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January 2012 Trail Head

Posted in Features on January 1, 2012
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I remember reading these magazines as a teenager, my head filled with delusions of grandeur. The writers were always building something cool and completely beyond the limits of my income. Regardless, every night I’d drift into sleep with theoretical drivetrain combos and off-the-wall build plans banging off the sides of my skull. I got older, but my propensity to drift and dream about cars and trucks and things that go never faltered.

As more down-to-earth writers like Freiburger, Péwé, McGee, and Quinnell came into the pages of my hobby-time reading, it suddenly became socially acceptable to cut sheetmetal for tire clearance. Dents became a badge of honor. Tire sizes grew and axle swapping became the norm. Lockers, spools, crawl boxes, injection conversions—the sky was the limit. The hardcore years had arrived and my nighttime four-by fantasies ran wild.

And by now I was part of it all as a staff editor at 4-Wheel & Off-Road. Go hardcore or go home may as well have been our mantra, but I could only afford one vehicle and it still had to make my daily 250-mile work commute.

I lifted it, welded the rear, locked the front, gutted the interior, and added big Boggers. I broke something in the front axle every time I took it off-road, but I’d patch it back together in the dirt on Sunday and then run it 1,200 miles Monday through Friday from San Diego to LA. All the while, I’d dream about how nice it would be to be “hardcore.”

By my Jp magazine days, my finances had improved and I was finally able to park a tow rig and a trailer in my driveway. Lookout “hardcore”, here I come! I built my flattie as my main trail battlewagon with no regard for highway gearing ’cause it was hardcore. I paid little attention to rear driveline angles and vibration ’cause it was hardcore. I loaded it on my trailer everywhere it went ’cause it was hardcore. I never got to drive it long distances ’cause it was hardcore. I never experienced the adventure of roadside repairs or hidden byway explorations ’cause it was hardcore. I missed out on a lot of fun ’cause it was hardcore.

A couple of years ago, former Jp Editor John Cappa and I loaded tools, spares, and camping gear in my nearly-stock, open-diff ’71 CJ-6 and drove it from San Diego to the Rubicon and back. On the 1,200-mile journey, we explored little mountain towns for hidden Jeep treasures. We dealt with stifling desert heat and biting mountain cold. We enjoyed the Buick 225’s burble for hours on end and marveled at its 17 mpg economy. We stacked rocks and winched through tough spots. We chained a constantly inverting shackle and welded reinforcement to the trail-twisted T-case crossmember. We cobbled the smashed mufflers together with wire fishing stringers from a Ranger station, and laughed comically as they occasionally backfired. But most of all, we enjoyed experiences and overcame challenges that wouldn’t have been possible with a “hardcore rig” on a trailer.

Popular convention holds that you gotta have huge tires, a tube frame, coilovers, and other high-ticket items, or you gotta wheel up a sheer, vertical rock wall while dodging tigers and radioactive killer apes to be hardcore. But I’m here to tell ya that enjoying a completely stock Jeep on a moderate trail populated with fluffy bunnies and cuddly teddies can be just as hardcore. The equipment doesn’t really matter—it’s how you use it. So excuse me while I make some changes to my hardcore flattie. I feel another road trip coming on.

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