On a personal note, this trip report marks my return to
4-Wheeling after nearly 20 years of not owning a Jeep.
This was the first in a long series of organized trips with
the Jeep and my kids.
With this outing, I began a long-standing tradition with my
family, and two boys in particular. We still go out as
a team and usually have as much fun as we did on this, the
very first trip together. A lot has changed since this
trip. The Jeep has transformed, we have grown as
individuals. (Those two little boys in the picture
above are Tom and Ted!) We moved from Maryland to West
Virginia. Please enjoy this early story and the
milestone it represents for me and my family.
The day started out better than promised
- we were supposed to get rain. It never happened. Instead it was sunny with open sky and
55 degrees, with light wind. After our caravan mustered and drove the 2 hours to the
forest, we regrouped, had a break, took on goodies, got trip instructions and hit the
We literally went vertical for the first 45 minutes.
A climb on rocky gravel road that has
frequent cuts for erosion control. These cuts will prevent cars from passing and often
cause light scraping on the rear bumper even on the Jeeps. Once we got accustomed to these
periodic features they became routine although never something that could be ignored.
The first obstacle was a deep depression
filled with muddy water and ample evidence of numerous vehicles getting stuck. This place
is featured on a number of trip photo sets on the web.
So the leader went, the second in line
splashed it, we took the bypass and acquitted ourselves nicely. After I got by, I pulled
ahead and stopped to watch the fun - and it was a free-for-all.
Some went in and drove around and around,
others went around like we did. And one guy who was driving a Jeep like mine with a little
more height, got stuck. First casualty of the day. A strap and a tug and he was free. Some
more playing while we watched and we continued to the summit for lunch. There, it was
truck talk and chow and some ramp play.
Then it was back on the trail. Now we are
heading down the other side of the mountain. It must be colder on that side because there
is snow in addition to the loose rocks and gravel. We are less than 5 minutes on the trail
and we start heading down a steep cut, riding on the side of a ridge that drops several
hundred feet into a ravine. Here is where a voice and a lesson from my past comes to me in
a flash so fast it still has me in awe of the speed of the human mind.
I know that the trail is greasy. And I
know from the steepness there is some chance that things could get bad. So I am hanging
back some. The guy behind me is hanging back some. So we have good space between us. We
are in "low-range 4-wheel drive" which means granny gears if you will. You can
go down very steep hills using the engine as a brake and still only be moving a couple
miles an hour. That's what we are doing. Maria is lamenting the 5 inch shoulder that
separates the road from the drop to the bottom of the ravine when I see the two guys in
front of me start sliding toward the edge...
No, I am not kidding. My first reaction
was "OH S***" we don't need this.... Then I see them (they are close to each
other) very tenuously get it back under control. Right about that time I start to feel MY
Jeep starting to get a little bit loose. DAMN DAMN DAMN. OK, here is where that voice
comes in. I know that the brakes are not what I want, not what I need, and not in any way
going to be involved with getting this 2800-pound sled under control. What I want is the
GAS. Can you believe that? The GAS. So I have this conversation with myself in some
fraction of a second and feather the gas pedal just ever so slightly, finding the position
where the wheels are spinning at the same speed that the Jeep wants to go down the hill
and everything comes back to normal except my heart-beat.
Let me tell you, the moment of clarity I
had right then was unbelievable. I think I could have seen through steel. When I got back
under control, my thoughts went to the people behind me. I knew they could see us, and I
knew that they would understand what was happening. But I didn't know if they would know
what to do. There were some people who clearly would. And there were some people who were
very new to all this. But with the situation still very real, and the potential for it
happening again to ME, I could not very well stop and flag them off or anything like that,
so I simply kept on until the road got wider and the descent eased up.
Then we stopped as a group. I made
the mistake of telling Maria that it scared me. I don't think she wanted to know how
serious it really was. Live and learn. The rest of the ride after that was a powder-puff
rally by comparison, in terms of outright risk. There were plenty of challenges but none
that would have left us in such a bad way if we didn't rise to meet them.
OK, so maybe I am being a LITTLE
dramatic, but that's how it was. From there we continued our descent at a less steep rate
but had to climb into and out of a 10-foot wide, rock bottomed creek several times. Water
was maybe up to the axles at the very deepest. The banks were wide enough that we didn't
ever have a situation where we got hung up MUCH.
But every single crossing was one of
those things where you had to pick out all the rocks, mentally size them and picture where
they would hit your chassis, then decide if you could clear it, live with it, or have to
avoid it. Many times this meant that you had to put your front wheel right ON the rock and
then turn in such a way that the rock would pass to your side and then as soon as you got
by, cut the other way to hit the exit point on the bank. And the banks were from 4- to
7-feet high, often with steep climbs over very rocky approaches. The rocks were both
friend and foe - you need them to keep from sinking out of sight but they have this way of
carving their initials on your chassis...
The skid plates I bought? Best investment
I could have ever made. They took a beating. Not in terms of bashing and crashing, but, as
the name says, for skidding over things that would rip a hole in an oil pan or a gas tank.
It was a supreme luxury to know that there was less under my Jeep that would be broken by
dragging on a rock. And drag we did. The guy behind us commented that he saw us dragging
our "gas tank" a lot. Well, aside from not having a choice, the fact was that it
was not the gas tank but the plate protecting the gas tank. Several nice surface scratches
and some missing paint off the plate. I walked around and looked at his tank (factory skid
plate is sheet metal not plate steel) - he is going to need some new parts eventually....
The skid plate costs a LITTLE less than a new tank and factory skid plate. I guess it paid
for itself the first time out so this trip was gravy... I tried hard not to smile too hard
walking back to the Jeep.
So it goes like that
- crawling in and out of the creek, climbing down the mountain. The kids are loving life.
Maria is taking in the scenery and becoming more interactive as we go (a good sign).
Finally, we reached the bottom of the trail and there is an "optional" hill to
climb. It's rocky and steep. I've had enough and since it is not between us and the road
out, I opt out. Later, on June 16,
2001, I would go back and climb this hill without any trouble.
At that point the road out was literally
within sight. The trail leader gives some instructions, turns around and leaves with the
gang that had done the optional hill. I still had to turn around and get the kids back in
the Jeep. That left four of us scratching our heads trying to suss out where there were
going. My loaner CB could receive (sort of) but not transmit (low batteries), another guy
was not able to send, and the other two did not have radios. So I deduced that the group
disappeared too fast to have gone back up the trail.
So they must have hit the road. And one
of the others confirmed my directional recon via GPS that we needed to turn left down the
"improved" dirt road to come out to pavement. At that point we heard chatter on
the channel that the leader had realized that he lost us and had sent a pose out. We
reached the pavement without seeing him but I knew where we were (from map study in
preparation for the trip), and turned right onto pavement and found the group up the road
about 1/2 mile. One guy went the other way. He was chased down by the pose and brought
From there we reassembled back at the
starting point, took a break, and headed out to another trail ride. This time it was a
"road to nowhere" in the sense that it dead-ended without reaching a summit or
pavement. Very rocky and undulating. Beautiful forest, nice streams and 2-3 inches
of snow. Finally we reached a stream strewn with very large rocks and blocked by a
rotten fallen tree. The leader stopped and we all got out and walked the trail to
terminus. This was nothing but a boulder alley with a stream running through it. I decided
I was done and put the Jeep on a turn-out. Another guy broke out his chain saw and cleared
the fallen trunk from the "path".
Then most of the group took the challenge
and climbed the mess. After watching them, I think I could have done it with an
empty vehicle and a little luck. But I used up my luck for the day and have no
regrets about passing on this one. I was of course, assailed with some taunting, all in
good fun, about my lack of manhood. My response was equally good-natured - being a
wuss was cheap, and I was happy to be the wuss for the day. I got to go home being a
wuss with an unbroken Jeep and a smiling wife and kids. Update! I
climbed it - see this trip
or this one.
Turns out two others passed as well, one
of whom left without being seen again for the day (I guess he didn't want to share any of
what I got) and the other guy was the fellow who had his wife
and boy along. He took his wife's advice and thought better of tempting
fate. We found him waiting just across from where we stopped, turned and ready to
head out. So I hailed him and reminded him about the group plans for dinner. They
decided they'd like to do that so we fell in together and headed out to the road to wait
for the rest of the group to resurface. After a few minutes the rest came out, a
couple with Jeeps covered from top to bottom with fresh wet ooze.
We formed up again and stopped for the
third time at the muster point and everyone put their vehicles back in to
"road-mode". Air in tires, pins in sway bars, and so on. The guy
with the most radical ride had starting problems and
stayed behind to try and sort them out while we hit the road to have dinner. He came
in not far behind us with some of the others who stayed to help him, and joined us all for
dinner. The talk was predictably about the ride, our trucks, and questions about how
to do whatever.
Would I do it again? You bet.
I learned some things, confirmed many others, and in one ride got back most everything I
learned in the three years I drove my first Jeep almost 25 years ago. I am glad I
chose the vehicle I did. It did everything I asked of it. There was no equipment
failure this time out. I am sure the time will come, but for now, I am very
happy. I think I did things this time out that I could not have done with the first
Jeep - a Willys CJ-2A. And there are some
things that the first Jeep did better (you can't hose out a Jeep with carpet...).
We checked in to our budget motel, hosed
everyone off and hit the hay. In the morning we went to the car wash and hosed off
the Jeep. Looking every bit the grocery-getter it did before we started (skid plate
scars and wilderness rack aside), we hit the road and headed home. After our trail
ride, it felt like it rode like a
Keith Holman's Pictures from
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