,” he said. “I put Old Man Emu coils on it and [the company’s] Add-A-Leaf for a three-inch lift with Bilstein shocks all around, an ARB bull bar, Warn winch, skinny BFG tires, rock sliders, and then the snorkel.”
Why a snorkel? The idea was that moving the vehicle’s intake inlet above the roofline would allow the engine to pull in clean air while following other trucks on a dusty road. It also keeps water from splashing in while fording. That doesn’t mean the machine can be submerged up to the inlet, but it reduces the chances that the engine will stall if the driver finds a deep hole in a riverbed or builds too much of a bow wave while on the move.
When Toyota unveiled the 2019 Tacoma TRD Pro, the three of us saw a very familiar-looking truck. It came with a conservative lift, a bit of underbody protection, and yes, an available snorkel, though Toyota carefully calls its version a Desert Air Intake. Warning stickers on the glass do away with any notion of deep-water fording or automated car washes.
As outfitted, it is an overland starter pack, right down to the optional first-aid and emergency-assistance kits. It is the spitting image of Ray’s long-dead Tacoma, a ghost of our off-road past.
We made a plan. This time, we’d arm ourselves with as much information as possible. We checked historical flow rates, aiming to be at the river in the dead of winter when the water would be at a tenth of what it was when we were there last. We’d come at the ford from the opposite side, riding from Grand Junction, off the mesa, and into Utah, and we’d start at dawn, relying on the sub-freezing temperatures to keep the slick mud trail solid beneath our tires. And we’d be armed with recovery gear and a pair of buddies with a last-generation Jeep Rubicon for support.
It would be a lie to say there wasn’t some trepidation, and not just because this time we’d be driving someone else’s $50,000 truck into the water. Even with the TRD Pro’s miles of ground clearance, an arsenal of electronic trickery, and a locking rear differential, the drive to Dewey Bridge, Utah, could turn sour in a heartbeat. But when we drove onto public land, the rough and rutted two-track was frozen solid.
In short order, we realized just how well sorted the TRD Pro is. With its 2.5-inch Fox internal bypass shocks and progressive-rate off-road leaf springs in the rear, it turned the punishing forest road smooth, glossing over the rough surface with zero drama. The suspension is a marvel and perhaps the clearest signal of what painstaking development by a massive corporation can do for a machine.
We made short work of 100 or so miles and descended the final hill, and the river came into view at last. Everyone went silent, the sight of it conjuring up a day that felt both an age and an instant ago. It’s strange how simply being in a place can spark the same worry, the feel of the water as relentless and cold as any I’d ever been in, my heart hammering with real fear against it. For the first time since that day, I asked Ray how it happened.
“We stopped at the bank, and I remember listening,” he said. “All you could hear was the rushing water. I thought to myself, ‘There’s no way we can make it across that.’”
He had everything with him. All of his supplies, his computer, his cameras. A week’s worth of clothes for himself and his fiancée.
“I thought, ‘You know what, we’ll just kind of nose the truck in, take a few photos, make it look dramatic, and then we’ll go back to camp and find something else to do,’” Ray said.
Instead, his truck fell off an underwater ledge a few feet in. That was when his 15 years of off-road experience betrayed him.
“The front of the truck was bobbing in the water,” he said. “I wasn’t prepared. I was in too low a gear to maintain any speed, and my locker wasn’t on, so I was essentially in two-wheel drive. I just reacted. I’d crossed many a stream before, and my instinct was to plant the accelerator and go.”
Fitch and I watched from the shore, horrified as the river grabbed the truck and pulled it downstream.
“I could feel the truck starting to die,” Ray said. “Power was down, my windows rolled themselves up, my horn went on uncontrollably, the wipers turned themselves on. It was terrifying.”
The engine stuttered and died, the sound of the V-6 replaced by nothing but the rushing river. Ray didn’t hesitate, climbing out of the truck, onto the hood, and attempting to work his winch, hoping he had enough line to reach the shore.
“After dropping into the water to unspool my winch, I realized the water was so strong that it was pinning me to my front bumper,” Ray recalled. “I was barely strong enough to work around it, and it became immediately clear that if I made one wrong move I was going to get sucked under my truck and get trapped and die. Or swept downstream.”
He paused, considering his words.
“Growing up, I got stuck all the time,” he said. “Failure is a part of off-roading. It’s how you learn. But back home you’re never more than 10 minutes away from Bubba with his tractor or another pickup truck. Somebody’s going to come along. You go out west, and you’re a long way from help, and I learned that. You’ve got to be far more conscientious about what you’re doing. The stakes are higher.”
Ray’s Tacoma was in the water for six hours, and extracting it meant that both Fitch and I would find ourselves swimming across that muddy river dragging 300 feet of tow cable behind us, trying desperately to keep our heads above the surface. When the Tacoma was finally back on dry land, it was obvious that the vehicle was a total loss.
“For maybe a year I just wanted no part of it,” Ray said. “I didn’t ever want to go back to Utah, but something like that doesn’t go away easily.”
We followed the riverbank in the TRD Pro until the road dipped, dropping into the water. Ice and snow lined the banks, a wide and stony sandbar in the center. Everyone eyed the route, and for the first time, we saw exactly what had happened three years ago. The roadbed swung out in a wide arc around a deep hole, the same one Ray had driven straight into.
“I’m standing on the bank I could never reach,” he said, quietly.
With the water so low, the roadbed was shallow enough that we could walk out and eye our route. And when we crossed the thing, the new Tacoma made easy work of it, the impassable made passable by time and cruel experience. And still, we were ecstatic, the cabin erupting in high fives and handshakes, the conclusion of a chapter we opened the second Ray’s tires touched that water years ago. The three of us were dry and alive, laughing at the fools we were, once.
If you ask Ray if it was worth it, he’ll say it was. At first that’s hard to reconcile, but standing there on the bank, it was evident that leaving the pavement behind is about more than just pretty views and isolation. Off-roading affords us the rare chance to square off against ourselves and the world around us in our vehicles, an experience that has been almost entirely stripped from modern life. Doing so actively courts failure in an age when automakers are hell-bent on saving us from ourselves, on editing the human variable out of driving altogether. Pointing yourself at an unknown scrawl of a road across the desert is invaluable, something that cannot be replaced by software or algorithm. Trucks like the Tacoma TRD Pro are escape hatches from the monitored, the regulated, and the collated. Gifts that remind us there will always be a future for a driver and his machine.
Archive photos: Zach Bowman
2019 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro 4X4 Double Cab Specifications
|PRICE||$46,410/$50,800 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||3.5L DOHC 24-valve V-6/278 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 265 lb-ft @ 4,600 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, 4WD truck|
|EPA MILEAGE||18/22 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||212.3 x 75.2 x 71.6 in|
|0–60 MPH||7.6 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||113 mph|