My first thought was: Why did they put rumble strips in the middle of the interstate? We were riding high, Krystal and me. Our short trip to Washington State, planned around a Tanya Tucker and The Highwomen concert at The Gorge Amphitheater, had gone off better than we’d hoped for.
Our tickets, purchased months ago, happened to align with the first availability to test the Mammoth Overland “Extinction Level Event” trailer. (More on that someday soon. It’s fun.) And when I reached out to a couple of OEMs to see if there might be a vehicle in the Seattle fleet with which to tow the bright orange, bear-spraying apocalypse-ready camper, Ford was the first to respond: How about an F-150 Raptor R? Which, to quote the Ford rep, was “about as Mad Max as it gets.”
So we’d spent a long weekend dashing and bashing through the most varied square miles of landscape in the states, tucked back next to an alpine stream the first night, up over Steven’s Pass to the edge of the Columbia River basin for the next, backed into a turnout near the top of an off-season ski mountain demarcated with hunks of seamed white granite so pretty they’d be sculpture in most of the world.
Krystal found a campground near Soap Lake where we could safely drop the trailer for the third day and let the Raptor R stretch its legs. South for an hour to Moses Lake’s dunes, a hastily-bought flag flapped from a fiberglass pole we’d wedged in the truck’s rear window. We gracelessly bounced across moguls and small jumps until we started to get a feel for the proper dollop of 700 horsepower needed to smooth out 6,000 pounds of desert power from the God-Emperors of Planet Dearborn.
Locals running dirt bikes and sand rails laughed with us as we gingerly crept over the tops of new hills that toddlers were sailing over without a second thought, but even when a decline overwhelmed our caution, the Raptor R didn’t care. If we hit the bump stops even once, we never felt it. We finished our lunch break in the dunes with an instrumented test of where exactly to slam the throttle at the end of a banked turn so that instead of carrying maximum speed you could get the truck to throw up as much sand as possible before pushing itself straight again through acceleration alone. (The carefully calibrated instrument was my ass.)
Aired up again, we tested the stop-start system on northern Washington’s canal-plotted country roads by stopping and starting in a straight line as much as possible. It was somewhere along those roads that my wife stared out into the scrubland and said matter-of-factly: “I’ve never had these feelings for a truck before.”
Who wouldn’t be smitten? The Raptor R is as close to a hypertruck as has ever been built. It should be, considering the price: It currently costs about 30 grand of sweet talk to convince a dealer to take another $110,000. As friend-of-the-show Robert “Bobby Soarin’” Sorokanich described it, it’s the closest any real-life vehicle can be to a video game car: It’s stupid fast; its suspension implies an unrealistic relationship with the earth’s physics engine; and if you accidentally go off the road it’s not game over.
We’ve been truck-less for about three years, so we’re especially easy marks. We can’t afford a Raptor R. But we spent a good hour pretending we could, sketching out what it would cost, what we’d have to sacrifice, the amount of lumber it would take to build a carport since it’s definitely too big to fit in our garage. By the time we were back at Soap Lake scrubbing ourselves with its famous healing mud that smells and feels exactly like what you’d imagine decomposing brine shrimp would smell and feel like, we had a napkin-math estimate of about half of what our house cost. It still seemed almost reasonable.
Our last night was the concert, preceded by an afternoon lounging in a winery adjacent to the venue, laying on our backs sipping wine between rows of vines and staring at the sun through the leaves of a dogwood which, like us, was surely not native. Considering our typical weekend getaway is sleeping in the back of a station wagon at a campground eating untoasted marshmallows, we were pretty proud of ourselves for programming such a luxurious jaunt.
That vibe persisted yesterday morning as we chugged back to Seattle on I-90, trailer in tow. I’d just realized that the Raptor R’s trailering assist system didn’t automatically activate the dedicated Tow Mode until the day before, so I was impressed anew at the truck’s tweaks to the throttle and shifting, even if our trailer was relatively light and the Raptor and its suspension is the least optimized for towing in the F-150 line. (I’d been in Normal Mode on the way east, which worked fine, but Tow Mode is better.)
We’re experienced mile-eaters. We’ve driven through every state in the Lower 48. And even in an overpowered machine, when it comes to crowded highways I’ve never found a reason to be anything but sedate. Five-under at 70 seems fine to me, especially if that means I’m not changing lanes all the time to get around a semi in the right lane that’s just going to speed up again on the next downhill. We’ll get there when we get there.
We were in that iron-ass satori when the wreck happened. I’ll tell you what I experienced, but like many brief moments of terror, there wasn’t much to tell: I felt a vibration. Before I could process that, I felt a push and heard scraping metal. Then I could feel that we were being forced out of the right lane towards the shoulder. I could feel the trailer doing something, and had the luck of instinct to accelerate to keep it straight. I remember hearing the truck downshift and growl and steadily pull away as I kept playing out just a little steering towards the shoulder, which thankfully didn’t seem to be coming closer too quickly. And then it was over.
Krystal said she looked over at me when she first felt something, saw me exhale and grip the wheel, and started to understand we were being hit by another vehicle when the Raptor’s rear fender flare went flying past my window.
As we eased onto a shoulder we saw the box truck pull ahead of us onto the shoulder as well. The interstate, even 90 minutes out of town, was busy. But there were enough gaps in between tractor-trailers that I could try my door. It opened. I walked around the front of the truck to see a young guy getting out of the box truck with his partner. He looked dazed.
I asked him what happened. “I fell asleep,” he said.
Twenty minutes later a state trooper arrived, walked up to the four of us standing in a wide ditch, and asked the same thing after noting his body camera was recording.
“I fell asleep,” the kid said again. I was simultaneously admiring of his honesty and furious at his nonchalance. His partner piped up. “Yeah, he was driving for me because I fell asleep when I was driving about an hour ago.” Semis kept blowing by us on the interstate. The sun felt white.
“Guess you’re awake now,” the trooper said.
A half-hour later the trooper handed us some paperwork with the box truck’s driver’s contact information and details about the owner of the truck, a local air conditioning company. The kids’ bosses had arrived just as the trooper was telling Krystal and me we could leave if we wanted. There was an exit less than a half-mile up the interstate with a gas station and a big farm stand, so we got in the still-idling Raptor, flipped on our hazards, and inched away up the shoulder. I wanted to ask what ticket the driver was getting, but the trooper didn’t seem inclined to tell us.
We got to the farm stand fine. It was there I was able to really take a look at the truck and trailer. At first I thought “Oh this isn’t too bad” — that antiquated read of “Well it’s mostly body damage,” which in 2023 is no longer a useful snap judgment. Body panels are more expensive and complex than ever, between materials and adhesives and subdermal sensors. As I brought my service manager role-play brain online, it started to click that every panel from the taillight to the front fender was toast. One running board was folded underneath. Front and rear bumpers were bent down. The bedside was pushed in at least a foot. The rear driver’s side door wouldn’t open because the metal had rolled over the door seam like a little cannoli.
Well at least the frame is straight. I got underneath to compare the rear spring perch angles from the damaged side to the undamaged side. They seemed the same, or nearly. I should have looked up a few feet; I might have noticed that the rear tire was pushed out about an inch behind the track of the front tire.
We walked into the fruit stand and got a latte. (We were in Washington State. Farm stands have espresso.) We called Ford and Mammoth Overland to let them know what happened. Nothing but professionalism and empathy from both, which I expected from Ford but felt nervous about with Mammoth, which is a small company which had just loaned its 1-of-1 concept trailer to a person outside of the company for the first time. If I were them I would have been plenty mad.
Instead they immediately sent out an employee to retrieve the trailer (and us, if we wanted) from Seattle. When Bridgett, who we’d not met when picking up the trailer, showed up a couple of hours later, I was inside the farm stand building hiding from the sun, but Krystal was sitting in the truck. The first thing Bridgett did when seeing the truck was walk up to Krystal and give her a big hug and exclaim, “I’m so glad you guys are okay.” That was when we first started to think about how badly things could have gone if the box truck had first hit the trailer instead of the rear of the truck. It’s not likely, considering the angles and relative speeds of the impact, that the trailer would have pulled us laterally enough to lose forward momentum and roll. But it wasn’t impossible, either.
After we swapped the damaged but largely intact trailer over to Bridgett’s F-150, I took the Raptor out for an unladen drive on a back road. It seemed okay. Perhaps a slight pull to the right. And the cross-traffic sensors complained that they weren’t working, probably because those sensors and the destroyed driver’s side mirror were no longer pointed in any specific direction except “wrong.” The tires had held air for a couple of hours.
I made the call. Ford had offered to send out a flat bed for the truck and get us to the airport separately, but they were forced to rely on my assessment and judgment since there wasn’t time to get a mechanic out to look at anything and for us to catch our flight.
We just wanted to get home. And we did. Bridgett followed us for the first few dozen miles before we waved her on. Except for a sense of embarrassment I felt for driving a rare machine in medium-well condition, we didn’t have any issues. We dropped off the Raptor R where we picked it up, got on our red eye back to New York with 30 minutes to spare, and caught a few hours of fitful sleep before landing on the other side of the continent.
We were lucky. I know that.
I’ve heard some version of “The truck can be replaced. Your life can’t” about three dozen times in the last 24 hours. Most of me knows that’s true.
But there’s a little part of me that doesn’t feel that yet. At least not the first part. There may be millions of F-150s on the road, but there are only a few Raptor Rs. And there will never be more than a few. It’s an end-of-an-era machine, built just as much for the engineers at Ford as for its customers. And even though we only had a few days with it, I was already starting to try to come up with a way to explain that despite its deeply unnecessary nature, it was worth celebrating on its own ridiculous merit.
I’m thankful we’re safe. Of course I am. It’s just a machine. But for one perfect weekend, that specific machine, in gleaming silver that caught the light of temperate rainforests and deserts so handsomely, that made HOA-rending exhaust noise when you wanted and blew cold air into your gooch when you needed it was part of that experience. And I’m sad to know that its days doing its job as a paragon of hootin’-and-hollerin’ American exuberance were cut short. Maybe the Raptor R as a product should never exist in the first place, but it does. This one does. And I’m sad, at the very least, it’s on the sidelines for a while. It deserves to holler again.
[Editor’s Note: The Autopian always takes excellent care of borrowed press vehicles, but sometimes things like this happen. Both Ford, who lent us the truck, and Mammoth Overland, who loaned us the camper, were gracious and understanding of the whole situation, making it clear that their priority is Joel’s wellbeing. The Autopian’s priority is the same. -DT].
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