It started out pretty much like every other half-baked, hair-brained Jp Magazine story idea. Rather than getting already overdue work done, a few of us were bench racin' at the office late one night and got to realizing there were at least seven ex-military rigs owned by magazine staffers-and most of them were Jeeps. So one thing led to another, and we figured out how we could take these barely speed-worthy rigs out on perhaps the most uncomfortable (and slow) road trip ever and get the company to foot the bill. As usual, the lightweights bailed out of the trip early on, leaving only the most masochistic along with a couple friends and readers to make the 500-plus-mile trek on- and off-road.
A few months later, we began the trip on a Wednesday in Escondido, California, only a hop, skip, and a jump from Tech Editor Christian Hazel's used-Jeep emporium and day care facility. So guess who was first on the scene? When Christian rolled up in his barely broken-in M-715, there was already a brand-new-looking M35A3 parked there. You can't even buy these things, and this one had a camper conversion and a CJ-3B in tow behind it no less. Fearing the worst, Christian was relieved to find that the A3 owner, Bill Doyle, and his daughter, Jessie, weren't hostile from the negative comments we've run in the past about the 3Bs being ugly. Another guy was there too. He appeared to possibly be a distant relative of Ted Nugent, but he was driving a pretty cool M-725 ambulance with a big-block and more electrical gadgets than anything Associate Editor Pete Trasborg owns. Had Pete not been rotting in Riverside traffic on the way down and showed up on time, it would have been impossible to pry him away from the electrically endowed Jeep.
Ironically, the only two people on the trip with any military experience at all showed up in perhaps the least-military-like vehicle. However, the Poison Spyder-built '05 Willys Wrangler toting Clifton Slay and Dave Lau was sporting the most on- and off-road friendly drivetrain and suspension of the group. But we still made fun of them anyway (because they looked like a couple of wannabe military sissies), but only behind their backs. Special Forces experience tends to make for some strange personalities if Clifton and Dave are any measure. We tried to get them both dressed up in fatigues, but too much prodding would've certainly resulted in a missing Jp staffer.
Ted Nugent couldn't make the trip, so he headed out. Just as we were leaving the parking lot, Pete finally rolled in. And staying true to the tendency of every other Jp road trip, someone had to get lost at the beginning. This time, it wasn't the leader (several years ago on the Jp Mayhem Tour from Las Vegas to Sturgis, Editor Cappa accidentally led the group through the scenic Vegas strip-club district). Anyway, while concentrating on traffic and drivetrain noises emanating from his 40-year-old truck, Christian missed a turn and blindly followed what looked like Bill's M35A3 camper-it turned out to be a garbage truck. From then on, Bill's ride was known as such. Pete followed Christian for several miles all while Pete's overly optioned, Yoda-voiced, Tom-Tom navigation system disputed by constantly repeating "around, you must turn!" at every intersection.
Pete and Christian finally figured out they were going the wrong way and caught up to us at lunch in Julian where about 1 or 2 inches of snow had fallen on the ground. The locals were ready to pretty much close the town down because of such a "blizzard." Hey, it's California, we don't know any better.
After the lunch break, we regrouped and headed for warmth down Banner Grade and into the Anza Borrego desert. Cappa found that the lack of power steering on a deuce makes for some pretty spooky speed cornering, but he decided not to mention it to his passenger, Jp Web Editor Jason Gonderman, who no doubt was busy sucking the seat cushion into his nether regions. Jason was quiet the whole time, so either it must have been obvious the dump-truck-sized vehicle was pushing straight into the wet corners where it should've been turning, or Jason was just oblivious to the danger-kinda like those people who fly those homemade helicopters that come in a kit. Anyway, Christian was busy trying to shoot photos of Bill's M35A3 while driving and nearly ran off the road multiple times.
Just outside of Glamis, we stopped for fuel and food in Brawley, where Clifton realized Cappa has a tendency to get back to his employment roots and has an innate ability to find 7-Eleven gas stations even when they are the least convenient refueling stations on the block.
Sometime during the early part of the trip over the desert highways, Pete noticed Christian had two hats. We could speculate that depending on wind and where the sun was, Christian would switch from one to the other. However, it's more fun to think Christian has a fetish for hats, much like the little old ladies who go to lunch on Sunday mornings after church.
It takes a long time to air down all of the tires on a deuce. Once its tires were in the 10-psi range, everyone else could've aired back up and down again three or more times. Around dusk, we motored down the sand highway in Glamis and pulled into the bottom of Oldsmobile Hill. Midweek in Glamis is unusually quiet compared with a major holiday weekend.
True to the theme of the event, Christian had decided to feast on military rations in the form of MREs. Bill and company gorged on fancy glasses of fine wine and barbequed chicken roasted on a portable gas grille that appeared from a secret compartment on the M35A3. Cappa and Jason devoured a bucket of KFC that they shared with Clifton's dogs. Needless to say, an A3 camper mutiny was developing but would never fully come to fruition, mostly because Bill's a nice guy.
We woke up early the next morning contemplating how 250 pounds of Dave (we're being nice), 200 pounds of Clifton, and nearly 150 pounds of dogs could fit in one tent (not to mention a TJ). After becoming frustrated with the flesh-versus-volume math, we made a few runs at Oldsmobile Hill. Christian quickly found out dune driving without power steering is a challenge.
Driving a deuce in the dunes is akin to driving an underpowered, difficult-to-shift dump truck. Low range was really too low with the torquey diesel, so Cappa had to make big loops to get into Fourth-gear High-range only to immediately grab Third once the truck hit the Olds incline and the bumps near the bottom. The deuce was only able to be prodded about one-third of the way up before it ran out of juice and began to dig in and sink. It would've performed a little better had the tires been set to around 5 psi.
Christian and Pete topped off the 90-Weight in their miscellaneous gearboxes, and we made a couple poser runs down the highway in front of Osborn Overlook for Jason and the jpmagazine.com Web site before heading back to the dirt and south on Ted Kipf Road. It isn't much more than a soft, graded dirt road, but it spans the distance between Yuma, Arizona, and Glamis. In military fashion, we hit it at top speed, which-unimpressively enough-was just over 50 mph.
With the U.S./Mexico border within eyesight, we checked out the old plank road and stopped for lunch. This moveable road, made of wood planks, was used to cross the ever-changing contours of the Algodones sand dunes from 1916 to 1926 when it was replaced by concrete. Not much remains of the wooden road today and you can't drive on it anymore, but it's still a neat stopping point.
After a short lunch break, we decided to stay off the highway and scooted west down the Interstate 8 frontage road, which was rougher and even more poorly maintained than the dirt road we had been on early in the day. Jason lost a filling or two and gained a large callous in the middle of his back from the passenger plank in the deuce.
Eventually, we rolled into Hot Springs North off of Evan Hewes highway, west of Yuma. It's pretty well populated with retired snowbirds that camp in the winter months. Let's just say there are plenty of people in swimsuits who you don't want to see in swimsuits. The hot springs are great if you can get past the murky water and a dozen old bodies stuffed into a pool of water not much larger than a refrigerator. It's kinda like sitting in 10 pounds of wet pork sausage packed in a 5-pound bag. The pond nearby had fewer people in it and was more to our liking, although the water was much cooler. Clifton was still able to find a couple half-naked pals who insisted on talking and standing too close to him while in the pond. We think he should've left a warm spot for them.
For some reason, our military trucks attracted the attention of one half-naked Canadian in particular. He didn't speak a word of English (only French), but we were able to figure out he was from Quebec and had been at the springs nearly three months. Apparently, Pete speaks perfect French and was even president of the French honor society in school (dork), however, he failed to mention this (until later) to Christian and Cappa who ended up struggling with the sun-burnt, nearly naked man's difficult-to-understand questions and enthusiasm. We tried to tell him our five-vehicle convoy was on its way to invade Canada. Being that Canada has some French roots, it probably wouldn't have been all that long before they surrendered had he understood what we were talking about.
Further west in El Centro, we stopped for fuel. Pete looked for a towel at a 99-cent store, which Christian later figured would've already been used at that price. Meanwhile, Christian was looking for a toggle switch to activate his dead brake lights when in more populated areas. He eventually found an auto parts store where the clerks behind the counter made fun of his dilapidated dirt-bag M-715 before they realized it was his.
Just before dark, we rolled up into our camp spot in the Superstition Mountains overlooking Plaster City. Later that night, a park ranger unwisely drove up by himself blacked out and using his night vision goggles. He jumped out of his vehicle and kept telling Pete to stay where he was. Pete is half deaf and couldn't hear the ranger, so he kept walking toward him to better understand what he was saying. The guy was about ready to go for his gun when Pete realized the ranger looked a little uncomfortable. After eyeballing all the military trucks, the ranger asked if we had any weapons. Pete sheepishly replied, "No, sir."
After what seemed like about an hour of he-hawin' around our campfire, the pesky ranger took off to try and persuade the lurking Border Patrol agents in the area to chase him with his lights out. We watched the whole thing from our hill-top viewpoint-California tax dollars at work yet again.
On Friday morning, we awoke to the Blue Angels practicing their performance overhead. We could lie and claim we had it all planned out that way, but there's a naval military base nearby. Navy planes often fly over the area practicing maneuvers. We just got lucky. Sorry, Jp has no actual pull with the military or anyone else for that matter. Truth is, we have to ask for extra napkins at McDonald's just like everybody else. Anyway, after nearly an hour of watching the Blue Angels performing aerobatics overhead, we went to work packing up camp for a trip to the Superstition dunes and to the top of the Sand Dam.
We've been to the Sand Dam several times in 4x4s and on motorcycles, but getting Cappa's dump truck and Bill's trash truck there took a little more ingenuity. With the CTIS (central tire inflation system), Bill seemed to move along pretty well in the M35A3. Not even self-opening drawers and flying dishes landing on the dashboard slowed him. Only the off-camber sections spooked him enough to move to flatter ground. Plus, using Cappa as a guinea pig for dune fodder allowed him to judge if the terrain was too soft or not (thanks, Bill). Christian and Pete had no problem motoring through the dunes with their V-8 powered M-715s. And Clifton and Dave had little trouble in the Willys Wrangler.
Eventually, we popped up to the top of the Sand Dam where Hazel proceeded to get stuck on the double razor back peak. Pete pulled him out, and Christian thanked him by backing into the rear of his Jeep. With no regard for his own Jeep, Pete was mostly bummed that one of Christian's somewhat rare civilian converted military taillights broke.
With the wind picking up, we blasted out of the Superstition dunes and back to the desert flats and around the nearby military bombing range, praying that we wouldn't be mistaken as moving target vehicles by Navy pilots. We followed the Plaster City railroad west, which seemed as though it had been graded with 500-pound bombs. Christian noted if there was an earthquake in Ocotillo that day, none of us would've felt it. The trail and trip ended at Split Mountain Road in Ocotillo Wells, where each of us filtered into the surrounding Tierra Del Sol Desert Safari event held that weekend. Sure, our trip could've been completed in any comfortable 4x4 and maybe even a car, but taking a convoy of military vehicles made our 500-mile loop that much more memorable. For more pictures and video visit www.jpmagazine.com.