The Gang Is Mostly Here

Today was the day the gang (or at least most of them) came into town.

Bernd is joining the group from Portland along with his son.  I met Bernd a couple of years back in Ouray, Co. at the second annual FJ Summit.  Since then I’ve had a few opportunities to run trails with him including a night 4×4 trails at Browns Camp.  I always like letting Bernd go first.  I know he will pick the hardest, most gnarly line to try out…  And he’ll make it…  I than look at all the rest and pick the easy one.

Until today I’d never met Nick, but he and I know each other from the forums.  Nick is a good’ol boy out of south Texas and he doesn’t seem to mind that I have a bit of Okie in me.  After meeting Nick, it turns out he is just as nice in person as he is on the forums.  Nick’s wheeling experience goes back generations starting with his grandfather and an old Willys that came out of the war.  Nick shipped his rig over and flew in…  but there was still a little work to be done on his rig today including the install of new skids and swapping out his doors.  Of course for a bunch of guys hanging out on a Saturday before a big off road adventure on the Rubicon…  this was just what we needed.  This and a some adult beverages.

Travis (LT) is definitely the cool young Turk of the group. You’ll never meet a genuinely nicer guy…  and he’s single girls.  As the other half of Metal Tech, LT runs the production floor and is the guy who has given me an appreciation of some (I did say some) death metal.  I figure, if you’re going to wheel a trail that you could blow apart something on your rig, than LT is the guy to have around to fix it.  It was LT who first ask if I would be interested in joining them on the Rubicon Trail and I still can’t believe I’m here with him.  LT usually wheels his built FJ 40, but for this trip he’s running in the FJ80 as support, just in case one of us need a little pull to get over some obstacle.

Yoshi is our long distance travel winner for this off road adventure.  Yoshi and his family flew in from Japan for a chance to be on the Rubicon Trail.  Turns out he is a freelance photo journalist and editor on assignment for a Japanese 4×4 magazine.  He has traveled to the states write about our off road adventure on the Rubicon Trail and see first hand some of the wheeling capabilities of the Toyota FJ Cruisers.  Yoshi and his family will be riding in the FJ80 with LT.  I have already picked up a few tips on photo shoots just watching him work and can’t wait to see him work on the trail.

Our host Mark has probably forgotten more about Toyota Land Cruisers and wheeling than I will ever know.  Anyone who reads this website knows what a great guy I think Mark is…  He always knows what to say to put you at ease whether you’re 8 or 48, he just knows how to connect with people.

It says a lot about a guy who is willing to go through all the trouble it takes to put a trip like this together and do it because he wants everyone to enjoy the sport of off road wheeling as much as he does.

One driver more will be joining the group in the morning at the trail head and I’ll provide proper introductions than.

As I finish repacking the cameras, video equipment and gear for the early morning start, I can’t help but think how lucky I am to have an opportunity like this to wheel with some of the nicest folks, on one of the most famous 4×4 trails the world.  If I pay attention, keep my mouth shut, watch and listen there is a good chance I’ll learn something and maybe, just maybe, escape it without too much carnage.  I really must be living right.

I-5 All The Way…

Like a kid on Christmas Eve, I slept about an hour, double and triple checking my mental list of gear for the big Rubicon off-road adventure.  As soon as the clock ticked 9:00 a.m. I was out the door and racing to Metal Tech to meet Mark and caravan down from Portland to Sacramento.

Well the plan was to leave…  and you know the say about the best laid plans…

Turns out Mark got a call from a Three Letter Television Company (Top Gear Bolivia Adventure) to be technical adviser for an up coming shoot for a top secret project where they would be using a Japanese old school 4×4 rig in the middle of no where….  There is certainly no one better to have on your team than the guys from Metal Tech, but that meant Mark was a little busy working the phones, tracking down parts and loading the rig for the Con.


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10:00 a.m., turned into noon, turned into 2:00 p.m. and at 2:47 p.m. we hit the road.  Sacramento, Ca. is 580 miles south of Portland, Or. and requires two turns…  Turn on to I-5, drive straight, turn off I-5.  Thanks to CBs the miles seemed to fly by…  those of you who know Mark, know he is full of great stories and I listened to them all…  I never knew there was Suicide Girls karaoke in Portland…

Leaving late meant we would be avoiding the heat, although cruising by Yreke at 9:30 p.m. the outside temp still read in high 80’s. And by the time Redding, Ca. was in sight, the temp hadn’t dropped much.  But Redding meant In-N-Out Burger and by 10:00 p.m. nothing sounded better than an order of burgers, fries and vanilla shake… Yum!

Midnight, 1:00 a.m. and finally as the clock clicked off 2:00 a.m., the lights of Sacramento sparkled in front of us.  After 580 miles and some 10 hours on the road, the thought of clean, crisp sheets and a soft pillow is racing through my mind as I finish writing this story and look forward to tomorrow’s meetup.

For The Love A Good Woman

The day started out perfect…  one of those beautiful crisp sun shinny fall Seattle days that mark the start of school and have you forgetting the cloud covered drizzle that you will soon be immersed in as the price for living in God’s country.  Parked on Western below Pikes Place Market like thousands of times before we left rig and set out to explore the local vendors’ quirky NW offerings…  did you know you can still buy a dragon shaped paper weight made from Mount St. Helens’ ash?

Back at the FJ Cruiser, as always, we left Hula Betty and Brenda, our GPS system (named by wife and girl for her voice when she tells us where to turn).  Over the miles, Brenda and Hula Betty have formed a deep bond of trust and friendship as they stood their posts on the dash.  Sure like sorority sisters fighting over a guys attention (ok that is my mid-life crises talking) they had their arguments but they always ended the day as friends.  And who knew that on this day that friendship would be put to the ultimate test.

Walking back to the rig, it wasn’t until I was at the passenger’s door that I notices the pile of broken glass shards twinkling on the ground and the gaping hole where a window  had once protected the interior form the NW’s elements.  AND THEN I HEARD IT…

Barely audible, a soft tear filled quivering voice came from the dash as Hula Betty struggled to find the words… She’s gone…  Brenda… is gone.  My eyes immediately fixed on the corner of the windshield, now empty, where Brenda had shouted out her navigational commands.  Still trying to collect herself, Hula Betty, shook and wiggled on the dash as she explained how Brenda sacrificed her life to save the rig from further damage and performed the ultimate act of friendship to keep Hula Betty affixed to the dash.

Apparently as some crack tweaker smashed in the window, Brenda set off the alarm and distracted the thief screaming take me, leave the rest…  I’m the pretty shinny one… Take me leave everything else…  Hula Betty said those were the last words she heard and the last she saw of her friend as the crack whore ripped Brenda, sparkling like justice, from her stand leaving behind exposed wires and the little suction cup stand that she had once so proudly perched on.

Thanks to insurance and the Poulsbo Auto Glass Clinic, within less than 24 hours, the rig is getting repaired, Hula Betty is attending therapy to help with her post traumatic syndrome and a small private ceremony for family and friends was held that celebrated the electronic life taken from us too soon.  But I swear last night lying in the dark, drifting between consciousness and that half dream state I heard Brenda’s voice carried in over the breeze lovingly barking out “Stay Left, Drive 5.3 miles on I-5 and take exit 423 North”.

A day after our loss which we can still barely speak of, Hula Betty and I sit here in the driveway about to hit the road for Rubicon.  We observed a moment of silence and thought of all the miles we’ve seen with Brenda and how we’ll miss her…  All of us will be a little less without the love of a good woman.

The 4×4 Gourmet

Getting ready for the Rubicon Trail off-road adventure has us going in all directions…  meals on the trail is one of them…  Rule #1 on the trail…  everything, even cardboard re-hydrated with sweat and seasoned with dirt, tastes good after a long day wheeling on the trail….  but don’t let rule #1 get in the way of enjoying the finer things in life.

All too often we seem to go from one extreme to the other…  on the one end you have dehydrated back packing food, military rations, or a bag of beef jerky.  On the other is the steak, baked potato and corn on the cob grilled over a giant propane blast furnace that has a Turkey deep fryer for Thanks Giving around the camp fire.

Sure wheeling gives you a lot more choices than when you are having to hump all your food and gear in on your back, but there is a lot to be said for minimizing the weight in your rig and leaving a little room in the back for adult beverages and a good Cuban.

Over years of backpacking and driving off-road I have achieved a type of cooking that works for me.  It works because I can meet all my needs and still enjoy eating well in the outdoors.  On the trail I hate clean up.  I hate complicated.  I hate having to spend too much time in the kitchen.  I enjoy simple prep, easy cooking and complex flavors.  One pot meals work best for my needs…  cook in the pot that you eat out of and clean up becomes a breeze.

Coffee…  Starbucks has seen to it that our national addiction to caffeine is fully developed.  Like a junkie on the street when it hits 8:00 a.m. I’m jonesing for my second cup.  Since I don’t bring my local barista to brew me the perfect cup of espresso, I’ve had to experiment.

These days there are lots of new options out including, french presses, drip coffee packs, hand crank coffee grinders and  even backpacking mini espresso makers.  And They all work well but they also have one thing in common.  They take work to set up, tear down and clean.  On cold mornings, my pre-caffeinated energy level is at boiling water.  Which brings us to Medaglia D’Oro instant espresso coffee.  Yes I said instant.  Medaglia D’Oro is rich, full bodied and smooth.  You can make it as strong as you like and clean up is nothing more than licking the spoon.  While I’ve tried a number of instant coffees, Medaglia D’Oro keeps showing up in my camp kitchen kit.

One pot meals tend to rely on good stock for complex flavors as well as forming the base of the meal.  Chicken or beaf boolean cubes seem to have two ingredients, salt and fat.  Canned stock provide real flavor but you can not control the intensity without lengthy reduction time.  Using Glace de Poulet Gold from More Than Gourmet delivers on both accounts.  Requiring no refrigeration, Glace de Poulet Gold is a 20-times reduction of French chicken stock with deep, rich, toasted color and syrupy consistency.

Simplicity of ingredients and complexity of flavors are the Yen and Yang of Asian cooking.  Dried Shiitake mushrooms ,  add a great earthy flavor and rich chewy texture.  Adding dried Shiitake mushrooms to most one pot meals changes the character from bland to savory.

VIGO has two rice packs that I usually keep in my kitchen “Yellow Rice” and “Black Beans and Rice”.  The yellow rice is a recreation of a Spanish classic complete with saffron. The black beans and rice is Cuban fare made easy.  Both of these provide great flavor and will fill up the hungriest explorers on the trail.

Top Ramen was always a staple in my backpacking youth.  Filling, light weight and easy…  but of course the main ingredient seemed to be salt and fat.  These days I make my own ramen for the trail and it has much more flavor without all the salt.  A big part of making good ramen (hand-pulled noodles) is starting with quality noodles.  Most markets these days have a good Asian section where you can find chuka soba (Japanese style noodles).

While beef jerky will give you the jaw muscles of a great white shark, it may not provide much to your meal.  And trust me when I tell you, adding beef jerky to boiling water does not make soup.  Brown water and soggy cardboard yes, but not soup.  Landjaeger on the other hand…  protein with a flavor punch.  These dried sausages traditionally made in Southern Germany and Switzerland can be found at your local meat market or delicatessen.  Consider it a bonus if you can find them made from venison or elk.  While I can live on these alone, when you cut them up into rounds and drop them in the pot, they release all sorts of goodness.

So with all this stuff good stuff what can you make?  How about breakfast…  Really this is one of my favorite breakfast items to get the morning started.

  • One package of Vigo yellow rice
  • a handful of dried Shiitake mushrooms
  • Glace de Poulet Gold (chicken)
  • 3 or 4 Landjager cut into rounds
  • Water according to the Vigo package plus about 1/2 cup more

Toss the water, Landjager, Glace de Poulet Gold and Shiitake mushrooms in a pot and bring it all to a boil.  When the water boils, dump in the yellow rice give it a stir, cover and reduce to as low a simmer as you can with a camp stove.  In 15 minutes give it a little stir and let it go for 5 more minutes or until all the water is absorbed.  In the mean time you should be on your second cup of Medaglia D’Oro.  Done right this dish will be creamy, full of texture and buttery rich with just a hint of smokey overtones.  Really…  or it will be hard, crunchy and burnt.  Remember…  Good cooks eat their mistakes.

Oil Can Betty…

One of our off-road adventure friends, Beau Jaramillo, from Amsoil, sent us a care package that included:

  • Ea Oil Filters
  • Signature Series 0W-30 100% Synthetic Motor Oil
  • Ea Air Filters
  • Engine Flush
  • Severe Gear 75W-90
  • Series 2000 Synthetic Racing Grease

With the Rubicon off-road adventure coming up, this was the perfect time to change the oil.  Engine oil has the primary functions of lubricating and cooling the inside of the engine, and plays a major role in maintaining the engine in proper working order.  Changing the engine oil on the FJ Cruiser is an easy maintenance activity that will extend the life of your rig’s engine more than just about anything else you can do.

What will you need to change your oil:

  • 5.5 quarts Oil
  • Oil filter
  • Oil plug gasket
  • 14mm socket
  • Oil filter wrench
  • Oil drain bucket
  • Empty soup can (tomato is my favorite)
  • Engine flush (optional)
  • Latex gloves (recommended)

Since the rig’s odometer reads over 50K we decided to clean the engine from the inside out with Amsoil’s Engine Flush.  It doesn’t get much easier than this; just pore the contents into the engine and let the rig idle for 15 to 20 minutes.  Than change out the oil as normal.

It is best to change the oil when the engine is warm.  This will help suspend the muck in the oil and allow everything to flow out smoothly.  This also means you need to be careful since everything is hot.

The first step is to remove the oil drain plug (fancy name for a bolt and gasket) with a 14 mm socket.   Be sure to have your oil bucket ready and a couple pieces of cardboard under everything will keep the mess to a minimum.  After the oil starts flowing is a good time to take a break…  come’on you’ve been working hard and the oil will take a while to completely drain.

When the oil is coming out in only drips, remove the oil filter.  The oil filter may still contain old dirty oil that will run out when you remove it and this is where that soup can comes into play.  Hold the soup can under the oil filter assembly to catch the oil that flows out. The assembly has a little tube that allows for you to hook up a hose and drain the out flow to your oil catch bucket, but a old soup can held in place works too.

STOP…  get back under the rig now and using a new oil plug gasket, put the oil drain plug back into the oil pan (Toyota recommends 30 ft / lbsf torque for the oil drain plug).   You really don’t want all that fresh oil running down the driveway.

With the new oil filter in hand, take a dab of fresh motor oil and wipe it lightly on the oil filter’s rubber ring seal.  Screw the new oil filter onto the union (fancy name for the hollow tube the oil filter attaches to) by hand.  Be careful not to get the oil filter cross threaded on the union.  This is a good time to wipe down any oil that may have spilled and double check that the oil drain plug is in place.

The Toyota owners manual will tell you the oil capacity is five and one half quarts, that’s 5.2 liters to you and me.  Now depending on your aim you may want to use a funnel to minimize the mess when poring the motor oil into the oil fill spout.  Toyota recommends SAE 5W-30  weight motor oil.  Thanks to Beau we upgraded with AMSOIL Signature Series 0W-30 100% Synthetic Motor Oil.   AMSOIL Signature Series claims an extended life with recommended changes at:

  • Normal Service (personal vehicles frequently traveling greater than 10 miles (16km) at a time and not operating under severe service) – Up to 35,000 miles or one year, whichever comes first
  • Severe Service (turbo or supercharged vehicles, commercial or fleet vehicles, extensive engine idling, first and subsequent use of AMSOIL in vehicles with over 100,000 miles, daily short trip driving less than 10 miles (16km), frequent towing, plowing, hauling or dusty condition driving) – Up to 17,500 miles or one year, whichever comes first

Once you pour in the 5.5 quarts of oil and replace the filler spout cap, start the engine and allow the rig to idle for a minute, than turn off the rig and check the engine oil level.  The correct way to check the oil level is to park the rig on level ground, allow it to sit for a minute, remove the dip stick, wipe the dip stick off with a clean rag and re-insert it as far as it will go.  Pull out the dip stick and read the oil level.

The final thing to check is for any drips coming from the oil drain plug or oil filter.  It’s not likely but a second look is well worth it.

When changing your own oil, don’t forget to check the other fluid levels (brake, power steering and coolant)  and top off the windshield washer fluid.  This is also the time to change the engine’s air filter and check your tires’ air pressure.

It’s My Blog and I’ll Ramble If I Want Too

Those of you who follow the Last Great Road Trip know to expect: FJ Cruiser How To articles,  off-road adventure  stories, Hula Betty’s off-road videos, diversity discussions and the occasional rant or rave on whatever it is that we feel like ranting about…

Well since I had time to think on a trip out to Hurricane Ridge and Obstruction Peak in the Olympic National Park this is one of those rant times….

Like most, I have a Facebook (heck even Hula Betty has a FB and she can barely reach the keyboard from the dash) with several of you friending me or joining the Last Great Road Trip fan page.  I want to thank so many of you for joining us on Facebook sending messages and posting comments.  It means a lot…  Thank you.

This website started as a way to connect with family and friends, and to let them follow along on our Arctic Circle off-road adventure now more than two years back.  Since than it has turned into so much more…  We’ve gone on all sorts of off-road adventures and posted hundreds of stories with thousands of folks (I know because I check our Google Analytic) reading them, watching the videos, down loading pictures and few even buying decals.  Sure the topic is 4×4 off-road adventures and it leans toward the Toyota FJ Cruiser crowd, but really it is about the friends we’ve met along the way and the relationships that form on the trail, by the camp fire or over a cup of coffee at a truck stop diner.

The more we see and travel, the more it becomes true… Everyone has great stories tell… we want to hear them all…  We’ve met friends who faced cancer, joblessness, hearing loss, and death…  and they all seemed to go out of their way to lift the spirit of others and maintain a zest for life.

When I hear how someone connected with their dad on a road trip or decided to start a crazy adventure of their own… I crack a smile knowing how great that can be.  So thank you all for following along and I hope this website will continue to entertain, inform and inspire others to take on adventures in their own lives.  Who knew my mid-life crisis was going to be so much fun.

Whooo Hooo! Blue Bunny on the CON!

That was the the message I received back after I let Mark (those of you who remember the tail of the Blue Bunny understand Mark’s affection for the nick name) know I would be able to join him on Metal Tech ‘s Rubicon Trail adventure planned for the end of summer.

As off-road adventures go, the Rubicon Trail (Rubicon Trail Map) is perhaps one of the most well known off-road 4×4 trails in the world. With claim to the birthplace of rock crawling and a rich history that dates back to the 1950’s.   The Con combines breath taking scenery with extreme off-road challenge.   Most of the trail consists of large boulders and rocky terrain. When the rocks abate, the trail go across huge granite slabs which have steep inclines and sharp drop offs. This trail is not for the faint at heart! Did I mention it is rated a ‘Most Difficult’ 10.

Mark’s plan is for the group to meet up in Sacramento and spend the night in a hotel (so far I like his plan)…  Head up the Rubicon Trail on Sunday spending the night under the stars at Buck Island Lake and than Monday wind our way through Rubicon Springs, up to Lake Tahoe and back to Sacramento.

This will be a small group of Toyota FJ Cruisers with folks coming in from Texas, Colorado and now Poulsbo… This trip will put my skills and the rig’s IFS Long Travel to the test.  And while I’m not counting on much help from Hula Betty (although she has a great view from the dash) I know Mark’s experience, patience and ability to fix just about anything I break will make this an adventure to remember….  Curious about the trip?  Keep reading Rubicon Trail the ultimate 4×4 adventure.