Ride along on the hood of Treehugger as we slide down into the bowl of the quarry.
We kicked off 2018 by hitting the snowy slopes of The Cliff’s Insane Terrain on New Years. 5 brave Trail Team members and a few passengers made the trek. It was a VERY cold morning and it didn’t get much better throughout the whole day… -15 was the wakeup temp.
The Cliffs had a scavenger hunt that day. Laid out in the snowy trails were 6 hidden markers that could be found by using clues provided at the office. It should come as not surprise that “Super Taco” blazed all the trails and beat everyone to the grand prize. A free years membership to the park. Super Taco fended off competitors of all sizes and styles… And he has never been to this park before! Amazing!
Link to the Photo Album: https://photos.app.goo.gl/iNl7VFzJG670HsZz2
There’s not a lot happening in Central Illinois when it comes to the full size truck 4×4 scene. We do have our fair share of mud-bog runs with super-powered rigs sitting on tractor tires. But that’s about it, save for some ORV parks several hours away to the East and North. So, it makes sense that if you were told there was an off-road event within two hours of home that brings in 100’s of 4×4 trucks from all over the Midwest…You would have a vested interest to go and see what’s going on; even if it is a Jeep Club Event!
The Fort’s Trail team is a small but expanding group of Toyota guys hitting the local off-road parks and a few major TLCA events. When we got wind of the Twin Rivers Jeep Club Safari 2015 it was considered a “must do”. We quickly registered and had hoped that 4 or 5 Toyotas would make the trip… As it turned out, we only had two 4Runners representing our small club.
The Twin Rivers Jeep Club is a unique group of Jeep aficionados that work together to maintain a vast network of private trails. The private nature of their trails is what makes them unique! This club has built extensive trails on private property all the countryside near Pittsfield Illinois for the sole purpose of allowing our members to get out and play. Most of the time they operate “members only” weekend runs, but a few times a year they open up the private trails to non-members. The “2015 Safari” was one such event.
Over the weekend of May 15th-16th, the “Safari” event attracted 150 Jeeps (plus two other Toyotas besides ours) and over 250 people.
If you are not familiar with the area between Chicago and St. Louis; Pittsfield Illinois is just another town in central Illinois that sits in the middle of corn and bean fields. Its population is a couple of thousand people at most, and it’s probably a shrinking population like most other small towns in this part of the state. While most people think of Illinois as a suburb of Chicago, Pittsfield and countless other downstate towns have a quiet rural setting that is more Mayberry RFD than “untouchables”!
We rolled into Pittsfield on Friday morning after camping out at the lake the night before and were awakened by a couple of large, banged-up vintage CJs (that’s Jeep lingo) that were brought in on trailers. Town was a menagerie of Jeeps, from old trucks worked into nuclear powered buggies, 10 and 20 year old Jeeps with no modifications, to a LOT of newer Unlimited and Rubicon 2 and 4 door vehicles with varying degrees of modification. The checkpoint at Legion Hall scrutinized our trucks. In hindsight, I think that comes from us bringing in a non-Jeep. To their credit, they inspected every truck and handed out a grade sheet alerting the registration desk of your vehicle’s trail capabilities. Trails are rated on a 1 to 5 scale; 1 being the easiest and 5 the hardest. A 5 trail is designed for those buggies we saw earlier. Those guys would be hitting rev limiters and mashing up against rocks and trees all day.
We signed up for New Salem – a ‘2’ rated trail. One of our friends, attending with a heavily modified Jeep said it was ‘a nice easy trail’ and should be good for beginners to the event. It could be argued that we should have started with a 1 level trail. This was our first event in Pittsfield, but we have had some experience trail riding in Colorado and Arkansas with Toyota events. My 2010 Trail 4Runner never missed a beat there and this event really didn’t seem that threatening at face value, however we were in for a long day. That “don’t worry, I’ve got this” hubris cost me a few dents and a big lump of pride by the end of the day. New Salem is a series of cutbacks with muddy valleys and steep off kilter inclines. To top it off it had been raining pretty heavily the weekend before. I remember thinking, “hey, if it rains maybe we should cancel”. But, it’s hard to follow that logic to its sad conclusion when the lure of camping out and 4 wheeling with your friends shows up at the end of the week.
New Salem was muddy, very muddy. For the most part, it was similar to bad days on the Red Trail at Badlands Park in Attica, Indiana. But, then we hit two or three challenging spots that required lots of gas and a tolerance for bouncing off a tree to stay on track. These are attributes that we have never been concerned about on a Toyota crawl. I did bounce off a few trees, but unfortunately, my Runner was more in the habit of tackling of trees than bouncing off them. I was left with some serious battle scars from two particular areas of the trail.
At one point during a tricky spot I asked the “Tail Gunner” guide for a go-around. It was obvious that going through this chute was going to cause some serious damage to the truck. The guide told me to that “there isn’t a go-around” for this spot. I questioned it but I wasn’t going to be “that guy” needing special treatment. So, I sucked it up and braced myself for a slip and slide adventure into a muddy bowl.
Slide…Crunch… Ease on the gas…Smack…Slide sideways…Big crunch.
I had maneuvered between some narrow trees on the descent with minimal contact, but when I got to the bottom the obstacle, it turned into a bowl of slippery mud. The exit was another narrow growth of trees to thread a way through. Making the approach angle put me on course for a tree on the driver’s door side. Again, I was in a spot with no work around. I bit my lip and gave it gas. I crinkled the driver’s door. At this point, I was adamant that the winch would need to be involved. A trail guide and my friend with the jeep helped find some good angles to get pulled out. At last, I was free!
To the rest of the trail group’s benefit, the senior trail leader for our run came up and said there was a “go-around” for this spot. That saved a couple newer Jeeps and our other 4Runner the agony of major dents. After that we headed to lunch. I was very unhappy with what had transpired out on the trail. It was fortunate that others did not have to get beaten up like I did. But it would certainly have been nice to have avoided it myself. I took my tires down after lunch in the hope that this might give me some control in the mud for the second half of the day. Lowering the tire pressure didn’t achieve an awful lot! I did seem to get up a few more inclines with more ease, but on another aggressive incline and turn through some tight trees I bit a tree hard. I end up resting on it and refused to attempt to remove myself without the winch. This had turned into a brutal battle with unfriendly terrain. I had come to the event with a loosely stocked 4runner equipped with all terrain tires and a winch. This was not going to be enough to get me through. I made a concerted effort to head out back to the campground at that next “go-around”.
By the time I hit the campground I was ready to take my tent and everything in it and throw it through the back window of the Runner and drive home! I had made a big mistake coming to this event and was ill-prepared to deal with the conditions with the truck I had brought. In hindsight, I should have posted something clever on Twitter like “There is no joy in Mudville tonight.” But I was just so bitter that being clever was not on the cards. A shower and a beer later I was a little less emotional about it. After the other guys got back, we headed back to the Legion for dinner. The food served for the participants was excellent and even better, the beer was cheep! Any thoughts I had about leaving a few hours before were washed away in a stream of Miller Lite!
We decided that a level 1 trail might be the best way to go after the day one debacle. We took up with some other newbies and stock trucks on Ridge Rambler. Ridge Rambler did have some components of New Salem, but they were spread out over miles of trails and nothing was horribly narrow or tricky like on the first day. We had plenty of mud, and it actually rained on us to start the day. There were winches being run for all the trucks on the trail – nobody had a perfect day, but it was a far cry from the miseries of day one.
In retrospect the difference in the trails between day one and two were immense. Whereas in the first day we spent 4 hours cutting back over ten wooded acres, cut into switchbacks, Ridge Rambler was a giant sprawling trail that included over 100s of acres of timber with long grassy hilltop roads running into valleys manicured to have lots of space on either side of the truck. There were a few pitfalls to keep it interesting, but this was a far more enjoyable day of “wheeling” in Illinois than day 1. Come midday, the hosts let us stop at their house to eat lunch on the deck.
At about 2PM we could see the darkness on the horizon as more rain was on the way. We had taken ourselves pretty far back into the woods and the land owner knew a heavy rain would complicate our trip and turn into another story of winches and evacuation at the Legion Hall that night. He made the command decision to cut some new routes to shortcut back to another trail. All the trucks broke through the muddy brush to a grassy fiend just in time for a 15 minute downpour. We waited it out while the owner worked on some more shortcuts. He was running ahead with his 4×4 “Mule” equipped with a chainsaw!
It was around this time, while waiting for the next exit strategy that I was approached by one of the trail guides. It started off nice enough, but he got to the meat of the matter by describing all the past failures of Isuzus, Hondas and other trucks that have tried this event. I am not far off when I say it went something like this: “These trails were made by jeep owners in jeeps for jeeps. A couple of years ago we had some guys come down in a Honda and an Isuzu… It didn’t turn out very good for them either.” Hearing this at the end of day one, was like hearing warnings about the river ahead after Ned Beaty had already been preyed upon! Yeah, I just referred to my day one as Ned Beaty’s rape! It kind of loses effect and suspense when you get it later.
I understand the bravado. We, the Toyota guys, were the outsiders. We had everything to prove. How we dealt with defeat would show what kind of competitors we are. Eventually, we got out, but not without one more bang on the rear quarter sliding sideways in the mud on the edge of a field. Damn you Pittsfield… I can never let my guard down. To even out my Ned Beaty talk, we ran into some guys drinking beer outside the Legion and they asked how our day went. I don’t know if they were hoping for more horror stories akin to day one, but we all were having a good laugh, talking about the trails and conditions of day two. I was a lot more at ease and started to forget the conniption I had the day before.
Night Two: Raffle.
All the off-roading and fun culminated in another great dinner by the Legion guys. That night, we saw amazing charity by the Two Rivers Jeep Members as they shelled out tons of money to assist local welfare programs. This whole event was about raising money for charity. Nobody left with a buck in their pocket from what I could tell! At one point a kid wanted the “Jeep Jeep” stuffed animal and his Dad could not compete with the bidding around the room. When the son looked back at his Dad and said “Please Daddy”… The room melted. 20 dollar bills were passed around and he won the item with $380! The doll was pretty unexceptional but the results were amazing. It’s a good analogy for the trails of this event really. Comprised of regular back roads and farms that don’t show much promise to the untrained eye, but put them in the hands of club members and you have a jewel and a world class event. You can see why it’s an event with a loyal following. We will be back…if it’s not raining!
If you decide to give it a go:
Install Mud Terrain Tires.
Be ready for a few dents.
Pack well. Pittsfield has the world’s smallest Wal-Mart, and it can get you by at a pinch, but you won’t have much to choose from.
Book your rooms early or plan on camping. There are 2 campgrounds very close.
Be prepared to get some sideways looks if you’re not in a Jeep.
Fort’s Trail Team is on Facebook! https://www.facebook.com/fortstrailteam
10 days to the crawl… 9 days to the crawl… 8 days to the crawl….
If you were on Facebook or the Southern Cruiser forums at Ih8mud.com over the months leading to the Southern Cruiser Crawl, you were inundated with pictures and reminders of the upcoming event at Hot Springs. Some of the reminders were inspiring and others were darn right frightening! It was obvious that this is a tight-knit group that like to have fun! This thing could go a lot of ways, as an outsider on his first trip, how would I fit in?
The Southern Cruiser Crawl is an annual event sponsored by Cottonland Cruisers, a TLCA chapter from Jackson Mississippi. The Crawl is 4 days of on-your-own trails in one of the premier Off Road parks in the south and 2 nights of official complimentary food and entertainment. There are plenty of non official eats and get-togethers to be found all over the camping area.
Chris Tolleson, a Cottonland senior member filled me on a little background: “The first 4 years were in Gray Rock, Alabama outside Birmingham. It was a much smaller park that was being slowly eaten away by limestone mining. We brought everything in water, generators and even built showers the last couple of years. The place had a pavilion with power and a water faucet“.
The Club had come over to Hot Springs ORV park (previously Superlift ORV) for the Razorback Ramble every June, and loved the park. They made the decision and moved the crawl to Hot Springs. Hot Springs ORV is 1250 acres of winding trails through the hills and knobs of Arkansas. It’s filled with scenic views, a full canopy of trees and plenty of rocks of different sizes and shapes.
SCC has grown over the years from a club group of 15 trucks to a record crowd of 130 trucks for this years crawl;. Drivers range from beginner to expert and the trucks break up into several categories: Old FJ’s, FJ’s turned buggies, New FJ Cruisers and other classic and modern Toyota Trucks.
I arrived on Thursday morning for the first day of registration. While checking in, I chatted with a few guys. Nearly the first guy I met, Tim from Tennessee, said he had heard that a few of us were coming down from Illinois. He welcomed me and introduced me to his co-pilot, his young daughter. We agreed to meet up out on the trails. I decided to grab a map and ride a few 1 and 2 diamond trails “solo” to get a feel for the place.
I am relatively new to off road events. Other than FJ Summit 8 earlier in the year, I have never done anything like this. FJ Summit 8 was a blast! While there, I met a couple guys of Cottonland Cruiser guys who said, “Come down to the Southern Cruiser Crawl in October”. After spending 3 days in the mountains of Colorado finding out what my 2010 4Runner Trail Edition could do, I was sold.
To be fair, the events are on different ends of the spectrum. FJ Summit is hours and hours of driving with moderate to difficult challenges based on your pre-selected route. Its also a scenic journey that makes you want to stop every ten minutes to take pictures. The Southern Cruiser Crawl can be minute by minute challenges that will change on a dime as you choose paths with variable difficulties. If you want to see what your truck can do, and be surrounded by like minded Toyota aficionados, SCC has you covered. The Hot Springs ORV Park is a giant pile of Arkansas rocks that have been carved into all variety of terrains.
After rolling out with my map, I got five minutes down the road to find 2 guys walking the trail. “Thats odd” I thought, “nobody walks in an Off Road Park!” Turns out these guys (from Moline, hours from me back in Pekin IL), who were here not much longer than I, had rolled their old 4Runner. In the back of
my mind, I am thinking “I’m screwed”. If people are already rolling their trucks on the first morning, I have overestimated my chances of surviving the weekend in my 4Runner. The guys who I picked up had not been driving much longer than I that morning, hit a bad spot on Squids Juant, and rolled their first-gen 4Runner. It now lie on its roof with no chance of movement without help. I am not equipped with a winch (Dont judge me! Second event!) and was not familiar with the trail they were stuck on… I offered to give them a ride back to base camp.
It was luck or fate that I ran into a crowd of FJ Cruisers headed our way from home base. I told them the situation, and they were totally willing to help out. The FJ group were from the Louisiana Landcreweser club. This was not their first rodeo at SCC. Bart, the official navigator of LLC led us up a bypass on the hill to find a good spot for winching the old 4Runner off its back. After about 30 minutes of setting up and turning the truck over, another FJ40 buggy showed up to tow the old Runner back to the parking lot.
At this point, I have seen more action in 1 hour at SCC than I thought I might see in a weekend! I had not even completed a trail yet and got to be witness to a recovery. I asked the guys if it would be cool if I followed their caravan that day. Bart, the guide of the group nervously said yes. This was a blessing for me, I didn’t know anyone and was now had an wince of paranoia in my brain from witnessing the recovery.
I followed the guys on Brandons Run and Buckhorn North. I was now running trails that were 3 and 4 diamond “rated” just by tailing these guys. My nearly stock 4Runner was doing everything the well-accessorized FJ’s were attempting. At one point, I was offered a bypass after the truck in front of me could not make it up a slope… Huh? Not even a shot at it? I hollered that I wanted to give it a shot, and Bart and the gang got in position to guide me up. My truck made it… Pretty handily. I was impressed and I think everyone was just a little surprised that the 4Runner could manage to keep up.
I later found out from Bart that he is always a little leery about taking strangers along on a tour if they have not witnessed the driver before. The potential for injury or vehicle damage is greatly increased when you misjudge the ability of someone on the trail. Its not an insult if someone asks your experience level out on the trails, its just a way to help measure the skill level in the group.
One perk of this event that was talked about on the forums, but not
fully realized by myself was the food. On Thursday, LLC prepared huge pot of homemade Jambalaya. I soaked in the intoxicating aromas of all the ingredients as they stirred them into the giant cast iron pot. After being tortured for 2 hours, I finally got a taste. It was worth the wait!
Friday night the Bayou State Land Cruisers served up an authentic Gumbo that they were working on all day. Served over a bowl of rice, it was amazing! I think everyone, I mean everyone stopped what they were doing for this. It was also a great opportunity to see the mass of enthusiasts all in once place talking about trucks, trails and memories of events past. This felt like a giant family reunion!
Its worth mentioning that I also had a bit of home cooking when I was offered some homemade Crawfish Étouffée. I also tried some Boudin, its sausage that is stuffed with seasoned rice and grilled. (Thanks Jason, Kevin and Jonas) The Étouffée and Boudin were enough to make me rethink my whole existence in Central Illinois!
Friday night also had a scheduled musical act stop in to play some country goodness. Jason Eady is a full blown record making/touring artist with a complete band, not just some local guys playing cover songs! I’m not even a country fan, but anytime you have a guy on stage with a steel guitar in his lap… Its worth listening! We were presented with music on the same caliber as the food served that night.
Thursday night it had rained buckets! I was in my tent moving my cot when I developed a leak at 11PM. I was then up all night thinking that Friday might just be a soup of water and mud. This made me slightly nervous. This next morning my friend was showing up with his stock 1982 FJ40. We have been working on restoring this truck for a year, an this was going to be its maiden voyage off-roading.
Apparently Arkansas deals with water like a duck deals with it on the back. Its gone in minutes. Even with over an inch of rain falling the previous night, the rocks and gravel of the trails dried out and were ready for the earliest adventurers Friday morning.
That morning my friend Mike arrived at the park with his 1982 FJ40. To this point, the truck has only seen country roads and driven around Central Illinois. We thought this event might be a good place to see what it can do. Besides… If it breaks down here, we have pretty good odds that someone will be able to help fix it or tow it out!
We took the FJ40 on the Tex Windor trail. Its a combination of 1 and 2 diamond trails. We lumped this little truck into the same group as the FJ Cruisers from the day before. Everyone was gracious and patient, but the 40 kept up nicely. Mike tried to get the 40 to climb a rock pile as part of the trail, but it was too much without any kind of differential locks or longer travel in the suspension. We took the bypass.
One thing you hear a lot when trailing with new Toyota trucks is “Do you have your A-Trac on?”. Newer trucks spoil you and make it look so easy! The 82 is a stick and never had the option to be fitted with the tech we find so necessary today. Climbing into that truck after driving a modern vehicle is like taking a trip in a time machine. Supportive seats, air conditioning, cameras on the nose all seem like luxuries of the rich after spending a hour in the 82 FJ40. I imagine if the guys in the buggies on a nearby trail had heard us yelling about A-Trac, they would have been snickering about who the real 4X4 guys are!
We were laughing and having a blast in that 82 every-time we crossed ANY terrain feature. When you drive an old vehicle like that, you are really “one” with the truck. You cannot cheat the slopes of Arkansas hills by flipping on some extra features built into your truck. You have to pick good lines and not kill the engine as you are creeping uphill!
The 40 was a noble steed. She did her job and proved a worthy trail crawler. This truck and every 40 are a testament to solid engineering and quality craftsmanship. Toyota has a reputation for excellence in off-road vehicles, and the 40 is the basis for that.
We did a few more runs with the 2010 4Runner, even a night run. Amazingly, when we did Rubicon Ridge… We spent almost 2 hours out of the trail without seeing another soul. This was nice, as I had expected that a park like this would have us running over other groups left and right. The trail was beautiful, and made me rethink everything I thought about venues outside the mountains.
When we left SCC, we had made new friends, learned more about our trucks and became more inspired to hit more of these type events. We were already looking forward to FJ Summit 9, but now have Mardi Crawl and any number of other events in the meantime till then.
After seeing the camaraderie among the other clubs and owners, it was obvious what we needed to do after leaving. We need a club like this! We will be looking to spread the word to more Illinois Toyota truck owners with the hopes of getting our own club together. There are trails and events all over the central states, though not as big, still worthy of us checking out with our Toyota’s.
If you go:
Expect lots of Southern Hospitality, Laughter, Great Food and a ton of rocky trails that vary from beginner to expert.
The ORV Park is a great place to camp and make your home during the event. The CLC provided free dinner and musical entertainment 2 nights and If you imbibe too much of that hospitality, you don’t have far to walk!
Hot Springs Arkansas is a pretty decent sized town with shopping, scenic national park grounds and lots of restaurants. Unlike some rural ORV parks, you are not separated from civilization.
One big contradiction to the above statement is the Cell coverage at the park. I have ATT, but I heard folks on other carriers complain about signal. Some even ran to the top of the ridges to get a signal. If that’s important to you, try the KOA or stay nearer to Hot Springs.
Bring food and drink to share and you will probably get some in return.
A lunch truck is on hand for your food needs during the day.
The park office has tons of supplies if you forget something at home. Shampoo to winches!
Bonus tip: When someone tells you to line up behind the diesel FJ60 for a run… Its basically a way of hazing a rookie wheeler!
Authors note: I have completely aware that this article has a Penthouse Forums vibe to it. (So I have been told, I wouldn’t know anything about that!). In other words, it feels like an excited kid that just got to do some amazing things that never seemed possible. It is a unique opportunity in this day and age when you can be this excited mentally and physically. With all the digital entertainment and our on demand lifestyle, something as salt of the earth as driving a truck over loose rocks brings back senses and feelings that have been atrophied by lack of use. I will try to be more professional and less personal on the next event, but its gonna be hard to resist! Eric
Link to the dropbox with all pictures: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/ti4dm69qhgfivp7/AACC-LYiNK0ZLfwSBw-AP6S6a?dl=0
Special Thanks to:
Fort’s Toyota and their trail team. www.toyota-pekin.com
Endless Horizon Expedition Outfitters. www.endlesshorizonoutfitters.com
Extreme Para. http://www.extremepara.com/