WATERSMEET, MI - It was love at first sight!! I first saw her while jostling my way through Detroit's North American International Auto Show Charity Preview event. Looming mysteriously above the bustling crowd on an elevated platform, she was a beauty beyond compare! She was the color of Molten Lava; her tires were voluptuously rugged; her killer shocks wistfully exposed beneath slightly flared fenders. Her lines were sleek and defined, with a seductively menacing grill and blazing lights. The closer I got, the more I could see! My breath was taken away by what looked like a giant claw ripping across her sides! And as my pulse quickened, I said her name out loud: RAPTOR!!
Quickly I shook my husband's arm saying, "I'm going to check that out now!!" and off I raced. Patiently I stood in line eagerly awaiting my turn to get close enough to touch her and get inside that beautifully appointed cab! After what seemed like hours, my turn had arrived.
With eyes wide I slid into the seat piped in orange trim. I firmly gripped the center-striped steering wheel and, realizing the door was still ajar, I quickly grabbed the handle and pulled it shut with a thud: She was mine at that moment. As I continued to admire her interior, the auxiliary switches, textured dash, Sync system and navigation screen, I breathed deeply. Closing my eyes I was suddenly off onto roads to travel, trails to trek, mountain passes to explore, the wind in my hair and a gleam in my eye! Ahhh . . . then just as abruptly (and somewhat rudely, I might add) I was brought back to the present; my husband was knocking on the driver's window.
"Ah, honey," he said, "they aren't going to let you drive this one home, and there are a lot of other people waiting to sit in there!"
The nerve! Well, in a semi-embarrassed state I reluctantly opened the door, stood tall on the side running board in my full-length formal gown and heels for one last moment, and then had to step away. I halfheartedly apologized to the line of attendees looking somewhat irritated by the length of my visit with the Raptor - but hey, too bad! Just like sitting on Santa's knee, you need to savor the moment and reveal your heart's desire, right? As I walked away I longingly looked back over my shoulder and thought, "A Raptor - could it ever be for me?"
Two days more and it was Monday again and I was back to my "real" life: four kids, two dogs, my Ford-dealer husband, Jim Demmer, and our home and all that goes with being a mom. My world at that time was PTO meetings, school field-trip duties, laundry and the typical accompanying chaos.
I had my little "Fireball" - a red Ford Escape which I considered my truck - and that was all I really needed. (God forbid I'd drive a minivan, even though my kids did play soccer!) I mean, did I really "need" a Raptor with all that power and capability? I mean . . . really? Up until this point in my life, driving "off road" meant you accidently went onto the shoulder because you were trying to avoid an animal or an accident. So I accepted my pseudo-contentment and tried to put the Raptor out of my mind. Now and again however, I still felt the tug at my heartstrings each time I saw or heard about a Raptor.
As we all find out at one time or another in our lives, fate sometimes brings us the dreadfully unexpected, followed eventually by exactly what we need to get us through. Life turned on the proverbial dime for me the spring after I had first encountered the Raptor. My mother passed away suddenly and my summer was spent enduring the difficulties that are interwoven with that experience. By the fall, I was overwhelmed and needed something to help me get beyond those troubles. Coincidently, it was time for a new vehicle, so when my husband asked what I thought I would like to drive, without even as much as another breath I definitively said, "I need a Raptor!"
Surprisingly, a few short weeks later, there she was on my driveway! My very own Molten Orange, claw-ripped, big-tire, beefy shocks, gorgeous truck which my kids quickly nicknamed "The Mom-ster" She was here at last, and home to stay!!
That was some four years ago, and I now drive a big blue "Mom-ster" Raptor SVT, and I have never regretted my Raptor choice! Sure, it's big! Sure, it's loud! Sure, it takes some extra effort when I go to the grocery store, especially when some car parks so close that I can't open the back door to load my stuff. But oh, baby - what a ride! I just love this truck, and I know it loves me - we were clearly meant for one another! "Badass Truck and the Housewife" - who would guess!
Unfortunately, one nagging secret has haunted my thoughts: As I earlier indicated, this Raptor gal's "off-roading" wasn't anything worth mentioning or even admitting to. There was one minor "mudding" experience Up North a summer or two ago, but it just wasn't enough to pass myself off as a "real" off-roader! So as I cruised around town, passing all the other Raptors and their owners on the roads - signaling one another with a flash of the lights and a wave or peace sign inside or out of the windshield (think Harley owners and their "in our club" hand gesture as they pass - I knew that deep-down I was just a POSER! Ugh - I hated to think what " our club" would think if they only knew. But I maintained my guilty pleasure looking like I was living the dream and driving the trails, all while just keeping these four impressive tires, exceptional shocks and good-looking body all neat and tidy on-road. Oh, the shame of it all!
Just when I thought I could bear the humiliation of the truth no more, fate reappeared and hope sprang in my heart! My husband, Jim, came home one evening in early December and said that he had heard about a Raptor-only off-road event running through the U.P. (Michigan's Upper Peninsula). It was called the "SnoBall 500" and was going to benefit the Wounded Warrior Project charity! Could this be it, I thought, my big chance to undo my poser guilt?
Almost teasingly, Jim suggested we skip the Detroit Auto Show preview and go on the SnoBall 500 instead. I believe he thought I would decline; I mean, a Ford dealer and his wife miss out on the NAIAS charity event, with its bright lights, beautiful gowns, high heels, and all the sights? Without further hesitation, I blurted out, "Let's GO!" (While in some circles I may be considered "high maintenance," as soon as I heard there were going to be event hoodies, I was in!
The more Jim shared the trip particulars with me, the more excited I got! Besides fashionable SnoBall 500 hoodies, participants would get miles and miles of trails to traverse - yes , trails! We were going cross the Mighty Mac (Mackinaw Bridge) and get waaay up in the U.P., some 800 miles from Detroit! But best of all, there were going to be Raptors, Raptors and more Raptors, and I would finally be able to put my poser days behind me!
But Jim said there was still one little item that I really needed to know about: "You may have to, well, " rough it a bit," he said.
"What does that mean?" I suspiciously replied.
In that moment, cruel fate cast down her most dreaded gauntlet as he said, "You know there aren't usually any "ladies rooms" out there deep in the woods, right?"
So, that was it . . . Ugh! The injustice of it all - I was so close! This has long been a deal-breaker for me; I won't go camping because of this! I had to either "man-up" now or stay a poser! With a heavy sigh of resignation (but newfound determination), I knew what I'd have to do. So I laughed in the face of fate and said, "I guess it's time for this Lady to Man-Up!"
A day or so later, Jim registered for the event and serious preparations began. There is a lot more that goes into doing an event this than I had ever expected. Jim bought me and Mom-ster new lights, a power winch, new two-way radios, plenty of survival gear - even a Mad Bomber hat. He and fellow Raptor enthusiast Carl Jerema purchased some steel and constructed a custom spare-tire mount for the bed, spent hours emailing participants and talking about event details, trails, equipment and just plain chatting with other online Raptor lovers on the forum.
This was going to be BIG! All the while I was preparing mentally, like an athlete getting ready for their big moment and counting down the days. Before long, the day had arrived and we all were Ready to Rumble!
The very first evening of the drive, Mackinaw City (at the northernmost tip of Michigan's Lower Peninsula), felt a Friday night rumble as our group, 55 Raptors strong, roared over the Mighty Mac bridge, onward and upward to Escanaba, MI! Weather conditions were what you would expect in a Northern Michigan winter: freezing temperatures, high winds and blowing snow. But even as we crossed from Lower into Upper Michigan, it was becoming clear that neither the weather nor any road conditions we would encounter were going to deny the Mom-ster her day!
Three hours later, in the glow of an Escanaba moon, the parking lot of the Island Casino was lined with big, beautiful Raptors: Blue Flame, Molten Orange, Black, White, a brand-new Terrain, even custom paint and wrap jobs - Raptors tricked out like the eye had never seen! They came from far and wide and all points in-between: Washington State, Florida, Texas, Colorado, New Jersey, Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan . . . all for the love of this truck, the beauty of the trails and the fellowship of this off-road driving passion! We had all arrived safely, rolling in like thunder and ready to ride those trails the next day.
Day One began with frigid temperatures and the low grumble of anxious engines. We all readied ourselves for departure as the casino guests stood open-mouthed watching and listening to the sights and sounds of our group! I stood by and heard comments about the excellent quality of Ford products, the appreciation of the "Built Ford Tough" truck tradition, and the clear pride in the voice of the man who said, " . . . and they (Ford) never needed to take a government buyout!"
It was a moving experience to know that there was that kind of support and awareness in the general community. Our Raptors were definitely the stars of the moment. But when some of the onlookers saw that I was part of the group, we began fielding excited questions about the trucks, the trip and the locations we'd visit, as well as receiving many congratulations and thanks for our efforts in support of the Wounded Warrior Project. All this recognition - and we hadn't even left the parking lot!
By 9 a.m. we were all ready to head out. To start off I rode along as Jim steered us through the driving and blinding snow toward the trails we would tackle. We were members of "C- Squad" and as we rolled along en-masse, Mom-ster was going through her paces in the snow like this was mere a walk in the park! The tires gripped the icy road without issue while the brake lights well-positioned up in the center back of the cab were an immediate Raptor identifier and a huge help in keeping drivers together with visibility so low. Once we hit the trails, the real fun began!
Our raptors tore through the snow-covered trails effortlessly - climbing hills, roaring down steep grades, tracking through turns like hot knives in butter. How great it was to see these trucks do just what they had been built to do - get off-road without skipping a beat! All day long the Raptors forged their way through heavy snow drifts and twisting trails. As day settled into night, darkness was forced to yield as our special off-road lights blazed on, lighting up these U.P. forests as if it were noon! It was eventually time to rest and refuel ourselves, as well as the trucks. We ended the day way up in Houghton, M, with the temp registering at 5 below zero!
Our next full day began at 8:30 a.m. with a diver's meeting in the Travel Lodge parking lot where the temperature reading was -10! We were setting off for Copper Harbor, MI, to see some of the sights way up there, then would spend the afternoon on the trails. Jim let me drive this time, knowing the ground we'd cover would be mostly highway. I had watched Jim master yesterday's trails in absolute bliss, and knew that if I didn't get a turn in today, I may not be able to get him out from behind the wheel of MY TRUCK for the rest of the SnoBall 500!
Initially, road conditions were a mess: Blowing snow created complete whiteouts along the entire route. But we made it through the worst of it, and clearer times were ahead. After a quick lunch stop, it was time to hit the trails! Jim jumped in to take the first run - again, the expressions on his face revealed just how much fun he was having out here. Then we had a "pit stop" break (and yes, I had managed on that day and all others to "take care of business" without complaint or incident of a snowmobile or Yeti encounter!) Then came my "speak now or forever hold your peace" moment.
I boldly turned to Jim as we walked to the Raptor and said, "Hey - it's my turn to drive!"
Jim got a wide grin on his face and replied, "Good! I was hoping you'd be ready to try this out!"
Scrambling into the driver's seat, I heard "Charlie Lead" call out over the radio that "Charlie Group" was rolling! I checked my mirrors, belted in tight, made sure my steering wheel stripe was centered, mentioned a passing prayer to St. Christopher, and hit the gas! Mom-ster roared to life and we sped back onto the trail. We were soon rolling on like thunder . . . Yee-Haa!
Hours were passing, miles were running up and Jim was patiently riding along as co-pilot, offering helpful tips from his off-road experience as I discovered the additional demands off-roading required of the driver. So, this is what off-roading is like! Wow, no wonder so many come to love this! There was another quick break (O.K., I'll just call it what it was: another Pit Stop) and then dusk was upon us. I remained gleefully behind the wheel, flipped those "aux" switches like I really knew what they had been for all along, and bounded off into those snowy, Raptor-lit trails! Ta-da! I was doing it - I was actually off road, intentionally and without a care!
Never had I felt so safe in the cab of my Raptor. Mom-ster was warm and comfortable and entirely at ease with all the conditions she was asked to handle - just like me! What more could I ask for? ell- just one little thing, but it was a bit of a surprise!
The last glimmer from the sun was slipping away, welcoming the dark purples and navy of night to paint the skyline. Mom-ster's lights were blazing as we zoomed along, approaching a right-hand bend in the trail. I gently tapped the brake as I entered the turn and then gave Mom-ster a little gas and - Waaaaa! We were in a four-wheel drift to the left!
As my eyes widened, my pulse-rate jumped and I thought, "Oh S**T!" - Jim commanded, "Give her gas!"
So I did, and across to the right we flew, now on a right-slide drift.
"Turn the wheel to the right and touch the brake," he ordered, "she'll straighten out!"
So I did, and what do you know - he was right! I recovered the skid and raced on down the icy, snow-packed trail like nothing had even happened! Of course, I wondered for a moment if either of us needed we clean pair of underwear - but hey, we were no worse for wear and good to go - no, make that great to go! As I pulled up behind "Raptor C-45," which I had followed throughout the day, and our new friends, the "Minnesota Fly-Boys" (a trio of air traffic controllers, can you believe it?) came up to idle behind our "Raptor C-31," I realized I had done it! I had conquered my doubts, erased my shame, and I was a poser no more!
I asked Jim to take the wheel once again, as we motored on to the tiny town of Watersmeet, MI, the last stop on our whirlwind SnoBall 500 adventure. But the adventure was not quite complete!
After checking-in to the Lac Vieux Desert Casino, we had a quick dinner and prepared to head out one last time for some frolicking in the snow. Our destination was to be the viewing spot of the mysterious Paulding Light. Also known as "The Dog Meadow Lights" of Paulding, MI, they were said to come from the spirit of one of a number of ghosts who had haunted a forest valley for more than 40 years! Well, we were heading off to see them when who should we encounter but the Minnesota Fly boys and two of their buds!
We collectively decided to trek off together - you know, the whole safety in numbers idea. But I suspect adding those guys only served to cause a surge of testosterone as they ignored the idea of using directions. Although written directions had been secured from the amused hotel receptionist, our desired "location" was instead put into a GPS, and all three Raptors roared out into the dark of night to find the Pauling Light.
Who knew that our best and worst trail would turn out to be the same? As we made our way down the main stretch of highway, a trail appeared off to the left. The leading GPS said this was where we should turn off, but it was not part of the written route. Of course, no man would take written directions over what technology prescribed, so we took the trail.
The "Fly Boys" were leading our expedition as they deemed this was the proper trail to follow. But as we entered into this narrow, desolate-looking two-track, Jim shook his head and commented, "I don't know about this . . . it doesn't look quite right!"
But without any issue or complaint from Mom-ster and almost none further from Jim - except when the path narrowed so much that we were introduced to what was referred to as "Minnesota pin striping" - we followed our new pals into the night, lights blazing and spirits high!
After about the fifth time of needing to exit our Raptors into knee-deep snow to clear brush - with temperatures hovering near a balmy minus-12 degrees - you'd have thought we'd had enough . . . but nooo - we were no quitters! So what if some branches had to be bent back or broken off to get through, and a little tree or two needed to be pulled out of the path? It took courage and determination to hold saplings out of the away and lift limbs up so that our Raptors could pass. It was all going to be worth it, I was convinced!
Then the trail had narrowed so much that I became equally convinced we were never going to make it through, let alone to be seen again! I cursed under my breath and wondered why in the hell had I let these goofy guys talk me into this after-dinner stunt.
But wait - at last there we could see something up ahead! Nope - we dead-ended into a locked gate! The disappointment was palpable . . . but the Fly Boys and friends were not to be denied! It was decided to back our way out, back to a path that was crossed about 300 yards before. So tails-backward we intrepid off-roaders went, backing-out of our skinny, newly blazed trail. Little did it matter that we had already spent over an hour-and-a-half in "hot pursuit" of a light (at the end of our proverbial tunnel, perhaps!) that should have been only a few minutes away.
Well, we did make it to the groomed path - and followed it without incident to the much sought-after spot . . . which turned out to be just a graffiti-covered guard rail! We boldly exited our Raptors once more, congratulating ourselves and our fortitude in finally getting there. We all gathered behind the guard rail, shoulder-to-shoulder, and gazed deep into the distant valley. Did we actually see the Paulding Light? Or did we actually spot a Yeti or maybe a Chupacabra? We'll never tell - but maybe if you decide, like me, to be "A Poser No More," you will go and find out for yourself!
Through this entire Raptor SnoBall 500 experience I have affirmed that if you truly want to discover what you are made of at your core, set no limits, dream big and take those risks. It does make all the difference to take the road less travelled!
Our thanks to SnoBall 500 organizers Jason Kanakry and Mark Rowe, as well as their volunteer support crews for their hard work, patience and guidance throughout all 500 miles of this inaugural event. Thanks are also deserved for the many sponsors who made the outing extra special. And to the more than 100 fellow friends and drivers of the 58 Raptors that participated, may I say it was great to be with you and to help raise more than $4,000 in support of the Wounded Warrior Project. May God bless our men and women serving in the military, for our deepest thanks are owed to all who have served to make these freedoms we enjoy possible!
Personally, it was the experience of a lifetime, and one I hope to repeat! May the trails all Raptors encounter be wide and happy ones, and may they bring ours to cross once more!
Photos Courtesy Jim Demmer / www.Demmer.com