Situational Awareness – A lesson on why you should never lower your guard

Just because you’ve been down a road before doesn’t mean you can lower your guard.  Situational awareness is one of the paramount skills for any overlander.  Paying attention to your surroundings can often mean the difference between a good day and a bad day, or in some cases even life or death. Luckily my most recent less was only embarrassing at most.


If you’re interested in reading about how this happened, read on…

The day started with a rendezvous with Phoenix (aka @tokentacoma on Instagram) at a gravel parking lot at the north end of Michaux State Forest near Mount Holly Springs.  I’ve used this lot many times for meeting up with people since it’s a pretty easy location to find and has more than enough room to spread out.  Although not essential for fire roads, it’s also a good place to air down and disconnect.  That said, from now on I’ll be disconnecting and airing down ~ more on that later.

Disconnecting my JKS Mfg “Quicker”sway-bar disconnects and zip-tieing them up out of the way

Once my J.T. Brooks air deflators and my sway-bar links were tucked away we rolled out.

The ECOA/NHT LJ and the “Token Tacoma”
Jeeps and Toyotas can play nice together

After a quick stop at the overlook we pushed on to Hammods Rocks.  Recently the Forest Service put a lot of effort into cleaning up the graffiti on the rocks.  This is the first time I can remember being up there after any sort of vandalism mitigation.  Being a relatively easy spot to access means the young, dumb, and bored usually head up to the rocks to “party.”  Sadly this usually involves drinking, spray paint, fire, and leaving trash behind.  This is why we can’t have nice things.  That said, the Forest Service and local volunteers have made a lot of headway in cleaning the place up.

It really is a nice place.
A little less colorful now, but a lot more natural.
Tread Lightly & Leave No Trace!

After our stop we continued on to Pine Grove Furnace State Park.  Phoenix had never been down to the actual furnace and was unfamiliar with the history of the park.  We made a quick stop to check it out and I explained a little more about the history of the park and the state forest.  Who says you can do a little learning while overlanding?

What’s left of the furnaces at Pine Grove Furnace State Park
With connections to the colonial era the place is full of history and worth checking out
Also nearby is the Appalachian Trail Museum; which I’ll confess I still haven’t visited.

With the daily dose of history out of the way the next item on our to-do list was to check out some of the remote campsites within the state forest.  This is when things went from being a “good day” to a “bad day” relatively quickly.

After backing out of the access road to the one campsite I decided I was going to pull over so I wasn’t blocking the relatively narrow gravel fire road.  I had been here countless times over the year and was rushing my “park job.”  After backing down the road a few yards I switched to drive and pulled forward and off to the side of the road into what I thought was some tall grass.  Turns out what I was actually pulling into was a drainage ditch.  I’ll be honest.  I don’t know if I just didn’t see it, if it was out of sight blocked by the hood of the Jeep, or what.  All I know is the Jeep went from being perfectly level and slowly rolling forward to violently pitched sideways and a dead stop in a split second.

This is not how you want to park along the side of the road.

Pretty sure had the front sway-bar not been disconnected I would have gone over.

It’s a pretty deep ditch to swallow a 33″ tire.
Not to mention the front bumper burring itself in the ground.

I just didn’t see it.  Thankfully I had disconnected the front sway-bar which allowed the front axle to articular to full-flex.  Had the axle not been able to travel to max articulation I have no doubt I would have ended up flopping the Jeep on it’s side.  A perfect example of how things can turn sideways (literally) when you least expect it.  My guard was down. I wasn’t fully aware of my surrounding. I almost paid the price for my lack of situational awareness.

Thankfully the Jeep is “built like a tank” (as so many people tell me).  There was zero damage to my front AtoZ Fabrication bumper despite it wedging itself into the dirt and breaking a rock in half.  The JKS Mfg suspension did it’s job letting the front axle travel.

The rear AtoZ Fab bumper also did it’s job when it was recovery time.  Phoenix pulled his Tacoma around and we used a 20′ strap doubled-over to every-so-gently pull the LJ straight back.  I’m pretty sure I would have been able to self-recover but when-in-doubt it’s always smart to play it safe.  This road is also well traveled and I didn’t want to risk kicking up gravel with a passing car nearby.  I also didn’t want to do any more damage to the road, berm, or ditch than I already had.

At any rate, a bad moment that could have been much worse came and went.  Once my heart-rate returned to normal and I was able to smooth out the crease in the driver seat left by my puckered ass-cheeks we resumed out trip through Michaux SF.

Stopped by the reservoir to find it at the lowest point I’ve seen it in decades.
People will still out on small boats enjoying one of the last good canoe/kayak days of the year.

From the reservoir we swung by Calidonia State Park in the center part of the Forest before looping around to hit Piney Mountain Ridge Road and snake our way back to Pine Grove Furnace State Park.

Having the right gear is always nice.
I aired down to about 20psi earlier in the day to help with ride quality and comfort.
At the end of the day I was able to use my ViAir OBA system to air back up!

I was also nice enough to share my OBA with the Token Taco.

All in all it wasn’t too terrible a day.  A little history lesson for Phoenix, a big life lesson for me on situational awareness, and hopefully a few lessons for you.  Take the time to do things right whether it’s a month long expedition, a weekend vacation, or just a simple day trip.  Don’t drop your guard and always be aware of your surroundings.