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Four Wheeling - By The Light Of The Moon

Posted in Features on January 1, 2004
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Here's the plan: A group of four-wheelers rendezvous on Means Dry Lake Bed near Johnson Valley, California, around 5 p.m. on a Saturday. They chow down on hamburgers and party until the sun goes down. Then, under a full moon, they run the Jackhammer Trail backward. If the night-wheelers finish Jackhammer before dawn, they'll keep running trails until sunrise. After all, Johnson Valley is home to the Outer Limits, Sunbonnet, Aftershock, and Hell's Gate trails. All these trails are within a short drive from the Jackhammer Trail. After sunrise, the group planned to return to base camp by 9 a.m. Sunday for a breakfast prepared by those who remained behind.

The daytime temperatures in the desert leading up to the night run were running between 98 and 105 degrees, dropping into the 40s at night, which meant that every participant needed to bring a jacket and sunblock. The sunblock was just in case the desert night run turned into a day run on Sunday. As with most other trail rides, participants packed plenty of food and water. Even with all the planning, things didn't exactly go the way we thought they would.

Four-wheelers from California and Arizona began arriving at the lake bed early Saturday afternoon. The BBQ grill was fired up and all the condiments were spread out in an enclosed trailer to protect them from the desert wind. Hamburgers and an assortment of salads and desserts were plentiful. After dinner, it was easier to think about a nap than starting an all-night trail ride. However, with one exception, this group was committed to a night run under a full moon.

By the time the sun disappeared beneath the horizon and the full moon had risen over the desert mountains, it was 9 p.m. on Saturday. Our leader, Jason Bunch from Tri-County Gear, gave the command to start the engines, and the group disappeared into the night, leaving most of the women and children behind for a peaceful evening.

There are several places where a GPS is important, and driving around in the desert at night is one of them. The Jackhammer and Sledgehammer trails begin at 34 25' 15" N, 116 28' 19" W and end at 34 25' 22" N, 116 28' 19" W.

After entering the GPS coordinates for the trail and base camp into a handheld Garmin GPS, the vehicles slipped into the night. Lights from the base camp and surrounding communities could only be seen from the tops of the hills, and the Jackhammer trail runs through desert washes most of the time. During the first few hours of the trail ride, it was very dark within the desert canyons. But as the full moon moved higher into the sky, the light improved to the point where flashlights were no longer necessary when walking between the vehicles. That is, unless a set of headlights met your eyes in the darkness. In that case, it took several minutes for your eyes to readjust to the moonlit trail. Each vehicle moved carefully through the wash, backing up when necessary and going easy on the throttle; no one wanted to wrench on a vehicle in the dark. But breakdowns on extreme trails are a common occurrence, and this moonlight run would be no exception.

The first breakdown happened very early and was a minor problem. A Jeep driven by Steve Hastings broke a hub on his rear floating axle. The hub was replaced with a flange, and the group was rolling again in less than 30 minutes. As the vehicles moved up the wash, the rocky trail turned into ledges and large boulders. Flash floods have moved rocks and created steep embankments along the sides of the canyon. One bounce or a little too much tilt, and the vehicle will be damaged by the jagged canyon walls. As the vehicle headlights illuminated the next obstacle, the drivers chose their own paths. On some of the tougher obstacles, drivers made several attempts before their vehicles fell into the right path and climbed over the obstacles. Larger tires and lockers made a noticeable difference.

All but one of the vehicles was running 35-inch-tall tires or larger, and that vehicle, a Wrangler, was running 33s. It was further handicapped by being the only vehicle with an open front axle. Fortunately, all the drivers were extremely patient as the Wrangler traversed one of the hardest trails in Johnson Valley. A combination of winching, pushing, and the driver's patience brought the Wrangler to the end of the trail by morning light. It wasn't that simple for all the vehicles.

Bill Lasher's TJ suffered some serious setbacks. To begin with, Bill broke a right front axle, and his son Mike drove back to camp to retrieve a spare. While awaiting Mike's return, the rest of the group began to break down the front axle, only to discover that the end of the axle had broken off and was stuck in the differential. Common wisdom said they could either disassemble the other side and push the broken piece out from the inside, or remove the third member to reach the broken piece. But the group decided on an easier alternative; using a Premier Power welder, three welding rods were welded together. The one long rod was then inserted into the axle tube. As one person held the long rod close to the broken piece of axle and away from the sides of the axle tube, another person grabbed the end of the rod with the positive lead, causing the rod to weld itself to the broken piece of axle (of course, the ground lead was connected to the differential). The broken piece was removed from the third member by pulling the rod slowly from the axle tube. A new axle was inserted into the housing. The hub and wheel were re-installed. Unfortunately, that was not to be the end of Bill's problems.

It was about 3 a.m. when the group reached the top of the first canyon. Without the rocks in the narrow canyon radiating the heat collected from the soaring daytime temperatures, the night suddenly became cool and everyone grabbed a jacket. The group moved onto the Jackhammer Trail and headed for Sand Hill, also known as the Escape Route. If a vehicle can climb up Sand Hill, it becomes a quick trip back to Means Dry Lake Bed and base camp. It was at this point that Bill Lasher's TJ took its last breath of air and died. The engine simply quit and would not start again. After an hour of tracing wires (by then about 4 a.m.), it was decided that Bill's TJ would be towed through the last few obstacles and up Sand Hill. Easier said than done.

It took a combination of a winch, some hand pushing, and a hydraulic jack to get Bill's TJ to the top. By that time, the sun was up and temperatures were on the rise. More importantly, base camp was expecting the group back by 9 a.m. for breakfast and it was already 8 a.m. To expedite the final hill climb, four vehicles were strapped together to pull Bill's vehicle to the top of the sand hill. Unfortunately, one of the tow vehicles lost power before reaching the halfway point and the tow vehicles had to be separated. Winches were then used to pull the two DOA vehicles within strapping distance of the top. The DOA vehicle in the towline was thought to have run out of gas, but it was later determined to have a bad ignition coil. We'll probably never know what happened to Bill Lasher's TJ (he has since replaced the stock six-cylinder engine with a Chevy V-8 and never bothered to search for the problem).

The last vehicle entered camp about 10:30 a.m. on Sunday. Would these guys do it again? For most of them, it would be a resounding yes.


Tri-County Gear

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