It was cold. The stick-on thermometer on the dash read 28 degrees as the feeble heat trickling from the heater was quickly snatched into the darkness by the icy fingers of desert air that whipped into the Jeep. Slouching down as far as possible didn’t help. The only thing I could do was press on shivering toward dawn and (hopefully) warmer air.
The year was 1986. I was driving a CJ-7 that was registered as a 1985, but was in reality a mix of Jeep parts from many years. This CJ would become the Salvage Special, 4WHEEL DRIVE MAGAZINE’s very first project, but that would be a couple of years in the future. In 1986 this CJ had a 258 carbureted six, T-18 tranny, Dana 300 T-case, 35-inch tires on white spoke steel wheels, 4.56 gears and Detroit Lockers in its AMC 20 rearend and Ford 9-inch frontend. While it was great on the trail, it was barely able to manage a sustained 65 mph on the highway.
It was spring, and I was headed for Moab to lead a trail at the annual Easter Jeep Safari. I didn’t like Jeeps with tops in those days. My friend John Currie used to joke that I had more money in parkas than it would cost to buy a top, but I liked the open air. I liked the sun and blue sky during the day and the stars at night. I even liked inclement weather. I liked it, that is, after I lived to tell about it.
The CJ-7 was running perfectly as the sun rose, the snow disappeared and Barstow came and went. It was actually warm enough to shed parka and gloves as the Jeep and I descended into Baker and then started the long climb to Halloran Summit. The 258 could only manage about 50 to 55 mph up the grade, so I hunkered down in the right lane and tried to push the accelerator through the floorboard.
The desert was beautiful. Flowers carpeted the landscape in multi-colored hues of yellow, blue, and red. Joshua trees raised their arthritic arms in supplication to the sky and Creosote bushes filled the air with their pungent fragrance, easy to smell in the open Jeep as we headed northeast.
We (the Jeep and I) cruised down the long hill where the CJ was actually able to hit 75, across the dry lake that wasn’t dry that spring, then into Stateline (now Primm, Nevada) for gas. Back on the highway, the CJ quit. Dead. Just like that. I was at a loss. The Jeep had been running so well that there were no clues as to what the problem was. Hmmm. When experiencing a failure, always check the last thing you worked on first. I had just installed an on-board welder. The welder’s voltage regulators were problematic and there was a spare in the toolbox, so I decided to replace that and see what happened.
That was it. The new regulator worked and the CJ started right up. Onward.
Even the sprawl of Las Vegas was interesting as the open Jeep allowed easy viewing of the sights. It was even better watching Vegas diminish in the rearview mirror as we headed into the desert that was now hot. It was so hot, the CJ’s temp gauge moved toward “H” and my cowboy hat didn’t provide enough shade to cool me off. Go figure. It was freezing just a few hours before. With the heater on high to dissipate some heat, the gauge stabilized below the “H” and didn’t go any higher. On we went.
The Virgin River Gorge was beautiful, especially as I could look up at the towering cliffs and enjoy the 360-degree view. Once through the gorge and north of St. George, Utah, temperatures moderated and the Jeep cooled down.
Up the Black Ridge (at 50 mph max) and through Cedar City, the Jeep purred and I enjoyed the mild-to-warm spring air as we motored through the beauty of Utah. Climbing over the mountains between Cove Fort and the Sevier Valley again brought snow on the ground and cold temperatures, to be quickly replaced with spring grasses and mild air through Richfield and Salina.
It was getting dark. On went my parka, gloves, and the anemic CJ heater. In the mountains east of Salina, the thermometer, my ever-changing friend, dropped through 50, 40, 35, then hovered below freezing. Headlights illuminated the highway ahead and starlight provided a beautiful, eerie view of the snow covered hoodoos and domes of the San Rafael Swell.
I finally made it to Moab before midnight and had an uneventful week at Safari. Getting home was just as much fun as getting there had been.
Open air motoring, on- or off-road, leaves memories that aren’t erased or dimmed by time or distance. After writing this, I again need a topless vehicle.
Maybe an old CJ would be nice.