There was a 500 foot cliff to my right. That same cliff swept across in front of me. To my left was an escarpment of unknown height. All the GPS was telling was, “Turn left here.” Alone, with no spotter, in unfamiliar territory, I had only one option. I couldn’t go back. I couldn’t go forward. I couldn’t go right. Left. My only option was to go left.
|Built to explore.
2016 No Highways Tour
I cranked the wheel hard to the driver side spinning it around till I hit the lock. I let out a heavy sigh before taking a deep breath. Moment of truth. The tires chirped on the tan sandstone as I applied the throttle. The Jeep began to list to the right side as the driver side tire rolled up the hill. My view was quickly becoming nothing but blue sky. The terrain around me dropped from my peripheral view. I took a quick glance down to my phone seeking reassurance this was really the way the trail went.
The tires bucked and chirped as they scoured the rocks for traction. It was a duet of rubber and stone with the familiar melody of mechanical anguish. I kept steady pressure on the throttle with one foot and slight intermittent pressure on the brake with the other. Just enough to flirt with the delicate lines between momentum, traction, and caution.
Slowly the Jeep made the left turn. The nose pointed skyward. Through the windshield was the cloudless blue sky over Utah. Behind me was the precarious 500 foot cliff. Don’t look back. I didn’t need that mental reminder more than once.
|Although breathtaking, it’s also a bit unnerving when you don’t have a spotter|
A little more throttle, a little less brake. I fought with the steering wheel. It wanted to spin right, I kept it straight. When it wanted to spin left, I held fast. Steady as she goes. Soon all four tires were singing together in a chorus of rubbery barks and chirps. Probably should have left out a little more air but too late for that now. One hundred percent all in. The Jeep bucked occasionally on the suspension as the drive train loaded up. Then, finally, she started to climb.
4 hours earlier…
The morning sun was already bringing with it waves of heat. Barely above the horizon it was a welcome sight. Deserts are hot. At least that’s what most people think. They’re really only hot when the sun is up. As soon as the sun goes down it gets cold. Really cold. At least comparatively speaking.
Being from the east coast I’m familiar with cold. I remember being a kid in the Pocono Mountains walking up hill in the snow to the bus stop. Snow days? Ha! Our buses had chains. Still, if I remembered I’d drag my sled with me and stash it behind the neighborhood sign at the end of the road. That way I could ride my way downhill since our street seemed to be last on the list. At any rate, I was used to the cold.
|Home is where you park it.
In this case, home is right along the Colorado River northeast of Moab
What you don’t realize is in the desert it can be 100 degrees during the day and drop to the 50’s over night. With no humidity to trap residual heat it gets cold. Especially if there is any kind of breeze. I was thankful for my trailer. My poor-man’s-teardrop camping trailer is crude, unfinished, and a bit uncouth but then again so am I. Luckily it has a little bit of insulation and a real mattress. It also had a pretty cozy sleeping bag. Despite the cold I slept well. However, now that the sun was up, the black top of the trailer was heating up. Time to move.
After a quick walk around of the Jeep giving it a once over I cued up my GPS program, scoured a few maps, and set off with two goals. First, make an accent of the Top of the World trail. Second, continue a south-westernly (clockwise) rotation down the Kokopelli Trail toward Moab (Dear past self, that was a pretty ambitious goal).
Things started off relatively easy. The first section of the Kokopelli Trail was nothing more than a wide dirt service road. It had a way of lulling you into false sense of security. Soon my eyes were drifting off the road in front of me to the scenery around me. Vast wide open vistas sucked me in. I looked left, right, down, and up as often as I can. Driving became almost secondary.
|The Kokopelli Trail started off like this.
Wide smooth gravel road with breathtaking scenery all around.
After a few miles I reached the trailhead for the Top of the World Trail. This when I put my game face on. As one of the Jeep Badge of Honor Trails I knew Top of the World wasn’t something to be attempted half-heartidely. Being solo meant I’d have be on my A-game. I also knew my Jeep was a bit, how can I put this, “modest” compared to what is recommended for the trail. However my confidence, and yes my pride, assured me I could do it.
|Here’s where things started to get interesting.
Top of the World is an out-and-back trail that double-backs on itself.
Kokopelli Trail continues to the southeast toward Moab.
All in all the accent of the trail went without incident. The view from the top was well worth the patient diligence to not rush the trail. The Jeep was performing admirably and, a few times, exceeded my expectations when it hit an obstacle and took it in one shot. Part of me wanted to take the credit. I am, after all, a damn good driver. However the Jeep was really doing it’s part to shine. The tire, suspension, and locker combination were all working together as planned and were making a rather difficult trail look easy.
|Although a modest build on not much more than 32’s with 2″ of suspension lift, the LJ did great!
Having a well thought out plan helped me build a Jeep capable of this not only reaching this terrain but tackling it into submission.
The way down was a little more eventful. My guard was a bit lower. Downhill is always easier than uphill, for the most part. It goes without saying that the moment you lower your guard is the moment something bad happens. Whoever said that is right. I got stuck. Yup. Stuck going downhill. The front tires, despite the locker, struggled for traction in the loose silty sand. The rear tires chirped back and forth as the limited slip failed to find any traction. All the while the Jeep slowly pivoted around the transmission crossmember bracket. Stupid stuck.
A half-dozen self-resucue scenarios flashed through my mind. This is where training and patience pay off. A little wisdom from learning things the hard way doesn’t hurt either. A younger me would have hit the gas pedal more. “When in doubt, throttle out.” Ha! Not any more. Now the goal is skill and fineness over brute power.
|Seriously? Stuck going down hill.
It was like sitting in a giant teeter-totter.
Realizing I only need a measly one inch of movement to get myself unstuck I opted for the safest and most reasonable self-recovery technique I had at my disposal, the winch. Yes. I winched myself downhill. Feel free to laugh. No, go ahead, I’ll wait. Done? Okay. I flipped the tree-saver around a rock since, well, there aren’t too many winch-worthy trees in the desert. I spooled the winch and had a brief moment of panic as the rock moved before the Jeep did. It soon settled and with a few burps of the winch the Jeep lurched forward off the ledge and I was free. After taking time to collect my recovery gear, stow it, and assess the damage to make sure it was only cosmetic I pressed on.
With the Top of the World trail in my rearview I set my sites back on the Kokopelli Trail.
In the moment…
It was a brief moment of regret. Fleeting as it was, it stung in the back of my mind. Maybe I was finally in over my head. Maybe I had finally bit off more than I could chew. With one hand firmly gasping the steering wheel I reached over to the InReach on my dash and flicked the lock off the SOS button. You know, just in case.
The Jeep calmed down. The tires quieted. She climbed. Occasionally a small slip here or there was felt. From time to time she’d rock to one side or the other. Eventually things started to level out. The ground came into view. A horizon line at last.
Eventually all four wheels were back on firm ground. I rolled a few more feet forward before I reflexively gasped for air. Had I really been holding my breath? My chest felt tight. I could feel my entire body throbbing with every heartbeat. I knew enough to know I was in the middle of an adrenaline high. I’m sure only a few brief minutes had passed but the level of intensity made it seem like forever. I got out of the Jeep after locking the parking brake putting it in park.
|Every top was met with breathtaking views, and steep deep cliffs.
Always mind your surroundings.
I took a moment for a quick stretch, a survey of my surroundings, and a lamentation that I wished I had someone with me who could have gotten pictures. Oh well. One of the perils of traveling solo. I shook it off one last time and with a normal heart rate I climbed back into the driver seat.
|There were even some living distractions along the road.
And not far behind the cows was another cliff.
I wish I could say that was the only intense moment, but it wasn’t. There seemed to be a cadence of precarious moments followed by long smooth sections of dirt road. It’s like when you try and draw a line but the pencil skips a few times on the paper. The long smooth parts are nothing remarkable. The short breaks however are something. It was in those moments that I pushed the Jeep, and myself, to the limit. However, like a fine blade tempered in the fires of the forge I came out stronger. The Jeep, well, she’d need an upgrade or two once we got home. That’s a different story for a different day.
It’s been over two years since that trip. Every time I look back on that experience I can’t help but smile. When I set out to build the LJ into triple-duty daily driver, overland rig, and rock crawler I was afraid it was too lofty a goal. I even worried it was impossible. I was also worried, being my first time out west, that traveling solo may not have been the best idea.
|Yup. That’s the trail.
According to GPS I just keep going.
The Jeep is, for all intents and purposes, exactly what I wanted it to be when I started modifying it. It hasn’t been easy and by no means is it a perfect rig by any means (check-engine-light not withstanding) but I doubt I’d give her up for anything. It’s a modest build with only 33″ tires and a 2″ suspension lift. So it’s not the best rock crawler. It’s also a bit quirky in terms of being a reliable daily driver. As such, it’s a bit quirky for long distance overland trips too. However those quirks are what keeps things interesting.
Why an Aussie locker?
I often get asked why an Aussie Locker and not a selectable locker. Simply put, I like to keep things simple. Selectable lockers have vulnerable air lines, electrical wires, or cables that are prone to getting snagged. Air-lockers also rely upon onboard air to work. While on this same trip the pressure regulator for my OBA system failed. Had I been using an air-locker than I would have not only lost my air but also my locker as well. Electrical lockers negate the need for OBA but are still prone to failure with the solenoids. Same goes for a cable locker. I’ve been in Jeeps where the cable was stretched or kinked and failed to engage the locker. All of that is prevented by the simplicity of an automatic locker like an Aussie. When I’m in 2wd I don’t notice the locker. When in 4wd the locker does its job pulling the Jeep forward with maximum traction.
|This is the terrain the Torq-Masters Aussie Locker was made for
This was also the terrain this Jeep was built for
This is also the terrain every overland adventurer years for
Many companies tout tag-lines in their advertisements that are gimmicky at best or at worse fail to live up to their products. The tag-line for Torq-Masters Industries, manufacturers of the Aussie Locker, is “Traction to go anywhere.” I can unequivocally confirm that the Aussie Locker does indeed give you the traction to go anywhere. Rocks, sand, mud, and snow are no match for the simple reliable traction provided by their lockers. Coupled with their affordability and ease of installation and you can easily understand why an Aussie Locker was my first pick for a front locker.
For more information on the Aussie Locker, and other lockers they make, please contact Torq-Masters Industries. Say hi for me, tell them I sent you, and be prepared for some undeniable traction whenever and wherever you need it. Oh, and for the icing on the cake, they’re made in the USA!
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