The Ultimate Adventure is an all-out 4x4 trip and this magazine’s premiere event of the year. It’s a weeklong trek across regions of the U.S. where we get ourselves into the toughest four-wheeling we can find. The trip is loaded with hardcore four-wheel trail action and long road days packed with strange stops. Nights are filled with gear oil, wrenches, hammers, grease, sparks, welders, and busted knuckles while we make repairs while camping out in a sweltering heat with maybe a garden hose shower if you’re lucky. The Ultimate Adventure is anything but a relaxing vacation. It’s an adventure for hearty folks who love traveling into the unknown and are willing and able to handle any mechanical breakage thrown at them while physically adapting to harsh environments.
Temperatures skyrocketed across the U.S., pushing the mercury well past the 100-degree mark and only intensifying an already unbearable and unrelenting humidity that had settled in over the Midwest, the destination of Ultimate Adventure 2011. Regardless of the heat, the staff of Petersen’s 4-Wheel & Off-Road, a few lucky readers, the sponsors, and a cast of old cronies loaded their rigs, threw gear and tools in the truck cabs, and hit the highway for another amazing journey over hundreds of miles of blacktop, dirt roads, trails, mud, and rocks. It was the second Ultimate Adventure in a row on which the band of traveling wheelers ran face-first into a wet swath of sweltering heat. But we’re not whining. It’s what we do: improvise, overcome, and adapt!
The crew started with a giddy sense of adventure and adrenaline levels running higher than normal in anticipation of the Ultimate Adventure. You never know what to expect on the UA, as Editor-in-Chief Rick Péwé and the staff keep the travel plans under wraps until we are actually on the road or at our destination.
Every morning at the drivers meeting we heard, “Where are we going?” “What are the trails like?” ”How many miles?” and “Is there going to be ice cream?” It’s all top secret until we land at our destination or are doing something unexpected. Don’t think the staff editors will reveal any secrets either, as we are threatened with gear-oil waterboarding and having our toenails ripped off with a rusty pair of Vise Grips should we reveal Péwé’s plan.
This year the UA started in the town of Nevada, Missouri, and ended in Atoka, Oklahoma. The tour of the Midwest covered some 900 miles through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. We rolled over blacktop, farm roads, trails, rocks, mud, fields, and small-town Main Streets. The sides of our Ultimate F-150 (more on it later) took a beating, but the truck performed exceptionally well on and off-road. The rest of the vehicles on the UA broke an array of parts, and one was rolled, and another flopped on its side.
We went through hundreds of gallons of gasoline and thousands of gallons of water. Some of us gained weight, some lost weight, two of us went to the hospital, one of us barfed all day, and we all made it through the Fourth of July without blowing our fingers off. We made stops at tourist traps, roadside cafes, BBQ stands, gas stations, parts stores, a biker garage, pawn shops, a cave, grocery stores, a supersized military surplus outlet, and a liquor store selling puppies. It was a great time!
A few drivers only had a few hours of travel time or a couple of states to drive to the beginning, while others drove thousands of miles in two days right after putting the final touches on their 4x4. Many of the UA vehicles were towed to our starting point, but a couple of rigs were driven all the way to Missouri. You can imagine what some of the drivers endured as they drove their non–air-conditioned rigs through this year’s record heat wave.
Returning reader Matt Kime and co-driver Ben Brewer from Yucca Valley, California, drove their truck to Missouri with hot engine and transmission heat blowing through the holes in the naked steel floorboards. Matt told us, “It was like driving an oven for 1,700 miles.”
Dave Chappelle, one of the “old cronies” on the adventure, towed his UA rig behind his old motor home, accompanied by Tom Boyd, all the way from San Diego, California. The motor home was overheating, so they drove with the heater on. “What a great time!”
Each year the staff builds a specific UA 4x4 that’s sometimes over-the-top but always downright cool and functional and that performs well off-road. They can also take one heck of a beating. Ford Motor Company handed us the keys to an ’11 F-150 fitted with the turbocharged EcoBoost V-6 engine, which preformed incredibly over the mechanically torturous weeklong event.
Technical Editor Fred Williams and Randy Ellis of Randy Ellis Design sat down and planned the buildup, which we began covering in the July ’11 issue. Then Randy, Justin Scheller, and Fred completely reworked the IFS suspension and axle, replaced the rear axle, boat-sided the rocker panels, and fitted the truck with front and rear bumpers. Detailed information on the build of the Ultimate F-150 can be found in our series of articles and online.
So who gets to go on Ultimate Adventure? The magazine staff, of course, and also a cast of old cronies, some quality sponsors, and select readers of the magazine.
The cronies are wheelers who have been around for years: Trent McGee, Tom Boyd, Clifton Slay, Tim Hardy, Keith Bailey, Sam Gillis, and Chris Durham Also, Trent McGee and Tom Boyd have been on the Ultimate Adventure since the first one in 1999. The cronies are all incredibly talented four-wheel enthusiasts and professionals we can’t seem to shake—kind of like gum stuck to our shoe. But they’re great friends and an invaluable source of help to everyone on the trails and highways. We can’t imagine the UA without them.
The readers are chosen from their applications, which are either mailed in or filled out online at our website. A number of critical factors and criteria are involved, such as vehicle capabilities, compatibility with others on long-haul road and trail trips, and ability to work well with others and follow directions. This year we welcomed Mike Marrero and his ’99 Nissan Frontier and co-driver Donnie Roebuck, Blake Shepherd and Krystal Hardman in their ’78 J-10, Phil Dunievitz and his ’75 Ford F-250 with co-driver Alex Baker, Corey Osborne in his Jeep TJ with helpful co-driver Terry Hawkins, Paden Saracino and Kellie Olson in his Jeep XJ, Chuck Wigham with Mike Rasmussen in his fullsize Toyota FJ-60, and returning reader Matt Kime in his fullsize Chevy “Hulk” truck with always helpful co-driver Ben Brewer.
The Ultimate Adventure wouldn’t be possible without the sponsorship of some incredible off-road parts companies, a tire maker, and vehicle manufacturers. This year’s presenting sponsor was Ford Motor Company. Nitto Tire was the official tire of the event. Warn Industries was the official winch sponsor. The official fabricator was Randy Ellis Design, which performed magic on our Ultimate F-150. Bubba Rope was the official snatch rope and provided everyone with a recovery rope. The official suspension sponsor was Zone Off-Road Products. Offroad Design was the official transfer case. Last but not least, Sam’s Offroad Equipment was the official hosting 4x4 shop.
Ultimate Adventure was another amazing challenge for the staff and crew. Although we didn’t rack up as many miles as we have in prior years, we got more seat time on the trail, saw some really cool roadside attractions, and had the honor and very humbling task in Etna, Oklahoma, of helping clean up the property of the town’s tornado victims.
The heat wave was certainly taxing on our energy levels, but it didn’t make a dent in our zest for adventure. In our exploits over the week we all saw more land and experienced more adventure than the average on-road traveler could ever hope to see. This fact explains our passion of four-wheel-drive vehicles and our insatiable appetite to travel on and off the beaten path exploring as many trails and roads as we can. Life is short. Don’t hold back. Hit the trails and experience as much as you can!
Next month we’ll bring you part two of the Ultimate Adventure story. There are web exclusives at 4wheeloffroad.com. Also check out our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/4wheeloffroad) and YouTube page (www.youtube.com/4wheeloffroad).
Day 1, Saturday, July 2:
Hotel Check-In & Vehicle Inspections
The first day of Ultimate Adventure is check-in day. Amazingly, everyone showed up at the Country Inn & Suites in Nevada, Missouri, on time—even Tim Hardy, who is known for arriving days late. Only one straggler pulled into the driveway while Editor Péwé was a few minutes into his introductory speech.
Usually at check-in we are on the phone catching calls trying to find out where some people are or taking calls and being told someone’s rig is broken down on the side of the road. It’s not all that unusual to have to send out a search, rescue, and repair party before the UA starts. That’s also one of the greatest aspects of the event. if anyone ever needs a helping hand, there’s always someone immediately there. Everyone searches their rigs for needed parts, tools, or the knowledge of how to fix some gizmo that’s out of whack.
Day 1 in the hotel parking lot is a busy place. It’s a time for old friends and cronies to catch up and for the film crew to interview the drivers and co-drivers. It’s also a time for the invited readers to get to know the staff and crew. There’s a heck of a lot of last-minute work being done on the rigs. The UA just wouldn’t be an adventure without a number of participants frantically wrenching away trying to finish their rigs in the hotel parking lot.
The first meeting always starts with Péwé shouting, “Drivers meeting!” He gives his friendly but authoritative spiel of critical rules, regulations, safety procedures, buddy systems, food and meals, why you need tow hooks and not just shackles, staying hydrated in hot weather, and even how to pee in the woods!
Safety is always the number one concern. Driver and co-driver are expected to be buckled in at all times, and the driver should always keep both hands on the steering wheel or another safe location inside the vehicle. There’s no need for faux fancy driving such as hanging your left arm out the window like you’re riding a horse. Accidents happen all the time, and people lose parts they should really keep!
After the drivers meeting it’s time for vehicle inspections. Rick personally makes sure each and every rig is properly equipped. Every vehicle must be licensed for street use, and everyone must have a valid driver’s license, current registration, and current proof of insurance. Other requirements (parking brake, recovery points, fire extinguishers, first-aid kits) are inspected before drivers receive their Ultimate Adventure windshield sticker.
The drivers meeting and equipment check isn’t as stuffy and boring as it sounds. There’s always some comic relief in the background or a practical joke being played on an unsuspecting target. Afterwards there’s always a pizza-on-the-Petersen’s-crew party, cold beer, and lots of wrenching into the wee hours of the morning.
Necessary Vehicle Equipment & Gear
- Front and rear axle lockers (no limited-slip differentials)
- Must be self-sufficient with trail food and water
- Front mounted vehicle self-recovery winch
- Rollbar (rollcage preferred)
- Adequate first-aid kit
- Seatbelts for all occupants, worn at all times
- Parking brake
- Secure battery hold-down
- Adequate towstrap with winch and strap attachment points on the front and rear of the rig
- 35-inch minimum tire size and adequate spare
- Working CB radio
- Fire extinguisher within reach of occupants
- Towstrap and jack (Hi-Lift preferred)
- Removable mudflaps are a great idea for large tires but not required
Ultimate Adventure Parks
Kansas Rocks Recreation Park
Bourbon County, KS
D-Day Adventure wPark
Day 2, Sunday, July 3
Kansas Rocks Park
After a quick breakfast early Sunday morning, we heard “drivers meeting” and scurried outside. It was going to be a hot day. When we had pulled into town Saturday the temperatures were in the triple digits with humidity around 90 percent. Today wouldn’t be any different. The hotel parking lot was on fire with activity. After listening to Rick’s sermon of hydrate, hydrate, hydrate fifteen times, we took care of any last-minute details, such as food and water for the day.
Our destination was the Kansas Rocks Recreational Park just outside of Fort Scott, Kansas. On the UA there’s never a straight line from Point A to Point B. If one highway made a straight shot to any wheeling area, we wouldn’t take it. It wouldn’t be adventurous and we wouldn’t get to experience the backroads and small towns in the heartland of America. We might have missed some unique roadside feature like a shack with the world’s greatest fried chicken, an old Jeep that Péwé wanted us to see, or a talk with some old coot who holds the secrets to life. That’s why we love driving on- or off-road. We highly recommend touring backroads to everyone. If you don’t, you just might miss some life-changing opportunity or a really cool experience.
We started off on some out-of-the-way small side roads outside of the town of Nevada then turned onto US-54 into Kansas. The day at Kansas Rocks was wet and muddy with steep climbs, slippery rocks, trees, chiggers, ticks, mosquitoes, spiders, and snakes. We couldn’t ask for anything more! It was a long day packed with great wheeling, which also included breakage, mechanical failures, and trick on-the-fly trail repairs. It also rained heavily midday.
Kansas Rocks is an extremely large park with approximately 50 trails that range in difficulty from beginner to extreme. The majority of them are covered with dense foliage and are heavily treed. There are lots of rocks and slick mud here, and the rigs running the Nitto Mud Grapplers had less trouble making progress than the vehicles with less-aggressive tires. We could have spent a week or so here, and we look forward to our next visit.
The Ultimate F-150 performed flawlessly until the very last heavily treed hillclimb. The side panels, doors, and rear driver-side window were mangled, and the driver-side mirror glass found its way into the mud on the ground. There’s one little-known rule on the UA because it’s rarely considered: No go-arounds for fear of body damage! At the top of the climb was a tight rocky pass coined Zuk Squeeze. Our F-150 was a tad too wide and thoroughly wedged itself in this Samurai-sized notch, but the torque of the EcoBoost never let up, and with everything in a severe Go or Break binding point, the rear driveshaft blew out and the truck had to be winched to the top of the hill. Tech Editor Fred Williams and master fabricator Justin Scheller quickly had the shaft repaired with a little improvised construction, spare parts, and welding.
The last hillclimb of the day was treacherous, but a number of other rigs made it up. Some went around a bypass or else we would have been winching into the wee hours of the morning.
Before we left the park, the Kansas Rocks crew and helpers from the Kansas City 4-Wheel Drive Association and the Brush Beater Jeep Club cooked us an amazing steak dinner with coleslaw and potatoes and topped it off with ice cream served from a Jeep YJ ice cream truck!
Day 3, Monday, July 4
Jones Mudfest & Trails, Missouri
Sunday was our last night in Nevada, Missouri, and in a hotel bed. After returning from Kansas Rocks most of the crew grabbed a quick bite to eat and hit the hay early since we knew we would be sleeping under the stars for the next four nights. A number of drivers and co-drivers stayed up until the break of dawn fixing broken axles and swapping out a ring-and-pinion.
The rest of us woke up early Monday to an always entertaining 7:30 a.m. drivers meeting. We hit the road promptly at 8, destination unknown. (Only Péwé knew we were headed to Jones Mudfest and Trails.)
We started our twisting, turning, 52-mile route through backcountry roads and detours, making our way to Lockwood, Missouri. We stopped in Lockwood for gas and ice and a few practical jokes (water balloons, zip-ties on driveshafts, a cupful of ice on the driver’s seat). Then we headed to Jones Mudfest and Trails. Independence Day is a great day for a road trip. The little towns we pass through come to life on this national holiday. It’s a slice of small-town life we really enjoy, time to appreciate American pride and the incredible feats our great nation has achieved.
The Jones Mudfest and Trails park is also a working cattle ranch owned and operated by the Jones family. Brad Jones was waiting for us at the gate with his buddies, who help cut most of the trails. We jumped out of our rigs and hit the ground running. Camp was quickly pitched, and then Rick gave his preliminary speech and Brad gave us the lowdown on the park.
Don’t let the cattle ranch part of the park deter you from visiting. We weren’t pushing cows out of our way. There is more than enough room here for great four-wheeling and tasty bovine to coexist. In fact, the Joneses hold one of the largest mud fests in the area every year that includes a 20-acre mud pit, rocks, mud drags, trails, bogs, and mud drags.
After the meeting we aired down and hit the trail. The temperature soared as we rolled off one of the pastures and pushed our way through the brush and onto the first trail. Under the canopy of trees we found a maze of trails with tricky off-camber ravines, rocks, trees, and stumps to negotiate. Driving in heavily forested areas requires a different set of skills. There were a number of instances at the parks during the week when drivers had to use the rocker of the vehicle to pivot a turn on the trail (especially in a 145-plus-inch wheebased F-150). A driver simply pushes the side of his rig against a tree and hits the skinny pedal. Throw a few rocks into this scenario and a couple of branches sticking through the window poking you in the face, and it makes for some great four-wheeling.
All the parks we wheeled were on private property, and most of the trees are harvested or relatively new. We aren’t out destroying old growth timber, nor would we condone the wanton abuse of any environment. In fact, some of the land we used was at one time or another cleared for farming and ranching. The land was left alone for a few years and it became so overgrown that most people would never know there was a farm or a trail there.
After running many trails, we came across a swampy section of park about 50 yards long that literally bogged us down for the rest of the day. We put the Warn winches and Bubba Ropes to good use here. A few of the rigs made it across the bog, but most took a high-speed run at it, only to be stopped dead center in it. On the way out of the park’s trail system we hit a few other obstacles, including an old farm wall built from the rocks cleared from the fields. A few of the long-wheelbased rigs got high-centered here, which required another round of recovery tactics.
After we left the trail, Brad Jones and his guys set up a high-pressure wash station so we could knock the mud off the vehicles. The deeper mud we plowed through smelled to high heaven (or bovines?) and we needed to clean out the radiators so they wouldn’t overheat on the road. Afterward we settled into camp, broke out the stoves, cooked up meals, downed a cold brew or two, and watched a spectacular Fourth of July fireworks display compliments of the park’s crew.
Day 4, Tuesday, July 5
D-Day Adventure Park, Oklahoma
Many of us crawled out of our sleeping bags in the morning to find our bodies riddled with red welts. Chiggers and ticks! It also looked as if it was going to be another scorching day in the Midwest. That’s not whining; it’s an adventure. We quickly packed our gear and hit a few side roads before we jumped south and west to the D-Day Adventure Park near Wyandotte, Oklahoma, about 67 miles away.
D-Day Adventure Park is a unique 1,000-acre multiuse park dedicated to many recreational activities. The park has a slew of difficult off-road trails and is also home to the largest paintball gaming areas in the world. It’s packed with cool old military vehicles, faux towns, and other interesting sights. The trails here range from steep and dangerous hillclimbs to rocky and washed-out ravines. Once we arrived at the park we met our host, Ed Covey, and the trail crew and then quickly set up camp.
An hour later we found ourselves in a tricky gorge on our way to a steep hillclimb. The hill was covered with loose stones and powdery dirt that gave our vehicles a tough time. Each driver only gets three chances to make an obstacle, then the winches come out. A number of the rigs had to be winched on the first hill. The climb didn’t look that steep, but it felt like it was covered with ball bearings. Ball bearings might have given more traction!
The ravine and the hillclimb took the better part of the day. Before we knew it the sun was sinking behind the Oklahoma hills. In order to make our way back to camp we bypassed the last hill we were supposed to descend into camp on, which might have been a blessing. The hill was nearly vertical and about 75 yards long with a rock ledge halfway down, which really looked like a cliff. Some of us were a bit nervous about it since there were shear drops on both sides. Losing traction and sliding off one side of the trail or other would certainly lead to disaster. We’ll save the hill for another day!