Adventure Vehicles, Part II
On the road (and off) again with Larry and Ol' White.
As I said last month, I bought my first four-wheel-drive pickup in 1985 back in eastern Pennsylvania. Ol' White and I were able to negotiate just about any conditions in Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, West Virginia and Maryland.
Within two years I thought I knew just about everything about driving a 4WD — hah! I was to learn that one never knows everything about anything; life and all of its adventures are a continuing learning curve.
For my own self, it seems I have to learn everything the hard way, which means on-the-job training, which equates to trial and error and just plain ignorance. Take the time that I was on a hunting trip in western New York State and it was during one of those lake-effect blizzards along about midnight.
Finally I arrived at the last leg of my trip — a narrow dirt road that took me more than one try to find. I had to negotiate one last steep hill and Ol' White was already in 4WD high-range and in first gear. Halfway up the hill, the tires broke loose and began to spin, and I just sat there in one spot.
What I now realize is that under the four to five inches of fresh snow lay a thick layer of solid ice. I figgered that I would put the clutch in and shift to low-range and be on my way, but as I pressed the clutch in, all tire motion stopped and I began to slide backwards at a rather high rate of speed!
To make matters worse, that slide froze me into inaction with the clutch in, and I was careening out of control and I couldn't see a thing. All I could do was utter a frantic, "Help me, Jesus!" And He did.
There were two deep ditches on either side of the road, but Ol' White stayed plum center of that road as we slid backwards for over 100 yards to the bottom of the hill. There the road made a sharp right turn, and the truck and I went straight — into a four-foot-deep snowdrift. It stopped with a jolt and no harm was done to anything but my nerves. So much so, that I opened the rear window and crawled through and went right to bed then and there, profusely thanking The Forever God for what He had done!
In 1988 the family and I moved to New Mexico cold-turkey, and arrived in the hamlet of Silver City. With that move came a whole lot of other off-road adventures and new circumstances. Here I found the usual mud and snow, albeit not in any great amounts, but along with these came raging, flood-filled ravines and washes, as well as dry, deep soft sand, and my old California buddy — slick rock. Did I mention deep eroded ditches and caliche?
It didn't take long to learn that I'd better carry some other tools besides a jack, like a bow saw to cut limbs to put under tires in deep mud and sand; a spare scissor jack to get in low clearance; and a 12X12-inch piece of thick plywood to set those jacks on for stability. Yes, I've used them all here in the southwest.
One of my most harrowing and near-deadly experiences came the first year living here, and it revealed to me both my ignorance and innocence in back-country roading. A rancher friend had given me permission to hunt and roam the remote regions of the south side of Tadpole Ridge, northwest of Silver.
It was springtime and that year we had a good snowpack in the mountains and Bear Creek was running full and furious. The bank had already been eroded away and I had to cut a ramp down into the creek bed with my shovel (another useful tool to carry).
I put Ol' White into low-range 4WD and first gear and eased into the current, and soon felt the fury of The Bear hit me sideways. It was then that my front wheels dropped into the newly dug flood channel and the truck was in up to the hood in muddy flood water.
The water began to sweep me downstream and once again I called upon the Almighty to help me! I gunned the engine hard and scrabbled across and out of there to the far side. Whew! You best believe that a "friend named Jesus" had helped me once more!
But now I had another problem: There was no way home except back across The Bear. I decided to explore the new area and let my nerves calm down and examine with my brain a solution to the problem, hoping that the waters would be somewhat subsided in a coupla hours. They weren't!
But I was far more the wiser as I eased up to that ol' stream. This time I put the nose of the truck pointed up-water at a 45-degree angle and in first gear, low-range, I slammed the gas pedal and we shot across that raging torrent with nary a skip or a bounce, except for the unseen channel.
I learned two lessons that day: Always cross unknown streambeds with the nose pointing upstream, and more important, if that stream is flooded, don't cross at all!
In the mid 1990s my wife kissed the back end of a stopped pickup with her 1983 Toyota Corolla station wagon; the result was a buckled hood and fender and grill, but the car still ran just great. For a year that car remained in the same condition, and so I decided to use it as a supplemental "hunting car" since it got 32 mpg and Ol' White got 16 on a good day. There is another lesson here for you readers: No true 4WD truck or SUV gets good gas mileage; even today, expect 12-14 mpg around town and 16-18 on the highway. We pay for the luxury of that 4WD!
One morning I took the wagon up the Wall Lake Road and began to pull off onto a two-track; the trouble was the one-foot ditch at the roadside that I had to cross at an angle. I immediately got hung up with one front wheel off the ground and the opposite rear wheel off the ground and spinning merrily. I wasn't going anywhere fast.
You see, that Toyota had what is called a unibody construction, meaning that instead of a true, steel-girder frame, it was one big piece of thick sheet metal holding the body together. That sheet metal doesn't flex like a true ladder frame does, and thus, there I sat. Another lesson for you: Most all-wheel-drive SUVs are unibody; if you take one into rough conditions, there is the great possibility that you will twist that sheet pan and your vehicle will be permanently warped!
But back to the story. I shut the engine off and got out and pushed the vehicle backwards with some great effort. I was now back on the main road; I parked it there and thus ended my off-road adventures with that Toyota. Phooey with gas mileage.
Ol' White had a true ladder frame, as do most 4WD pickups and some SUVs like my 2002 Suzuki XL7. But even those can become stressed if made to do certain things.
The good folks at R&L Service pointed that out to me one time when they showed me a rather large crack in the frame, declaring they'd never seen that happen before! They were able to weld it up just fine and as far as I know, it is still holding together.
More on other lessons learned with other vehicles come next month.
As always keep the sun forever at your back, the wind forever in your face, and may The Forever God bless you too!
When not ramblin' outdoors, Larry Lightner parks in Silver City.