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April 2011 Firing Order

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Douglas McColloch | Writer
Posted April 1, 2011

A Love/Hate Relationship

I'd only been working at this magazine for a couple of months, as a copy editor in those days, when the Tech Editor knocked on my office door one Friday afternoon and tossed me a set of keys, a clipboard, and a log book. This was many years ago, when we still put the magazine together with glue, rollers, and linotype.

"Here's your vehicle. Meet here Monday," the editor said to me.

"This is for . . . what again?" I asked.

"Four Wheeler of the Year, remember?"

"Uh, yeah," I replied, recalling some mention of the event but not fully aware that I'd be invited to participate. I was the new kid on the staff and only a copy editor to boot, which to me meant my job was staying in the office and editing stories, not test-driving trucks in the boonies for a week. That was for the big kids.

"Cool. Where we going?" I asked.

"Directions are in the logbook. Mostly around Big Bear, then up to Dumont, down to Jawbone, maybe out to Kelso if we have enough time. You've done this before, right?"

Up to then, the sum and total of my off-road experiences had been a handful of trips through the lower Mojave-Joshua Tree and the like-in my '71 VW hippievan. I'd flogged it in the dirt as far as its 50hp of air-cooled ruggedness could take me-but needless to say, I was not, as Granny King would've said, quite the grizzled old-timer-not even close.

But hey, why let a little inexperience get in the way? So blatantly lying, I said, "Sure, I've been there, lots of times." (How to get ahead in publishing: Always be ready to make up a good story, even if you're not sure how it will end.)

The next Monday the staff assembled our multi-truck caravan in the company parking lot, and within a short time we were airing down and locking the hubs (like I said, it was a long time ago) at the head of the Crab Flats trail near Big Bear. This was the kind of trail I had only hiked on before-steep, rutted, very rocky in places, and with a fairly deep stream crossing thrown in-but, casting heed to the winds, I hoisted myself into a two-tone Bronco XLT and clanked the lever into 4-Lo. I figured that for the short term my best course of action was to follow the tracks of the guy in front of me, to mimic his line and do what he did. That way, if I got stuck, I could always blame him. At least that was my reasoning at the time.

For the next three hours, that's what I did. Luckily, the "guy" piloting the rig in front of me for most of the afternoon happened to be an editor named Jimmy Nylund, who was the most experienced (and by far the most skilled) off-road driver on the staff. So thanks to the best four-wheel driving instructor I could have asked for, I managed to traverse the trail without betraying my rookie status. Shortly afterward, driving to our hotel, inhaling the scent of pine needles and watching the sunset rippling across the surface of Lake Arrowhead, I thought to myself, "This could be a very cool way to make a living."

Thus began my love/hate relationship with Four Wheeler of the Year. It's been going strong for over 20 years now.

What do I love about it? For starters, it gives me the opportunity to stay abreast of the latest four-wheel drive and suspension technologies, which in recent years have only grown more clever and sophisticated-and occasionally more befuddling, to the computer-challenged. So whether you're a geek or a gear head (or a bit of both), there's always something new to be learned each year.

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