This prologue starts several days before
the trail ride. I began by planning the route to the trail. This usually entails locating
the trail entrance and exit, and landmarks along the trail. All of this, plus details of
getting to the trail are recorded into the GPS. This is
especially important if I have not previously visited the trail in question. And without
someone along who has been on the trail, this data becomes my only way to know if I am
where I want to be. After several hours of research, most spent confirming the actual
trail location due to the secrecy maintained by
Because of the lack of legal locations to wheel, and rapidly closing public lands, they
zealously guard the locations that are left. I understand their caution and applaud
them for it.
So when I finally got the maps prepared,
the GPS loaded, and directions written out, I figured I was
good to go. In the interest of being well prepared for what would end up being a very long
road trip, I got my fluids in the Jeep replaced: Engine oil, transmission, transfer case,
and the differentials since they were just modified and had been run in. Then I went and
took advantage of my free rotating and balancing of tires - I had a slight vibration from
the last trail ride and I wanted to smooth it out for the road. The balancing
and rotation did the trick and the Jeep was once again riding smooth. I am satisfied
that I am well prepared for my 1000 mile trip and the several hours on the side to the
trail. I did not realize how wrong I was...
In the last several weeks, I had noticed
a slight increase in exhaust noise. I had diagnosed it has a leaky joint past the
catalytic converter and decided it wasn't a big enough problem to worry about.
I bought some ceramic cement that I was going to use to fill in the small leak that was
present at the seam of the joint between the two pipes. But thinking I was ready for
my road trip was a mistake.
I loaded up our gear (three trunks) and hit the road with Maria
and the kids all buttoned in. (Compare this photo to
our last trip to Massachusetts in
the Jeep.) Our first stop was planned for Spring Valley, NY, where Maria's
sister and niece live. We drove most of the afternoon and evening, finally exiting the New
Jersey Turnpike for the final leg up the Garden State Parkway to Spring Valley. After
paying the toll, and while I was rolling up the window and accelerating away from the
booth, I noticed that the exhaust noise was significantly louder. It clearly sounded like
a cracked exhaust manifold - one of the bugaboos of this year/make/model of Jeep. That put
a big crimp in what had already been a long and, at times, very trying trip. The
kids are still small, and although they are actually pretty good on the road, there is
only so much anyone can take in the confines of a Jeep. Between the scuffles, the kid
tapes, the incessant questions, and the stops, we were all very tired.
With each stop along the Garden State
Parkway (when are they going to join the modern world and get rid of the toll booths on
the main route?) the exhaust noise got worse until we sounded like we were driving a
fuel dragster... I managed to limp it to our relative's house, where I parked it for
the night. I looked up and found what I had expected - the exhaust manifold had
cracked right below where it leaves the engine block. With the engine running I
could see hot exhaust gases coming out, something that would rapidly cause damage to other
things under the hood - it had to be fixed right away. I opened the yellow pages and
started looking for a place to buy parts.
I quick review of tools on hand and the
service manual revealed that I could probably do the job myself. The only sticky part was
that I didn't have a torque wrench and from experience know how important it is to get the
nuts tightened to the right rating to prevent leaks and cracks and loose enough not to
cause problems. Additionally, the manual recommends removing the intake and exhaust
manifolds, and essentially everything above them. This meant getting into the fuel
delivery system, linkages and vacuum hoses, and power steering pump (the serpentine
belt...). Long story short, this was not something I wanted to do and then drive like my
life depended upon it. I was already 250 miles from home, and at least 750 more miles to
go, and don't really have anyplace to go if I need to "tweak" my work after
driving for a while. It would be Thanksgiving on Thursday and that meant that most
places would be closing up tight tomorrow, for the rest of the week. I was tempted
to go out in the dark and strip out the parts so I would be ready to go buy the manifold
in the morning and install it. But I decided that I would let the mechanic do the work, as
my first option, and only attempt the repair myself if I could not get it fixed first
thing in the morning.
With that I opened the yellow pages and
located the nearest dealership. It was already 10pm and their answering machine did not
provide for making appointments. Their web site was OK but due to the AOL connection I
had, was not working properly. I abandoned that and resolved to get up at 5am and drive
there. Once I was able to stop obsessing, I fell asleep for while and at 5am drove to the
I was the first one there, filled out a
night drop envelope and then decided what the heck, let's drive to the Dunkin Donuts and
get some coffee and donuts for the wait? After getting the donuts and coffee, I went back
to the Jeep. Put the key in and turned it. The lights inside all dimmed and the key
warning buzzer made that distinctive dead battery groan. I checked the battery connections
and found them just a tad loose. I mean we're talking, hardly noticeable but I figured it
was worth a try. So I tightened the battery clamps and tried again.
BOOM! What the...?
I opened the door to get out and saw the
plastic top of the battery sitting on the ground. Not the removable plastic
top (I found that later...) - the molded top of the case of the battery! How
the heck did this get so far advanced? The battery must have been dry and had a
build up of hydrogen, combined with a spark when I turned the key? I never had a problem
starting, and the battery never even showed signs of being low. Of course this was
the first night it was out in temperatures below 30 degrees... I am
glad that it happened here and not in Massachusetts on Thanksgiving day or something like
So now I have a fine mess. I am 5 miles
from the dealership, it's 6:30 in the morning and the NAPA next door is closed 'til
8am. I barely have a charge in my cell phone and manage to get a hold of Maria, who
comes over. While waiting for her to come, I removed the fractured remains of my
battery. Now I know exactly how many cracks I have in my skin around my finger nails
because the battery acid was so good as to help me find them all... Imagine trying
to lift an open tub full of sulfuric acid out of the engine compartment with nothing to
hold it with, and without spilling any... I did it but it was pretty dicey.
Maria came just as I was finishing my
balancing act. I called the
Rockland Auto Plaza Jeep dealership and got through to the service
department. I told them my sad story and they promised to try and fit me in.
They also told me I should not have any problems running without a battery, and that the
EFI would "probably" not be damaged (some systems MUST have the battery in
place, dead or not). I chanced damage to the EFI by starting the Jeep without the
battery. Fortunately I have jumper cables in the Jeep at all times. I have
never had to use them on my Jeep before, so this was a first. With the
battery removed, and the cables attached to the other car, the Jeep started, and I was
able to get it to the dealer. Phew! And thanks to my wife... she is becoming a
true Jeeper and she doesn't even know it.
Now people like to complain about
dealerships. I have written more than a few words on the subject myself. They charge
top dollar for everything and are not always very sensitive to the Jeep owner who goes
wheeling. That said, my problems here were typical for this Jeep. I explained
that I wanted to get my own battery, and bring it in. They were fine with that and
wrote me up for the exhaust manifold. Maria patiently took me to Autozone where I got a
Redtop Optima to replace my now splattered factory battery. We drove back to the dealer
and I put the battery in, in the parking lot. The Jeep started right up. I turned it
off. The service writer came out and gave the tech the story. I was glad to be
there because the service writer was telling the tech that my intake manifold had
cracked... This is what people don't like about dealers. To his credit, the service
writer took my correction, and the Jeep rolled away to get the service it needed. I was
done with them by 8am and had the Jeep back in several hours. Work was superb and
the Jeep hasn't been this quiet in a long time. And my credit card... But you
know, compared to running all over town, wrenching in the frozen parking lot with
all the right tools... No contest.
I had a hard time finding the good in all
this. Here I am 250 miles from home with a grenaded exhaust manifold and battery, and I
have to get another 250 miles just to get where we're going. We are going to be
almost a day late, and I am going to be spending cubic dollars just to maintain the status
quo. But, I am finally replacing the factory battery with an
Optima Red Top. I finally fixed the
crack that I guess I probably should have fixed a couple months ago. I did not blow
up in the woods (where we would have been in the middle of nowhere on the day after a
holiday, on a Friday evening. That would have been far worse. We would have
had to leave the Jeep in the woods, walk several miles to town, get a battery and walk
back. And the exhaust manifold would probably have stayed broken all the way back
home - another 500 miles. So I guess it could have come out a LOT worse...
So we get back on the road and soon I was
Anyway... The trail...
So I got up a little early to load the
Jeep, pack the food, and get the kids dressed. Dad provided a tarp for shelter if we got
hung up, a large wool blanket for himself (we have one for each of us), and I also put a
broom on the rack so that I could sweep the snow off the obstacles if necessary. With
everything loaded, we hit the road at about 6am.
Our first stop was Jeanny's Lunch in
Phillipston for pancakes for the boys. Dad and I had coffee while they ate and woke
up. From there we hopped onto Route 2 and took our drive on the Mohawk Trail.
Eventually, we reached a gas station that I recognized from the pictures of other trips,
so we stopped to tank up and get some supplies to go with the lunch we had packed.
It should be noted at this time that my
the feelers I put out to get some other people to come along on our trip didn't yield any
takers so we were going it alone. This would seriously limit our options on the
trail. I am fairly conservative when it comes to what I will do, no matter whether I
am with people or not, but flying solo always makes me even more cautious. If we had
been unfortunate enough to have had our exhaust manifold and battery fail on the trail, it
would have been pretty grim. Never mind getting hung up on a rock or stuck in a
Our drive to the trail head went
perfectly - all my research and GPS waypoint loading paid off in a direct hit at the
southern entrance to the trail, after a long drive through the woods on some nice,
snow-covered dirt roads. One of the last parts of the route to the trail was an
unplowed dirt road that presented very mild challenges that had my "newbie" Dad
a little bit nervous. Understandably, he was not familiar with the vehicle and my
capabilities so it must have seemed crazy to be driving on a rutted dirt road with four
inches of snow on top. To me it was just a dirt road with some snow on it...
Four-wheel drive was definitely an asset and we used it all the way to the trail, except
for a paved section just before we got there.
Once at the trail head, I aired down and
disconnected. I could see where an easy entrance had been marked closed with small
boulders. The main trail was strewn with small rocks that made the going rough and mildly
challenging. With the snow and ice on the trail, and the water running down the ruts, it
was slippery and I had to be extra-careful to place the tires on rocks in such a way that
I could expect them to stay.
It was a nice little rock field that
required me to pick my line continuously. One spot had two good-sized boulders that
were just narrower than the Jeep. My Dad commented that we wouldn't get through
there. I murmured something to assure him, then centered the Jeep between the
boulders and let 4-LO-1st go at idle. We crawled over the two boulders at about 1
MPH, going smoothly over them and clearing the rocker guards nicely. We lightly
kissed the gas tank skid plate on one side but nothing more than usual.
It wasn't long before we came to a slight
bend in the trail to the right where it got slightly off-camber. It was snowy and icy. I
crawled along in 1st at about 1 MPH, not slipping. I got over a small rock that was in the
way and found myself face to face with the first obstacle. It was covered with ice and
snow, and the entire approach was one slick ice patch. I tried to walk to it on foot and
nearly fell a couple times. I finally got to the bottom of the obstacle and saw that this
rock was not on my list of things to do when it was covered with ice. While disappointed,
it also was not something I wanted to attempt without someone along to spot for me, and
possibly drag me out of something went wrong.
Instead of being fools, we turned around
and went back out the way we came. Not exactly what I had in mind but at least I had come
to see the trail. On the way out I was on the high-side of the off-camber section and my
Dad commented about how there was nothing between us and the bottom of the ridge below
except a few trees... We were tipped to about 25 degrees. It occurs to me that
I have become somewhat accustomed to being that much off-camber, but Dad was
not. And I know how much it sucks to be on the low side when you're tipping that
much. Truth be told, I was less concerned about rolling the Jeep than I was about
sliding laterally right off the edge. With the lowered side-traction because of the
lockers, it was a real possibility that I kept to myself. We passed without
It was fun to run the rock garden in the
other direction, and my Dad had a few more times to observe the potential of the Jeep, and
the benefit of the skid plates. He would later comment something to the effect that
"The Jeep is made to do what he does with it, and it works well...". That
was nice to hear from someone who is not a Jeep or Chrysler man.
I left the tires aired down and the sway
bar disconnected. I warned my Dad that it was going to be a bit "cushy" on
the road and he soon noticed the difference on the corners.
We drove around the west side of the
ridge and then north to the main road. We followed that for a little bit and then
headed in to the ridge and south, down to the top trail head. There, we drove in to
the edge of the swamp. It was partially frozen with ice about 2 inches thick that broke as
soon as we drove onto it. Not knowing how deep the swamp had gotten from the rain, snow
and ice, I opted not to tempt fate by driving into it. I have seen pictures of Jeeps
having no trouble with the swamp bottom but ending up high-centered on the ice that breaks
up when they drive through. I didn't feel like pulling cable from the middle of a
frozen swamp, even though I had a spare change of clothes with me, it would have
sucked. Turning around we almost got high-centered and I think my lockers saved me
from having to winch or Hi-Lift off.
Instead we backtracked out to the trail
head. While I was going about my post-trail business, my Dad and Teddy got into some
wildlife tracking lessons.
Woolly got out for a while, but it was
bitter cold, and he decided he'd rather hang out inside the warm Jeep. You can see
him in one of the pictures with a big smile on his face.
Dad showed Ted some tracks and Ted headed
off into the woods following them... We also met and talked with a local hunter. He
told us that the log skidders had moved the boulders placed to prevent people from taking
the go-around on DEM
land. I'm not sure if it was log skidders or trail riders so I just listened...
Once I had aired up and connected, we
drove back down to the main road using some of the other roads that I mapped in my trip
planning. Overall the trip was pretty good. We didn't get to run the whole trail but
considering the weather, we still got some good wheeling in, and didn't run into any
trouble in the process. As far as I was concerned, it could not have been better. It
would have sucked to slip off that obstacle and have to ride all the way home with a
crushed hard top, assuming we got off the trail at all... I will come back again to
run this trail in better weather!
On the way out, I made a stop for the
kids at a Mohawk Trail tourist trap. I remember being fascinated by all the 'Indian'
stuff and knew I had to share that experience with them, even if it seemed kind of hokey
to me with my grown-up mind. The kids were not disappointed. We took a quick
picture at the mural outside the store and the kids each bought a bag of polished rocks
inside. You'd think they had struck gold. Well for the price... I got
some Maple Syrup for my mother and a coffee Mug ("Massachusetts" with a leaf)
for Maria. My Dad got a candy bar, and we hit the road again. After a couple
hours we got home, just in time for some turkey sandwiches!
Later that evening I needed some quiet
time so I loaded the kids back into the Jeep and we went out driving some of my old
trails. I didn't take very many pictures but here is one of the Jeep in a bowl
between two ridges out in a pine grove I always liked.