This year Fort’s Trail Team had the honor of escorting a customer out to the 10th annual FJ Summit in Ouray Colorado.
One of our Trail Team regulars, Jacob Irish and his Wife and Daughter made the trip with our Service Manager Eric Stahl and his family. The trip began in Moab Utah. Our first base camp was set along the Colorado River. It was an amazingly scenic area to say the least! We were blessed with a full moon and it illuminated the cliffs and mesas around our campsite at night. While in Moab, we visited Arches National Park and spent a day off the beaten path on Kokopelli Trail.
After Moab, the expedition moved down to Ouray Colorado to join in with the FJ Summit 10 festivities. FJ Summit is filled with tons of like-minded Toyota lovers and vendors specific to Toyota trucks.
We can tell you from experience that FJ Summit is one of the best organized Toyota events in the country. Well run events like this can take the stress off first timers who might feel intimidated. Do not let the rough roads and high altitudes scare you. The best part about FJ Summit is its accommodation to “stock” trucks. You can take a truck off of our lot today and hit the trails tomorrow. Again, we know this for a fact because we have done it with stock trucks.
In Colorado, our mini expedition climbed to the top of Imogene Pass at a height of over 13,000 feet. Its an amazing spectacle to be at the top of the rockies looking over miles of mountains with snow covered peaks. The air was cold, but the sun was hot. It was a welcome break from the heat and humidity of July in Central Illinois.
We were thrilled to hear from Jacob when everyone got back home. His family declared it to be their favorite family vacation ever!
Our next trip to an official Toyota off-road event is in Mid October. A crew of about 4 trucks from Fort’s will be headed out to Southern Cruiser Crawl in Hot Springs Arkansas. Contact Eric or Matt in service for details.
Most of us on the trail team prefer to camp as part of our travels… Part of the joy of this aspect of travelling includes visiting new campgrounds and finding cool spots we can share with others.
On our trip to Moab and FJ Summit this year, our first night of driving ended with us in Strasburg Colorado. We knew this was going to be a stopping point ahead of time and had made reservations. It’s about 14 hours from home and a great distance to stop driving at.
Strasburg is a little town with tons of cheap hotels along I-70. Really nothing to write home about (or blog about!). When we came into town we could see that the KOA was disturbingly close to the highway… Not just any highway, one of the busiest interstates in the country! Had it been earlier, we might have tried to skip out of this place based solely on our first impression of location and noise.
We decided not to make a fuss… It was 8PM and we just needed a place to sleep! As we have seen before at other KOA’s, the front desk clerks will leave you check-in paperwork at the front door if they are already closed for the night. We grabbed our packets to see where we were camping. Ugh… This campground had put us on opposite sides of the park. Not their problem, as we had made different reservations… But it was a bit of drag as they were way apart, not even close.
Just as we were talking about where to go, a man came up in a golf cart wearing the classic yellow KOA polo shirt. He introduced himself as Scott. He and his Mom own this KOA and he started running down the amenities. He told the kids about the pancake breakfast his mom makes in the morning. I think the kids were drooling for pancakes right then.
Scott figured out really fast that we were together as two trucks and offered instantly to let us use the group camping area so we could be close that night. That was awesome. We were thrilled. We bedded down and other than a few loud motorcycles that sounded like they were doing 200MPH on the nearby highway it was a peaceful night.
The next morning we were tearing down the tents and getting cleaned up super early. Scott saw me and asked if we were coming to breakfast. Even though it was before normal serving time, he said we could get our breakfast now. Awesome. We loaded up. 4 or 5 bucks a head for a full plate of food, juice and a coffee. It was just what the doctor ordered!
From there, it was off to Moab Utah.
The next couple of days camping were spent in primitive spots along the Colorado River in Moab. Amenities were only what you provide for yourself. To say we were a bit “funky” after a few days out in the wild would be a massive understatement!
Our next campsite was a KOA in Colorado. I will refrain from mentioning the location for reasons you will see later.
We checked in around and found a tidy little campground in the middle of town. The front desk clerk was terse and did not tell us about much at the campground except to say some downtown restaurants were good. She also was not accommodating when we asked about possibly tearing down our tents around 1PM after trail run the next morning. No biggie, we thought we would ask. We were directed to our campsite on the edge of the campground.
After we were started putting our tents down… A staff member of the KOA came up on a 4Wheeler. He then proceeded to unspool a hose off the back of the machine and start spraying the grass around us. Herbicide? Pesticide? Who knows. I am not freak about this stuff, but I had to say something.
“Hey, can you hold off on that?” I asked.
“It says it’s safe in 30 minutes” was his reply.
“I’d feel better if you held off while we are camped here” I said.
He then reeled up the hose and took off. He had a look of “whatever” on his face as he drove away.
A few minutes later one of my kids came up to me and asked how to get into the bathrooms. You need a code to get into the door? Oh, I remember a sheet of paper being attached to our checkin materials. Sure enough, there were passwords for the bathrooms.
That night, I swear a helicopter took off next door to the campground. It was amazing how loud it was. In reality, this was no more disturbing than the motorcylces and trucks we had heard on I70 a few nights before.
We woke to a beautiful day for trail riding. We packed up camp and started loading up the trucks. We never thought about breakfast at the KOA as the clerk did not recommend anything when we checked in.
We hit the trails that day and headed off to more days of travel until we got back home.
The moral is obvious. People make all the difference.
Scott and his Mom did everything to make sure we were settled and taken care of. Their facility was not the best location, but they make more out of what they have by being hospitable and friendly. I would stay at this KOA again strictly on the experience I received even with their location shortcomings.
The second location we stopped at may have been caught on a bad day. Regardless, there was no impression left on us that we should ever go back to that campground. The real question for the second KOA staff: Could they overcome my negative experience if they had a staff like stop number one? I would say yes.
Now, this is one person’s experience. If you take that by all the customers who check in and out everyday… The value is unlimited. Building relationships is the value-add that is not figured into the price. Some of those customers will become an advocate for your business.
“Dad, I think something’s wrong with Jake’s wheels”
That came out of my daughters mouth while helping me spot for my friends FJ going up Rose Garden Hill in Moab. At first, I dismissed it as the inexperienced eyes of 15 year old… Then I looked more closely at what she was seeing from the front of the truck.
Jake was trying to get his 2014 FJ into position to help winch my 2010 4Runner off giant boulder that had left me high centered. (In hindsight, I should have had him spotting me on the way up, it might have saved us this whole situation! ) The road halfway up the hill had been a smattering of loose boulders and a few rock shelves. Rose Garden is rated a 4 on the trail map… Which is an aggressive number. The people I know that have been there thought I should have no problem tackling it with an end goal of getting to “Top of the world” for the iconic photo opportunity.
The route to Rose Garden Hill takes some serious time. We started travelling the Kokopelli Trail from Sand Flats about 9AM and went all the way around the south/east side of Moab to get to this point. It’s actually an amazing change of terrain and conditions in the short span of a few hours. Orange Desert to green mountainside in the span of an hour. At about 11 we ran across another group of pre-FJ Summit FJ’s on the trail… The other FJ crew was bottled behind a herd of cattle and we could see them turn around to avoid the traffic jam. With the exception of one truck later in the day… That group of trucks were last vehicles we saw for the rest of the day!
Jakes truck was in a ditch of big rocks. I noticed the camber looking a little off on the drivers front wheel while Jake was turning the steering wheel. The bottom side of the tire was pushing out and the top was really angled underneath the wheel well. I held up my hand and told Jake to stop… Something was wrong! My kid was right!
When we ducked down to take a look… It was pretty grim. The upper control arm was popped over the tire and grease was smeared everywhere. The lower control arm looked OK as did the axle and tie rod end. My mind started thinking about every option for recovery. One of my friends had a Jeep roll into a culvert near a cornfield a few months ago at the cost of nearly $4,000.00 for recovery. I was pretty sure neither of us wanted to get into that expense. Insurance companies probably would not fully help out either. It flashed through my head that we could get the kids out of here and come back later, but it was already 3:30 in the afternoon. It would take hours to come back.
“We have to fix this”… “We can do this”… That was my verbal declaration to Jake, the wives and the kids who tagged along with us.
First step… Lift this truck up and see what is left of the ball joint. The FJ factory jack is accordian style. It is pretty worthless in an uneven pavement situation. The 2010 4Runner had a bottle jack… Even fully extended it was not tall enough for the lift we were trying to get. We then stacked rocks and started cranking on the little guy. It took a few times before we found a rock/jack combination that seemed secure.
Once we were up, it was easy to see an intact ball joint separated from upper control arm. Somewhere in the caverns of my mind I started to recall a similar situation and repair.
“We can fix this”.
Again… Declaring to everyone that we were not screwed. This was affirmation for me and I hoped it would be a relief to the families as they patiently waited in the 100 degree temps. I had NO idea if I could in fact fix this… But I sure was going to try.
We grabbed every ratchet strap that wasn’t tied down and started to draw the ball joint closer to the socket. Using a combination of ratchet adjustments and Jake behind the wheel, we lined it up. At that point… It was ratchet strap fever… I locked down 4 straps on varying positions to pull down on the UCA. It would appear that we were in business!
All we had to do now get back down the hill. In reverse, down a class 4 trail, with a broken ball joint! Then, drive 2 hours or so to get back to our campsite on the Colorado river. We also still had the little issue of my 4Runner being stuck. The first test on the straps was backing up and pulling my truck free via Jakes winch. That worked… So far, so good.
Backing down, I spotted Jake and we tried to be as delicate as possible. When we finally got to the bottom, an overwhelming shot of adrenaline came over me. Seriously. My heart started racing and I got tensed up. I asked my wife how long we had been on the hill, expecting her to say 45 minutes… She said it had been 3 hours. I really do believe my mind and body went into some kind of “ass-kicking” mode when we were in trouble. Time and fatigue were not going to be issues until we solved this.
After we were down… I reevaluated the straps… I figured out that the front torsion bar was the best location to mount a strap. I had placed a large strap at the bottom of the shock to the UCA, but its movement was loosening the tension. I used two super strong straps on the front of the UCA down to the torsion bar. Those straps held tight for the rest of the trip. We backtracked a ways down Kokopelli and caught another trail toward Moab. I got out every 15 to 20 minutes and checked the straps… They were doing great! We got the FJ back to our campsite without any more incidents. It was 9PM by the time we got back… And we were dead tired! Showers? Nah! Beer? Hell yes!
After the wives and kids were in bed Jake and I talked about it over a cold one. We both agreed that it could have been far worse! All the doubts that we harbored about making that “save” today came out. Its one thing to be lucky, but we probably should not have been there in the first place. Lesson learned… Save the hardcore wheeling stuff for the local off road park… Not the family vacation!
The next day we headed to Grand Junction in hopes of a miracle to get this truck fully up and running for a trip down to Ouray and FJ Summit 10. But, that is another story in itself!
We don’t talk about tires a whole lot when we talk about upgrades…
I think that is mostly becuase we reserve judgement on tires until they have performed to expectations or fail miserably.
We are 35,000 miles into our General Grabbers on the “Tree Hugger”. At the time of install, we had no opinion of the Generals. They had fairly good ratings and a great price point. We didn’t want to break the bank when we made our first trip to Southern Cruiser Crawl two years ago. Before the Generals, the truck had BF Goodrich AT tires on it. They had made it through FJSummit 8, but were chopped-up, nearly worn out and making a ton of noise.
Since the Generals were installed at 90,000 miles… Tree Hugger has since been all over the country checking out a half dozen TLCA events, driven to car shows, made countless Badlands trips and one seldom spoken about Jeep club event.
All that time, the tires have driven smoothly and more importantly… Quietly! If you make a trip to Utah, the last thing you want to hear for 1300 miles is a rowdy “Wwwwwaaaaaaahhhhhhhh” noise. Thats impressive when you know that we have driven for days on end with 15 to 20lbs PSI. You would figure that one of of those trips with the air down and hitting a gnarly rock would expose a flaw or even ruin a decent tire.
Not so. In 35,000 miles over two years, we have tore up some treads… And I noticed this week a outer edge chunk of tread was missing… But other than this exterior wear, you would think you were driving on new tires.
Negatives? If you had to nitpick these tires… And complain about something (That was likely drivers over expectations)… It would be mud handling. The aforementioned Jeep event showed that the AT moniker on the sidewall means its its prepared for All Terrain. Once the rain came out in a midwest off-road trail… The AT’s decided they could get you around, but not with great confidence. That trip had me admiring the guys with the Mud Terrain tires. Then again… The guys with the MT’s have to wear ear plugs on the way home!
All in all…. The General Grabbers are a great everyday tire for a truck that sees its share of on and off road adventures. I highly recommend them!
This weekend at Cars & Coffee was a great chance to get together with some of the team members and start kicking around ideas for some Summer fun. (See our Cars & Coffee pictures on our Facebook page.)
We love the Badlands… Its a great park for us here in Central Illinois. But, its also been our ONLY hangout for the past year. We are throwing out ideas right now… Who would be up for a trip to Flat Nasty or Southern Missouri Off Road Ranch (SMORR)? Both are south of St. Louis a fair distance… One is nearly to Springfield MO.
A trip to Colorado is still in the pipeline as well… FJ Summit in July may be sold out… But it would still be a great trip if we made it out to Ouray during the festivities. Moab, Leadville and other stops could be lasso’ed in as well.
Rain, sleet and hail… Springtime in the Midwest. While the weather was frightful here in Central Illinois during the first week of April, it confirmed our desire to get out town and head south for a Toyota Landcruiser Association event.
Eight hours south, just over of the Tennessee border in Alabama lies the tiny little town of in Tuscumbia Alabama… If you cant find it on a map, look for the town of Muscle Shoals… History lesson, Muscle Shoals is the birthplace of some of the most important music produced in the past century. Tuscumbia is right down the road. Tuscumbia is famous for Hawk Pride Mountain off-road park. Well known as a premier off-road destination, its 1000 acres of hilly trails have been the home of Mardi Krawl for the past 4 years.
The Mardi Krawl is a charity event sponsored by Louisiana Landkrewesers with the mission of raising funds for the Louisiana Hero’s Project. 100% of the funds raised during special events and the huge Saturday night auction go to this non-profit.
We drove casually Thursday (Stopping by Metropolis IL for a fun excursion) and arrived late that night to setup camp. Sign in was Thursday morning and a lot of folks were already there. We caught up with the gang from Endless Horizon Expedition Outfitters and Southern Style Speed at their campfire and grabbed a bite of some fresh Étouffée (fresh Louisiana shrimp and sauce smothered over rice). Yeah, that was delicious. There was even a demonstration on how to bead seal tires with the fuel and flame technique… That’s another story though!
Friday morning we grabbed breakfast and headed over to the driver meeting. Danielle Delaney, the president of the Louisiana Landkrewesers, ran down the weekend rules and explained the meet-up points for that mornings runs. We also got our goodie bags… Filled with a cool Mardi Krawl T-Shirt, stickers, drink coozies and a dash placard and a pile of other trinkets.
At the meeting point we grabbed onto a group that was hitting moderate trails. I had been warned ahead of time by LLK member, Jonas, that Hawk Pride had a “special kind of mud” after a rain that could make every trail more “challenging”. The ground was still a little damp from rain earlier in the week. I was running General Grabber AT tires on the 2010 Trail Edition 4Runner and was going to error on the side of caution at a new-to-me park. I said “I think we will do the easy trails.” My friends who I have wheeled at Southern Cruiser Crawl said I probably shouldn’t be that fearful. I went ahead and went with the moderate trails based on what they were telling.
It was a good call. The moderate trails were a mix of knotty tree stumps, slippery but small boulders and shelf rocks along with some mud pits. Challenging and fun… Not horribly stressful… A great way to learn the lay of the land. At the end of “Lucky’s” we hit a narrow rock opening with a decent off-camber drop-off. Our awesome trail leader, Cody, walked everyone through the obstacle without a scratch. A great spotter can make all the difference and Cody had been a great guide all day.
That night we were treated to an authentic Jambalaya cooked up by the guys from Endless Horizon Expedition Outfitters. The Cajun dish was delicious, and they had plenty. Everyone was filled up! After that, a surprisingly awesome local band came to stage and played to the crowd till 11:00. It was a great time!
Saturday morning was beautiful. The sun was shining and the skies were blue. By the peak of the day… It was 75 degrees.
The trails were perfect. Saying they were perfect is almost an understatement. Any “mud” that had been in the shady parts of the trails on Friday was now dried out except for the big holes. It was ideal weather to be wheeling with other like-minded Toyota owners.
Since the park was not closed off… Saturday did bring in a lot of other 4×4’s and buggies. It wasn’t a big deal, most of them were buggies and ATV’s, we were not on the same trails. Side note: Danielle said the park will be closed off for the 2017 Mardi Krawl event exclusively… That will be great!
We grabbed on with another group of drivers for more intermediate trails. At the very end of the day, we ended up on difficult part of “Lucky’s” again. That was blind luck. Since it was dry, and we were now “experienced”… We hustled through without a scratch.
We rolled around some more areas of the park and found a high spot at the “overlook”. It was a nice ending to a great day of wheeling. A picture of spring in the south. It didn’t get any better.
That night after another southern staple… Red beans and Rice. Nobody left hungry!
Then the moment everyone was waiting for… The raffle.
Before the festivities got fully kicked in… Danielle read a letter from a family that is helped by the Louisiana Hero’s Project. It was a heart-tug and reality check before we delved into another night of fun.
The raffle was amazing. For a small event, they had tons of giveaways. Even the kids got swag. Southern Style Speed had donated some serious bumpers and rock rails… Icing on the cake was that Brown Forensic Accounting had donated an ARB Cooler fridge. A lot of people won some great gear!
All told… The event raised 2500.00 for the Louisiana Hero’s charity. It was a great event to start with, but knowing that some folks benefited directly from our entry fee’s and raffle tickets made it that much better.
2017 will be the 5th anniversary of Mardi Krawl. Every year they have grown and nobody sees that trend stopping. This year, 90 trucks registered and came from 13 states. Lets see if we can get a 100+ trucks next year!
Sunday morning at 6:30 AM the forcasted rain came in and woke us up in our tent. It was a great sign that we should pack up and head out. We had the truck loaded up and began to pull through the dirt parking lot… It was then that I noticed my steering was not working. I could turn left or right while moving forward, and the truck just went straight. It didn’t take long to figure out what was going on… The “special kind of mud” had finally showed up. The top layer of all the red dirt paths had gone from a solid base to a slippery goo. My tires were inflated back up for highway driving… But it was obvious that this “mud” have made the easiest paths and hills at Hawk Pride a lot more difficult on AT tires. Lesson learned for next year!
If you go:
Cabins are limited. If you require facilities with power… Register early!
Primitive camping is plentiful and a short walk to the bathhouse.
The bathhouse was a disaster by Sunday morning. I can personally speak for the men’s side, but my Wife and daughter did not have good reviews either. Having the park closed for this event next year should take the bathroom traffic down.
I took my Wife and a 12 and 14 year old… It was as nice spring break get-away… And the kids enjoyed getting out of the truck and climbing on the rocks. At night, the adult activities get a little festive, we pulled back and had a campfire by our tent. That was a safe distance.
Tires: I ran with AT tires all weekend without getting stuck. If it had rained a 1/4 of an inch… I would have needed MT tires in a bad way. Keep this in mind when making your plans.
Rock rails and armor are highly recommended for the Difficult level trails. There was plenty of damage to be shown off at the end day. We were playing it safe and kept our damage down to pin-striping!
CB’s are always nice when you are hanging with real “wheeling” folk. At an event like this… Our portable one did just fine. Larger areas demand something mounted in the cab.
Questions, comments or concerns? email Eric at email@example.com
In April of 2015 we traded for a tired little Tacoma. We had sold this 4 door V6 Tacoma new in 2002 and it then proceeded to roll to 315,000 miles before being traded in. The truck ran pretty good for 300,000 miles. It was hard to fault it on outward appearance only.
Underneath lurked the biggest problem with this truck. The Tacoma was nearly sway-back from a rusted frame. Salt from midwest winters had slowly eaten away at the frame over the last decade leaving it in a precarious condition. This truck, while in decent exterior condition was ready for the auto auction and an uncertain future.
As the Tacoma sat on the back row… The employee members or Fort’s Trail Team inquired with the sales manager about it. The truck was a V6, 4×4 with factory rear differential lock. After getting more info about what was needed, we decided that it could be an amazing project.
Could we take this old Tacoma with heaps of miles and bring it back to a fully safe and drivable condition?
After talking about the project with the owner of the dealership, Mike Fort, he came up with a bigger idea yet… Have this truck ready to go to FJ Summit in Ouray Colorado by July! We offered the two technicians who were involved with restoring the truck the opportunity to take it to FJ Summit and drive it to the tops of the Colorado Rockies on some of the most famous 4×4 trails in the nation.
They were all in. The techs came up with a name; Project “300” was born!
It would have been a lot easier project if money were no object and they were given a blank checkbook. We had to keep it reasonable! The goal was to get the truck running mechanically sound and make minor modifications that would help in Colorado. The ultimate goal was to bring it back to Illinois and show off what a 300,000 mile truck could do without a ton of modifications.
Step 1: Remove the body from the frame. This was the longest process. The purpose being to send the frame out to the local welding shop for frame repairs.
Step 2: Upgrade and fix anything that needs repaired for drivability. Valve covers, spark plugs, timing belt, control arms, brake lines, ebrake cables, headlight restoration.. You name it… We fixed it. The last thing you want at 13,000 feet is a breakdown.
Step 3: Make upgrades to the suspension and tires. While it would not out of the realm of possibility to do all of FJ Summit completely “stock”. We decided that an Icon Variable Lift setup with taller tires would make the trip into the mountains a lot easier.
Step 4: Drive the heck out of it before getting to Colorado. This was hard to do, as we finished the project with 2 weeks to spare! The drive alone was 1000 miles to Ouray.
We left with a truckload of youthful bravado on July 10th for the rockies from Central Illinois. The truck did well… Until North Platte Nebraska. We had a breakdown that required immediate attention. The crank pulley was lost on I80 and now the truck had no power from the alternator.
Now, we could go into a blame-game about who was supposed to check that.. But it would detour us from a great segue about Premier Toyota in North Platte. As our truck limped off the interstate, we were able to catch a technician working in the shop at 4:55 on a Saturday. He had a crank pulley in his box from an older Tacoma! There were a few complications, but the tech, Tim, stuck it out all night and helped the guys. The General Manager, Dave, heard the story, and he was on board as well. By Sunday afternoon, the road trip was back on.
“The little truck that could” blazed a trail to Leadville and run Mosquito pass without incident before heading to Ouray and FJ Summit 9.
After the “Platteville Incident”, as it is now called, and successful runs at Mosquito Pass and some other trail runs, 300 had built a small following on Facebook. It was becoming battle tested.
At FJ Summit, 300 was scheduled to run Imogene Pass, Black Bear Pass and Poughkeepsie Gulch. Imogene was a great start to the “Summit”. Lots of driving and beautiful surroundings. Not a whole lot to get stressed about. Black Bear is a lot of hype for the most part. But it is dangerous if you are a rookie driver without spotters or have a vehicle with run-down equipment. This is not a place to have an axle go bad or lose a tie rod! 300 did amazing on a very soggy and muddy Black Bear.
The last official run at Summit was Poughkeepsie. This was pretty exciting, by trail rating it’s the toughest run at Summit. The final hurdle on this trail is a rock ledge called “The Wall”. Its such a formidable opponent that permanent winch points are installed to assist in the recovery you will likely need to get on top. We were in a group of 12 trucks Saturday morning… Of that group… Only 3 got up the “Wall”. 300 was not one of them. Dustin, the head technician on the 300 project was driving that day and to say he was distraught by this would be an understatement. The stars had seemed to line up at every moment for this truck. Every obstacle had been run down literally and figuratively to get this truck to Ouray! How could it fail now???
It was not a fail. 300 had accomplished its goal. A 300,000 mile truck with little hope for the future was brought back from the dead and given a new lease on life. At a total cost of just over $6,000.00, it had competed with trucks that cost 10x what it did to run at FJ Summit. It was just one more point proven to us that Toyota makes the most solid truck in the world.
300 now rests comfortably on our lot at Fort’s Toyota of Pekin (until its next trail event). The truck is a testament to the quality of product we see everyday at the store. We are happy to show it off! Please come out and take a look!
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.
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 andBoudin 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