Snake Bitten
By Shawn Pagan

Clayton, Oklahoma - May 1999

Clayton Memorial Day Trail Ride hosted by Fort-Worth Dallas Four-Wheel Drive Club.

This was my first trip to Clayton.  I had heard stories about many of the trails.  Names come to mind like The Wall, Three Stage, Floyd’s Hill, Purgatory, Rock Creek and Powerline.  However, the new excitement seemed to be a trail dubbed “Snake Pit” by The Fort-Worth Dallas Four-Wheel Drive Club.  FWD-FWD hosts bi-annual events in Clayton. 

I met up with Rick Neil on Friday morning as he had been looking for someone to pre-run the trail with him before he had to lead a run down it on Saturday.  I was hyped, as was my passenger (Carl Gerhardt) who had never been on a run like this before.  I had recently rebuilt my rig, changed the suspension, made some transmission and other modifications and on the first outing to Foot Hood, Texas I had experienced a few problems.  Feeling that those issues were behind me I wanted to test everything out  – and from what I had heard of “Snake Pit” it was exactly what my TJ was built for.

My excitement would have to wait another day – as President of FWD-FWD Rick found too many other things to do and would not be able to run Snake on that day.  Oh well, I joined some friends and ran a wonderful, scenic new trail named “Lost Creek”.  The weather was beautiful and the trail was a very challenging 4 for a good driver – (FWD-FWD rates their trails from 2-6, Snake Pit is rated 6).  As rain fell the rest of the weekend this actually turned into a pretty harsh trail – claiming body parts, axles and other mechanical bits of paraphernalia throughout the weekend.

Saturday morning we awoke to pouring rain.  All the better for running Snake Pit because the majority of the trail was underwater anyway so unlike running a dirt road or dirt trail the run does not change much with inclement weather – it only gets deeper!  I eagerly signed my name to the roster for the run – noting that only two other people had signed up at that point.

I went out and pulled my vehicle into line.  As we sat there people kept approaching asking what run we were doing – with the reply of "Snake Pit” they all had stories to tell or other tales of carnage – I think Carl was starting get a little concerned.   Rick Neil pulled in line; followed by Kelly and passenger in Kelly’s CJ.  They wanted Kelly up in the front, but behind Rick in case we got stopped too many times or had any major problems, then Kelly could lead the rest of us out while Rick came back to camp for festivities or to enlist aid.  I was elected tail-gunner.

We pulled out with 10 vehicles: Rick Neil in an extended CJ w/ a red Zolatone paint job; Kelly and passenger in a Blue CJ; Jim (from Arkansas) in an “ugly” but very capable early Black Bronco; his buddy in a Red Wrangler with 35’s; a very well built, full size Chevy Blazer; a white CJ-5; a very nice tan, bobbed Toyota p/u; Dennis Hawn & wife in a white, bobbed Toyota p/u w/ 36” Swampers; a well built black YJ with Swampers and my Black TJ.  I knew a few of these people from previous trail rides and from the TX4x4 List (a mailing list that discusses various 4 wheeling events around Texas).

Rick explained to us that he found running “The Pit” backwards a more enjoyable experience so he was going to take us in that way.  By running it backwards it would “allow” us the challenge of running through the Pit then having to make a series of very steep climbs to get out.  While going the traditional way – one would drop into the pit then drive out via a dirt road.  Since this sounded good to all of us, we pulled out of the Rodeo Grounds- but before we could descend on the trail we had to participate in the Four Wheel Drive Memorial Day Parade through the town of Clayton. 

Quite a crowd of town folk turned out to watch the 300 plus vehicles (with police escort) wind through the main drag, turn around at the end and then head back through town again on the way out to the trails.  Being that our group was one of the first to leave the Rodeo Grounds we got to gawk at all the vehicles as we passed them by on their way through the town and on our way out.  It was a nice site. Four wheel drives as far as the eye could see, the police working with us, and a town happy to have us twice a year!

As we approached the trailhead we passed a sign put up at an intersection  – “Snakes” with arrows pointing all around it.  Here we also discovered that this was going to be a “lively” bunch.  The “Grey Poupon” jokes had already started to fly, and the CB’s were flowing with chatter like “please put your tray tables and seat back in the locked and upright position” and  “keep arms and legs inside the ride at all times”.  I knew this would be a good day.

Snake Pit starts out right away, as you turn off the “trail” in to the stream you cross an amazingly large slab of broken rock and before you is, well, something that could loosely be referred to as a trail.  There are no telltale tire tracks; just an occasional black mark on a protruding rock that said someone passed this way before.  The entire (90%) of the trail is under water.  Large boulders and broken pieces of rock protrude up through the water or the water flows over or around them.  The little valley that you enter is wide enough for a full size rig, but not much wider as the sides start to make a very steep ascent upward.  With the exception of the 9 vehicles in front of me it would have been very easy to imagine that we were 10,000 miles away from anything or anywhere.  The little valley was absolutely beautiful.

Shortly after we started it was apparent that on this trail you had to fix what broke – driving out was just as difficult as getting in and 1 broken vehicle would clog the trail for anyone else that wanted to go by.  About 300 yards into the trail we got our first “Snake Bite”. 

Our friends in the White CJ radioed that they were having a problem.  We all stopped and went to see if we could help.  The driver’s side, upper front shock mount had decided to separate completely from the CJ, that’s bad enough but when it went it needed a friend and took the brake line with it.  The CJ was gently rolled forward off the boulder that it was parked on.  Then the shock and old brake line were removed.  A new line was installed (Rick Neil had an extra one, always helps when the trail leader is prepared).  The brakes were bleed into an old plastic pop bottle (so as not to pollute) and we were back in action in about 20 minutes.

At this point the water started to get deeper.  Deep enough at one point that Dennis relayed back that he thought the spot he was stopped in was deep until he pulled forward and lost sight of the top of his 36’s.  About that time the Black YJ got tilted a little sideways and proceeded to take on a little extra water weight via the passenger side ½ door. 

Everyone continued to move forward as we all enjoyed the beautiful scenery.  Suddenly from out of no where Dennis and I heard a sullen sound – the sound of a tire rapidly deflating in water…  The black YJ pulled to as much of a dry spot as they could find – the water was about 6 inches deep and flowing.  Unless one was lucky enough to be standing on one of the small boulders that protruded through or was just under the surface of the water everyone that helped was going to get their feet wet.

The driver of the Tan Toyota came back to help change the tire.  The right front tire of the YJ – a 33” Swamper - had somehow pinch flatted itself through the sidewall.  A small flat rock was used to secure the high lift and then in a team effort, the YJ was jacked up, the tires swapped, aired down and back on the trail.  Just a short stop, 15 minutes and away we went.

About half way through the trail is an extremely tight area that actually has a “go around” through the trees.  On the other side of this go around is an alternate route that the “Big Dogs” can attempt if they so desire.  It is a very deep hole with flowing water and slabs of rock that are tilted at all different angles like fingers trying to puncture, dent, scrape and/or tear anything they can get a hold of.  Jim and his Bronco desired, so the rest of us settled in to watch the fun. 

Jim made it but it took some good spotting, good equipment and some great driving.  Fact is he made it look easy.  And since we were all out, it looked like a good spot as any to stop for lunch.  Some people choose to take their shoes and socks off to see if they would dry before we broke from lunch and started up the trail again.  At this point two more jeeps pulled up the trail behind us, when we left they stayed to enjoy the shallow water and to partake of their lunch.

Shortly after we left the lunch area we started crossing through a very narrow area where slabs of rock had slid down the adjacent hill and lined themselves up in the water like dominoes laid over.  At first I could simply choose a slab and drive across it allowing my vehicle to slide toward the water.  Soon the slabs were buried in the water and an attempt had to be made to cross the remaining slabs in a somewhat diagonal approach – lest your vehicle find itself in a deep hole or pressed against the side of the canyon.  Everyone that I could see seemed to make it through the last part with some good driving and a little luck, until the Snake bit again.  Just as I was contemplating how “easy” and enjoyable the trip had been thus far, the YJ in front of us got hung up on the exit of the slabs. 

In order to make the exit as easy as possible the left front tire must be turned across a deep water hole where it would grab the flat surface of one of the vertical slabs and pull the rest of the vehicle across.  This would setup the vehicle to drop down over the last two ledges and continue down the trail.  The problem was that this also made the vehicle lean considerably to the passenger side, which causes most people to turn the wheel back to the right, which drops the left tire into the hole.  When this happens it causes the vehicle to slide down onto the protruding side edge of the rocks and become high centered.  This is what happened with the YJ. 

Upon realizing that they were stuck we tried all the usual tricks, adding weight, rocking, – nothing.  The first option for attack was to have Dennis back up his Toy and simply pull the YJ forward, but someone noticed that the way the YJ was sitting, pulling it forward was not an option.  The front diff had taken a chunk out of the rock slab below it and was sitting in that hole.  The hole was deep enough that the steering linkage was now caught on the same rock.

Both left side tires were in deep water holes, not contacting anything.  In fact the hole under the rear tire was so deep I was going to stack rocks in it but my leg could not even reach the bottom.  The back of the YJ had already dropped over the first ledge, wedging the rear end between the ledge behind it and the slab of rock it was high centered on.  The right front tire was up in the air and the rear had some slimy river rocks under it but was simply spinning. 

After some discussion we decided to use the Hi-Lift method.  By jacking up the left front corner of the YJ and pushing it to the right as we went we were able to push the YJ over onto a little more stable perch.  From there his lockers worked fine and pulled him over the final ledge with a nice loud bang as the slab of rock reached up and took a souvenir from his drivers side rocker panel.

As we approached the end of the trail there was one last small waterfall to “drop” over.  There was a “bypass” that went up the hill to our right – although from watching the people that choose to take the by-pass it looked fairly difficult.  Clay covered by wet leaves doesn’t leave much room for traction, to make it worse space the trees at about the width of a jeep and add a tight left turn at the top.  Some people needed two attempts to make it.

As we dropped over the last waterfall we felt we had seen the last technical spot on the trail and were ready for the climb out.  Little did we know!  As you climb out of the trail you turn a hard right and climb up what is called “Lower Powerline”.  This is a 5 rated trail when it is dry, as mentioned it had been raining all-night and sprinkling during the day.  There were already some other jeeps at the bottom, but once our turn came and we were able to look at the trail we could see that it had been churned and torn up – a nightmare for finding traction.

After waiting for what seemed like an eternity we made our attempt.  About 50 feet up the hill takes a sharp right across the face, then turns back to the left.  At this point it looked a little like a minefield – so many people had tried so many different lines.  The spotters suggested that I go to the right and I attempted it twice but my left front wheel kept falling off the rocks and dropping down into a mud pit.  I surveyed the situation and suggested that they spot me over the top of the rock instead of around it.  Which is what I did, I placed my left front tire directly on the rock, the right front dropped a mere 3 feet into a hole that would have swallowed a Volkswagen – and thankfully for articulation and Detroit’s I was pulled directly over the top.  I then found we had only transversed the first stage of this climb.

The second stage appeared to be even more vertical.  I waited again and when the way was clear I carefully choose my line and did not have any problems getting to the top.  At this point I found that the Blue CJ in front of us had to winch himself up part of the lower hill, but that everyone else made it up.

That hill was followed by a downhill right hand turn that was very off camber to the left.  At this point one of the trail photographers for Off-Road Exposure was filming our group so we spaced ourselves out in order to provide him with better shots.  As we dropped into the bottom of the gully, we were able to get a lot of flex and picture ops.  The opposite side of the gully had a nasty looking ledge that was transversable on either the right or the left side.  I asked one of the FWD-FWD guys which line was the best one to take.  The answer was “well the right side is the more challenging, (pause, look) but with those tires you better take the left side because you’ll never make the right”.  This was of course a challenge – everyone else (with the exception of Kelly’s Blue CJ) was running Interco tires of some type – while I was running THE tire of choice BFG MT’s.

I did get a tire in the air but I went right up and over with out too much of a problem.  I do think pride caused me to push a little more on the throttle then I usually do, so I gave Carl a little ride as we went up that last obstacle.  To my dismay in front of us (noticed by someone else that reported it over the CB) there was a nice large, shiny, oily wet spot on a rock towards the top of the hill.  Kelly’s CJ had sprung a leak – the rear differential cover was bent and the heads of the bolts had been torn off.  Kelly crawled under the CJ and was able to “fix” the problem by using a hammer and banging the cover back into place.

We drove back to Clayton – happy, hungry and tired.  All in all it had been a great day.  We spent the day on a tough trail with the group sustaining very little damage (2 rocker panels, 1 fender, 1 brake line, 1 shock mount, 1 tire, 1 differential cover) and few stops (1 winch, 1 hi-lift jack lesson).  I hope to return to Clayton many times and enjoy the town, the surrounding countryside and the trails.

Individually the obstacles on this trail were no tougher then most hard obstacles.  What makes this trail so difficult is that there is no let up.  As you leave or top one obstacle you had better be looking ahead to make sure you are lined up for the next one.  The entire trail provides very little room for rest or relaxation when you’re driving.  Having a reliable spotter riding in the passenger seat (thanks Carl!) pointing out sharp edges and rocks on the odd side of your vehicle is definitely a plus.  Even with a well setup vehicle my arms and body were tired at the end of the day.  This is an excellent trail and I would highly recommend it to anyone with the proper setup and experience.

Thanks to FWD-FWD for a great event.

Shawn Pagan
Co-Chairmen:        Association of Compaq Employees Off-Road Club
Member:                Southern High Rollers and Fort-Worth Dallas Four-Wheel Drive