For as long as I can remember, I’ve been addicted to playing in the dirt and like many of my Four Wheeler Network colleagues we can’t seem to get enough of it. We’re always devising plans or excuses to go out for the weekend and bomb around in the dirt. Although deadlines and stories are always in the back of our minds, we manage to set aside some free time at least a couple of times a year where we all hit the dirt and live it up for a good solid weekend full of wheeling, partying and sometimes no showers. Yeah, we’re a dirty bunch of scoundrels.
Usually our annual reunion trip that we look forward to the most takes place on the first weekend of March during the Tierra Del Sol Desert Safari (More On That Here) in Northern Ocotillo Wells. We seem to gravitate towards this event like glitter on a stripper.
As in years past, we spent the weeks prior to TDS scrambling to get our desert cruisers in running shape to meet up with the rest of our rag tag group of family, friends and magazine editors, staffers and publishers alike for a weekend full of wheeling in and around the famed Notches of TDS.
Normally the first weekend of March makes for the perfect desert weather with blue skies and hardly a cloud in sight but this year gave birth to one of the nastiest storms we’ve ever seen at TDS which made us second guess whether we were wheeling on Mars rather than Earth.
The following is what happens when you let a bunch of magazine guys and off-road freaks congregate in the desert for a whole weekend of unsupervised mayhem!
As the days grew closer to the event, we weren’t quite sure if we would all be out in the desert ready to wheel through the trails and Notches. Our good friend John Cappa had been making some great progress on his M1008 CUCV truck after adding a PSC Hydraulic Ram Assist steering setup to help turn his 39-inch Super Swamper Boggers in tight spots. Cappa was starting to say he might not make it out there because he wanted to trailer his truck, so of course we egged him on and talked him into driving it out there like a real man. Much to our surprise, he listened to us.
Next we decided to talk Hot Rod’s Publisher, Jeff Dahlin, into coming out with us. It didn’t take much arm twisting since Jeff is a well-seasoned veteran of TDS with 12 stints under his funny looking ‘Morty’ belt. Jeff’s plan was to drive out in his Camburg-equipped long travel Ford Bronco, aka Off-Road Magazine’s Project Juice, but unfortunately a bad ECM kept his long legged steed from coming out to the desert to strut it’s stuff in the whoops.
Instead, he decided to hop in the passenger seat of my ugly old Ford Bronco that had just been prepped for life in the desert by Solo Motorsports of Covina, CA, who thrashed on the Bronco in the weeks prior to TDS to give it a proper long-travel suspension both front and rear. We’re never really quite sure if this Bronco will make it very far every time we drive it but it always seems to do well and keeps on kicking butt despite looking like a pile of junk as you can see from this old photo from its stock days at Pismo.
Next on the list was our good friend Doug Mitchell who owns Off-Road Magazine’s Project All-Mighty Dime S-10 Blazer. Doug has been coming out to TDS for quite a few years now despite having the curse of TDS reach out and touch his Blazer on at least one occasion. His little S-10 has sure come a long way and was crawling around the Notches and bombing around the desert like a champ thanks to his new Sky Manufacturing Solid Axle Swap kit with Jeep Wagoneer Dana 44 axles underneath his rig.
As usual there was quite a bit of last minute work going on and since Jeff and I would be riding in the Bronco for more than a few hours while hitting some rough roads, I went ahead and ordered up a brand new set of Corbeau Baja RS reclining suspension seats. These seats are incredibly clean and we opted for Corbeau’s seat brackets with the double locking sliders to keep everything secure over hard bumps.
The one thing we didn’t count on was buying the wrong shade of spray paint for our rattle-can touch up job so that our Bronco would photograph well. Oh well. We’re planning on having some paint laid on in the near future.
Like clockwork, we made it about 17 miles before we had our first roadside casualty. Luckily our buddy’s dad is a TV repairman and had an ultimate set of tools. It didn't take long before we had this thing sitting pretty at its new desert outpost. Word to the wise, transmission fluid is highly flammable so always carry a good extinguisher and know how to properly use it. Trust us; you don’t want to deal with a tranny fire on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere.
There’s nothing quite like rising up early to a desert sunrise, especially when sleeping in the back of your rig. We’ve found that a full air mattress will fit perfectly between the wheel wells of a full-size Bronco and provides the greatest sleep you can get while camping off the beaten path.
After stealing some of Cappa’s SpaghettiOs, we loaded up our gear and hit the road in search of some high-speed fun. We seriously can’t stand driving in Southern California traffic on Fridays but a nice leisurely stroll through a lonesome desert highway always seems to relax us like nothing else.
After airing down our tires, we decided to see who had the fastest 4x4 in the group. The Blue ’75 Jeep Cherokee Chief FSJ has some serious wheel travel and had the most power in the group courtesy of a rowdy fuel-injected 350 c.i. Chevy V-8 engine. It was able to scoot across the dirt real well. Our ugly old Bronco was soaking up the whoops with ease and was getting ready to pass Cappa's M1008 CUCV truck when the 6.2L Diesel clattered to full speed and roosted the Bronco, pelting it with rocks and cracking the windshield in the process. The CUCV won this round.
With our small team of dirt bags ready to wheel the notches, we headed over to the Vendor’s area to see what cool products we could find before the dust storm shut everything down for the day.
On the way there we found our buddy Verne Simons from Jp in his trusty little Flatty. When Verne wasn’t looking one of us who shall remain nameless decided to jump in the Flatty and readjust all the mirrors so they faced the sky.
After grabbing a bite to eat we walked around the vendor’s area to see if we could spot any cool products or rigs and we weren’t disappointed. From Off Road Evolution’s EVO1 King of The Hammers racer as well as the RESQ1 Jeep Wrangler chase truck to….
… Heavy Duty RCV axle shafts for 2 ½ ton Rockwell axles.
Before heading out into the ‘Notches’, we saw a Duramax Chevy stuck in the sand so we helped him push his tow rig to a safe spot. It was at this point when we realized his Wildwood toy hauler also needed to be rescued from the soft sand, so we hooked up our trusty Bronco with stock gears and 35 inch tires to see if we could pull the trailer out. The Bronco squatted down low but walked right out of the soft sand like an agile desert tortoise. Good Karma is always a great thing to have on your side when wheeling in the middle of nowhere.
After getting sand blasted by only the first of many dust storms, we ventured out into the notches to get our TDS ‘Natcho’ fix. It’s fun to crawl around through the notches and with fullsize rigs; it sure makes for some interesting lines to keep from crunching in beloved body panels.
We always joke that wheeling in the Notches of Ocotillo Wells is probably what it would be like to cruise around on the moon’s surface. Dahlin coined the term Moon Rovin’ one year at TDS and ever since then we take it easy at night and say we’re going Moon Rovin’.
The rear tailgate window in our Bronco seemed to quit working while we were out in the dirt and every time we hit a fun section of whoops, the rear window would get all excited and jump up and down as we floated over the bumps. We finally figured out that we could keep it in place with a few key pieces of cardboard but not before we drove through the worst dust storm of the weekend with the rear window in the down position. We’re still cleaning sand out of the truck a week later.
This is one guy who knows how to party! What was once a run of the mill Suzuki Sidekick is now the life of the party in the dirt thanks to a Sawzall and a lot less sheet metal.
One of these creatures makes a loud grunting sound before eating its prey and the other one is just the biggest bear ever. One of the cool things about Ocotillo is all the fossils that have been found in the area - like the short faced bear - the largest bear ever known to man. It was 6 feet tall on all fours and weighed 1800 pounds but we think Cappa could have taken one of these guys down with the aid of a sharp rock while running around in a loin cloth.
Just in case you don't believe the level of ruggedness that is Cappa, here's a shot from TDS a few years ago when we talked him into jumping our old '76 Honda XL70 over a huge jump and didn't tell him the front brake lever was broken.
That’ll buff right out..
The 4x4 going uphill always has the right of way. It’s purely a momentum thing.
This guy’s wife isn’t going to be too impressed when she sees what happened to her Jeep Grand Cherokee WJ while her husband went out for ice cream. He definitely had the crowd roaring like wild school children.
It’s always bittersweet hitting that last trail ride of the TDS Desert Safari and we can’t wait to do it all over again next year.