overlanding(?) the mojave road

I’ll be adding little snippets about my experiences on the Mojave Road which you can find via my handy #MojaveRoad tag.

Shortly after I fell in love with my 1994 Land Cruiser, I read up on “overlanding”. Subcultures have their own vocabulary, partially to convey meaning and partially for identification. Sometimes hilarity ensues such as this gem:

I spent two years cruising in Mexico.

When sailors toss this gem around, it means one thing. To a gay man in a nightclub, it means something entirely different.

So in four-wheel-drive circles (or ‘wheelin), “overlanding” basically means really long drives across varying terrain whilst being self sufficient and probably sleeping in a tent of some type.

milezero

Sitting (literally) at mile zero, me and my buddy’s truck.

The Mojave Road is roughly 160 miles long (counting detours and shenanigans). I stumbled across it when looking for “overland routes” on Google one day, and realized that it:

  1. Did not seem insanely technical. You need to know how to drive off road, but you don’t need to be happy making 5 miles a day via winching and swimming (ala Camel Trophy).
  2. Was relatively close by. Starting in Laughlin, NV I left Mammoth Lakes and was having a beer at our campground right after sunset.

So I called up one of my likely-as-poor-a-decision-maker-as-myself buddies and asked if he wanted to do it with me. Less than 10 seconds later came the affirmative, so we made plans in early spring of 2017 to tackle it later that May.

It was a pretty cool six days and five nights out of my and my kids’ lives doing this trip and rather than try to summarize it all here I think I’ll break it into pieces. Click on my cool #MojaveRoad hashtag (once I’ve written more than this one).

travmonument

The “traveler’s monument” is a basically a pile of rocks in the middle of hell.

For now it’s good to be home, it’s good to knock out some laundry, and it’s good to not have rivers/trains/winds howling in the air all night long. I’m back to the peace of tranquility of bears and snowstorms here in Mammoth Lakes, CA.

the art of getting high centered in snow

In sailing, a joke exists that there are three types of sailors. Those who’ve grounded, those who are lying, and those who will soon. Much the same exists for driving offroad and getting stuck.

YJoPpWQ

My friend here is not having a lot of fundra. Me in the background, my FJ80 Land Cruiser behind with the lights on, the tiny car way back is discussed below.

If you drive graded dirt all the time or limit yourself to mall crawling, “recovery” can seem like a worst case scenario. But at least for me in the 16/17 winter up here in the Sierras I’ve pulled three vehicles free, shoveled out half a dozen, and high centered myself thrice (counting today). I have a winch, strong attachment points, big ass shackles, a real no-shit shovel, two recovery straps, some chains, and traction pads. None of that keeps you from getting stuck but it will give you a fighting chance to get out of it.

Things get snow-stuck in all kinds of ways, but usually the most pain-in-the-ass is the high center. Simply put, you compact so much snow underneath the bottom of the vehicle that you create (via the pressure of your axles/difs/undercarriage/etc) a solid block of ice that is supporting all the vehicle’s weight.

This of course is a problem because if the cool new made-of-compacted-snow jack stands under your truck are holding you up guess what isn’t? That’s right, your tires. So your tires sit there spinning happily in the air, laughing at you and all your locking differential technology. In fact, the more the tires spin, the deeper they make their little holes, compressing the snow further and further under the vehicle. It sucks.

pixelatedsnow

After getting through a rather horrible patch. Note the streaks in the middle. That’s the differential and axles dragging across compressed snow.

When high centered, your options are limited. You can attempt to shovel out the snow which is fully caked under your vehicle, but remember it is highly compressed to the point that you are nearly going at ice blocks. Plus, you’re coming at it from the sides and will have a hell of a time getting an angle. I’ve only seen this work when one axle is stuck. If both are, which means the entire undercarriage is, read on.

You can use a winch or a buddy’s truck with a strap, but basically you’ll need to drag the vehicle where it’s got to go. As a bonus you can toss some traction pads under the tires (the orange things strapped to my spare tire in the picture above). An upshot with snow is that for the most part it’s fairly slick so once you get out of the augered holes that your tires have made, you should be able to move.

UPSTug

Mid winter, I got a chance to yank the UPS guy out of a snow bank.

The third mechanism falls into road-building albeit no dynamite required. If you have a hi-lift jack (and bumpers/sliders you can attach to) then you can lift the vehicle up and off it’s high centered mess, jamming rocks/dirt under the tires to make a solid track for the wheels to travel on. Likewise, you can shovel out the part in the middle (ahead of the vehicle) where you would get high centered again. This is grueling multi-hour work to even make it 100′, depending on the snow conditions.

If you’re dangerous, stupid, and lucky, you could always try using a blow torch to melt the snow. Make sure you film this so if you ignite the gas tank the video can go on youtube and make a lot of money for your family.

Obviously the easiest thing is simply to avoid the problem in the first place. If the snow is more than a foot thick (or taller than the bottom of your axles), don’t go into it. Remember that snow cats exist for a reason; wheeled vehicles can only do so much in snow.

Additionally, be careful about driving around early morning. The snow is harder then so you’ll float a little better. The same route when tried a few hours later could prove impassible. In the first picture above, way in the background there’s a subaru; it’s not going anywhere for weeks. I’m assuming it got out there on a cold icy night, and is now surrounded by soft spring snow.

For more information, feel free to read up from folks who’ve done this much more often than I have: it’s not like there’s one way to get stuck or unstuck. Open your mind, brother.

mechanical lessons i’ve learned the hard way

I’m not a great mechanic: I know people who are way better than me and that’s not even touching professionals who do it for a living. I didn’t grow up doing mechanical work and the most “handsy” thing I do at work is touch a keyboard and pen. I’ve got a long row to hoe for improving my skills, but I try. And here’s some things that might help you too.

1) Research what you’re about to do, primarily on youtube and aficionado websites.

I pulled my inner axle and knuckle joint out, replacing various components. To do this, I had my iPad constantly looping through a youtube tutorial, made several posts and viewed nearly all of the 400+ comments on the IH8MUD forums on knuckle rebuilds for my make/model. I knew that I’d need a rebuild kit, saw the tools that people used, and prepared accordingly.

There’s a strong case to be made for owning cars/trucks/boats/planes that people frequently modify and maintain. As where I doubt there’s a lot of folks modding mid 90’s Chevy Cavaliers, there is an enormous amount of information for modding mid 90’s Toyota Land Cruisers, as an example.

2) Speaking of tools: buy once, cry once.

Buy good tools. You may not need “shop quality” all the time but you may indeed need the best in certain situations. Having the right tools can make the difference between a job taking 1 minute or 1 day. It can also be the difference between you hurting yourself or nearby components vs having everything be clean and easy.

Good tools aren’t cheap, take a look at a small sample of mine:

And that’s hardly the entirety of what you need. But even that $650 worth of tools is less than the cost of the labor for having a professional shop do the axle/knuckle job that I did myself. In fact when I added up my tools and materials, I was still under the cost of having a shop do it. And of course in the end I own my own high quality tools, so things really start paying for themselves the more work you do.

3) Wear protection, son.

A nice box of nitrile gloves can be the difference between your hands being eternally filthy or not, and bathed in toxic carcinogens or not. Plus, they offer a smidge of abrasion resistance: drag your hand past a little metal pokey thing and the glove will catch hopefully before your skin will.

I also wear hearing protection sometimes, and not just for super loud power tools. If you have to smash something to death with a hammer, it will be ear-splitting noise. That kind of combined damage is bad for your ears long term. And honestly I find that I’m more likely to really beat the crap out of something with a hammer if I can’t hear it as much.

If you’re laying under a car and messing with things above you, there’s a 100% chance shit will fall in your eyes. If you use a grinder, even just a Dremel, things fly everywhere. For $2 you can have some goggles that will keep your eyes safe and if they get scratched/broken you won’t care.

4) Specialty tools.

In addition to a nice set of core tools, you will acquire various specialty tools. If you do not acquire these and try to use your existing stuff as a “make-shift-good-enough” you can expect lots of swearing, lots of damage to you and what you’re working on, and much more time spent.

Sometimes these tools are cheap: a 4 foot section of PVC pipe can release a birfield joint from an axle in most cases. Other times they can be quite costly like a professional ball joint remover. You can also rent these tools in many instances, if you live in a town with resources for something like that.

You can evaluate your need of specialty tools by researching your project beforehand.

5) Take your time.

If you need to drive somewhere tomorrow, don’t change our your brakes today unless you’re a better mechanic than I am. Being in a hurry makes you rush and you’ll stress out when things go sideways. Not “if” things go sideways, but “when” things go sideways: things always go pear shaped especially when you’re in a hurry.

You’ll also be more inclined to make bad judgement calls and rush.

6) You’ll spend most of your time on stuck bolts, stripped threads, and things you can’t get a good grip on: don’t think this is out of the ordinary.

If you have an object in front of you on a workbench with lots of space and tools about, pretty much anyone can be effective. On your back staring up though a mess of mysterious hoses and brackets, all coated in road grime that keeps falling on your face, things get tricky.

This goes back to good tools, taking your time, and specialty tools: wobble sockets exist because good angles are hard to come by and impact guns exist because rust never sleeps and the last asshole over torqued the shit out of everything.

You may need to cut things off with a Dremel. You may need to use a propane torch. You definitely will use penetrating oils like AeroKroil. You may need to take things apart just to get access to something else (like the power steering fluid reservoir to get to the oil filter, in my truck).   You definitely will get stuck halfway through a project and need to drive/bike/walk to a store or have something shipped to you. Again, this can be reduced by (a) researching in advance (b) acquiring the proper tools and (c) taking your time.

7) Keep a journal; I like Google Spreadsheets.

Whether you keep or one day sell the thing you’re working on, it will be helpful years from now to know when you last performed whatever maintenance. Also, you can keep track of the model numbers for things like oil filters and bearings.

8) Have the actual service manual.

The guides you can pick up at autozone for your car are a lot better than nothing and they are actually a solid starting point. But for real work and answers to nearly every question about your vehicle you want the no-kidding service manual. Often you can find the PDF online for free (as in, like, illegal), or you can buy the phone-book sized version on ebay for ~$100. If you’re really hard pressed you can get it from the dealership in most cases.

9) Use OEM parts unless you have a really good reason not to.

That service manual referenced above assumes you’re using components built to the exact factory specifications. The further you wander from factory stuff, the less you can rely on service manuals and the collective wisdom of all others that have worked on your problem before.

Some things clearly should be replaced: tires have gotten a lot better and if you’re using a 20 year old stereo with 20 year old speakers, it’s a good time to upgrade. But even things that seem to make sense, like oil filters, you might really be better off sticking with OEM. Expect OEM parts to generally be more expensive and harder to pick up. You’ll need to get them shipped or from a dealer, usually with some shipping time as well.

10) Remember, it’s a journey.

If you look at sailing like simply a means of getting from A to B, it’s clearly a terrible approach compared to driving, flying, or even just riding a bicycle. But that obfuscates the point, which is the journey and all the things you learn along the way are what make it such an awesome experience worth doing.

Looking at it another way, just because something is easier doesn’t inherently mean it’s better for you. Things that are a total pain in the ass represent a challenge and some challenges are very much worth accomplishing.

Having a firm grasp of mechanical principles and the ability to function with them is hard to understate given the nature of our world.

And really, buy an impact gun.

me and my truck

I’ve never really been a “car guy”. My step dad tried to teach me mechanical principles but in retrospect I realize he wasn’t really a “car guy” either. I learned to change my oil, swap air filters, and keep the tires full. These are important tasks, but it’s a far cry from having a well worn impact gun and wobble sockets.

I was going to buy a new Jeep Wrangler: I actually drive off road a lot and who doesn’t love a new car. Fortunately while on a backpacking trip my friend talked me out of it and dropped some science on me:

Look at Africa. Look at the Australian Outback. Shit man, look at ISIS. Know what they all drive? Toyotas, and the Land Cruiser in particular if they can get their hands on one. Go to Africa and see if you spot any Jeeps: you’ll be looking for a long time.

So instead of buying a ~$30,000 Jeep with the associated payments, taxes, and cranked insurance in 2015 I found myself a 1994 Toyota Land Cruiser down at the border.

landcruiserinlot

My beautiful truck the first time I laid eyes on her.

It was listed for $3,900 but with a leaky valve gasket and bald tires I got him down to $3,000 cash. When I went to register it the dealer had put a sticker over the “EXPORT ONLY” stamp, meaning it wasn’t supposed to be sold in the United States. My would-be truck was caught up in some international crime syndicate. An honestly dumbfounded look on my face at the DMV convinced the agent I wasn’t a part of it, and the registration was done.

ToyotaFullSar

Filled up with search and rescue gear, headed to San Jacinto with some other team members.

I had done a bit of homework and learned that the FZJ-80 was one of the preferred Land Cruisers. Early enough that it still had tank-like construction (solid axles, body-on-frame construction, etc) but new enough that you’re not futzing with a carburetor or pulling a choke knob. Don’t get me wrong: nearly all Land Cruisers pre-1997 are dope whips with their respective pluses and minuses: go figure I’m in love with mine.

lonelyhighway

Me and my little girls, waiting for a fellow Land Cruiser buddy to show up. Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

And basically for $3,000 (base) + $1,000 (tires) + $1,000 in various mechanical fixes I had a truck that could keep up with the bulk of true offroad vehicles. And I was pretty happy with that: no need to do any fancy upgrades, no need to get bigger tires, no need for a bro-dozer off road “rig”.

landcruiserevening

Car camping with a friend and our kids, Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

But then we moved to Mammoth and winter happened.

winterholyshit

The snow hat on top of the roof there is from 1 night of snow. Mammoth got over 40′ this winter.

This winter I saw:

  • People losing traction and going into snow banks.
  • Big powerful 4×4’s stuck in snow ditches.
  • Tires spinning around all over.
  • Folks putting chains on in horrible conditions.

And through it all, I drove around in comfort. To be sure, much of snow and ice driving is about your skills. I got high centered myself trying to drive (like an idiot) through thigh deep snow. There is a reason snow cats exist, and it’s similar to why you’d take a snowmobile out and not a motorcycle: once the snow gets deep enough it’s simply not passable by a wheeled vehicle.

But in general, minus a lifted version of my own truck with more ground clearance, my Land Cruiser was a top performer here in the Eastern Sierra.

UPSTug

Pulling a UPS truck out of a snowbank with my Toyota Land Cruiser.

haulingitall

My Land Cruiser even towed all (seriously) of our worldly possessions from San Diego to Mammoth Lakes.

In the late fall, terror left my heart stricken: there was a leak coming down the tire of my trusty vehicle. A little bit of research led me to the problem: a broken seal in the inner axle area and a tougher-than-most-humans-will-ever-do repair job. I considered taking it to a mechanic but hardcore Land Cruiser fanatics shouted their disapproval.

As I’ve come to understand it, barring full engine rebuilds nearly all other jobs can be handled in your driveway. Indeed, many can be handled out in the middle of nowhere provided you were wise enough to pack tools and spare parts (affectionately known as “trail parts”).

difleak

The leaking differential fluid that caused me to throw down and pick sides: am I Land Cruiser guy or just some dude who drives a Land Cruiser?

I knew I could hobble along through the winter, filling up fluids and grease all the while making a huge stink in my driveway from differential fluid constantly pouring out. I acquired the tools I would need. I acquired the rebuild kit. I watched the youtube videos. I found the factory service manual on Ebay. I waited, silently sending mental vibes to my truck, “You’re getting me through this winter so well. Come spring, I’m going to take care of you. I promise.”

IMG_20170316_133828156_HDR

I have no idea what I’m doing, but I try to hard to follow along with the instructions from those who do.

And so I completed my first knuckle/inner-axle rebuild. A job so intense that full grown men walked by me and commented, “Jesus… I hope you know what you’re doing.” I learned the value of my impact gun. I learned about impact swivel sockets. Aerokroil. Brass drifts. I even pounded a race in upside down and couldn’t get it out. No problem, said the Internet: use your dremel to cut some notches into it for more purchase.

nobumper

Goodbye factory sheet metal bumper, hello Sleep Off Road badass bumper.

I don’t think it’s masochism to say that I enjoy a challenge. Living and sailing on our boat I really enjoyed having problems thrown at me that were above my paygrade. I screwed some of them up, many I didn’t, and where I made mistakes I’ve tried to learn so I don’t ass-it-up again. I think any tradesman who’s being honest can point to stupid things they did when the learning curve was steep: it’s no big thing to make mistakes predicated that they make you better in the long run.

sleerear

Slee Off Road rear bumper with (a) Hi Lift (b) CB antenna (c) spare tire (d) gay pride Mammoth Sticker because rainbows are cool and if you can’t wear a gay pride sticker without worrying about what others think about your sexuality than you might be gay, bro.

And so, dear reader, this has been my little tale of a boy and his truck. It’s a tale that will be told for decades and possibly centuries to come and no doubt some guy was tricking out his horse and carriage two hundred years ago.

No matter how much money I pour into this Land Cruiser, I’ll still stay under the stock price of a baseline Wrangler and my mechanical skills are coming along for the ride.

And now I must go to pick up my kids from school. It’s snowing out with low visibility on my rural busted up road, but Land Cruiser don’t give a f.


Post Script: A reader sent me this, and to correct the record you can find Jeeps in Africa:

I just wanted to point out the following blog, about a Wrangler currently making its way around Africa:

http://theroadchoseme.com/the-jeep
http://theroadchoseme.com/national-park-tai