Tim Foolery

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Off-Roading in a Prius

We left Hendy Woods State Park and after spending the afternoon in Mendocino and grabbing an early dinner in Fort Bragg, we decided to head back to our base camp. Taking the same road back as we did out wasn’t very exciting, so we decided to take a more scenic route.  This road was interesting and brought us much farther inland than our morning journey did.

The Closure

We approach the town of Willits where we would rejoin Highway 101, for the quick 20 minutes back home.  The traffic wasn’t bad, but it was noticeable.   We approach the on-ramp and a man from CalTrans was redirecting us, saying the road was closed for an unspecified period of time and to come back later.

That didn’t sound good.  We checked the local news outlets (online) and found that a man, described as a “Grizzly Adams look-a-like” had shot people on the highway, causing a bad accident and he was still on the loose.  We debated our options: 1) Wait it out – the highway has to open SOMETIME 2) Throw in the towel, grab a room and try again in the morning or 3) Find an alternate route home.  The local member of our team that day called a friend very familiar with the area, and he suggested we take old State Route 306 – it’ll take longer than 101, it’s not paved the full way through and there may be water on the road.

Somehow it was decided that Option 3 was the right one for us.  I’m not to keen on staying in a sleazy motel, but I’m less of a fan of wandering aimlessly down unpaved roads we are unfamiliar with – with a 76 year old driver who doesn’t like driving after dark…in a Prius.

The Trek

We venture out.  It was great for the first 10 minutes, then the road turned to gravel.  Rocks and dust flying as we drove down this road.  We weren’t the only ones who had decided to use old State Route 306.  As we continue on, we come across the water in the road that the local friend told us about.  I wasn’t expecting the entire road to be covered in about 4-6 inches of water, but there we were, staring fate in the eyes.  Do we continue on or turn back.  You know my vote.  I lost. We continued on. Off-roading in a Prius wasn’t on the books for today.

Off-Roading in a Prius

A flotilla of urban vehicles navigating the wilds of Northern California

I got out of the car, grabbed the biggest stick I could find and charted our car’s journey through the blockade, that I affectionately called the puddle.  The water wasn’t moving, per se, but it wasn’t static either.  Under surface in the murky water were rocks – lots of rocks, little rocks and very big rocks.  I plotted the path and allowed the driver (it was his car) to execute the plan.

He put his car into warp speed and flew through the puddle, spraying muddy water all around – I was smart enough to stay out of the splash zone.  I see the Prius pass the puddle, turn the corner and disappear out of sight.  Were they going to leave me here?  I take off running after them.  About 250 meters away they stop.  There was no need to continue on that far, but they did.

Off-Roading in a Prius

Should a Prius be doing that?

We weren’t the only small cars out there trying to ford this obstacle, hell, we weren’t even the only Prius.

These watery obstructions continued every 3-5 minutes or so.  Traffic was getting worse and worse.  The local folks with the big trucks passed us by and blew through the water. Their grins were big as they passed the three of us in our Prius.  They smiled so big you could see the missing teeth or the hunk of chewing tobacco in their mouths.

After successfully navigating three of these puddles, we encounter the forth.  Big Bertha.  She was the largest puddle we had seen.  Not only was she huge, but once you cleared the water, you encountered a long, straight, steep stretch of road.  This road was getting muddy – all the trucks were splashing water and kicking up the rocks.  This channel was also the deepest to date.  It was at least 8-10 inches deep and the underwater rocks were the biggest.  One wrong turn and we’d blow a tire or rip out the undercarriage.

The Decision to Return

I was not keen on the idea of us getting stuck in the puddle too – at this point there were at least a dozen vehicles behind us.  We weren’t worried about the Subarus that could likely make the trip.  I was more concerned about the pick-up truck driving locals and how pissed they’d be if we blocked their only way home.  Not worth it.

Jeeps blasting through the flood

Jeeps have no trouble here!

We decided to turn around and cross those three original puddles again.  The other Priuses (Priii?) followed our lead and we raced back to civilization.

As we approached the puddles, I planned on hopping out and replotting an appropriate return path, but the driver had other ideas.  He said since we’ve already been through this area, we know we can make it…so let’s just drive.  My stomach knotted as he laid his foot on the accelerator.  We sped through each of these three remaining obstacles each time smacking into rocks – the sound of them scraping under the car caused me to gnash my teeth.  The final puddle had us on a surprising trajectory – one that caused the water to flow over the top of the hood and onto the windshield.  I’m pretty sure that’s not ideal for a hybrid vehicle, right?

Returning to Town

The last of the puddles were in our rear view mirror. We snaked our way through the gravel road, then back on to pavement.  We hurried back into Willits to snag some motel rooms – I wasn’t going to sleep in the Prius, that’s for sure.

As we drive through town, the car was making an interesting sound – a muffled scraping sound.  It didn’t sound like a flat tire, but it didn’t sound right either.  When we’d pass someone on the street, they would turn and stare at us. The sound we heard inside the car was also audible outsidr.  We are still causing a scene.

We pull into a local Grocery Outlet – needing toothbrush, tooth paste and phone chargers – as we had no intention of staying out all night when we left 13 hours prior. I decided to take a look at the front of the car and I found a large rubber piece hanging from just under the headlights.  This part runs the entire front width of the car and it is broken.  It is dragging against the pavement. It is pushing rocks, sticks, trash and other debris with us.  I managed to reattach this piece, but after a few minutes of driving it would fall again.  Of the four to six rivets, only two were still working properly and they wouldn’t hold the piece up.

I was terrified this would either catapult us to our death somehow, or severely injure someone behind us.  We couldn’t find a way to remove this damaged piece.  I made my recommendation and went along with the majority vote.

The car was in rough shape as we left Willits the next morning. The tires hadn’t deflated during the night.What a lovely surprise.

Well, Little Prius, we took you on an adventure and you returned us home.  You were a little banged up, but those battle scars show what you’ve done, what you can do. This is the most excitement you’ve had and will likely never have anything this wild run under your tires again.


  1. Great post

  2. galby68 says:

    What a great adventure! My “what could possibly go wrong?” mantra was in mental repeat as I read along.
    Funny aside: of the couple dozen blogs I follow on WordPress, two were in Mendocino at the same time. Small blogosphere…

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