It had been some time since I had visited
County Line Trail (AKA State Line or Tuscarora). This was not entirely by chance.
The last time I went on this trail, I
did some damage to my Jeep, got reminded that I was mortal, and had a tough time getting
myself under control and back out to pavement. I knew that if I wanted to run this
trail, I was going to have to address these things or just forget going there again.
There is a lot of emphasis placed on
equipment in this sport. Big tires. Big lifts. Lockers. Gears.
Winches. Horsepower. But when all is said and done, if you don't have
your most important equipment in order (your head), the rest of it doesn't do very much
for you. When I first ran this trail, I didn't take it seriously enough. I
figured I was making it up this hill fine, the top was flat. I could just ease on
up, turn to follow the trail, and I would be cool.
That didn't work out so well and I ended up
sitting off-camber in a rock pile, hating life. After a tug got my Jeep facing the
trail, I drove out of that situation, unscathed but with a clue that this trail wanted to
"take" me. Later, I smuggly climbed a really off-camber rocky section with
a severe break-over angle, and got over without even a whisper of contact on my side
steps. I was once again feeling pretty good about myself. I let my attention
lapse just long enough to find myself missing the slight course correction at the bottom
of the climb and once again
a nasty off-camber hole, with nothing under my passenger side, and a huge rock under
When the Jeep was finally back on four
wheels, I no longer had a step on the passenger side; my rocker panel was reshaped, and I
had a deep gouge on my rear quarter. Worse than that, I was in shock from the
severity of the situation.
This trail takes no prisoners. It
looks easy. Then you find that there is a space to travel that is barely wide enough
to hold your vehicle. The ground is like peat moss. It does not compact and
compress. The rocks are all loose and do not provide a firm footing. And best
of all, just inches from the edges of the trail, is, in many cases, nothing but air.
The trail runs on a ridge that has steep drops on both sides. The top
of the ridge is a rock outcrop that runs for miles. Unfortunately, it is too craggy
to provide a good place for any kind of trail on the portion that is flat. So the
trail meanders between the top of the ridge and down the side, where necessary. This
results is some off-camber sections that are quite uncomfortable. With my Jeep
parked, in several spots, the angle ranges from a mild 15 degrees, to a spine-tingling 35
degrees. While 35 degrees may not sound steep, it should be noted that most vehicles
are prone to toppling over in off-camber situations that are just a few degrees beyond
this point. And with the wrong combination of circumstances, a vehicle can topple at
this kind of angle. It makes for a very intimidating combination.
With this floating around in my mind for
nearly six months, I finally got up the nerve to go back out here. In the time that
passed since my first encounter, I had done several things to prepare myself. First,
I had spent more time running other off-camber trails in situations that were more
forgiving. This helped me to get a little more comfortable with the feeling, and to
practice the dynamics of vehicle control. Everything is different when gravity wants
your Jeep to go sideways while you are trying to make it go forward, over rough terrain.
Next, I had to make some changes to the
Jeep to better equip it for this type of trail. Basically, I had to install more
body protection. It goes without saying that the plastic factory side-steps came off
the day I got home from my last trip here. I already had good
skid plate protection underneath. I added
rocker panel protection to the sides. This
gave me two things: a place to put my Hi-Lift
Jack if worse came to worse and I had to get my Jeep out of a pile of rocks; and it
put some solid steel over the damage I did before while protecting my body from further or
more serious damage.
I carry a full complement of
navigation, communication, extrication, and information
resources aboard the vehicle. I use a rugged overhead
to store some of these things. The weight of all this combined with my skid plates
and the rack itself led me to conclude that a much stiffer
was required to restore some of the ride and handling of the Jeep. While many people
modify their suspension for height, I modified mine to accommodate the additional weight of
my Jeep. This had the side-effect of giving me some additional ground clearance,
which is both a blessing and a curse. But at any rate, the springs did solve my
problem of supporting weight, and gave me some ground clearance. I also started
disconnecting my sway bar and
airing down routinely which made a big difference in traction
and ride quality off-road.
With the superficial things out of the
way, I spent some time going over the mistakes I had made on my last attempt on this
trail. I resolved to pay this trail the respect it deserved. And I decided
that I would not hesitate to go slower than I had before, especially in the spots where I
had run into trouble.
All these mental and practical
adjustments still did not erase all the discomfort I had about running this trail, but I
decided that I was not going to be more prepared than I was at the time that an
opportunity came to try again.
A small group of people that I often
travel with were trying to decide where to go on a Saturday. I bit the bullet and
suggested "State Line". The hook was sunk. Four other people signed
up, and the date was set. We would run State Line on Saturday morning. I set
some constraints: No rain for the week prior to our run - I could not control
whether or not it would rain, but I would not set foot on the trail if it did; No large
group - there were too many obstacles and too many things to go wrong to manage a large
group effectively; and strict enforcement of the club guidelines for levels of equipment -
None of the people signed up had winches but we could ill afford to be lacking in any of
the fundamental areas.
Once I had a small group committed, I
posted a message to invite other club members who might want to join us. This led to
some discussion about levels of gear, levels of readiness, and general debate. No
one else signed up, so the group was given a brief of what to expect.
Roscoe had been on the trail a few weeks
earlier and was well aware of what we would encounter. He drives a nicely modified
TJ with lift and over-sized tires. His requirements took into consideration weight,
performance, and demonstrates a simple but effective solution to improving performance of
Jon had not been on the trail before but
had read the story about my first trip. His TJ is an interesting modification that
is both functional and good looking. I particularly like the MT/R's (32")
combined with some nice flares, a suspension and body lift, and some good trail
accessories. During the course of the day it surfaced that perhaps his basement is
more well equipped than his Jeep but I am sure that several wrenching sessions will change
that for the better!
Jim's Jeep (another TJ) has some of the
same design changes that mine has - the heavy duty rack, suspension modifications, rocker
protection, and oversized tires - and tunes. Jim has routinely been the one in the
group of people that I run with who will try just about anything that isn't obviously
dangerous, impossible, or downright stupid.
Carl's nearly stock TJ, with the factory
GS/A's (225's) is actually not to be under-estimated. Under the hood, he has
installed a performance intake and filter. He runs an AR Rock Ready Steering Box
skid plate, Olympic rear bumper and Kilby gas tank skid. He recently removed his
steps (he didn't wait til he ruined them like I did...), and has been out many times with
us, soaking it all in.
And of course
my TJ. I have made incremental changes to it
since I bought it in October 2000. I think I have finally, with my last
modifications, taken it out of the "stocker" class. I am however running
30-inch tires, so my diff's aren't much further off the ground than Carl's...
We had some back and forth about a
meeting time but finally agreed to meet at 7:30 at Wendy's in Manassas. The early
start time gave us a cushion against unforeseen circumstances and some chance of getting
off the trail in daylight. It also meant getting up really early. I did myself
a favor and got my gear all stowed aboard the night before. In the morning, I just
got myself ready, brewed the coffee for the thermos, dressed and loaded my son Tomi and
hit the road.
Along the way I grabbed gas and air, cash
and breakfast. The ride out to Manassas was a breeze. I got out there a few
minutes early so I could return the spring compressors that I had borrowed from Gary.
I made it over to the Wendy's a few minutes before 7:30. Carl and Jon
materialized minutes later and could be seen gasing up at the Texaco. We exchanged
good mornings over the radio and Carl branched off to run over to Wal*Mart to get a camera
for the day. Jim came rolling in soon after.
We grabbed some food at Wendy's, shot the
breeze for a couple minutes and hit the road. We drove out to Route 81 and down to
Route 55, where we met Roscoe who was sitting next to the side of the road. We
picked him up using the CB and kept moving to the trail head. Along the way, Roscoe
indicated the choice gas station to get free air after the run.
We got to the trail promptly. The
waypoint appeared on my screen and I hung a left into the staging area. Everyone got
to work airing down and disconnecting. Things went smoothly, and soon everyone was
ready to go. While this was going on, I remembered that Carl had not yet gotten his
quick disconnects, and suggested he disconnect his factory sway bar connectors. For
the tame trails we've run, I never suggested it because it wasn't as critical. But
having been on this trail on a nearly stock vehicle myself, I knew every advantage one
could get was worth claiming.
I handed him my Torx T55 and Roscoe gave
him a ratchet and Carl was disconnected for the first time within a few minutes. I
think he was a little skeptical at first, perhaps even a little bewildered that we'd think
this necessary. But it was easy enough to do and surely would not make things any
worse for him.
With that business out of the way and
everyone ready to roll, we had a drivers meeting. I opened it up and invited Roscoe
to jump in with any updates he had. I confessed and explained my mistakes that led
to trouble on the last run, cautioned folks not to make the mistakes I made, and asked
that we stick together and stop before attempting anything even remotely resembling an
obstacle. I reminded people that they could "opt out" at any time and we'd
find a way to get turned around and get out. Which led to commenting about how few
easy turn around spots were available. At least two people had loaded my
GPS coordinates into their GPS so a good number of people had a
fairly precise indicator of the places I considered to be challenging.
With Roscoe, the most recent visitor to
this trail leading, Carl followed him, Jim and Jon next, I took up the rear. We
drove in to the first hill and took our turns climbing to the top. Everyone had CB's
set to channel 4. Jim, Roscoe and I had GPS.
From my position I could see Carl working
his way up the hill and see his front wheels stuffing and drooping like a champ. I
realized right then that Carl had done the right thing by disconnecting. I wish
someone had shoved a T55 and a socket in my face the first time we ran this trail.
It made a difference for Carl on this first hill and again several times later.
Everyone else took the hill in stride.
It was not very difficult but it was a nice warm up for things to come.
Jon and Jim
The next little way was pretty straight
forward. Here and there we got hints of the off-camber situations that we'd be up
against, but the best was yet to come. It's funny the things you remember and the
things you forget about a trail. For the life of me, I cannot remember the somewhat
tricky transition that must be navigated just a little way before you reach the power
lines. The trail bears to the right, gets a little off-camber, and you climb some
rock and ruts up a bit of a hill. From below it looks pretty intense, and although
it can be handled fairly easily, a mistake would give you a taste of the precious little
run-off space available for being careless. I do not remember this section of the
trail at all. I have this silly, idealized recollection of the trail meandering up
to the power lines. That's not the way it is...
Once past this little challenge, I
started to get a flashback of what this trail was really about. Then the trees
cleared and we were at the portion of the ridge where the power lines cross. How do
I describe this? Picture an old-fashioned pup-tent. One of those that is
shaped like an equilateral triangle when viewed from the side. The top of the ridge
is like the top of the tent. The top of the ridge holds the trail, and that, more or
less, is the top of the ridge.
To either side, there is a sheer drop
into the valley. It is several hundred feet down, and you have at best 30 feet to
work with, and at worst, 18. This is no place for mistakes. My mind went back
to the first time I crossed this. It seemed much flatter. It seemed less
steep. I don't remember any ruts. It seemed wider. And most of all, I
do not remember it being so off-camber. My memory is cluttered. This was real
and it was no joke. Again the challenge was not the trail, but the challenge of
concentrating on staying on the road, maintaining traction, and getting up past this
narrow, open spot.
Everyone did fine, and we all got past
nicely. But not before stopping to take pictures.
This was also an opportunity to see what
remained of a turkey buzzard who must have decided that the power line was a good place to
take some weight off and take a break. Its fried remains were at the base of the
support tower... Foreshadowing...?
We drove along the progressively more
rocky and off-camber trail until we finally reached the area that Jackie Cooper once
described as the "bad hole". This pretty much marked the beginning of
non-stop off-camber trail and non-stop obstacles.
We all tip-toed our way past the
"bad hole", up the hill to the first spot I got stuck last time, and beyond that
to the top of that section. Everyone is executing each obstacle with finesse,
confidence, and without any slips. This is going great. No one is boasting
though, because everyone has reached the same conclusion - this place is serious business.
From here it all starts to blend
together. Off-camber. Tight spots between trees. Off-camber going
throught tight spots between trees. Off-camber with rocks on the up-hill side,
tipping us away from the hill...
Lev-O-Gage at 30 Degrees...
The funny thing about an
Lev-O-Gage is that as much as it is useful in telling
you what your tilt angle is, looking at it while you're moving is not a good idea - the
trail is too tricky to lose concentration even for a fraction of a second. The few
times I actually could look at it, I am stopped. It is nice to know that my Jeep,
sitting still, will not tip over when tipped to 35 degrees. I must tell you it is
not a pleasant feeling. It is very hard to feel good about driving along at about a
25 degree tilt when you then have to drive up on a rock that is on the up-hill side,
knowing it is the only way to pass, and knowing it is going to tip you even more...
We finally get to the second spot that
ate my Jeep the last time I came here. I knew it was just ahead by the rubble to the
right, next to a portion of the trail with a severe break-over angle. This was
not good. Since the last time, this little mogul had been torn up by spinning tires,
erosion, and who knows what else. It was now considerably more evil looking and
uncomfortably off camber to boot. Once you reach the top, you must go down the other
side, in a similar state of disarray, and at the bottom, turn onto the side hill and drive
over a diagonal slab of rock. Roscoe took it all in stride.
It's no wonder I got stuck here the first
time. The one thing that I had going for me then was that this was still pretty
smooth and the rock that was exposed was fairly stationary. All this had changed and
I started wondering if I was going to have new "stuck" pictures to compare to
the ones from before. This was pretty obvious to the people traveling with me
because there were a couple of "smile, man" and "wow, your shoulders are
all hunched up" comments. Hell, they're hunched up now just writing about it.
So each in turn went up and over the damn
rock and down the other side. We spotted everyone through the whole section using a
combination of hand signals and hand-held walkie talkies. This proved successful as
everyone including Carl's stock TJ made it through without a hitch.
Then it was my turn.
Great... The approach was bad enough with the holes, rocks and worst of all, the
tilt. I made the climb up the side without any problem and took pause at the top to
compose myself, loosen my shoulders (shut up) and then eased down the other side.
The shot below illustrates
the value of skid plates. In the shot can clearly be seen how little space there is
left between them and the ground at this break-over angle.
Skid Plates at Work
At the bottom where I last got stuck, I
was able to avoid repeating history and pull past the spot. Great. I have so
far managed to stay out of trouble and if I keep it up, there should not be anything ahead
that will reach out and "touch" me. But lest I get too confident, I just
kept up my guard. Does this sound like fun? It was. Really it was.
Everyone stopped here and we took a
minute to collect ourselves (I think they were waiting for me to chill out). Then we
moved on. From here on out it was more off-camber stuff, with some great "get
past the tree without hitting your windshield" kind of games. This is one
lesson I learned with my old Jeep. Sometimes the secret is to get closer to the
tree. This has the effect of getting your Jeep less tilted and therefore further
away from the tree near the roof etc. It makes sense once you look at it. We
got past all this although at one point I did ask Carl to provide some ballast so my rack
would not drag too heavily against a tree that insisted on getting up close and personal.
Along the way, we stopped to remove some
fallen timber from the trail. Roscoe attached a tow strap and bullied the dead wood
to the side of the road. Safety practices prevented injury and vehicle damage when
the tree abruptly broke in two and went flying.
The area was cleared before he started
his pull. The log sheared in two and shot across the trail. Had anyone been in
"the zone", there would have been trouble.
There was one spot where a piece of slate
or shale had somehow managed to become like a large razor blade stuck into the ground
perfectly upright and perfectly positioned so you had to either whack it (well you
"Big Jeeps" could just go over it, no problem), or go more off-camber to pass it
to the left. I chose to go off-camber and sneak by it. Without getting too far
ahead of the story, let me just say that on the way back out I did not want to go off
camber to avoid this thing, sogot out of my Jeep and quietly removed it from the ground.
It was a slab about 15 inches square. If you liked this obstacle, please
accept my apologies. You can probably stick it back in the ground before you pass if
you wish - the hole it left behind is still there.
Some overhead spotting
Finally we reached the far end of the
trail. I cautioned Carl not to follow Roscoe into the rock field below the step that
is used to winnow the big Jeeps from the rest. I found my little parking place and
took the coolers up to the cliff to eat lunch.
Everyone else pretty much did the
same. I can't adequately describe the beauty of the day. The sun was shining
with hardly a cloud in the sky. The air was clear and crisp but the temperature was
hovering in the mid-sixties. With the breeze coming off the valley it was a little
cooler but nonetheless, this was one of the nicest days yet this year.
Once everyone had pretty much finished
eating, Roscoe fired up his Jeep and made his run up the step. He made a couple of
attempts but was thwarted by the right side of the rock preventing him from getting his
front end up. He got himself more over to the left and was able to climb it without
Roscoe on the "Man Test"
The only other person interested in this
challenge was Jon. He worked his way down to the approach and drove up to the
step. He made a few attempts to get up the step.
Each time, he had to back off and each
time he did, he worked himself a little bit closer to a tree. Finally, he got so far
over that he stuffed his fender flare into the tree. It popped a couple of bolt
covers off, and threatened to reshape his sheet metal.
So out came the tow straps. After
some wrangling of Hi-Lifts and straps, it was decided to strap the rear of Jon's Jeep,
attach the other end to another Jeep (Carl). While Jon drove uphill, Carl would back
off or hold, pulling Jon away from the tree and getting him into a better line for
whatever he decided to do next. Sometimes it can be real handy to have a stock Jeep
standing by for the big jobs!
Dragging Jon Away from the Tree
This worked perfectly upon the first
attempt. Jon found that his flares are more flexible than expected, and that his
rear quarter managed to get by without damage. Trail scores one carnage point.
While this was being acted out, a lone
hiker came up the trail from past where we travel. He stopped and visited with us
and was very pleasant. He continued along the trail headed in the direction we'd
take when we left. But we did not see him again that day, and probably because he
was traveling faster than us.
Time to roll! We packed our stuff
and reversed direction. When we got back to the place where the going got tough, we
all stopped. We spotted people through the section, one by one. Jim went over
without any spotting because he had gotten there first and went on before he knew how
lucky he'd been. I was right behind him. I found the diagonal rock to be quite
challenging. It was very hard to keep the front wheels from getting dragged to the
left right to the big hole that I got stuck in last time. I finally managed to make
the front end do what I wanted and, fortunately, the rear end was more cooperative.
I climbed up the hill to the crest, where I again took a break. Going down
the other side was OK at first but then got really off-camber. I had watched Jim go
down. The angle he was at was chilling. But he didn't flop on his side so
chances were good that I'd be OK. And logically since I had come in this way, it
didn't make much sense that I'd have trouble going back out. So I went down the
other side, crossed throught the off-camber stuff, and got to where it was almost level.
Ah, blessed relief!
Next, Carl came through. He had
plenty of trouble with the diagonal rock. His GS/A's didn't grab worth beans.
After each unsuccessful attempt, I was able to keep him from going down into my
nemesis of a hole. After several attempts to get up on it, he was able to do it.
Once he got over the rock, he went up and over the rest of the obstacle without
further drama. I snapped a picture of his tail just as it went over the top.
Roscoe does it blindfolded
Jon and Roscoe had no trouble with the
rock or the climb, demonstrating how the off-road tires can be an advantage in some
situations. Roscoe just laughed at us as he ate the whole obstacle in one smooth,
Running the trail back the way we came,
we had predictable moments at each obstacle that we encountered on the way in. The
descent past the "bad hole" was manageable and posed no special problem for
anyone although I could see this spot (like many on this trail) being a problem in wet
conditions. The section that passes under the power lines was nothing to sneeze at.
It's one of those places where you want to keep moving lest the back of your Jeep
decides it might like to take over leading you down the trail, or down the side of the
ridge... The shelf that guards the entrance to the power line section coming in, is
far less intimidating on the way out. Notwithstanding, it was still a good spot to
be paying attention.
Paul coming down off the Power Line
Once we got down past the power lines,
the rest of the trail seemed tame. Along the way we had noticed a cross bar that was
hung in the trees. Affixed to one side was a small rack of antlers. When we
were headed out, we passed a lone hunter with an "over and under" double barrel
who was standing by the side of the trail here. A little further up the road we
found a pick-up truck with a bumper sticker that said something like "People that are
Vegetarians are really that way because they're piss-poor hunters". OK...
A little further along we passed three young hikers and not long after that some
older hikers who were probably with the young ones ahead of them.
Near the end of the trail was a clearing
with a stump that had been outfitted with a conglomeration of debris that made it
convenient to drive up on. Wary that this could very well be the self-same stump
that lead to someone toppling their Jeep, I first watched Jim ramp up it and pose for
Seeing that he managed without any
damage, I imitated his pose, chomping on my steering box skid plate in the process.
More pictures. Jon came next and did a great job climbing up onto it after he moved
his Hi-Lift from the front bumper.
Next came Carl. He started up the
ramp and found his bumper too low to really get very far. As he was backing down,
Roscoe commented that it sounded like leaking air. Sure enough, the left-front tire
had taken a hit on the sidewall and was going flat. Carl gave up on the stump and
pulled over to change the tire.
Carl's Full-sized Spare
Chalk one up for the requirement for a
full-sized, compatible spare. The tire cover came off the spare to reveal a brand
new - nubs and all - Wrangler GS/A. Been there done that... Trail gets two (2)
Once Carl's tire was changed we finished
up the trail, stopping well above the trail end to air up and reconnect at a nice level
The kids ran around going crazy, stealing
hats and taunting adults. I aired up my tires and then Carl's. He reassembled
his sway bar connectors. When we finally hit the trail again, we discovered that we
were a little further in that we thought. Oh well. Carl got a chance to try
his Jeep on the same trail, now connected. I think we'll see Carl with disconnects
before long... :-)
We finally bumped and rocked our way to
pavement, waited for the group to reform (well some of us will always be beyond reform but
anyway...) and headed out for the "free air" gas station (the Amoco on Rt 55).
When we got there we found it similar to
McDorman's in that it had gas and a small convenience store with a good selection of
items. If you need gas and food on the way to State Line, this will definitely fit
you out. You could even get guns and ammo! Once everyone got air, fuel or
both, we agreed to have some pizza at the Pizza Den in Strasburg. The pizza was
good, the service was quick, and we were soon all heading our separate ways toward home.
I think it's safe to say the trip was a
success. Although Jon tweaked his flare and Carl got a flat, there was nothing like
the kind of carnage that this trail can dish out. Everyone had a chance to test the
limits of their machines, and the limits that their own willingness to act imposes.
I'm happy with what my Jeep can do. And I'm happy that I was able to overcome some
of the mistakes I made last time I was here. I still have a healthy respect for this
trail, and even with the fun I had on this trip, will save this trail for those times when
everything lines up on my side! My advice, if you decide to travel this stretch - do
not go alone, and do not make this your first trail ride in your new 4WD. This is a
place to go with people who can help you when you get in a pinch, and where you are
prepared to use the lessons you've learned in places where stakes of errors are not so
Roscoe's Photos |
Jon's Photos |