Epic Willys Adventure: 2,000 Miles To Moab, Utah.
2,000 miles to Moab in a Willys. What could go wrong? That’s what we said, but getting there was more than half the fun.
In this day and age of fast cars, 80-mph speed limits, GPS, and cruise control, not a lot of thought goes into jumping into a vehicle and racking up 800 miles in a single day. Shouts of “are we there yet?” have been replaced by long intervals of silence thanks to DVD players and headphones. There’s not a care in the world, aside from the occasional rest stop, getting snagged by a traffic jam, or seeing the bright glow of the red and blue in the rear view mirror. The chances of an eventful road trip are not what they used to be. It’s a safe bet that with the exception of a scenic stretch of road, the majority of a road trip will quickly become a distant memory.
On March 10, 2016, a group consisting of 14 adventure seekers set out on a mission to turn back the clock and take on a road trip that would make their grandfathers proud. The journey began in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, setting out on the trip of a lifetime in eight bone-stock Willys. The Willys line-up consisted of three CJ-2As, two CJ-3As, two Willys pickup trucks, and one M38. The Jeep crazed people at Maxbilt were the masterminds behind the idea to take a small group of like-minded Jeep fanatics in 65-plus-year-old Willys Jeeps on a nearly 2,000-mile crosscountry trip ending at the 50th anniversary Easter Jeep Safari in Moab. The trip was anything but a quick decision. Countless hours were spent carefully planning a no-highways route, a number of miles of travel daily, cool roadside attractions, and even recommended hotels and restaurants. Phil and Heather Norvold, owners of Maxbilt, along with their staff, spent months pouring over maps, discussing details, thinking, and rethinking to ensure the perfect trip (insert laughter here). What could possibly go wrong?
Making a journey in stock 65-year-old vehicles was no easy task, but with parts and support from sponsors Omix-ADA, Crown Automotive, Pitbull Tires, Maxbilt Off-Road, River Raider Off-Road, and TnT Customs, this group was able to make a crazy dream into absolute reality. The trip was much more than driving cool Jeeps across the country—it was about teamwork, creating friendships, and embracing the kindness of the Jeep world that has made Jeeping such a popular sport.
Steve Girard hailing from Altoona, Wisconsin, took to the streets with the oldest Willys of the group in his bone-stock ’46 CJ-2A that he’s owned since 2014. The previous owner had it since 1975 and used it as a plow Jeep and to haul wood on his property. The previous owner sold it because it wasn’t running. Steve charged the 6V battery and put in new points and it started right up. In preparation for the trip he made a tonneau cover above the wheel wells for tools and parts storage. You have to be creative when packing for multiple weeks on the road in one of these little beauties. He also prepared for cold weather by fabricating half doors out of 3/16-inch plastic sheets he had laying around. It may not have been as good as a top and doors, but on those cold rainy days every little bit helped.
Will Morgan’s adventure started early with his copilot, Keith Dulaney, when he had to trek his ’47 CJ-2A from his home in Casper, Wyoming, to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, luckily in tow. He’s always on the lookout for a nice flatfender and purchased this one specifically for the Epic Adventure but not without a lot of sweet-talking. He found it hiding out behind a John Deere dealership, but the owner had his own dream of restoring it and had no interest in selling it. Since it had been sitting there for several years the owner finally caved in after a few weeks of negotiating and promises from Will to not cut it up. After some much needed care under the hood and some cosmetic tweaking, it was ready to hit the road. If these Jeeps didn’t have enough personality, Will added a calf pelvic and some antelope horns, and to top it off, painted them red, white, and blue to show his patriotism.
Tyler Loewenhagen of Mondovi, Wisconsin, wins the award for most interesting Willys hands down with his ’48 CJ-2A. He is living proof that with a great imagination and some items laying around, you can take even the worst of shape Jeep, turn it into a conversation piece, and still make it across the country. After a major overhaul of the internals only three days prior to leaving, he was still missing some key components. He used the side of an old Coca-Cola machine to make a tailgate, then added Jerry can fuel tanks, nail mounts for a shotgun, and a ’50s-era steel lawn chair for a passenger seat.
Kenny Hauk, owner of Hauk Designs and River Raider Off-Road, and copilot Vianna Hauk of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, made this epic journey in their ’50 Willys pickup. Kenny found this survivor hiding in the woods of central Pennsylvania. The truck hadn’t moved in more than 30 years, and a tree had grown through it! He had been trying to buy the truck for years but the previous owner wouldn’t budge until he learned about the upcoming Epic Willys Adventure. Then a chain saw was all it took to get an uncooperative tree to set the Willys free. The stock engine was swapped for a ’53 Super Hurricane, and the radiator was replaced with a donor from a ’65 Mustang. The swap was completed with a Hauk Designs’ one-of-a-kind glass whiskey bottle reservoir.
The evil mastermind behind this expedition, Phil Norvold of Maxbilt in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, invested long nights for weeks to get his ‘51 Willys Pickup ready. Three days prior to leaving, a 226 Supersonic 6-cylinder out of a Willys Wagon was swapped in. He added a wood bed, custom vintage stereo, center console, and door panels. Then to give his rig a bit of Maxbilt flair, Phil channeled his inner MacGyver to create a period correct “cruise control” system using mechanic’s wire and a can koozie wrapped around the throttle linkage. Now that’s thinking outside the box.
Marc Strangfeld from Eleva, Wisconsin, along with copilot Alicia Bosenko, showed up with the “Cadillac” of the Willys group: his pristine ‘51 CJ-3A. This rig spent most of its life hauling baggage at the St. Paul municipal airport. The numerous dents in the hood and cowl add charm and tell a story of how our baggage is handled while we are boarding a flight. Once Marc took ownership of this little workhorse, he did a complete tear down, repainting it in Massey Ferguson gray. Marc’s piece de resistance was adding heated seats to his 3A. While this seemed like putting lipstick on a pig at first, after a cold, wet day on the road with no top or doors, they could all see the method to his madness.
Sam and Christine Morgan along with their four-legged copilot Bilo, joined this adventurous group with the most authentic Willys, a meticulously restored ’52 M38. After completing it’s active military duty it did a stint in Civil Defense before being purchased by Sam and his father back in 1995. Together they put it back to what time had taken away, returning this gem to its original state. They proudly flew the American flag the entire trip. This rig sees regular use, and it shows. Sam’s M38 was the most reliable of the trip, he was usually found bringing up the rear of the group, keeping everyone safe and helping his fellow travelers.
Adam Schultz also came to the group from Mondovi, Wisconsin, but with a very rare ’53 CJ-3A. It’s CG1 VIN indicates it was born into service as a factory farm Jeep. There are no known production numbers for these Jeeps but they are in fact very rare. Currently there are only three other ‘53 farm Jeep survivors known to exist. Toting jerrycans and a lantern in the back, Adam has attended Easter Jeep Safari several times before, and his 3A is always a fan favorite. Adam added some personal touches, such as a stereo fabricated from a cow drinking cup and a toolbox mounted to the rear fender. Keeping with the “history” theme of these vintage Jeeps, the toolbox had traveled the country with his father repairing industrial kitchen vents. Unfortunately, Adam’s Jeep was the only one to fall victim to engine failure and was left behind for Day Two. Adam became a copilot and helped with repairs of his companions for the remainder of the trip.
Day One: And they’re off!
On March 10, 2016, at 10:30 a.m., the enthusiastic group of Willys wanderers headed out in the cold morning air ready to take on the back roads of America. By 11:00 a.m. they were stopped. Kenny’s ’50 Willys truck was overheating. Luckily, they were near a friend, Roger Turk, who welcomed the group to his tools and warm garage. They did a revamp on the clutch linkage, installed a new water pump, and built a bracket for an alternator. Using a little imagination, they fabricated a shield out of a license plate to keep leaking transmission fluid from hitting the exhaust on Phil’s ’51 Willys truck and they were on the road again. Twenty-two minutes (or eight miles) later, they were on the side of the road still encountering overheating problems. They made it to a Napa Auto Parts in Arcadia, Wisconsin, where they did a radiator flush, new thermostat, and a thermostat spacer made out of exhaust tubing. The third time’s the charm, and they were able to make up some miles until 6:22 p.m. when the engine blew in Adam’s CJ-3A. They towed it to the next town, La Crosse, Wisconsin, to call it a day and work out a new game plan.
Eau Claire, Wisconsin, to La Crosse, Wisconsin: 80.49 miles with an average speed of 26.8 mph and total time for the day was 10 hours and 19 minutes.
Day Two: Down for the count
Day One proved to be challenging, but the group started Day Two focused and determined. Kenny was still having overheating issues in his ’50 truck, but he had found a place that could get a new radiator put in. In the meantime, an engine was found a few hours away for Adan’s CJ-3A and was en route. The remaining group headed out to a local Jeeper’s house who had been following the story and offered the use of a garage for the swap. Richard and Angel Belke of La Crosse, Wisconsin, opened their garage and home to the team with a hot lunch and delicious homemade pickles. At 9:00 a.m., the group started pulling the engine. By 11:10 a.m., the engine was out, and by 12:50 p.m., the other engine had arrived and the install began. By 5:00 p.m., the new engine was in. Unfortunately, once it was started there was a knock. After a few tears, the decision was made to leave the ’53 CJ-3A behind. This was the only casualty for the trip. Adam became a copilot and mechanic to help others along the way. By 6:30 p.m., Kenny’s truck had a new radiator, a new fuel filter, and two spare transmissions donated by Terry Buege just because, well, you never know. The team headed out to hopefully make up some miles since they were on Day Two and not even 100 miles into the trip. By 7:30 p.m., that dream was shattered when Phil’s ’51 pickup truck blew a head gasket the first time (yes, that does mean it happened more than once on the trip). They retorqued the head bolts at a gas station parking lot and that seemed to do the trick, so they rode on. By 9:00 p.m., they hit Iowa state line and there was lots of laughter and cheering as they finally made it out of Wisconsin.
La Crosse, Wisconsin, to Marquette, Iowa: 66.14 miles with an average speed of 26.8 mph and total time for the day was 12 hours and 21 minutes.
Day Three: Cheap ponchos suck
The group suffered multiple breakdowns and disappointments, yet remained in good spirits and greeted the day with a positive attitude. They hit the road just before 8:00 a.m. with fingers crossed, and as luck would have it, they enjoyed a morning of problem-free driving. The group welcomed the fresh air and lack of issues. They made it to Walcott, Iowa, and took a break to explore the World’s Largest Truck Stop. The clouds started rolling in and the team geared up for some nasty weather. After a quick map check to scope out a more direct route to Moberly, Missouri, they were back on the road. Within minutes after departing the truck stop, the skies opened up just as suspected and the team was pelted with a cold rain. Shortly after 3:00 p.m., they stopped in Sigourney, Iowa, for a gas stop and a new belt on Marc’s CJ-3A. While making repairs, a fan stopped to take pictures. They had been following the trip on Facebook and were excited to come across the group. The Willys team saddled up, headed out, and hit Missouri state line around 5:30 p.m. The group decided to move on in fear their luck will run out. They ended the day at 10:00 p.m. in Moberly, Missouri, cold, wet, and exhausted but excited about the day’s travel with no issues.
Marquette, Iowa, to Moberly, Missouri: 394.38 miles with an average speed of 38 mph and total time for the day was 14 hours and 14 minutes.
Day Four: Is 11 stops for issues too many?
The morning began with a few minor parking lot repairs including an oil change and points change. With rain likely, the soggy group saddled up and hit the foggy back roads of Missouri in hopes of some high-mileage travel. Kenny’s ’50 truck kept vapor locking so a roadside repair was in order and a new fuel pump was installed. The day was stop and go with 11 group stops, all for fuel issues. The consensus was they had likely encountered bad fuel. They arrived in Clinton, Missouri, and found an Auto Zone and a two-hour repair session began. Tyler seemed to be having the most issues with his ’48 CJ-2A. They changed points, condenser, and ignition coil. Having extra time on their hands, Phil adjusted the brakes in his ’51 truck, and Kenny changed his points in his ’50 truck. Unsure of Tyler’s problems being fixed, they decided to call it a day and enjoy their first non-gas station meal since the trip started.
Moberly, Missouri, to Clinton, Missouri: 165 miles with an average speed of 33.6 mph and total time for the day was 11 hours and 49 minutes.
Day Five: There’s something slower than a Willys?
The hot meal the night before was just what the group needed. Everyone was up and excited for some nice weather and throwing down some miles. They made a lunch stop to see Big Brutus, a roadside attraction in West Mineral, Kansas. It’s the largest electric shovel in the world standing 16 stories tall, weighing 11 million pounds, and with a 150-foot long boom. The dipper capacity is enough to fill three railroad cars (or hold seven Willys) and maximum speed of 0.22 mph (finally something slower than the Willys). Not only did the group get to see a cool attraction, they were able to do some much-needed repairs in the parking lot. Tyler replaced the fuel pump in his ‘48 CJ-2A, hoping that would fix his issues and they were on the road again. Will’s ‘47 CJ-2A was running hot and missing, that turned out being a broken distributor. The repairs were done on the roadside in a desolate area while the rest of the team decided to pass the time by playing a little Frisbee. With only a few other quick and minor fixes for the day, they were able to make Wellington, Kansas, just before midnight.
Clinton, Missouri, to Wellington, Kansas: 309 miles with an average speed of 35.8 mph and total time for the day was 14 hours and 15 minutes.
Day Six: How many auto parts stores does it take to find a distributor cap?
The adventurers greeted the day with a slow start along with a few minor parking lot repairs at the O’Reilly auto parts store in Wellington, Kansas. Unfortunately, they were unable to find the distributor cap or rotor that they needed for Will’s ’47 CJ-2A. They decided to adjust timing and hit the road. With the challenges of the Jeep not running well and the high cross winds, they only had speeds of 25-40 mph at best. They were able to find a Napa Auto Parts in Medicine Lodge, Kansas, but once again, just found disappointment. However, they directed us to another Napa in Pratt, Kansas, and we finally hit the jackpot. They replaced points, condenser, and rotor in hopes it would fix the problem. Soon after, their hopes were shattered. The new parts made no improvements, so they continued to limp along until they arrived at another cool roadside attraction. The Big Well in Greensburg, Kansas, is just what its name says: a big well. It’s a historic water-well built in 1887 for $45,000 that served as municipal water supply until 1932. It’s 109-feet deep and 32-feet in diameter. It was covered up and then opened at a historic attraction in 1937. In 2007, 95 percent of the town was demolished by an EF5 tornado that killed 12 people. After an educational lunch break, the group carried on to find the perfect road to give the Jeeps a chance to put a little gravel under their tires instead of pounding pavement. They took some time to check out windmill fields and oil wells in Ensign, Kansas, before heading on to their next destination. The group ended the day on a high note. They made up much needed miles, saw some beautiful scenery, and had the pleasure of clear skies for a little rest in Ulysses, Kansas.
Wellington, Kansas, to Ulysses, Kansas: 261 miles with an average speed of 33.2 mph and total time for the day was 14 hours.
Day Seven: Stopping doesn’t always mean broken
The troop of wandering adventurers headed out after a quick drivers’ meeting with a chill in the air and the excitement of crossing over into Colorado on their minds. For the first time during this journey, the cards were in their favor and the miles seemed to go by easily, which added to their exhilaration. Another first for the trip, after racking up some miles, the group pulled over for no reason other than to stretch their legs. After a gas stop, they spotted what appeared to be an abandoned shop and decided it would be a good spot to take another shot at fixing Will’s ’47 CJ-2A, which was still having trouble reaching speeds more than 35 mph. The owner of the shop, which turned out to be not abandoned after all, stopped by to see why this group of old iron had taken over his parking lot and was excited to hear about the journey. After a short break to adjust Will’s valves and change spark plugs, his Willys was running like a top, and it was time to carry on to explore more beautiful landscape. They arrived at their next stop in Walsenburg, Colorado, and for the first time on the trip, there was still daylight left. The daylight was not wasted, as four of the drivers decided it would be a good time to adjust their valves with the expected high elevations for the following day.
Ulysses, Kansas, to Walsenburg, Colorado: 234 miles with an average speed of 38 mph and total time for the day was 10 hours and 36 minutes.
Day Eight: Would you like fries with that?
The little band of Willys headed out to begin their assault on the Rockies with hopes of a breakage-free day. Before leaving town, the group stopped at an old garage for a photo opportunity, only to find the owner has owned more than 20 Willys over the years and wanted to show the group his pictures and swap stories. The first climb of the day was La Veta Pass with an elevation of 9,426 feet, at which point the team did a map check and decided to alter their route. After a quick gas and lunch stop in Alamosa, Colorado, they made it to Pagosa Springs when Steve started having carburetor issues with his ’46 CJ-2A and decided a McDonald’s parking lot was the perfect spot for a rebuild. Phil, who had just received a crash course from Adam three days earlier on the Willys carburetor, took on the task, and within no time, they were on the road again. They decided to split up into groups before heading up the next pass using the buddy system. The slower Jeeps formed one group, the faster Jeeps formed another, and all met at the top. The second climb of the day was Wolf Creek pass with the elevation of 10,856 feet. They all regrouped at the top after a very slow climb but everyone was stoked about making it to the top. A couple of drivers took a few minutes for a little snow sledding, and then they high-tailed it to the next stop, Durango, Colorado.
Walsenburg, Colorado, to Durango, Colorado: 229.4 miles with an average speed of 33.6 mph and total time for the day was 11 hours and 12 minutes.
Day Nine: Death of the drone
After a good night’s sleep, the gang was up early for a little precautionary maintenance before heading out for some beautiful driving. With sun on their faces they headed up the first pass of the day, Coal Bank, with an elevation of 10,640 feet. After a quick regrouping at the top, they headed off for the second pass of the day, Molas Pass, with an elevation of 10,910 feet. After admiring breathtaking views of the snow-covered peaks, they arrived safely in Silverton, Colorado. During lunch, Kevin Baldwin, owner of The Bearded Wonder, greeted them and offered his shop for the group to play “American Pickers.” The shop was built in 1905, and when he took over the business, it came with a basement full of odds and ends, including many Willys parts. The team had a blast digging through the piles looking for hidden treasures. Just when they thought the day couldn’t get any better, they were able to get a little mud in their tires on a service road from Silverton heading toward the ghost town Animas Fork. After a little mud play, they headed up the last, and tallest, pass of the day, Red Mountain Pass, with an elevation of 11,018 feet. The 25-mile drive from Silverton to Ouray along Highway 550, also known as Million Dollar Highway, is considered one of the nation’s most spectacular drives. The jaw-dropping views almost made the group forget that one wrong move and it would be lights out. This was one time they appreciated the top speed of 35 mph. Just before arriving in Ouray, the adventurers made a pit stop to admire a beautiful waterfall and decided to send the drone over the edge for a better view. You guessed it: a few minutes later everyone was looking over the edge at the many parts of a crashed drone, with some laughing and some crying. It was a classic ending to a perfect day.
Durango, Colorado, to Ouray, Colorado: 80 miles with an average speed of 20 mph and total time for the day was 8 hours and 53 minutes.
Day 10: Relax!
The group had made up all the lost time and was now back on the original plan. They had earned a free day to relax and enjoy the surrounding beauty of Ouray, Colorado. However, this didn’t mean they would lie around enjoying the hot springs by any means. They headed out to explore Camp Bird Mine road, take in more of the amazing views and even attempt the retrieval of the crashed drone. Ending the day with mouth-watering steaks, reminiscing over events of the trip, and coming to the realization that they might just pull this trip off. They even created a Willys Epic Adventure sign that became a permanent part of a local restaurant.
Day 11: Moab or Bust!
The enlivened gang hit the pavement in the cool morning air in Ouray, Colorado, hoping for a day of smooth sailing. They passed though little towns including Ridgeway, where the John Wayne movie True Grit was filmed. They continued up another long grade, taking in the impressive views of Mt. Sneffels. A gas stop in Naturita included the best pizza of many gas-station pizza meals along the way. After a little playing around on back roads, they did the last roadside valve adjustment of the trip in the little town of Paradox, Colorado, population 90. After a quick stop at the Utah state line, it was non-stop until they rolled into Moab. The smiles on their faces shined like lighthouse beacons. They had made it. The little band of wandering Willys had completed their journey, and all of them, including Adam Schultz who had left his ’53 Willys behind on Day Two with a toasted motor, could be proud that they had undertaken and completed a truly epic adventure.
Ouray, Colorado, to Moab, Utah: 162 miles with an average speed of 34.7 mph and total time for the day was 8 hours and 49 minutes.