The Cheap Truck Challenge is a total success! 4Wheel and Off-Road fans came from as far as Colorado to participate in the fun and hang out around the campfire with the editors of the magazine. The festivities started Friday night when we arrived at the Hungry Valley off-road park and set up camp. (Watch for full coverage of this "non-event" in the magazine)
On the way up, Video Producer John Adolph christened my Jeep "Stinky" due to the smell of sizzling grease that emanates from the G. Wagon when it is at running temperature. The trip up the steep grades of the Grapevine had the Jeep in full bloom, but it seemed to be mechanically sound - but you know what they say happens when you assume.
On Saturday, folks played around in the practice area of the Hungry Valley off-road park until it was time to start the trail ride. Feature Editor, Fred Williams, handed out 4WOR license plates, (good for at least a 10 h.p. gain), and our large group of trucks headed to the Miller Jeep Trail. After killing nearly a quarter-tank of gas getting to the trail, we dropped-in on what turned out to be a lot more than I expected.
Steep climbs made me push the gas pedal to the floor, switchbacks tested my courage and large rocks bashed the framerails and clunked my head into the B-pillar more than once. John Adolph proved himself to be a great spotter and we worked out a system of communication that got the Jeep through plenty of tough obstacles during the first four hours of the trail. He said "You know what you have to do," before we showed-off and splashed through a water crossing where everyone was getting ready to take a break.
Right after the group siesta, we faced one of the toughest parts of the ride - a long and steep climb up a loose hill, followed by a 90-degree turn and another big incline. We turned off the engine to save gas and listened to the radio as we watched trucks attempt to make the climb. Jp magazine Editor, John Cappa, was driving a 1987 J20 pickup with similar running gear to the G. Wagon, and the climb did not look easy. In addition to that, a full-size cheap Ford had to be towed up the hill by the Ultimate Adventure K10. Oh boy.
My first attempt ended when we got about 3/4 of the way up the first steep section, spun the tires and ran out of power. I backed down and told Wayne, (a guy driving a bad-ass rock-crawling Bronco), to pass, but he said "You only tried once! You've got to try at least three times." I was hoping he would go by so I could get a tow, but didn't want to look like a wuss. This time, I mashed the throttle and John helped me avoid the soft section that trapped us the first time. We made it!
"That's your problem - you had the window up," was the greeting I got from Rick Pw at the top of the hills. Up there, Alan Huber, Art Director of 4WOR, spotted us through a tough pass where you have to avoid a boulder without falling hundreds of feet down a cliff. It was no problem with his help, but it was officially dark and we had a long way to go.
The next couple of hours included more sharp rocks and switchbacks along with plenty of climbs. On one rocky section, I hit something that started what would be the downfall of the Cheap Jeep. Whatever it was, it knocked off the exhaust downpipe, and although it made the FSJ sound great and added some power, something else had been damaged. The power steering kept getting weaker until it finally gave out, which made driving over rocks very difficult. With the wheel spinning at thumb-breaking speeds, I welcomed a section where we had to wait because it gave me time to bum some transmission fluid from someone else in the group. That regenerated the steering for about a half-hour, but I was eventually left fighting the wheel again. It was tough, but not a deal-breaker.
What did put a stop to the Jeep was a tough climb where I did not have enough steam. While stopped on the incline, the shifter would not go into reverse. In fact, it wouldn't do much at all. I was stuck in the middle of the trail and no one could get by. I felt like a real jerk - it was completely dark and I was holding up the group with my silly wood-paneled truck. We decided the only solution was to remove the rear glass and get a push. Wayne was more than happy to use the nerf bar on the front of his Bronco. The fog lights were folded out of the way, and the metal started crunching. Once he was able to pass, we added some fluid to the steering, the tow straps came out and Wayne started pulling the crippled Jeep. I was able to help him by driving the G. Wagon during the tow, but then smoke started billowing out from under the Jeep.
Flashing headlights from a Ranger driven by a helpful guy named Jerrod from Bakersfield, (who had been more than eager to get under the hood of the UA truck and jump under the Jeep earlier in the ride), were accompanied by cries of "Fire! FIRE!" My truck was not in flames, but the transmission had puked its fluid all over the trail and the remains of the exhaust system. With no power steering and a slipping transmission, it was decided it was best to pull Stinky off the trail and leave it in the woods for the night. We hopped into Alan Huber's super-capable Grand Cherokee and got a cushy ride for the rest of the trail. We got back to camp at 2:00 am and I started to worry about massive fines from the Forest Service or arsonists not being able to resist my ugly Jeep.