The 2010 version of the Chile Challenge was only days away, and it became apparent that we needed to adjust our plans. The first big rock-fest of the year was upon us, and our trusted rock crawler was sitting high on the hoist with the rear differential nowhere in sight. What to do? In our shoes, it was time to go back to school; "Old School" to be specific.
Our venerable Scrambler, Project Too Long, is still hanging around. It faithfully carries us into the backcountry when the mileage or trail difficulty isn't a good match for the sometimes excessive capability of the purpose-built "big dog" in the fleet. Yes, the signature bright yellow Scrambler would be pressed back into service for this year's Chile Challenge. We really didn't have much choice if we wanted to attend.
The more we thought about it, the more we relished the idea of tackling the rocks of Las Cruces with a slightly less capable tool. Besides, we hadn't heard any school bus jokes about our overly-long Jeep in many years. It had been nine years since the Scrambler made the annual spring sojourn to the canyons of southern New Mexico. During that entire span of time, we had limited ourselves to the handful of "extreme" trails that bring fame and some of the southwest's best rigs to the Chile Challenge each year. Each year there are hundreds of other vehicles on the "lesser" trails in 'Cruces. And each day, most of those drivers returned to camp with big grins. The other trails must have some fun to offer outside of sheer challenge to man and machine. It was time to get re-educated and re-acquainted with some of the other routes of the Challenge.
For 2010, we signed up for four hard and moderate trails and left the extreme trails to others. Would we find the lesser trails boring? Or would we find our driving skills so atrophied by large tires and low gears that we would be helpless? We were going back to school to find out. Our first test was Off-Broadway; a trail we hadn't run in 10 years or more. Lining up for the trail that first morning, we quickly noted that we were on some of the smallest tires in the group. That hadn't happened in a while! Make no mistake, it felt really strange to be heading out to the trails on 35-inch tires and leaf springs on all four corners. We remembered Off-Broadway as rocky. We remembered it as fun. What we hadn't remembered was what it was like to drive a manual transmission in the rocks.
It was flat-out embarrassing at first. The old clutch and gas dance was clumsy and we lurched awkwardly through the rocks. We kept stalling the Scrambler with the front wheel pressed against a rock. Why did we ever think that a standard transmission was superior to the automatic? The relative lack of travel afforded by leaf springs had us seeking the easiest path we could find, definitely a departure from the lines that we had gotten used to taking over the past year. We were also sure that we had to back and fill through the corners an inordinate number of times. We were soon wondering why we chose this simpler approach to 'wheeling.
After a few hours of practice, things started getting smoother. We stopped (or at least reduced) the embarrassing stalls. The whine of the granny gear started getting sweeter and we started getting into the flow from rock to rock. Over a few hours, that symbiotic and mysterious relationship between man and machine was slowly re-established. Ah...the old Scrambler felt good underneath us again!
With extreme challenges and their attendant belly butterflies nowhere to be found, we had the time and inclination to savor some of the sights and sounds of four-wheeling we remembered from the old days. The clear blue sky framed by a rocky canyon wall, the scurry of lizards heading for cover, the call of the ravens as they played in the air currents over the canyon - all more readily apparent when taking a slightly easier road-less-traveled.
Although there are always some exceptions, we found that one of the coolest things about the more moderate runs is that the vehicles still look like something you might see on the road or in a local parking lot. There was plenty of tube work hiding out beneath the sheet metal but most of the vehicles looked like they could actually pass a motor-vehicle department inspection. The variety of vehicles in our convoys was also broader than hard-core groups. The runs we were on contained everything from fullsize trucks to Samurais with all levels of modification and driver experience. And though we missed the camaraderie of running the trails with our long-time friends, we enjoyed the opportunity to make some new ones.
The other three days out on the trail passed with much the same results - moderate trails at a slightly mellower pace in a Jeep that was definitely old school. We must admit it was fun. Did we find as much enjoyment as we would have on the extreme trails in a hard core rock crawler? Maybe...and it was most assuredly an interesting change of pace.
All in all, we think we received a passing grade on our experiment with the old school approach in Las Cruces. It made us brush the dust off of some long-forgotten skills, helped re-acquaint us with some of the other trails and their more subtle joys, and gave us the chance to run with a different and slightly less competitive crowd. Going back to the "Old School" was not only educational but fun!