I remember the first time I got stuck in my first 4x4. It was an ’86 Jeep CJ-7 I had purchased and modified with money I earned working at a local car wash after high school. It wasn’t anything special, just a typical Jeep with a 3-inch Rancho lift and 33-inch Interco Bogger tires. Looking back, I realize that I was still very new to the four-wheeling scene, and what I thought I knew, I hadn’t a clue. My local wheeling spot, Hollister, was still in tip-top form, thanks to the handiwork of Four Wheeler and the heavy equipment they used to build obstacles for Top Truck Challenge, which had just taken place.
My plan was to take my new girlfriend for an unforgettable ride up the Tank Trap on our first date. I figured we would have a picnic afterwards.
Lucky for me, I had armed the rig with a Ramsey 8,000-pound winch and an ARB Safari Snorkel, so I thought I was unstoppable. The water in the Trap wasn’t particularly deep by today’s standards, but the mud beneath had been well-churned by dozens of 44-inch-tall tires. I entered the Trap with the anticipation of blowing through like the big boys at TTC. I was eager to show my sweetheart what extreme four-wheeling was all about.
It didn’t take long for my lack of experience to catch up with us. The steep climb out of the second water hole proved too much for my fuel-injected I-6, so I deployed the cable and began winching my way into the canyon section. My girlfriend was impressed with our progress, saying “Wow, you’re such a good driver!”—a false sense of security that I, like many, learned to ignore in my adulthood.
By the end of the canyon, we were having a good old time. Then came hole three, with the water level high enough to get our feet wet. I remember her reaction to the unexpected wetness—she sprang up instantly, only to find refuge on the still-dry seat bottom. She cursed me as I chugged deeper into the hole, screaming, “I don’t want to get wet!”
Some backstory here: The clutch job that had occupied my time prior to this trip was the first of such projects I attempted without oversight from a more experienced mechanic. As such, I failed to understand the importance of little details such as clutch adjustment and replacing the torn boot that sealed the clutch fork at the hole in the bellhousing. As I emerged from waterhole three, I noticed that the clutch was slipping a little. I figured it was just wet and proceeded into waterhole four. Once there, my girlfriend’s mood turned into the kind of anger exhibited when one is suddenly waist-deep in muddy water. Yeah, things were going downhill fast.
As my Jeep came to a stop on the exit to hole four, I realized my throttle application wasn’t reaching the tires. I was perplexed that a new clutch could slip so badly when exposed to water. I couldn’t get out and check the clutch adjustment because muddy water was still halfway up the rocker panels. My only choice was to winch. After the pull the winch needed a break, and I wanted to address my suspicion of an improperly adjusted clutch. No matter what gear or range I selected, I was indeed stuck.
I decided the best plan of attack was winching up the driver-side wall to the left of hole five. The loose rutted hill was very steep, more so than my charging system could handle, but I needed to retreat to higher ground—away from the water.
We freed ourselves from the depths of the Tank Trap that day, but it took three and a half hours of winching, two battery swaps, and the coordinated driving efforts of my non-licensed girlfriend at the wheel of my two-wheel-drive Dodge Ram pickup (with trailer attached) and myself in the Jeep. Needless to say, we didn’t have a picnic that afternoon.
Days later, I removed the clutch assembly to find hundreds of small twigs and sticks wedged between the diaphragm springs and the pressure plate. Chalk it up to inexperience, or just stupid teenage 4x4 antics—either way, it’s a memory I rarely forget, and I’m sure she would say the same.