As kids, most of us went on sometimes crazy and dangerous adventures, whether it was rattlesnake hunting or jumping off a bridge into the local river. As adults our adventures often lose their outrageousness in favor of safety, sanity, and comfort. We go four-wheeling on some of the toughest trails, but so does everyone else. There's very little adventure in that, especially when you trailer your 4x4 to the trails.
Why not make a tour of the hardest trails we can find and do them all in an eight-day stint? Most trail rigs can handle a 20- or 30-minute drive on pavement to the trailhead, but suggest throwing down 1,200 miles and most four-wheelers become queasy. Then toss in the thought that if you break down on one of these difficult trails, you have until sunup the next day to get your steed ready for the road. That would be the Ultimate Adventure. And that's just what we did. Our trip of trips would start in Southern California and encompass the Southwest. The trails of choice were located in Phoenix, Arizona; Las Cruces, New Mexico; Farmington, New Mexico; and Montrose, Colorado.
It wouldn't be nearly as much fun alone, so for the inaugural event we hand-picked a few people that we knew would be up for this rattlesnake hunt. Most of our invitees responded with "That's crazy! When do we leave?"
First we contacted Brian Cox, which wasn't difficult because he works in our building. He said he would come and he knew a couple of people who would join us. So, into the group came Jon Bundrant from All-Pro Off-Road, Drew Persson from Persson Off-Road Systems, and Steve Sasaki from Powertank. Brian, Jon, Drew, and Steve all drove well-built Toyota 4Runners. We also called Trenton McGee from Superlift and Sam Patton from Sam's Off-Road. Trenton drove his beat-up early Blazer, and Sam drove one of the biggest, best-working CJ-7s we've ever seen.
A quick call to Greg Miller at Klune-V and he was sold on bringing his bright-green Bronco on the trip. Rob Harris was already touring around in his motor-home, so he brought along Ol' Spot Too, a spotted Wrangler. Jody Campbell from 4x4review.com caught wind of our plans and had his CJ-5 ready to go. Tom Boyd had known about the event for some time and guaranteed us he'd make it in his quarter-elliptic Bronco, along with his friend Dan Trudo in his Wrangler. We'd like to thank all of those who sacrificed their time and vehicles to join us on the trip as well as those that met us at each trail. We're in the midst of planning the next Ultimate Adventure, which will be open for anyone, but space will be limited. Keep your eyes peeled on future issues for more information.
On the way to the official meeting and kick-off spot at the Cabazon exit off Interstate 10 near Palm Springs, California, the luster of driving our trail rigs such a distance glimmered brightly. Many of us had not met before, but we soon realized that we all had something in common: insanity. With four Toyotas, two early Broncos, a Wrangler, a fullsize GMC pickup, and a CJ-2A, we began our trek to Apache Junction, Arizona. The others would meet us there and continue on.
Arizona in the summertime isn't exactly cool. With temperatures far enough over 100 to make sheetmetal sweat, highway driving in some of these vehicles wasn't a picnic. The interior temp in John Cappa's CJ-2A was hot enough to literally melt the soles off his shoes. However, all of the Toyotas were sporting air conditioning, a fact which garnered the Toyota drivers many disgruntled comments about a compressor being used for something other than on-board air.
The first breakdown occurred in Blythe, California. Greg's Bronco suffered a chaffed oil-cooler line as we were exiting for gas. The subsequent leak sprayed about 2 quarts of oil all over the front of the Bronco. A quick fix bypassed the cooler but gave us enough time to install a winch on Tom's Bronco.
It was a relief to reach the hotel in Apache Junction before dark. Drew changed a lower ball joint on his IFS Toyota that had been rattling for weeks before the trip.
The rest of our traveling companions met us at the hotel to fill out our attendance expectations. These included Trenton, who had towed his Blazer from Louisiana to Las Cruces and then drove the orange bomber to Apache Junction. We understood why Sam towed his monster CJ-7 from Tulsa. It would otherwise be a long drive on unbalanced 39.5-inch Boggers. Rob towed his Jeep too, but we have to give him extra credit for camping at every stop, even though it was in a 90-foot motorhome. We frowned on trailering rigs for this tour, but each of their cases was understandable. Even so, we still affectionately called them trailer weenies.
We woke and met in front of the hotel to find our trail leader Mr. Ed and quite a gathering of locals to make the run over Upper Ajax. We drove to the trailhead to find even more vehicles waiting to make the run with us.
Local Rick Hanse separated a steering shaft just minutes before Tom snapped his first axleshaft. A little wrenching got them both back on the trail in no time. Upper Ajax was the perfect trail for us to start this adventure: difficult, but not impossible. The fullsizes didn't struggle too badly, and the Toyotas made quick work of the trail...in air-conditioned comfort.
We made it back to the hotel before sundown to wrench on our rides, gather parts, and share expectations for the rest of the trip.
The heat from the previous days had gotten to most of us, and we were ready to get out of Arizona and head for the next stop on our adventure--Las Cruces. We hit Highway 60 east to enjoy higher altitude and much welcomed cooler temperatures. This was the first two-lane highway we used for our trip, and it was a pleasant departure from the Interstate. Highway 60 winds through the mining towns of Globe and Superior, Arizona, where we were treated to living history.
About an hour away from Las Cruces we ran into dark skies and light rain. Ordinarily this wouldn't be a big deal, but several of the vehicles had open tops and at least one didn't have windshield wipers.
When we made it to the hotel it was still early, so those that needed to make repairs did so in the parking lot or went to Jim Huff's shop, Hytech Automotive and 4x4 Service. Jim was kind enough to let Trenton park his tow rig and trailer there for a couple days. He also supplied Tom with another spare axleshaft since his spare was being used. Jim also gave Sam room and tools to bolt his steering box back on the frame. Jim's hospitality didn't stop there. We spent much of the evening conversing at the shop and he offered us Coronitas (miniature Corona beers) and shots of something we were afraid to try. Some of the Toyota boys went to a local Mexican village called Juarez to catch the late-night stage show.
The trail was a little further from the hotel, which meant more pavement before we hit the dirt. This didn't discourage Sam, who had taken his Jeep off the trailer to drive it to the trailhead of Tabasco Twister. Homer Van Zandt and Jim's brother, Fred, were our trail leaders.
The Twister made radial tire sidewalls look like papier-mache. Our group had an uncountable number of flats. Tire-plugs in the sidewalls were hard to keep in because the sharp rocks would pull them out and, in some cases, make the holes bigger. Jody broke a front-axle U-joint early on but made repairs to take up the back of the pack. One of the locals broke a pitman arm so Jim hung back to help make repairs with Sam and his onboard welder. The Toyotas didn't seem at all flustered by the rock ledges, but the fullsize and short-wheelbase vehicles had troubles. The end of the trail didn't come until way after dark, and many drivers' nerves were frazzled.
This was the longest day of on-road driving, with 430 miles to travel from Las Cruces to our next stop in Farmington. But before we could hit the road, we needed to replace a total of seven BFGoodrich Mud-Terrains and one Super Swamper Radial. The search for replacement tires started at a Discount Tire in Las Cruces and ended at a Discount Tire in Albuquerque. Before we could get there, though, John's Plexiglas windshield blew out of the frame on Interstate 25. A duct-tape job with help from Tom got it back into place, and we were all rolling again.
The Discount Tire store in Albuquerque had everything we needed, including one of Cole's elusive 36x12.50-16 Swampers. While we waited for all the tires to be mounted, Steve made wheel repairs, John replaced a muffler that had blown itself apart on the highway, and Greg rebuilt his Bronco's steering column.
The trailer weenies had increased by one with Trenton now towing the bomber. Jon had to get back to his shop in California so we bid him farewell. Jody had had about enough of the abusive trails and overheating CJ-7 on the long on-road sections so he cut out. Drew took a different path in search of an alignment rack for his ill-handling IFS Toy.
The rest of us hung a left out of Albuquerque and faced the last four hours of driving to Farmington with the sun setting. Night came quickly and so did the rain. The temperatures dropped too, but not too low for the no-top crowd so we pushed on. We finally made it to the hotel in Farmington, and we dragged ourselves into our warm waiting beds for a few hours of sleep to prep for the next day.
Alarm clocks were becoming extremely annoying by this point. Awake but far from energized, we met at the local breakfast hangout (Sonya's, if you're in the area) to get a little direction from our trail leader Harold Off.
Harold led us on the Waterfalls trail, and many of us learned that we had to hit some of the obstacles with just a bit of momentum. The Farmington Bump, it's called. This made for some scary situations.
Call us wimps, but we heeded Harold's wise suggestion and bypassed the first 100 yards of the trail, which are the toughest. Anyone who didn't have enough by the end of the day could come back here to play.
Right after Trenton repaired a wobbled-out axle U-joint, he climbed up an uncomfortable sidehill. A winch cable was pulled and Trenton changed his shorts. When we reached the end of the trail almost everyone was up to heading back to the first obstacles. If you can imagine a steep waterfall carved into sandstone with a few rocks and trees thrown in for good measure then you'll have a good idea of what this trail looks like. There are only two obstacles here; the first is a six-foot vertical cliff. That alone wouldn't be too bad, but you have to drive onto a ledge just big enough for a Bronco and then make a hard left turn up this cliff. And there's plenty of loose dirt to throw around and slide on. The second waterfall climbs about 50 feet and changes directions three times. Cool.
Cole claimed he wasn't interested in doing it, but after a little prodding from John he was in the driver seat hitting the first cliff. The suspension on Tom's Bronco stretched to mind-boggling limits, and he went all the way through the 100-yard trail. Sam showed us why he built his CJ-7 the way he did and made quick work of both obstacles. Sam also let Cole drive a short section of the trail in his Jeep, causing the tires on Cole's imaginary flatfender to grow. Dan made it to the top of the waterfall only to spit out a rear driveshaft. For some reason we couldn't get Dan's winch to work (we later found out that a three-prong remote doesn't work with Warn's new five-prong plug) so local Phil Collard winched him up. John and Dan repaired the driveshaft while the others traversed the falls and helped an unprepared Toyota (not with our group) out of trouble. Tom had tried to make a second pass on the waterfall only to break an axle U-joint on the first section. He turned around and we all headed back to town.
Dan and Tom woke early so they could replace Tom's broken axle from the day before. Harold was kind enough to let them use his shop, Off Again Off-Road. John and Tom later helped Dan weld a cracked and sagging spare-tire rack in the hotel parking lot, while everyone else choked down breakfast.
By now most of us had noticed a trend of increasingly more difficult trails on this wondrous adventure. We could only speculate as to what was in store for us at the last trail we'd traverse on this trip: Die Trying.
The drive between Farmington and Montrose was perhaps the most scenic and relaxing of the whole trip. We did, however, run into two separate road crews working on the two-lane mountain road, which held-up traffic for about 45 minutes apiece. The drive was short compared to the previous on-road day, and the scenery made it much more endurable.
We made it to the hotel before nightfall and geared up for Die Trying. The locals told us a little about the trail and how a short wheelbase would benefit on the tight corners (finally, a trail for flatfenders). We also found out that this was the longest trail of the adventure (in time, not distance).
We were now pros at the routine. Breakfast was something you ate while greasing U-joints or packing the truck for the day. Gas station food became the staple, and McDonald's was health food. We all met in front of the hotel with trail leader Sherman Mathieu after completing our daily morning rituals. The skies were for the most part clear, but dark clouds lingered in the direction of the trail.
The trail began with a smattering of large rocks that required slow, low-geared crawling. This is the kind of wheeling we were accustomed to, and most of us entertained the thought that this wouldn't be too bad. However, several tight sections made fullsize truck navigation almost impossible, and climbing the 5-foot-tall boulders that the Jeeps were able to steer around was the only option. Even with six spotters yelling at Cole, he couldn't avoid major body damage. The first 100 yards of the trail took several hours. It was enough time for some at the back of the lineup to rethink if they really wanted to do this trail badly enough to ugly their vehicles. Trenton, Brian, Drew, and Steve wisely turned tail and came around to the top of the trail. They walked down to where we were only to confirm that we had completed about one sixteenth of the trail. By this time Greg had broken a front axle U-joint without a spare and was headed out the way he came in. The trail leader had broken some steering components and had to catch a ride back into town for spares. We continued on as rain clouds approached.
By mid-afternoon Cole had smashed the driver-side fuel tank enough that the fuel pick-up no longer functioned (but still no leak). The lower portion of the fenders, doors, cab, and bed resembled a wrinkly prune. Cole had to enter and exit the truck like the Duke boys. Tom's Bronco wasn't in much better shape. Dan and Rob trudged on with little faltering or body damage while John and Sam goofed around with different lines in the back of the pack. It was obvious we weren't getting out of here until late in the night. Fortunately the clouds passed without a trace of rain.
The final 200 yards of the trail involved an uphill climb and a series of small switchbacks and ledges. Most of us just wanted to get out so we pulled the winch cable after giving one or two attempts at each section. Cole had given up trying to save the GMC's body; it could only get straighter now. Tom drove as though he had the same philosophy. We made it out without any further breakage.
We had traveled over 1,200 miles and had been on some of the best trails the Southwest had to offer. We made new friends and found weaknesses of each vehicle. The Ultimate Adventure had come to an end. Sort of like when Mom was calling the kids in for supper, we all knew it was time to get back to our day jobs. A few goodbyes, some mention of a reunion and the next Ultimate Adventure, and we were on our separate ways.
You would think we would build vehicles for this trip that were super comfortable and reliable and that worked great on all trails. But that takes all the fun out of it. Instead we used our usual trail rigs.
Cole had installed a new engine in the GMC only two weeks before the Adventure kick-off. He added a Holley Pro-Jection fuel-injection only two days prior. As if that weren't close enough, the last two days were spent installing a Klune-V Crawler box between the transmission and transfer case and breaking a stock front axleshaft during testing. A new set of 4340 chrome-moly axleshafts from Offroad Design were tossed in the Dana 44 at Off Road Unlimited along with new seals. The crew there also replaced the worn-out shocks with Rancho RS 9000s. With the list of must-dos checked off and a list of like-to-dos taped to the dash, the GMC was ready.
John installed a set of new 35-inch Mickey Thompson Baja Claws mounted to M.R.T. heavy-duty bead-lock wheels on the flatfender. He changed everything resembling a U-joint and installed two new turbo mufflers. The Jeep averages about 1,000 miles to the muffler. He also replaced the early analog Pro-Jection computer with a new digital one--although he's not sure all the adjustment the new computer affords was really a good thing for his application. Finally, he replaced his front Dana 44 axleshafts with Warn chrome-molys.