Everyone Has A Story

If an off-road adventure happens and nobody records it…  did it really? Everyone has a story and we want to tell them is Hula Betty’s motto. That iconic, dashboard bobble doll has been helping tell our stories with off-roading videos going on five years now.

Frequent visitors to our website know we write off-road stories filled with pictures and videos.  Recently we received a note from Steve suggesting a little more behind the scenes exposure on how we record it all.

In 2007 when this craziness (my mid-life crisis as Hula Betty refers to it) all started, the only things we had were a slightly modified FJ Cruiser, an Apple laptop and a Nikon.  That was was all we needed for our Arctic Circle Adventure.  Over the years, we’ve had scores more off-roading adventures and picked up more camera and video gear to record it all.  So we thought we would break it all down.

When it comes to photos, we primarily shoot with our Nikon 200D, using an AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED and AF-S NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED lens.  This set up has served us well covering most situations and taking a tremendous amount of abuse on the trail.  Dust, bumping around and banging into stuff hasn’t seemed to hurt it.

For our Baja adventure we borrowed a Cannon PowerShot G10. It is a very good point-and-shoot camera that fits into a pocket and available at a moment’s notice. We find that the smaller G10 is less intimidating than a full SLR when pointing it at people to capture a smile and you can easily hold it out for the obligatory Facebook self photo.  The little PowerShot produces great high-res photos with little or no fuss.

Back in collage I took a photography class and learned the ins and outs of B&W film development. Thankfully, today it is all about digital image editing.  The GNU Image Manipulation Program, GIMP for short, is by far the absolute best, amazingly powerful image editing software for the money.  As open source software the price is free…  but the cost is less than perfect documentation and a somewhat complicated interface.  However, once you climb the learning curve and with all the tips and tricks available on the interwebs you can usually find out how to do anything you need.  All of our photos go through the GIMP to clean up poor F-stop choices or pull out a little detail as well as adding our logo and border decorations.

The best image editor still wont turn out Pulitzer prize winning photos.  Great photos are created in the view finder, composing a shot that expresses emotion and draws you in can not be created in the editor.  Our good friend Dan, from Daniel Grayson Images, who is a real bona fide professional with truck loads of lenses, camera bodies, lights and cool studio equipment, has taken amazing images with nothing more than his iPhone.  He continues to amaze us with his ability to see and capture a moment regardless of the camera in his hand.

Somewhere in 2008 we took the leap into video. We knew we wanted HD (back in 08 that was new at the consumer level), we also wanted to be able to capture sound in high fidelity to put the full experience of the adventure in the can.

For capturing video our primary camcorder is a Canon XHA1.  We ditched the on-board mic for an Audio-technica AT897 shotgun microphone.  The XHA1 is a bit bulky and uses now hard to find MiniDV tapes but it has taken all our abuse (we are not easy on stuff) and when it comes to crisp clean video it is hard to beat the three, 1/3″ CCDs.  This is the camcorder we primarily use for how-to videos and capturing the big shots on our adventures.

Over time we’ve also added other camcorders in an attempt to get different perspectives.  The first one we added was the Bullet DVR 550TVL Pro Series camera which plugs in and uses the Canon to record its images. This little camera gets mounted on the dash or stuck to the side of the rig with a magnet.  Since it is rugged and water proof we don’t have much to worry about hanging over the side.

We also picked up a used, palm sized Panasonic PV-GS90P.  Nothing special, just aim it and record.  It is small and lite which fits the bill for quick grab and go shots, or sticking it out the window while driving down the trail.  It has a 42x optical zoom and the ability to off the digital zoom (for better results stay away from digital zoom).  Although basic, it produces reasonable quality HD video and provides fill-in shots.  This is also a camcorder we can hand off to other drivers or their kids and ask them to record what they want.  I’m amazed at the perceptive you’ll get by giving a kid a camera.

Getting video while moving means mounting a camera and keeping it stable over the bumps and ruts.  We did a Ram Mount install a while back.  With a little ingenuity, we had the Ram Mount holding our tripod’s center column with the XHA1 on top.  With a fluid head we were able to adjust the height and get nice pan movement.  The setup worked well on pavement but the Canon was too heavy to remain stable off-road.  The little Panasonic is lite enough but the Ram Mount just doesn’t remain steady once you raise the center of gravity above the dash.

The newest addition is a little Contour HD 1080P POV recorder. This little camcorder is one of those you mount on your snowboarding helmet or  mountain bike and with a little Velcro it can be stuck just about anywhere.  It also has a little water proof case when the elements get nasty. The camera uses a CMOS sensor so it does suffer from the “jello” effect when the camera shakes or if panned too quickly, however the wide 135-degree field of view really helps with that jello thing.  The sound quality is ok (doubt we’ll use the sound portion) but the video is nice and easy to pull the files off the micro SD card.  We’ve just started to play with this POV camera but so far its wide angle and crisp video should provide some nice angles similar to the bullet cam without having to drag the bulk of the XHA1 along.

The usual method for creating our videos is to record everything as it happens, hope for the best and then take it into post production to figure out what we have and what we can make out of it. Editing is handled with Final Cut express. It took a while to figure out but was easy enough once we got the hang of it.  We just upgraded to Final Cut Pro X which has a completely different interface and is requiring us to change some of the sloppiness in our workflow.  But we should be able to more easily synchronize multiple camera angles, adjust contrast, brightness and color as well as hopefully create more dynamic action.

While photography is about composing the shot… video deals in story boards.  Telling stories in video is not something we’ve master yet.  We understand the concept of story arcs, lighting, sound, movement and angles but we have never been able to put it all together and create the epic tale we’re after.  At least not yet.

There is something rewarding about sharing what you enjoy with others. We know our photos are amateur and our videos campy. But I believe it is important to keep your mind engaged and continually work on new things…  Hula Betty will tell you I don’t need another hobby.  She is probably right. But to be good at anything, it takes 10,000 hours of practice.  So if we need to keep going on adventure in order to learn how create real story dimension in our 4×4 videos…  Well than that is what we’ll have to do.

We could hurt ourselves…  for your entertainment.

 

Boom Boom Out Go The Lights

This is not a flash back tribute to 80’s rocker, Pat Travers. It’s the annual Northwest Fj Cruiser Club’s midnight 4×4 trail adventure.  And like most things that go bump in the night, this off-road adventure had its ups, downs and a bang…

The NWFJCC Bad Moon Rising off-road adventure is held every spring under a full moon.  4WD rigs descend from all over Oregon and Washington, driving 100’s of miles to participate in this annual event that offers a chance to explore some of the Tillamook State Forest trials (TFS) before and after the sun goes down.

For a while now, work has really put a cramp on our off-road adventures…  long work weeks spilling into the weekends and travel, have left little time to explore the road less traveled.  Not that we’re complaining about having work, since many folks out there have it much worse.  But it was time to get out and wheel.

The meetup for TSF runs is a local McDonald’s parking lot just outside of Portland where everyone gets the chance to catch up with old friends and meet new members.  Rolling up early, we were happy to find a few old faces in the parking lot who immediately greeted us with an extended hand and a smile, reminding us of past good times with the club.

After a few Big Macs were gobbled down and everyone accounted for, it was time to move the convoy to the trail head, further down the highway toward the coast.

No matter how hard you try, it doesn’t take long for a dozen rigs to get strung out.   Once on the highway, we shouted “cop on the left” over the CB but the folks in the back didn’t get the message and in their hurry to catch up, set off the all sorts of speed trap alarms and police cruiser lights…  Tail Gunner was busted!  Luckily a clean record and good speeding Karma allowed Curtis to drive away with just a cautionary word and soon caught up with the convoy some 20 miles down the road where everyone was fueling up and purchasing OHV permits.

Some folks have the misconception that four wheelers, rip through the woods, tossing out beer cans and tearing up bushes as they trash the trails….  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Most of us are responsible wheelers, sticking to the designated trails and keep a trash bag handy to pick up litter in an effort to preserve the land for everyone to use.  The club takes great pride in its adoption of the Hood Raiser trail and the first hour or so of this event was spent working on the trail to clean up debris and  maintain the water-bars that keep the trails well drained.

We’ve wheeled TFS a number of times…  previous night runs, Bill Burke training, Black Friday runs…  but it is never the same.  Dirt and rock give way and shift each year as the northwest rain and snow work against the earth. And for some reason this time TSF seemed to perplex me on several of the trails.

Hog’s Back is a short steep climb ending with a rutty dug out  obstacle before cresting the hill. The line I picked this time put our wheels in all the wrong places for going up and over the last twenty feet.  After another failed attempt, I gave a shout out for a spot and received the guidance needed to make it to the top.  The other drivers made it look easy.

Driving off-road in the dark is unlike anything else you will ever experience in a 4WD vehicle.  Amazing twinkling starts, trees glowing in the moon light and the sound of the night. But the dark can also masquerade obstacles. making holes and ruts disappear into the shadows like monsters hiding under the bed.  The great part about going out with the club is the support you get from others when you need help to get unstuck.  One of the rigs, about half way through the convoy found one of those holes hiding just behind a tree root and in front of an incline.  Pinned up within inches of a tree, the rig could not move forward or back without risking carnage from gravity’s effort to close that final inch between quarter panel and tree.

The getting unstuck procedure is simple: The driver remains in the rig, maintaining control over it, while others assess the situation and determine the best course of action. With headlamps adorned, spotters kept an eye on the tree as others had the driver turn the wheels back and forth to see if a simple tire repositioning might deliver the needed traction, without impaling the rig on the tree. The rig was stuck…  and stuck in a spot on the trail where pulling it out with a strap was not possible.

Ever wandered why off-roads carry those big hi-lift jacks?  It is not the best tool to change a flat tire or crack walnuts.  It is however, the perfect tool to lift a wheel high into the air so that you can stack rocks or downed tree limbs under the tire to provide better traction and drive out of a deep whole.  But lifting the wheel high enough to stack rocks under it, when mud is all around and the rig wants to lean into a tree can be a bit unnerving.  Careful coordination, several logs stuff under the wheel and the efforts a few veteran spotters had Jeff cautiously easing his rig forward, without injury.

Further down the trail, fortunes were turning for the worse.  The BJ60 is a shortish wheel base rig but Toyota gave it an extra long ass hanging off the back.  Following Chris in his BJ was exhilarating as he skillfully pirouetted his diesel rig through the tight twist and turns.  The rig’s long travel allowed it to gracefully sway as it lifted and dropped its wheels over the rocks.  But as I watched him take the rig down through a tight obstacle, the rear wheel went bump and the tail end went bang…  just a little…  but enough.  The back end of the quarter panel found a tree trunk leaning out into the trail.  Just a ding, but still a scar that will need to be pulled out and painted to bring the old BJ60 back to her original beauty.

Looking to avoid combat with that belligerent overgrown fern, which now had a taste for paint and metal, I moved the  Blue Bunny as far to the other side of the trail as possible.  If the tree was the frying pan, than where I put the rig was hell’s own inferno.  The rig was moving slowly down hill as the passenger side started to rise while the driver’s side began to dip.  Each forward revolution of the wheel put the rig further off camber until it was clear that if I didn’t change this line, the situation was going to get catastrophic.

Time slows down as the brain goes into survival mode.  By now Hula Betty had a severe lean off her dashboard perch and my pucker factor meter was somewhere up in my throat, cutting off the air supply to my larynx making it impossible to express out loud all the four-letter words that were racing across my brain’s synapses.

Still rolling forward, gravity was pulling over on the rig as I turn hard into the off camber lean, trying to come down off the passenger side obstacle. I don’t know whether it was clean living (it’s not that clean), the prayer flags or sheer dumb luck but the rig began to slowly right itself as we maintained the steedy downhill turn.  Back on level ground, I took a breath, double checked my shorts and took stock.  I had picked a bad line and it almost cost me.  You can’t take anything for granted on the trail.

The remainder of the trail was uneventful as the convoy of rigs motored back to the parking area where we everyone chatted about the trails, aired up and started to plan the next wheeling event.

After midnight and the fog had closed in, holding all of us in a cold damp bear hug as drivers milled about saying their final goodbyes.  The original plan was to camp over in TSF.   Some might say I was trying to recapture my youth by reliving my all-nighter college road trip days.  But between the damp chilly air and overload of adrenaline coursing through my veins, driving through the night back up to Seattle seemed like the thing to do.  Besides, the thought of a warm bed and clean sheets was hard to shake as I looked around at the muddy ground.  Jeff decided to follow my lead and drive up to Seattle with us, insuring there would be conversation over the CB to fight back any tired feeling.

I5 from PDX to SEA is pretty barren in the wee hours and we were cruising at an steady pace. When we  hit Centralia, WA the Denny’s sign called us in with the promise of pie.  You can’t really go to Denny’s and not order breakfast, so pie gave way to some sort of bacon, sausage, scrambler mix with hash browns…  Oh I love those Denny’s hash browns.  Jeff and I talked over coffee and late night (or early morning) breakfast.  We shared a few tales of our past, talking about this, that and what not.  I enjoyed a good breakfast, achieved a little caffeine buzz and learned a little more about one of the good guys I know, but never did get pie.

40 minutes farther north on I5, Jeff and I parted as we both made our ways home.  By the time Hula Betty and I pulled into the driveway, the sun was up, birds were singing and early church goes were pulling out of the neighborhood. Laying my head on the pillow I thought about how lucky I was…  Not for avoiding a roll-over (yes that was really, really, really, really, lucky), but for the good friends I have, my family and the fact I’m able to have an off-road adventure when so many others are doing all they can just to make the mortgage.

Special thanks to Tilly for several of the photos posted here.

Back To Our Roots

When we started this off-road adventure website almost five years ago, we had one goal. Put it out into the world and see what comes back. Don’t take it too seriously and above all… don’t worry about the destination, just enjoy the journey as it unfolds.

This morning the big hand was on the twelve and the little one pointing at the ten… That’s analog for 10 o’clock to the digital kids in the crowd. The rig was load and we were burning day light. Lots of plans ahead of us before meeting up with the NWFJCC and wheeling in the Tillamook State Forest. No time to waste, we had to get going.

A few blocks out of the driveway and around the corner we saw a group of 40’s vintage cars gathering in the Home Depot parking lot. We honked… they waved… and we kept going. Just past the parking lot, parents and race officials were setting up cones and unloading soap box derby cars. We’d seen them setting up here before and had thought, one of these days we have to stop and watch… but we’re on a mission and have a schedule to keep, so we kept going.

Five miles down the highway and it hit me…  like a slap in the face from a woman scorned… it hit me hard. What the hell am I doing… If Hula Betty and I don’t have time today to check out cool vintage cars or watch a soap box derby, when will we have time?  And what is so important that we can’t stop? The universe is opening a door… why not go through? We have six hours to make a three hour journey to the meetup, so what is the rush?

We took the next exit and promptly turned the rig around, driving back to check out what other folks were up to on this brisk spring morning.  To my dismay, the vintage car club had already headed out for part unknown but the derby was still defining the race lanes with bright orange safety cones on the street they had closed off for the race.

Something interesting happens when you show up with an SLR and act like you know what you’re doing (ACT being the operative word).  People let you poke around and ask all sorts of questions.  Turns out these kids are part of the All-American Soap Box Derby.  These local derbies are held throughout the country to award points to racers who have their eye’s set on racing in the championship held every year in Akron, Ohio.

I chatted with some of the young racers who were very eager to tell me about the different classes, how they built their car and the speeds they attain down the track. It was amazing to see how intense these kids were; discussing race strategy with their parents, glaring down the track looking for the fastest lines through the slopping turn and making last minute checks on their race cars.  The excitement isn’t just limited to the kids.  Talk to any of the parents or grandparents on the side lines and beams of pride almost blind you as they tell you about their young racer.  How they sold lemonade on the corner and worked odd jobs to save up for their car kit or how they way they worked endlessly on the car to get it just right or where they are in the standings this race season.  It reminded me of watching girl and boy play basketball back in they day when they were little and how I’d shout out with excitement every time they put up a shot.  Didn’t matter if it went in or not, I was so proud that they were out there trying, doing their best and having fun… they were my kids on that court and MJ couldn’t even hold a candle to them out on that floor as far as I was concerned.

Before today, I knew about soap box derby but hadn’t actually experienced it.  No, racing in the soap box derby is not on my bucket list or even some unfulfilled childhood dream.  But it is apart of Americana, our collective psyche where individuals chase their dream of doing something special.  Everyone has something they enjoy… that they call their own. These kids are racing with gravity, others are restoring vintage automobiles and a few drive thousands of miles to take perfectly good rigs through crooked, muddy, tree lined, rock encrusted off-road trails, trying to avoid the carnage that comes when metal and granite attempt to occupy the same space.

We all have something that makes us smile.  Today what made me smile was remembering life is too short to not stop and watch the soap box derby…