Travel, Transit (borders, legalities, etc.)

What causes those %#@**! corrugations?

 . . . or washboard, as they're known (only?) in the U.S. I've been asked this many times, but this time I'll give a nod to the people at Practical Motoring 4x4 in Australia, who explained it perfectly here.

Of course, knowing how they're formed doesn't make them any less infuriating, especially after 40 or 50 unrelenting kilometers of them has loosened every fastener on the truck and every neural connection in your brain, rendering the slightest first-world problem cause for scarlet-faced rage—such as when the iPhone RAM Mount suction cup pops off the windscreen AGAIN and you catch yourself seriously contemplating heaving the whole assembly out the window.

The only defense short of an airlift out by Chinook is to find that sweet spot speed at which the tires are more or less skipping from one crest to the next. It isn't effective enough to use the word relief, but there is a minor lowering of the rage threshold. Beware, however: With the tires in contact with the earth only about 40 percent of the time, the chances for sudden snap-oversteer on a curve or when braking are compounded. And don't think your suspension is getting the relief you are; it's still being punished.

To climb or not to climb . . . Uluru

I'm confident most people reading this will recognize the image above without the need for a caption. Formerly known as Ayers Rock (as christened by William Gosse in 1873 in honor of Sir Henry Ayers, the Chief Secretary of South Australia), it is now preferably referred to by its Aboriginal name, Uluru, bestowed some few thousand years before Europeans chanced upon the 1,100-foot tall (from the base) sandstone inselberg.

We very nearly missed seeing it, fearing the commercialization of the site would spoil it for us. We're glad we decided to go, because the overwhelming grandeur of the place simply crushes any banality humans might tack on to it—besides which we found the visitors' center and associated community extremely well-run, and observantly respectful regarding the deeply held Aboriginal spiritual traditions attached to Uluru.

However. We also uncovered a disturbing controversy.

The local Pitjantjatjara Anangu never climb Uluru, partly because, as I read it, the route to the top crosses a sacred Dreamtime track. Around the site are numerous signs requesting that visitors also refrain from climbing it, both to respect this spiritual tradition and because the people feel responsible when someone is injured or needs rescuing—which apparently occurs with some frequency. 

Why not simply ban climbing? Because the 1985 agreement with the Australian government, which finally granted co-management of the rock to the local people, forcibly included a clause that precluded them from doing so. Numerous pleas from them to rewrite the agreement have fallen on deaf ears. As a result, each year several thousand tourists ignore the local beliefs and requests and climb the rock. Some do so simply to say they have; others apparently believe they gain their own special spiritual benefits from doing so. For some even this is not enough—one visitor apparently thought it would be oh so clever to hit a golf ball from the top; a young French woman decided it would be equally clever to have herself filmed running topless along the crest, to be posted on her Facebook page.

More? Sure: There are no facilities on the summit. Many of those climbers who feel their needs are more important than the beliefs of the local people also suddenly feel the need to urinate or worse after their triumphal ascent. When storms deluge the rock with rain, it forms stunning waterfalls, each carrying with it a little something from all those climbers.

Amelie, lovely young French woman at the excellent tribal arts center, informed us of much of this, expressing disgust at the solipsism of her topless compatriot. She also let us know there was a book we could sign, declaring that we had chosen not to climb Uluru in solidarity. We did so proudly.

The Anangu still hope to change the restrictions the government places on their management of their own sacred site. In the meantime, I'll state this: If you visit Uluru and ignore the requests of the local people because you have something to prove, or your shaman told you your spirit would be healed by the magical air on top, and you fall off—I won't shed a tear.


Fractal exploration . . .

My 1973 Land Cruiser attracted a lot of attention at this year’s Overland Expo West. However, I noticed a prevalent attitude in the questions I got. A lot of people seem to view a nicely maintained 44-year-old FJ40 as nothing but a museum piece, suitable for the odd retro run, collecting wistful “I wish I’d never sold mine” comments at Cars and Coffee, or day drives on nearby trails with lunch and a cooler of soft drinks on board. Actually traveling in it? That would be . . . a little crazy, wouldn’t it? Even a friend who’d owned a soft-top Jeep Wrangler TJ—not exactly a Bentley Bentayga by comparison—noted, “You wouldn’t want to go too far in this, would you?” during a grueling 20-minute errand run around Flagstaff.

To which my response is, What have we become? Have we reached a point at which, if our overland vehicle doesn’t have 80mph cruise capability, dual-zone climate control, 500 pounds of sound deadening, magnetorheological dampers, and a 16-speaker Burmeister entertainment system, it’s just not worth the hell of going anywhere? A recent thread I spotted on a Land Cruiser forum was titled “FJ40 long range use?” as if the poster was not even sure it was legal.

There are exactly three “disadvantages” to long-distance travel in an FJ40, assuming it’s been maintained to be reliable:

  1. It doesn’t like to go fast.
  2. It’s loud.
  3. It doesn’t have a lot of cargo space.

The first two issues can be solved at the same time: Don’t drive as fast and it won’t be as loud. Fifty five miles per hour is a comfortable cruise speed in a 40. Sixty isn’t bad, and 65 is okay if you need to take an interstate somewhere. You won’t be doing 700-mile days in an FJ40, but 400-mile days are easy if you’re transiting to get someplace special. Still too loud? Use ear plugs like motorcyclists do.

Ah, but what about those leaf springs, massive solid axles, and that 90-inch wheelbase? No, an FJ40 is never going to be a Land Rover Discovery, but then it’s never going to detonate an air bag in the outback, as two Discos I’ve been with personally have done. And with a set of medium-rate Old Man Emu springs and shocks, our 40 rides better than our 2012 Tacoma did stock.

That “transiting” I mentioned earlier? That is the magic of traveling in a slow, loud vehicle. In an FJ40 you don’t look at the map and set your sights directly on a destination—you look more closely at that map and think, What can we see between here and there? And more often than not that leads to discoveries you would have blasted right past at 80 in your 4Runner or Tahoe. 

Don’t get me wrong: We love our Four Wheel Camper and V6-powered, air-conditioned Tacoma.  But we also like to slow down every once in a while and enjoy what I’ve called Fractal Exploration: You take smaller bites of the world, and examine them more closely. 

An FJ40 Land Cruiser is the perfect vehicle for that.

Count experiences, not countries

Roseann meeting with South Rift Maasai women in 2005 . . .

Roseann meeting with South Rift Maasai women in 2005 . . .

(Note: Some time ago I published a version of the following article in OutdoorX4 magazine. I subsequently received more emails thanking me for it than any other article I'd published there. Thus I am reprinting it here. If you agree—or disagree—with it, please like and/or comment!)

For several years my wife and I lived as volunteer caretakers in Brown Canyon, a remote wildlife refuge property in southern Arizona. One of our duties was leading birdwatching hikes up the canyon, which ascended through several biotic communities from desert to oak woodland. And that’s where we had our introduction to listers. We’re both avid birders, but we simply enjoy seeing them, identifying them, and learning their biology. Not so the listers: Their drive is to record the most species possible, and for a small subset of them it becomes an obsession next to which nothing else matters—not the experience or the natural history, not even, sometimes, whether or not the bird they want to check off is disturbed or even driven off a nest, exposing eggs or hatchlings to predation. The cachet of having 1,000, 2,000, 4,000 species on a life list is all that counts.

Why do I mention this in connection with overlanding (besides the fact that non-obsessive birdwatching is a relaxing and educational pastime while camping)? Because frequently, while chatting with newcomers to our activity at the Overland Expo or elswhere, I’m asked, “So, how many countries have you visited?”

When I answer honestly, “I have no idea,” most are surprised, and wonder if I’ve been to so many I’ve simply lost count. That’s not really the case—I could certainly tally them up with a map. And while I know I’ve been lucky enough to travel in many more countries than the average American (who, statistically, has visited three), I also know there are legions of travelers of more modest means than I whose tally would outstrip mine if they cared to add them up. (My friend Lorraine Chittock, for example, has explored several continents on budgets most people would blow through on a trip to Disneyland.) 

It’s that emphasis on a tally that makes me uncomfortable, and which makes me deliberately avoid keeping track. Rattling off some memorized total would come off to me as, at best, grandstanding, and at worst intimidating to someone who’s perhaps never been outside the U.S. and is dreaming of broader horizons—or who might be because of finances and/or time “limited” to exploring North America, where I’ve counted many of my most sublime experiences.

And there is my point: It’s the experience that counts, not the count. Here’s an example. My wife and I fell in love with East Africa (Kenya and Tanzania) on separate trips—me on a journalism assignment, she while working for a conservation organization. We’ve since been back together a half-dozen times, both to explore on our own and to work with the South Rift Maasai community on wildlife conservation projects. We could easily have used those additional trips to add to our total of countries visited; however, 1) we’ve not nearly run out of areas to explore in those two countries, and, 2) we’ve made several life-long friends through return journeys and continued interaction. To us that beats the fact that we’ve not yet been to Uganda or Burundi or Rwanda, each just a border away.

Or consider the Italian gentleman we met on a dirt road in a remote part of Tanzania. He was on his way from Cape Town to Cairo . . . on a bicycle. He would pass through “only” eight countries on the journey. You could drive through that many European countries in a day and add them to your list. Who has had the richer experience?

I’ve advised dozens of people planning for their first trip to Africa. Since it is a serious commitment for a North American resident to even get there, most want to cram in as many countries as possible in their two or three weeks. I struggle mightily to convince them to scale back on the countries in order to scale up on the experience. It’s fun to drive through exotic new places, but simply transiting doesn’t really gain you anything of lasting value. Digging in and getting to know a place and its people and its wildlife does. 

If you have fun keeping tally of the countries you’ve visited, great. But if the count becomes the chief metric by which you judge your success as an overlander, you might want to reevaluate your priorities and slow down a bit.

Might I suggest birdwatching . . . ?

 . . . and reuniting with them five years later.

 . . . and reuniting with them five years later.

The fiendishly clever Brompton bicycle

There are folding bicycles.

Then there is the folding bicycle that will fit in the overhead bin on an airliner. 

Those who witness for the first time the origami trick that is a Brompton being deployed or un-deployed invariably exclaim in astonishment. An ancient Navajo gentleman on a sidewalk in Flagstaff, regal in several pounds of silver and turquoise jewelry, stopped to watch me like I was some street magician as I collapsed my new Brompton to carry it into a shop. The process, which I’ve not yet mastered, took me perhaps 20 seconds. When I finished and picked up the bike by its saddle/handle, he looked at me for a minute, then, in that deadpan Navajo drawl, pronounced, “Well, you can’t do that with a horse.”

The Brompton is the brainchild of Andrew Ritchie, who could also be described as a pioneer of crowd funding. With the downturn of the cycling boom in the late 1970s, he could find no commercial backing for his folding bicycle concept, so he pursuaded 30 people to pay him retail for a bike that did not yet exist, with the understanding that if the company were successful, he would refund their investment, leaving each with a free bike. Every backer was paid back in full, and Brompton is now the largest manufacturer of bicycles (of any type) in England. 

Notice I wrote in England, because every Brompton is still built in the factory in West London. The frames are brazed by hand by specialists trained in house for up to 18 months, and each of whom stamps his or her initials on the finished product. CNC milling machines produce other bespoke parts, and final assembly creates one of what the company claims is up to four million permutations, depending on gearing (one, two, three, or six speeds are available), handlebar choice, color (144 combinations), and innumerable rack and luggage options up to and including a pukka canvas-and-leather front satchel by Chapman—also hand made in England.

The Brompton next to an "ordinary" (and excellent) folding bicycle, the Montague. The front wheel on the Montague must be removed before folding. The Brompton's wheels fold with it and enclose the drivetrain to prevent you getting dirty while carrying it.

The Brompton next to an "ordinary" (and excellent) folding bicycle, the Montague. The front wheel on the Montague must be removed before folding. The Brompton's wheels fold with it and enclose the drivetrain to prevent you getting dirty while carrying it.

While I’ve known about the company for years, we finally found the justification to spring for one on our last trip to Australia. Town-bound for several days while the Land Cruiser was being serviced, we needed exercise. Roseann runs but I can’t. We needed to shop for incidentals, and the town was large enough to require a rental car. Both issues would be eliminated with a bicycle small enough to store inside or on the roof of the Troopy. So once back in Sydney we visited the excellent, quirky Omafiets bicycle shop. One look at the folded Bromptons displayed in nooks on shelves was enough to nearly convince us; watching one of the employees—herself a Brompton owner—perform the origami trick in about ten seconds further convinced us, and a short ride was the clincher. (Watch here for a genuine pro Brompton folder.)

There was just one complication: After riding the Brompton around a bit, Roseann mused, “Hmm . . . maybe we need two?” It made perfect sense—with two we could bop around towns without wielding the bulky Troopy through traffic, and a pair would still easily ride on the roof in the compact, bespoke hard cases available for them. We decided to leave the green example we bought in Sydney with friends, and buy another back in the U.S. so I’d have time to play with it before shipping it with us on the next trip to Oz. Thus, from the folding specialists PortaPedal Bike in Tempe, Arizona, we picked up the second, this one in the total-Brompton-geek “Raw Lacquer” finish that leaves the brass brazing visible on the frame. 

So what’s it like to ride with those small 16-inch wheels? My friend Bruce summed it up perfectly: “Just like the difference between a motorcycle and a scooter.” Those who point out the “compromises” in the Brompton’s handling—which can be described as either “responsive” or “twitchy,” depending on your attitude, are missing the point. The Brompton is essentially a different genus of bicycle. Complaining about its characteristics would be like complaining because a non-folding bicycle (or any other folding bike of which I’m aware) wouldn’t fit in that overhead locker. 

In fact, it’s a blast to pedal. The riding position is no different from a standard bicycle; people do long-distance touring on these things. The same physics that make the steering so quick—low rotational inertia—also make acceleration zippy. As a result of both you can really scoot around in tight quarters. The high-pressure tires don’t absorb much impact, and given their diameter you need to be cautious to cross railroad and trolley trackes at a right angle, but the rear suspension block helps make the ride surprisingly comfortable. The only limitation in my experience so far is dirt roads and trails that aren’t very well-packed. You’ll sink. This is an urban machine.

The front rack mount accepts all sorts of bags, from small Ortlieb handlebar bags to satchels large enough for grocery shopping. And, cunningly, when half-folded the Brompton becomes its own shopping cart, with the front bag mounted and the bike riding on the small wheels of the rear rack. Aftermarket companies sell larger versions of these wheels to make this even easier.

Ah, the accessories. The international Brompton community can fairly be described as “enthusiastic,” from the universe of custom carbon-fiber and titanium parts to replace the standard items, to the famous Brompton World Championship: a race held in the UK during which all entrants must conform to a strict dress code (think bow ties, tuxedos, period military garb . . .). The lightweight parts have the practical benefit of reducing the already reasonable weight of the Brompton for ease of handling and carrying. Some are affordable and whittle away minutely at the total, or you can go insane and order such things as a complete carbon-fiber front clip and stem for around $1700, instantly doubling the price of the bike and knocking off a whole pound.

I’m leery of the term “lifestyle,” yet there is a sort of captivating aura around a bicycle you can pedal to a cafe, then fold up and carry inside. Every time I take my raw-lacquered Brompton out I feel like I should really be dressed in knickers, a black turtleneck, and a beret. For all its undeniable practicality, its the fun of a Brompton that makes it worth every cent.

And then there's all that hay and oats you don't have to buy.

The Brompton next to a modest 31-inch-tall BFG

The Brompton next to a modest 31-inch-tall BFG

Among many aftermarket options is this excellent, wheeled hard case.

Among many aftermarket options is this excellent, wheeled hard case.

And what's this in the top tube?

And what's this in the top tube?

A clever, rattle-free (optional) tool kit held in with a magnet. It includes tire levers and patches. 

A clever, rattle-free (optional) tool kit held in with a magnet. It includes tire levers and patches. 

Happy Hour with National Luna

Look closely at the photo above. Aside from the obvious bit of magic we now blithely accept as normal—I’m downloading and viewing photographs in the middle of the Simpson Desert—note the cocktail. It’s a refreshing warm-weather concoction called a dark’n stormy: dark rum, lime juice, simple syrup, and ginger beer, served over ice.

Wait a minute. Ice cubes, six days from Anywhere, Australia? Yes, thanks to the National Luna 50 Twin Weekender fridge/freezer we had along. 

Just as with digital photography and laptop computers, we now take for granted the sorcery of the Engel 12V fridge and its descendants, which forever eliminated that three-days-out semi-cool swill in the bottoms of our old Coleman coolers (note I’m referring to proper fridges employing proper compressors, not the ineffective thermoelectric coolboxes). I don’t predict ice chests will go the way of 35mm film and typewriters any time soon—a fridge is still a wince-inducing investment—but increasingly an Engel/ARB/Dometic/Waeco etc. is becoming one of the first accessories added to a new overlanding vehicle. (When we were stopped at state border agricultural checkpoints in Australia, the officers automatically said, “Need to check your fridge.” They assumed anyone in a Land Cruiser had one.) 

Recently National Luna upped the ante, and gave us fridges with a separate freezer compartment. No longer do we have to struggle along with just cold beer, milk, and cheese; now we can add to that frozen meats, ice cream—and the means to keep a cocktail properly chilled. (Of course 12V fridges have always had the ability to freeze, but you had to choose one function or the other—fridge or freezer—or bring two units. We’ve done that on group safaris but it’s a bit much for a single vehicle.)

There are several quality brands of 12VDC/120VAC fridges on the market. We’ve had both an Engel and an ARB for years, and each has performed perfectly. With the exception of Engel, which has stuck with their tried and true Sawafuji swing motor compressor, and Waeco, which uses a branded compressor, virtually all fridge makers use the identical SECOP BD35 compressor in their smaller units, and the SECOP BD50 for larger fridges. (These were formerly known as Danfoss, but that company was bought out in 2010.)

Since the compressor is the heart of the fridge, you might think there wouldn’t be much difference in performance between brands using the same one, and continue to wonder why there is such a price disparity between those brands. Indeed, in general all work well and are reliable in harsh conditions. But the thickness and quality of insulation has an obvious impact on how often the compressor has to cycle (and thus use power) to maintain a set temperature, as does, to a lesser extent, the lid seal. Also, the thermostat can simply turn the compressor on or off, or the manufacturer can incorporate a sophisticated electronic control that varies the output in response to several parameters, further conserving energy. Inexpensive fridges use plastic exterior and interior cladding; more expensive models use aluminum or even stainless steel. In some fridges the evaporator plate is exposed in the interior, where it is susceptible to damage; in others it’s enclosed. Some fridges use plastic latches, others stainless steel.

Finally there are the ergonomic factors. Does the lid open only one way, or can it be switched to hinge sideways? Is there a useful interior light? Is the interior simply one big space, or are there baskets for organizing and securing contents? Does the control panel have an actual thermometer, or just a dial with numbers? What about a voltage monitor and adjustable low-voltage cutout? And since I’ve already written “finally,” a postscript that might or might not be important to you: You’ve spent a lot of money—does the fridge look like it’s worth it?

National Luna justifies its premium pricing by handily checking off all these factors. Particularly in the category of performance, in the fridge comparison tests in which I’ve been involved it consistently manages to both cool contents the quickest and keep them that way while using less power overall—an impressive trick. In fact, the one beef I have with this fridge is the name: “Weekender?” Not sure what NL was thinking, because the 50 Twin combines a 40-liter fridge with a 10-liter freezer—enough capacity for a far longer trip than one weekend. Not only is the capacity generous, but an easy-to-miss additional advantage of fridges over ice chests is that you don’t have to load all the contents at the beginning of the trip; the fridge will easily chill stuff added en route. We had more than enough room for all our refrigerated goods for ten days between supply sources. 

And the ice cubes just kept coming, every evening . . .

The NL fridge temporarily lashed down next to the Kanz kitchen. The fridge will be moved to a permanent position at the back of the Troopy once we have the cabinetry installed.

National Luna is here. North American distributor Equipt is here, offering free shipping as of this writing—or you can pick one up at the Overland Expo. If you have a family and need more room than the 50 Weekender, NL makes several larger models.

2015 Continental Divide vehicle report

Last year, the 1600 miles of the RawHyde/Exploring Overland Continental Divide trip proved to be a challenge for the participating vehicles (report here). This year’s journey proved just as challenging, in different ways. In no particular order the nine vehicles along this time were:

  • 2008 Ford F350 6.4 diesel double-cab pickup
  • 2012 Toyota Tacoma 4.0 V6 with Four Wheel Camper (our JATAC)
  • 2010 Toyota Tacoma double-cab 4.0 V6 supercharged, with canvas bed shell
  • 2014 Ram Power Wagon double-cab with Four Wheel Camper
  • Ford Raptor with Four Wheel Camper
  • 2014 Ford Raptor with Northstar camper
  • 2009 Sportsmobile on a Ford 6.0 diesel chassis
  • Toyota Tundra with fiberglass shell and roof tent
  • 2008 Toyota Land Cruiser 200-Series with roof tent

For the first couple of days we seemed to be getting off lightly—the worst issue to surface was a burned out turn signal bulb in the aftermarket headlamp assembly on Ross Blair’s Tacoma. But somewhere north of Grants, New Mexico, Michael and Darla’s Raptor/FWC combination blew the Firestone air bag on the right rear spring on a long off-pavement section, causing the bag’s internal bump stops to slam against each other over the mildest terrain. Inspection revealed that the air bag was the longer of the two offered for the Raptor by Firestone—probably a mistake with a camper mounted. It appeared that repeated stressing of the bag being folded over the lower location cone caused the hole—a worrying failure given the mere days-old installation. Much worse was the unbelievably shoddy installation by Desert Rat Off Road Center in Tucson. The over-long U-bolts securing the lower brackets had been left untrimmed, so they impacted the spring perches when the suspension flexed, bending them and smashing the upper threads. Phil Westergren, our ace group mechanic, advised Michael that the best approach might be to simply remove both bags and let the truck sag; when Phil did so, he found the nuts on both U-bolts finger tight. Disappointing.

With both bags removed, the compliant Raptor suspension did droop noticeably, but retained far more travel than had been available with the collapsed bag left in place, so Michael and Darla were able to continue along with us. (Interestingly, Dennis and Margie, also in a Raptor with a heavier Northstar camper, had the same bags and had no issues the entire trip.)

Day four brought us to a fairly challenging boulder-strewn uphill section on a Forest Service road. I climbed in the passenger seat of the Sportsmobile to offer Marka some in-cab hints on wheel placement, but it soon became apparent the vehicle was suffering a distinct lack of traction, as she failed to climb several off-camber sections. Indeed, Phil, who was marshalling, reported that the front wheels were not getting power even though the (manual) hubs were locked, the driveshaft was turning, and as far as I could determine from inside the Atlas transfer case was correctly engaged. Fortunately the Sportsmobile had an automatic rear locker—and thus full traction to both rear wheels—so we were able to get Marka through the difficult section. But it presaged more significant problems on the icy and muddy sections we knew would be ahead. This was another issue we had no time to investigate thoroughly on the trail—the constraints of a paid trip.

After camping next to Elk Creek (Colorado), we attempted to drive up over Elwood Pass. However, we began encountering snow patches even lower than last year, and soon Phil decisively stuffed his F350 into a three-foot-deep bank completely covering the roadway, halting his and our further progress. With a quick KERR tug from Ross’s Tacoma (eliciting the expected comments from the Toyota drivers), we bailed and headed for Salida, the town beneath the 10,000-foot grass plateau on which the RawHyde Colorado camp sits.

Marshaling a kinetic recovery from a safe distance.

Marshaling a kinetic recovery from a safe distance.

Reports indicated that, despite recent snowfall and rain, the back dirt route was clear, so we headed up the road through the San Isabel National Forest. As usual, Roseann and I took the tailgunner position to keep an eye out for any BF-109s tracking us with their MG 17s. No, wait, that’s not right. In this case, “tailgunner” just means making sure no one gets lost.

For ten miles or so the climb was uneventful—there were a few areas of slick mud and flowing ditches on the side, but nothing challenging—we were continually hitting lucky weather windows on this trip.

Then, after an easy creek crossing that led to a slight uphill section where water cut across the road and a ditch on the right carried it off, the two-meter crackled, and Cheryl in the Power Wagon said, “Um, I think I’m stuck,” to which Ross immediately replied, “No, you are definitely, absolutely stuck.” She had taken too low a line to cross the water-filled ruts in the road, and the massive truck with its mounted camper had slid into the ditch. 

First try at towing, which would fail decisively.

The axiomatic approach in such situations is to begin recovery with the simplest technique, then work upwards in complexity and potential risk. A simple pull from Phil and his F350 had zero effect, so I replaced Cheryl in the driver’s seat and we rigged a kinetic rope between the trucks. Phil gave me some slack, backed up smartly but not quickly—and the truck moved.

For about 15 feet. I was trying to turn it out of the ditch, but the slope sucked in the front tires and Phil’s truck spun to a halt—not helped by me staying on the Ram’s throttle for just a second too long, further burying the right rear tire in the muck if it needed further burying.

Time for the winch, but first Roseann left to drive ahead with the rest of the group to the RawHyde camp, while Phil, Ross, Kevan, and I stayed (along with the apologetic Herndons). Before the group left, we collected four MaxTrax-style recovery mats and I got our recovery kit out of the Tacoma. It was getting late and we did not want any more false starts, so we went back to square one, got out the shovels, and cleared muck until we could get a plastic recovery mat wedged under the front of each tire. The Ram was equipped with an excellent and powerful Warn 16.5 winch, but I wanted to both maximize its efficiency and slow down the operation, so we attached a pulley block to the F350’s front bumper and led the cable through it and back to the Ram.

First try, with rocks stacked in front of the Ford’s tires and brakes full on, the winch inexorably pulled the anchor truck toward the stuck one. The road surface was just too slick with mud to provide traction. So we daisy-chained Ross’s Tacoma behind the Ford, added more rocks, and that, finally, did the trick: The Ram ever so slowly hauled its way diagonally out of the ditch and on to ‘firm’ ground. We got to camp just in time for one of trip chef Julia’s superb dinners.

Ross Blair's Tacoma against the Colorado skyline.

After a layover day (and a timely winching seminar) at the RawHyde camp, we headed north to Hartsel for fuel, then explored several back roads on the way to Steamboat. At the fuel stop it became clear the Ram was leaking significant oil from the front main seal. Since it was highly unlikely this had been precipitated by the bog and recovery it had to be chalked up to coincidence. The engine only had 80,000 miles on it, so this seemed a bit premature. Near the same time, Joe noticed a heavy oil drip from the 6.0 turbodiesel in his Sportsmobile. This truck was equipped with dual external Amsoil filters—a worthy upgrade, except that one of the O-rings in the frame-mounted assembly had failed. Adding complexity also adds potential failure points.

Pushing a proper bow wave on a stream crossing.

From Steamboat we faced what would turn out to be our most challenging day—a circuitous, almost all off-pavement drive north along Elk River Road, past the comically oversized ‘lodge’ at Three Forks Ranch—at $850 per person per night out of our range—and into Wyoming. Since major highways in Wyoming are often barricaded during bad weather (“If light is flashing, Wyoming is closed—Please return to Colorado”), the side roads can prove adventurous. And Sage Creek Road turned out to be just that—40 miles of oil-slick mud that reminded me of, well, the camping area at the 2015 Overland Expo, actually. Joe in the temporarily two-wheel-drive Sportsmobile had the most difficult task: While the automatic rear diff lock gave him nearly as much traction going uphill as the open-diff four-wheel-drive vehicles had, when you lose traction  on a diff-locked axle, you lose it all. Yet he only lost it on one muddy dip, sliding gracefully sideways into the shoulder. Once Joe realized he was stuck he instantly cut the power (er, quicker, in fact, than I had in the Ram), thus we were able to hook up a strap from David and Noell’s Land Cruiser and tug the Sportsmobile free easily. For the rest of the path to Rawlins we watched from the rear as Toyotas, Fords, and the lone Ram waggled up inclines and crept cautiously down greasy slopes. It was an impressive display of driving by everyone.

David Alley prepares to gently tug the Sportsmobile out of a ditch.

Sadly, by the time we reached Wyoming’s Red Desert in the Continental Divide Basin, the Sportsmobile’s turbodiesel had developed a misfire—possibly an injector issue—and this, combined with the oil leak, convinced Joe and Marka to leave the group a day early and head for Salt Lake City to address things. The rest of us enjoyed a last camp on a broad grassy slope next to a creek, and watched a near-full moon pace the stars overhead across a sky unsullied by the lights of civilization. 

Conclusions? Note that several of the issues we experienced were caused by aftermarket additions—air bags, external oil filters. That’s a good reminder to be extremely careful when considering such modifications, to make sure any you choose are of high quality, and to be damn sure the installation is done correctly. It also points out the importance of pre-trip maintenance and inspection: The Sportsmobile, for example, had gone over 10,000 miles since its last oil change, an interval endorsed and boasted about by Amsoil, but over-optimistic for this kind of hard use.

Ford Raptor + no mudflaps =

Ford Raptor + no mudflaps =

Where quad-cab pickups rule

South America could be referred to alternatively as The Land of Quad-Cab Pickups. In the 6,000 miles we drove, the proportion of quad-cab models to standard cabs was at least fifty to one, if not greater.

The manufacturer range is extraordinarily broad. In Argentina, Chile, and Peru, the Toyota Hilux predominates in spite of its age (little changed since 2005). Manufactured in Argentina, it’s normally powered by the 1KD-FTV 3.0-liter four-cylinder turbodiesel, a bombproof powerplant that takes advantage of significantly cheaper diesel fuel prices here, but is beginning to lag in the power department with 172 hp and 260 lb.-ft. (A redesigned Hilux will soon be entering the market, but reports are that engines will be largely held over.)

Two other brands offer newer models arguably superior to the Hilux, at least on paper. The handsome Ford Ranger T6 has a 3.2-liter turbodiesel that produces significantly more power than the Hilux (197 hp and 346 lb.-ft.) ; the Ranger also boasts a greater fording depth.

The Volkswagen Amarok (which means ‘wolf’ in Inuit—and we get the ‘Tacoma’?) manages up to 177 hp and 310 lb.-ft. from a tiny but hyper-efficient two-liter turbodiesel. Despite their more modern design, neither the Ranger or Amarok seems to have cut far into Hilux sales. We also saw a few of the new and impressively specced Chevrolet Colorados, set to give the U.S. Tacoma some competition.

The Mitsubishi Triton appeared to be the second-most popular truck in a lot of areas, despite its (to me) ungainly styling and middling turbodiesel. Speaking of ungainly, in Chile the Mahindra is extremely popular, and I have to admit its wonky looks are growing on me—it’s definitely styling by Bollywood compared to Detroit’s Hollywood, but I like the huge window area.

Much more conservative is the Great Wall Wingle 5—the Chinese managed to combine an awesome brand name with an utterly dorky model name (but then there’s ‘Tacoma’ . . .). How long will it be before a Chinese vehicle manufacturer mounts a serious import campaign in North America?

Korean manufacturer Ssangyong fields a stylish pickup called the Actyon Sports. With all-coil suspension and a long list of family-friendly features, it appears to be aimed at a more urban audience.

Finally, we spotted just an example or two of a mid-size truck called the Xenon from Tata, the Indian megacorporation that owns Land Rover and holds the fate of the Defender in its hands.

And, we had some indication that the South American fondness for quad-cab pickups is perhaps not a recent phenomenon: