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Taking the Off-Road Less Traveled

Posted in Features on October 26, 2016
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Life passes you by if you let it. Ironically, the best way to help prevent that is to travel in the slow lane. Or better yet, no lane at all. It’s a lesson all of the 4WOR alumni have learned well, but one that my predecessor’s predecessor, Rick Péwé, is better at than any person I know. Rick is a master of turning a two-hour trip into a four-day ordeal. All he needs is the slightest excuse. So when things went sideways a couple years ago on a work trip from SoCal to Las Vegas, instead of calling AAA I put on my Rick sandals (figuratively speaking . . . I mean—yuck) and transformed a simple trip into an off-road adventure.

Even though I had eight or nine vehicles, the only one I owned at the time that had any chance of making the drive was my 1989 Wrangler. The YJ’s cat brick had barfed itself sideways in the shell, so the morning of departure I was on by back in the driveway installing a brand-new exhaust system from manifold to tailpipe. I felt spry and confident for the first 100 miles, but then it became quickly apparent that the little Jeep’s troubles went deeper than the exhaust. Even with 4.88s and only 31s, the little 2.5L didn’t want to pull hills. The MAP sensor was getting intermittently grumpy and the water pump started puking coolant from the shaft seal. Every now and then I’d be able to wind it up to the magic 4,500 rpm required to maintain freeways speed on grades, but most of the time I was doing 5 mph in the breakdown lane. Go home? Call a buddy with a trailer? Get a rental? Nah.

Abandoning hope of making my afternoon meetings, I hit the first off-ramp and limped along any path that generally pointed in a Vegasy direction. I had plenty of fuel, water, and no working clock, and with the interstate in sight a few miles away I was pretty confident I wouldn’t get stranded and die. Almost instantly the stress of the road melted away. At slower speeds I could take off the goofy hearing protection necessary in a soft-top four-banger Wrangler with no interior. Piles of modern-day trash and old tires turned from eyesores on the landscape to pistol targets while I stopped to let the engine cool. And I found tons of antique trash, which I just admired and left where I found it, including a horde of patina’d old kerosene cans, part of an old telegraph pole ceramic insulator, and a partially buried ore cart with riveted cast iron sides.

After about half a day bumping my way north, I finally came to a town. And in the town was an auto parts store. And in that auto parts store was a new MAP sensor and several gallons of premix coolant. And with that, the little YJ was able to run at freeway speeds with all the grown-up, modern vehicles that shuffle people lifelessly from one point of the map to the other.

I must have made the journey from SoCal to Vegas at least 60 times in all sorts of vehicles. But of them all, the sick YJ trip sticks out most vividly. That’s the one that held the strongest experiences and was full of living, breathing adventure. So next time you gotta go somewhere, take the slow lane. You might not get to your destination as quickly, but the memories you make will last a lifetime.

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