La Paz County High Point Trip Report

Harquahala Peak

Date: August 27, 2000
Author: Jeff Howbert

Is it possible to drive a rented Plymouth Breeze to 4,800 feet on the Harquahala Mountain Road (now signed as the Harquahala Mountain National Backcountry Byway). Although a couple of places above 4,400 feet were steep and loose enough that more than one try was required to get up, the entire ascent was accomplished without scraping the bottom. At the time, I was very proud of this. On the way down I relearned a fundamental truth: if you consistently push an activity to the outer limit of what is feasible or safe, sooner or later you will make a mistake. In this case, it was potentially lethal - by veering only a couple of inches too far left, next to a large, sharp rock, the front left tire suffered a two-inch gash, right through the side wall.

That the lug wrench provided in the Breeze is a laughable piece of junk, capable of removing only 4 of the 5 lug nuts securing the tire, even after an hour of desperate attempts at augmenting or modifying its function with the native materials at hand (gravel and small coins as shims; rocks as hammers)? A passing party then made their best efforts to help, but the final nut proved to be so frozen that we broke the socket in his socket set without budging it.

Is it possible to drive a Plymouth Breeze from 4,600 feet down the Harquahala Mountain Road, seven miles to the nearest pavement, with a flat tire? And to do so in less than an hour, without incurring (visible) damage to the exterior? About a mile from the pavement I stopped and cut away the shredded remains of the tire with my pocket knife; the pounding inside the wheel well had become so loud that some destruction seemed imminent. Turning onto Eagle Eye Road, I had driven south on the rim about a mile along the shoulder when I encountered a wonderfully helpful Hispanic gentleman going the other way. He had a proper lug wrench, the classic cross shape with foot-and-a-half long arms, which we pounded onto the nut with a hammer, finally breaking it free. After all this, the recalcitrant nut had a mashed, dome-like shape, with no corner or edges left recognizable anywhere on it.

To be honest, I never had any serious concern for my survival or safety, but I sweated oceans of blood, going through endless horrific scenarios involving the car rental company and my insurance. The fact that I was going to miss my flight paled in comparison. As it worked out, I drove into the rental agency at the airport on the spare tire, the remains of the original tire and rim in the trunk, sought out the manager, and stressed to her the hazard imposed on her customer (me) by having a malfunctioning piece of equipment (unchangeable tire) while sightseeing in the southern Arizona desert, well away from the highway, in the month of August. I only fudged a little on the scene of the events, keeping it to the pavement along Eagle Eye Road. To my considerable amazement, and intense relief, it worked! She not only accepted her company's culpability, but even knocked a couple of days off the rental charges, as a gesture of apology. Since then, I have been walking around in the strangest mood, looking over my shoulder with a giddy grin, feeling like I got away with a major felony.

It was my first time exploring back roads in Arizona, so I learned a lot. First lesson: next time be much more persistent about renting a truck or SUV; don't worry about how much of a premium the rental agencies want for it. Second lesson: what's inside the car, in the way of emergency gear, is just as important as the car's capabilities. I've known this, and equipped my car in Washington appropriately, for years. I can't explain why it didn't carry over when traveling.