In 2017, the StanceWorks Off Road crew planned a trip to the mountain ranges of Colorado, set for mid-summer as the temps throughout the country became unbearable and the climb to higher altitudes would offer reprieve from the August heat. The timeline for the trip put forth deadline for me to complete my FJ60's engine swap - something I thought I'd conclude with ample time to spare - but overheating issues proved that my efforts were unfinished, and I missed what seemed like the trip of a lifetime. Within weeks of everyone's return, though, new plans began. Last week, 2018's trip came to fruition, and the StanceWorks family set out towards Utah, converging from nearly every corner of the country.
For us Southern Californians, the trip began on Friday, March 30th. The drive from SoCal to St. George was the shortest of our group, with friends driving down from Canada, Seattle, Denver, and from Connecticut too. We set out bright and early, intending to reach St. George, Utah, in the early afternoon, but the trials and tribulations of roadtripping vintage trucks bit us early. An hour into the trip, Andrew Sylvia's power steering cooler line blew wide open. It wasn't anything we weren't prepared for though, and after a roadside fix, we were back on to pounding pavement. A few hours later, it occurred to me that events like the breakdown were why I brought my camera along. I pulled over to make sure I had at least one photo of my truck on our trip north. It was also a good opportunity to wait for Andrew's FJ62 to play catch up after the mountain ranges west of Las Vegas.
We made it to St. George sometime around 4 or 5PM, and it was there that Graeme from Go Fast Campers was waiting for our arrival. Jim Bob Barnett - StanceWorks contributor and longtime friend - recently prepped his 2nd-generation Tacoma for the installation of GFC's first production camper. The installation went smoothly, and readied Jim Bob for the week of camping that lay ahead of us. Built as a featherweight, low-profile, baja-proven design, it furthered the leg up that Jim Bob's truck had on the field of classic Land Cruisers that were en route, but on the other hand, it gave us all a vehicle to envy as he led us through the back routes of The Beehive State.
Our first destination was 30 minutes north of St. George, perched near a waterfall that set the mood for the week of camping to come. We arrived a good bit after sundown, a couple of hours after our cohorts Charlie Scott and Justin Chenoweth, from Connecticut and Colorado, respectively. In tow with them were their significant others, Emily and Rose, and their dogs too. Unable to take in the views of the campsite, we huddled around the fire and caught up as we waited for the crew to arrive from the Pacific North West.
Just shy of midnight, we heard them clattering and clacking in the distance. Zach Dunn, Eric Webber, and Ghen Fujii arrived, each sporting a diesel-powered Land Cruiser variant. The smell of burning diesel and a bit of black smoke engulfed the campsite, and in a sense, it made things official: the crew was there, and the trip had finally "begun."
The sun rises rather late in Utah. It wasn't until nearly 7:00 AM that the darkness lifted and the beauty of our campsite spoke for itself. The sound of falling water offered a blissful soundtrack to the morning, miles away from civilization. With everyone well rested after a long day (or days, in everyone else's case) of driving, we spent time planning out the day to come, and of course, admiring the trucks.
While Jim Bob's Tacoma left us all with a bit of Rig Envy, Justin and Rose's '04 Ranger also helped to keep the field of Land Cruisers in check. With a custom camping setup fitted out back, the Ranger was equipped with some serious room for storage, and a rather nice James Baroud hard-shell rooftop tent. The extended cab offered the perfect place for Charlie, (or Charlie Dog, as we called him) their Australian Cattle Dog, to nest on the long drive ahead. The package as a whole was refreshing, in case one gets tired of staring at Toyotas. I don't, of course, but surely someone might?
Zach's HJ61, on the other hand, marked the other end of the spectrum. Parked next to my own truck, it was a sight to wake up to. With a 12HT under the hood, and bits and pieces to make any 60-series owner jealous, there was no shortage of "truck envy" on my part either.
Charlie's FJ62 was one I had spent the past few years admiring from afar. Hailing from Connecticut, he, Emily, and their labrador, Dakota, certainly earned the trophy for the longest commute for the trip. Since I missed last year's trip to Colorado, I missed seeing Charlie's truck in person. Charlie's quest for a 60-series truck is, in many ways, what spawned our group of Cruiser owners, and in a sense, is responsible for the trip as a whole. Needless to say, it was a joy to finally see it in person.
Wanting to make use of the day, everyone packed their things just after breakfast, and we embarked on the climb out. While there are rutted dirt roads that lead in and out of the camp site, the trail offered a way to get wet behind the ears early in the trip. With a few tippy corners and rocky climbs, it set the pace for the days to come.
I found myself behind Eric Webber's HZJ77, driven down from BC, Canada. As a recent replacement for his former 80-series, he's made quick work to prep it for the trip. Not having the 70 chassis here in the states made Eric's truck a star of sorts, and following it down the trail as it climbed over rocks with its 35" tires made for a remarkable, enjoyable sight.
Unfortunately for Eric, his unique machine was the first to suffer from problems on the trail. A rocky ascent demanded traction from the beast, but the front wheels failed to cooperate. His 4-wheel-drive system failed to activate thanks to electronically-engaged front hubs that didn't want to play along. With a yank from Jim Bob's truck, Eric and the 70-series made it to the hilltop, and plan was put forth to rectify the issue after the remainder of the trail was conquered.
The rest of us made the climb one by one. It wasn't a punishing climb by any measure, but one that did require traction from all four wheels and tires. Zach's truck was the last to make the ascent; his girlfriend Alec captured the action from the sidelines, and their Corgi, Wally, checked to make sure he was caught on camera, too.
Before long, we made it back to the tarmac, and made the short drive to town where we filled our tanks and our stomachs, and planned the route to come. Three to four hours away was eventual destination for the day, the shores of Lake Powell. Heading straight there was an option, but a few slot canyons, tucked away en route, proved too enticing to pass up.
Before embarking on the trail to the canyons, everyone pulled their valve cores to free up some much-needed traction. The path in was through deep sand, and deflated tires were a must. It was then that Eric grabbed his tools, disassembled his front hubs, and manually locked them. It meant permanent 4-wheel-drive for the duration of the trip, but with what we had planned, that was a-okay.
Clearly, the dogs - our own German Shepherd, Chloe, pictured - enjoyed the slot canyons as much as we did. The red rocks spiraled skyward, separating sandstone from the sky with stark contrast. The nearly-frigid gusts of wind that whipped within the walls of the chasm were a treat within themselves. It was my first time in such a place, and it quickly established the incredible beauty the state of Utah has to offer.
A few hours later, we neared the plateaus that surround Lake Powell. A final truck checkover prepped everyone for the mild descent towards the shoreline. Camp was calling our names - the first day had been a long one.
I found myself less than a mile from camp, fixing the second truck failure of the trip, still within the first 24 hours. My crank position sensor wires had fallen from their perch, and had been rubbing on the corner of the oil pan until a wire had broken through. The fix was simple, though, and within 15 or 20 minutes, we were trudging through the sand once more.
Finally, we arrived at camp, with the sun low in the sky but reclusively hiding behind a haze of clouds on the horizon. Everyone spent a bit of time leveling their trucks, excited to relax, cook, and camp. At 254 square miles, we could only see the southermost fraction of the lake, but the waters were still and as smooth as glass. The splashing of the occasional fish broke the silence.
Eventually, the sun fell, and the sky faded from a burning orange to a cool blue, and then to black. The fire grew, as did the jubilance, and as friends old and new, we enjoyed the successes and the beauty of day one.
Day Two began with the clacking of an electric impact gun. Eric began the day bright and early in an effort to fix his winch. In winding it up after use on Saturday, the day before, the winch malfunctioned and continued to pull the hook in, past the fairlead and into the winch itself. Disassembly was ambitious, especially atop the sand, but nevertheless, Eric pushed forward. In no time, the line was freed and the motors turned free.
As Eric worked to reassemble his truck, the smell of breakfast filled the campsite. Scrambled eggs, sausages, and pancakes, too; the hills were alive with the scent of Cracker Barrel. The dogs continued to grow comfortable with each other too, using the morning to chase and play. Charlie Dog and Chloe squared up, with Charlie's confidence making up for his lack of body mass in comparison to Chloe's frame, made taller by the ruffled hair on her back.
As the temps rose throughout the morning, the waters of Lake Powell grew ever enticing. A dip of the toes in the water led the nervous system to reject the idea, but eventually, the siren's song seduced us. I yelped and hollered as I submerged myself, nearly too cold to catch my own breath. Although frigid at the time, within a minute of escaping, refreshment was the only sensation present.
As my body thawed, I found I had fallen victim to Lake Powell's Quagga Mussels - an invasive species that lines nearly every bit of the lake's shores. Their sharp edges had sliced into my toes, which were too cold to tell at the time. My spirits were high, though, and after a good cleaning, I rejoined the gang to enjoy the warm air as noon approached.
Once we hit the trail, Utah's scenery rapidly changed. Within minutes, the desert-scape had changed to what could only be described as a moonscape. Eerie grey soil, soft and bleak, stretched for miles. At times, the dust kicked up from the trail of trucks turned nearly black, billowing like soot from a burning furnace. Bright orange boulders littered the landscape, having fallen from the tall plateaus that bordered the trail.
The red hills in the distance continued to grow near, and eventually we found ourselves ascending them, en route to Alstrom Point for our third night of camping.
The drive from the shore to the heights of the plateau took only an hour or two: short by any off-road measure. I looked on, snapping photos as the gang navigated the final rocks, arriving just as the sky set ablaze from the impending, inevitable, and much-invited sunset. Jim had warned us, "you won't be prepared for the views." He eloquently described the setting, but even still, it was hard to comprehend upon arrival.
Perched atop a 1,500-foot cliff face, we set up camp. My heart pounded as I chocked my wheels, checked my e-brake, and checked my e-brake once more. "How strong is an automatic parking pawl?" I asked. The fear of heights I never knew I had seemed to manifest itself, but only for a moment. The beauty was overwhelming, and pushed all fears aside.
Chloe was entirely unfazed by the cliff face. She curled up just a foot away from the edge, watching as the gang set up camp. As if she weren't brave enough, Charlie shared his entire lack of respect for Sir Isaac Newton and his theories. With his legs dangling more than a thousand feet above the rocks below, he enjoyed a bourbon and coke as the sun fell from the sky.
With camp nearly set up and the trucks leveled for sleeping, it seemed as though everyone had their cameras out, marveling at the view that lie before us. In an effort to make it last forever, we all snapped away.
On a last-minute walk along the cliff's edge, during the final minutes of sunlight, Jim Bob spotted an infant rattle snake. As a bit of a reptile enthusiast and snake rehabilitator, he was quick to share facts and details of the serpent, and reminded us the dangers of a bite. We kept our distance, getting close enough only for zoom lenses to catch a glimpse.
As the sun dove behind the buttes in the distance, the sky seemed to ignite, casting color with fervor, unlike any sunset I've seen before. The clouds stretched to the horizon, changing in color as rapidly as the light faded. Before long, only the campfire lit the evening as we gathered around it. Day two came to a close, marking the conclusion to a day that somehow surpassed the day before it. An emerging trend? Clearly. As the fire dwindled, we retired to our trucks and sleeping bags. With Chloe nestled between us, Emily and I eagerly awaited Day Three. Stay tuned for Part II, coming soon.