Ode to Off-Road

Tim Marrs

I love fast cars. This has been pretty clearly documented, most recently by a representative of the Wyoming Highway Patrol. But fast cars present a logistical problem: where do you exploit their performance? Track time is hard to come by, and even the most glorious, wide-open roads carry the threat of constabulary intervention. This summer Ford will sell a 200-mph Mustang, which will come in handy for anyone whose commute includes the Nardo test track.

As performance cars grow ever more estranged from the reality of their circumstances, I find myself rekindling my affection for a genre of vehicle whose specialized talents are accessible to the common man: the off-roader. A Jeep Wrangler Rubicon is optimized for its mission just as thoroughly as a Porsche 911 Turbo is for its, but the difference is that you can actually exploit the Jeep's capabilities. Even the most amateur cartographer can look at a map of the United States and deduce that the area covered by roads is dwarfed by the area covered by not-roads.

Of course, the nice thing about off-roading is that you don't even need a ringer like the Rubicon to have fun. In fact, my own brand of off-road enthusiasm runs toward doing more with less. When you drive a Jeep over the Rubicon Trail, that's not impressive. Do it in a 1982 Chevy Malibu and you've got my attention. On that front, about fifteen years ago I was riding through a game reserve in India in the back of a Tata Sumo, a Defender knockoff that foretold Tata's admiration for Land Rover. We came to a river crossing upstream from a sign that read, "Crocodile area. Swimming prohibited. Survivors will be prosecuted." The driver plunged in and carefully navigated the rushing water, which was strong enough to make the truck twitch unsettlingly, as if it was about to get swept downstream. Given the setting, I wasn't too jazzed about getting out to push, so I felt triumphant when we ascended the opposite banking unscathed. "It's amazing what you can do with a four-by-four," I remarked to the driver. "Oh, no," he replied. "No four-wheel drive! Two-wheel drive!"

Are you kidding me? Give this guy a transfer case and I daresay he'd be driving up the side of Swargarohini in the Himalayas. Because it's a truism of off-roading that the more capable your vehicle, the more trouble you can get into. I learned this the hard way once I graduated from a rear-wheel-drive Dodge Ram in high school (like the Tata, surprisingly competent off-road) to a four-wheel-drive Jeep in college.

I bought the 1987 Jeep Cherokee Laredo for $2500 from a woman who kept a boa constrictor in her living room and gave me her sister's phone number. I soon lifted the Jeep three inches and fitted thirty-one-inch mud tires, which to my mind meant that I'd built an unstoppable off-road colossus. And it was, except for the open diffs, the absence of skid plates, and the ironbound suspension whose travel rivaled the resonant amplitude of a cesium atom.

When you drive into puddles so deep that they wash up over the windshield, you're probably overconfident in your vehicle's capability. That exciting moment came on a trail called the Bog Road, which was probably several degrees too difficult for a nearly stock Jeep. But I'm of the belief that you're not really off-road until you risk spending the night in your truck. You need to know that feeling when the tires start spinning and your truck starts sinking. Hey, I think I just wrote the first verse of a new Toby Keith song.

And that's what happened in the middle of a Bog Road puddle, where the Jeep began sinking in unison with my hopes of making it home. Since backing up wasn't an option, I gunned the 4.0-liter straight six and felt a bolt of terror as the entire hood plunged underwater. Somehow, the Jeep churned its way out of the briny deep, clawing up the other side and misfiring for a few minutes before it dried itself out. The next day, I took the Cherokee for a well-deserved service. When the guy at the garage pulled out the air filter to find it sopping wet, he looked at me and asked, "What did you do?"

Lucky for me, the Jeep's airbox was mounted high, up near the hood. My friend Dave, who followed me into that water hazard in his Ford Ranger, was disappointed to learn that his truck's airbox was mounted somewhat lower. As in, low enough to hydrolock his V-6 and bend a rod, causing the catastrophic failure of the engine a week later.

That calamitous day on the trail taught Dave an important lesson about life and consequences. Now a responsible adult, he owns a 2010 Nissan Pathfinder that he never takes off-road. That's what his 1996 Ram with a six-inch lift is for. With the clarity of hindsight, Dave knows that he never would've had to buy a new motor if he'd simply had a more gigantic truck.

And trucks have definitely become taller and more capable since my Cherokee days -- just as Mustangs and Camaros will soon pack more power than a Lamborghini Gallardo, once-gargantuan thirty-five-inch tires are now commonplace on mildly lifted Jeeps. A few months ago, out in Los Angeles, I got my hands on one such truck, an Xplore Wrangler Unlimited. Xplore fetters Jeeps and Toyotas with all manner of covetable off-road parts, in this case including thirty-five-inch BFGoodrich Mud-Terrains and a winch. Feeling the need to taste a little danger and get my four-wheel-drive fix, I pointed the Xplore north and drove to the Hungry Valley off-road area. Eventually I found a suitable challenge, a hill-climb so steep that my view over the hood included the early evening moon. On my first attempt at the summit, I crept too slowly and the engine died from fuel starvation. But I knew that if I went too fast, I'd launch off the top, an undesirable outcome I once experienced on my old Kawasaki Mojave four-wheeler (also the reason why my rib cage is no longer quite symmetrical).

After a few attempts and scary back-downs, I got the speed right and felt that moment of weightless anticipation when the view is all sky and you're not sure what's ahead. Most of us will never do 200 mph, but we can do that.

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