Sharing The Off-Road Adventure

Every phone is a camera… every Instagram user an artist… and every adventure is an opportunity to share a unique experience with the world.

The tools available through Instagram, GIMP (our personal favorite), Photoshop and others lets anyone take their digital images and craft them into a shower of color that brings out the true magic of their off-road adventure.

Some may say that these altered images are fake. We disagree! We’re not recording history here. We’re telling stories and the images shared on this site help tell the story, conveying the emotional experience of individuals who took the pictures on their adventure.

The off-road adventures we go on, put us in places of amazing beauty. These are often locations with rugged landscapes that can be extremely difficult to reach and only a lucky few will ever see.  Our website’s goal is to share these experiences and inspire others to embark on their own adventures in hopes that they will in turn share their stories and images encouraging even more people to step out of their comfort zone.

The images here that Mike captured of the Rubicon Trail scream adventure.  Mike gives everyone a peak into the emotional experience and raw energy of the trail.  Through Mike’s images the description of calm green serenity fills the  mind.  Other times its the expansive blues that reminds us all how small we are in the universe.

Each of us will see something different in the images we view.  The feelings that an image evokes depends on our own experiences and where we are in our own journey.

For me these images speak of camaraderie and the friendships found in a shared struggle as you overcome adversity together in order to achieve a goal that alone is unattainable. On this off-road adventure that shared struggle was the Rubicon Trail.

My Life As A Commuter

It’s 6:00 am. The Bainbidge Island ferry terminal is lined with people waiting to board the ferry. A small crowd of people walk in the opposite direction of this line. It’s a hallway full of tired eyes, footsteps, and soft chatter.

This was my life for four years. It remain such a vivid memory that when I close my eyes I can still see and hear every detail..

Listen to Hula Betty’s audio story as she tells you what it is really like to commute on the Washington state ferry.

As a ferry commuter, my life was different than so many of my peers. It was an experience that shaped my future.

Metal Tech’s Rear Long Travel Review

Metal Tech 4×4 is known for its leadership in off-road protection, suspension performance and 4-wheeling innovation.  We thought we’d look at their recent suspension contribution.

The first big advancement in long travel for the Toyota FJ Cruiser  and 4-Runner came  in 2008 from Total Chaos taking the front end from eight inches to 12 inches of travel with their front 2″ long travel kit.  This step forward provided a big improvement to the front IFS but left the rear-end unattended.

Realizing the need for balance in off-road suspension performance, Metal Tech 4×4 introduced their rear long travel and has created the next evolution in FJ Cruiser and 4-Runner suspension. Eleven and half inches of rear shock travel translating into 27 inches of wheel travel to help maintain four points of contact with the ground as you motor over all sorts of terrain.

To achieve this impressive range of motion, Metal Tech’s long travel kit includes offset lower links that eliminate binding, bump stop relocaters, longer stainless break-lines and taller two stage progressive springs.  Metal Tech has teamed with Icon to create longer rear shocks specifically designed to take advantage of the new geometry.

The Metal Tech long travel kit offers two progressive spring options:

  • Standard long travel springs have a free standing 19 1/4″ spring height that maintains a 2″ lift in the rear.  The bottom half the coil is rated at 250lbs of spring rate and the upper portion is at 105lbs of spring rate.
  • Expedition rated long travel springs have 3″ of rear lift. The bottom half of the coil is rated at 300lbs of spring rate and the upper portion is rated at 140lbs of spring rate to maintain ride height with the heavier loads associated with overland expeditions.

Using a progressive spring combination allows the spring to stay in it’s compressed position at ride height and expand out to it’s full free height on down travel keeping the wheels in contact with the ground.

But how does all this spring rating translate into seat of the pants performance? We tested both Metal Tech spring types and found some very interesting results.

Full disclosure here: we run the Metal Tech 3-link setup with their lower links, springs, bump stops, extended bake line and Sway-A-Way 2 1/2″, remote reserve, 12″ travel, triple by-pass shocks on our setup.  Travel numbers are for a 4-link set up and some of the test were using Metal Tech’s FJC running a 4-link set up and their long travel kit.  Both springs were tested on our rig to provide same/same comparison over a longer duration to see the difference in ride comfort, sag and spring response. We also left the bypass shocks at the same setting for all the spring tests.

First we tested the standard springs on some forest roads and local trails which offer a number of different levels of challenge.  Driving on highway, around town or on wash board gravel the standard long travel springs provide an amazingly comfortable ride.  While the heavier rated bottom half of the coil keeps a level ride height, the softer upper portion gives and takes the impacts of pot holes, cracks and bumps in the road.  On the 4×4 trails the springs open up nicely, allowing the rear wheels to travel their full arc keeping the rig steady as you crawl over large rocks or drop a wheel into a hole.  The three wheeled wave so familiar to FJC drivers who play on the bigger obstacles is a thing of the past (within reason).  Carrying lighter loads on the local logging roads (a few spare parts. tools and camp gear) the springs provide the stability needed to move quickly down half dirt, half gravel twisty terrain and absorb all the bumps and ruts allowing for solid control and comfort.

The expedition long travel springs are new…  in fact we were the first to grab a pair off the rack and test them.  These springs were designed to support the heavier loads of overland expeditions without sagging and giving up ride height (translate ride height into upward wheel travel).  In order to run the new expedition long travel springs through their paces we piled all the gear needed to be self sufficient for six days on the famed Rubicon Trail… and it was a lot of gear. On the big Rubicon rocks of Little Sluice, Big Sluice and Cadillac Hill the expedition springs carried the weight and still granted the rear axle full travel along the length of its arc allowing the wheels to remain in contact with the granite as we crawled up and over obstacles.  On all the obstacles the springs kept the rig stable, never feeling sloppy or sagging under the weight of all the camping gear, food, tools, spare parts, camera gear and gallons of water and fuel.

Of course you have to give up something with these heavier springs right…  These springs are designed to ride level with a load so empty you will notice your FJC has a bit of rake like it did when it came off the show room floor. Driving around town with the expedition springs and an empty rig reminds you you’re a driving a truck. Not harsh, looking for a kidney belt, rattle your teeth loose ride but not the supple smooth ride of the Metal Tech standard long travel springs either.

When we first upgraded the front end to the Total Chaos long travel we had one complaint…  the rear end just could not keep up as we took our rig through the Baja, Rubicon (the first time back in 09) and the backcountry discovery routes of Utah and Washington.  Now with the Metal Tech long travel and their choice of springs we have the balance we’ve been looking for as we travel the road less traveled.

If your looking for an upgrade that will provide you with gobs of rear travel and you want to be able to carry all the gear you need to be self sufficient on long expedition in a Toyota 4-Runner or FJ Cruiser then give Metal Tech 4×4 a call to talk about their six different rear long travel kit options.

I Hope This Goes Somewhere

I’ve never regretted a day on the trail. Until today. Now, I haven’t been wheeling all of my life. I haven’t even been doing it for a full decade. But as with any set of complex skills that require learning by doing, I’ve had my share of “bad days” on the trails. There are many things I would have done differently. Different lines. Different execution. Different attitude. But not once did I seriously wish I’d been somewhere else.

That’s all changed. I made the trip from Seattle to Portland to spend some time with an old friend in my favorite offroad area, the Tillamook State Forest. I was hoping too, also make some new club friends as I joined them in exploring an area of the forest in which I’d never been.

The day started out promising with a short, middling 4×4 trail to get warmed up, followed by some forest roads — including crossing a few of the sizable snow fields that remained. The rest of the day was spent engaged in serious, nearly non-stop vehicular bushwhacking through massive overgrowth down The Road (much) Less Traveled.

I can see the eyeballs rolling. Pinstripes. Big deal. This is just part of the bargain, wheeling forest trails in the Pacific Northwest. But this was different. This was not (now) a trail so much as a glint of a promise of an opening through birch and fir groves. Neither was this a matter of the occasional stripe. Imagine, instead, an automated car-wash in which the brushes have been replaced by (say) blackberry — or angry wolverines. Or maybe, think of polishing your truck with a line trimmer. You get the idea. And then there are the ragged stalactite limbs of blow-down triangulating on the trail, threatening to tear through the soft top. Ten hours of driving (round trip) to take a beating like this on a mostly unmaintained trail? I don’t think so.

Well, so, why? Why continue? That’s a terrific question, for which I don’t think there’s a single answer. Part of it, I think, is the lemming-like inertia associated with finding oneself in the middle of all of this, in the middle of a pack, with no easy way out. But more on this later.

Another part of it has to do with trust, or better, with charity: with the idea that, however bleak things seem at the moment, it can’t go on like this. And, further: there must be some fantastic trail or vista or other compensating good not otherwise obtained.

These expectations were soundly thwarted on all fronts. It could go on like this — and did. There was no other trail; this was the trail. Happily, the trail did lead to a quite spectacular view, which but for the marine layer, would have afforded a view of the Pacific, as well as Mounts Hood and Rainier and St. Helens. But this very view could have been easily obtained, minus the risk, by a mere 13 or so miles of forest road capped by a few hundred yards of significantly less overgrown and clearly much more frequently traveled trail.

And so the path taken was unnecessary for attaining the splendid vista, and along the way presented but one or two brief sections that posed much technical challenge. (Whatever else it might be, the challenge of separating paint from body by navigating through heavy brush is not itself a test of driving skill. Avoiding obstacles lining the narrow trail while tending to the distraction posed by overgrowth is another thing entirely.) But then the certain risk of even cosmetic damage was wholly disproportionate to attaining that wonderful view. And of course there are many other trails in the Tillamook State Forest OHV system that offer vastly more technical bang for the buck (and across all skill and experience levels) as well as providing spectacular vistas.

Certainly the journey is at least as important as the destination. And some destinations are very fine indeed. But not just any route is warranted by the destination, however fine. And some routes, perhaps, are less traveled for good reason.

OK. Deep breath. Now, exhale….

Venting has its place (and not just with brake rotors), but one of the things that’s always appealed to me about wheeling is the pace. And it’s a pace that — or me, anyway — lends itself well to reflection. And both in, and after, this experience, I’ve reflected a bit on the relationship between trail leader and participant.

Of course, the role of the trail leader is not one but many. (These many roles can effectively be distributed across multiple individuals in a group, as it’s a rare individual indeed who can do them all well. But that’s a story for another day.) And these roles involve trip preparation as well as situational thinking at run time. Among the former are to ensure, so far as reasonable, that prospective participants have (among other things):

  • suitable equipment
  • desired experience
  • appropriate expectations

for the trail(s) to be run.

Tuning expectations could be as simple as noting in a pre-run email — or at least in a drivers meeting before hitting the trail — that the route to the run’s destination hasn’t been maintained since Land Rover stopped producing Series trucks, and consequently that on a pinstripe scale from 0-5 (5 being the worst), this one goes to 11.

This sort of informative, relevant pre-run communication is simple, cheap and relatively painless. Leaders can use follow up email (as needed) to further probe prospective participant’s level of preparation and experience. Prospective participants can use the information to gauge interest, self-assess their own preparedness — following up with the run leader as needed — and, perhaps, to opt out.

On this run, alas, the information that would have been most salient for me went without saying. No content rich pre-run emails. No real drivers meeting. Nothing of note communicated over the radio during the run. I do remember, however, before we launched into the warm-up trail (which was completely bereft of pinstripe opportunities), the trail leader strolling past the truck and saying something about enjoying pinstripes half under his breath. I didn’t know then what was to come.

Salient for me. For me. That’s it, isn’t it? Where am I in all of this, as a participant? I’m not at all shy, really, of the realities of wheeling in the forest. And yet on this run my expectations were dashed, with all of the side effects that ensued — not the least of which was a thoroughly unenjoyable day.

So what’s my role in this unhappy chain of events, or, at least, what should it be? Well, pretty clearly the right model of the leader/participant relationship here isn’t an active – passive one. This is sometimes easy to forget; it’s can be seductive to leave the “work” to others and just settle in and cruise. Ultimately we are responsible for ourselves on the trail (as elsewhere): picking a line, recovery, trail repair, food and water and shelter — and speaking up when things seem sideways.

As with trail leadership, this can start well before ever setting rubber to dirt — e.g., by asking questions when relevant bits of information haven’t been explicitly provided:

  • What trails will we be running?
  • What specific challenges and/or risks should I plan for?
  • What can I expect more generally?

If something comes up on the trail, stop and say something. Don’t let it pass over in silence and just hope it works itself out.

The bottom line is, participating on a run is no more passive than leading one. (And leading one responsibly isn’t at all passive, and it’s certainly more than providing an opportunity to play Follow the Leader.) Really, we are all collaborating on a successful run, even as we play different roles.

I wrote above that I find the pace of offroading to lend itself nicely to reflection. This reflection, in turn, can lead to self-discovery. For myself, on this trip I learned that sometimes there are limits to what I’m willing to endure; and that sometimes (as in other areas of my life) I can be too passive and less than sufficiently assertive (which of course isn’t a license to be a tool ;). Perhaps this doesn’t resonate for you. Good. But if it does, then as Gibbs once told DiNozzo, “Don’t be like me. Learn from it.”

Note about the Author: Paul Martin, often referred to as Other Paul on this website contributed this story.  Other Paul has years of experience wheeling Toyota FJCs and 80 series and these days pilots a Land Rover Defender 90.  He has been a key part of many of our adventures including the Utah Backcountry Discovery Route, Washington Backcountry Discovery Route and many local trail runs. Every opportunity to wheel with Other Paul is an opportunity to learn.

To Venezuela… and Beyond – Part 3 everything’s different here

…Our host’s father assured us that we would but first we were going to dinner.

We all piled into the rented car and drove into the mountains that surround Caracas until we came to a beautiful white ranch styled home that looked up the valley in which Caracas is built. From this vantage, we could see the entire expanse of the beautiful city lit in the evening darkness. The view was breathtaking. The inside of the house was completely empty, save for several cardboard boxes that had remained from when the inhabitants had moved out. The back of the house that faced the city was a series of large rooms with sliding glass doors so that from every room one could see the panorama of the city that lay below it. Each door opened to a wide shared patio made of slate where our host’s mother had arranged cardboard boxes into a table and chairs and where she was setting the table with paper plates. Just as she finished, his father came from the back of the house with a boxed pizza they’d had delivered and we all sat down and ate while he explained what this house was. It was theirs. “If this is your house, why do you live in the apartment in the city?” I asked. A look of sadness swept over the faces of the parents. Pride had been abandon. “Our son has bankrupted us.” We looked at our host, me fighting the urge to send him my most cutting ‘how could you’ look. His father went on to explain how it happened and I was reminded of a time when they came to the U.S. to visit us. The father and I had gone for a pleasant walk together. He’d asked me about his son, what he spent on me, what gifts I’d received from him, how he spent his money. My responses didn’t help him as my answers were, nothing, none, and I don’t know. I think the man thought his son was lavishing me with expensive gifts, cars, a place to live perhaps? No. The boy, whose money I thought belonged to him, that he spent on cars, a condo, musical equipment, clothes, and I couldn’t say what else, was spending his father’s money. He’s spent every penny of it.

I had to ask. “Did you pay for our flight here this week?” The parents looked at each other and then at their son. “I’ll pay you back as soon as I can.” I hastened to say. To which they responded in unison. “No. You won’t. It is our pleasure to have you here.” They didn’t know their son had paid for our trip. We ate our dinner and chatted on about much more benign things.

It was late when we returned to the apartment in Los Palos Grande. Karon had been patient but it was after ten and she was beginning to feel desperate about calling home and assuring her mother that she was still alive. I was not so concerned. I hadn’t bothered to tell my parents, or anyone else in my family for that matter that I was going. Her anxiety was palatable. Our host’s father suggested that he drop off his family and take us to make our call. We had no idea what he meant.

We left his wife, teenaged and preschool aged daughters at the door of the apartment building and he instructed his son to drive. Moments later we arrived at the equivalent of the AT&T building in Caracas. “Turn the lights off. Drive around back.” He instructed. “Park here by this door.” We did. We got out in an ally at the back of the large building and he knocked on the door. Karon and I shared uh-oh glances, realizing by now that nothing every goes easily here in this place of rugged terrain and uncertain living. The door opened.

A security guard let us in and led us to a switchboard room. He stopped us in front of a row of switch boards and asked, “Who needs to make a call?” Karon stepped forward. He asked her questions and as she responded, he worked. At last he handed her headphones with a mouth piece and told her, “You have three minutes.” She took the headset. “Hello?” she asked. Her shoulders relaxed and fear and anxiety washed from her brow. She was talking to home, a place I suspected she never appreciated more than she did at that very moment.

When the call ended, she fired me a warning glance. “You’d better call home too. Your parents are freaking out. They called my mom and she told them where we are.” I looked at our host. He nodded to the guard and the call was made. Unlike Karon, my call was much less a relief. I didn’t use my full three minutes. My parents asked if I was ever coming home. I said I was. They hung up on me. It was an easier call than I had anticipated. Note to self, next time call from the Miami airport and have this conversation before you leave.

Mission accomplished, we paid the guard the equivalent of twenty dollars and slinked back out the employee entrance and home to sleep again in the fire trap, which by now had become much less scary to me. In truth, a fiery death seemed much more palatable than going home.

Early the next morning the cousins from the beach arrived with a plan. We’d drive into the mountains to a German Village (similar to but substantially smaller than Torvar and about 5 hours closer to Caracas) and have dinner. We drove into the mountains about four-and-a-half hours, passing towns and often finding ourselves in a stream of cars also creeping up the thin two-lane mountain road. As we climbed the weather cooled. Karon and I began to feel safe in our assumption that something even as placid as a day trip into the mountains for dinner would go anything like a trip we might embark upon in the U.S. We relaxed into a state of fearless acceptance, understanding that we had no idea what to expect anymore.

It was late in the day when we arrived in the village. Dusk had begun to settle in the sky and the village was shutting down. We passed homes that looked Bavarian with kitchen gardens full of fruitful plants and laundry drying in the evening breeze. We passed blond men, women, and children with blue eyes and traditional German attire, the likes of which one would expect to see on a postcard from the Alps. We parked in the center of the village and walked to a restaurant near the edge of it all and were stopped at the door. “We’re closed.”

Hungry and tired from the drive, our spirits sunk. Our host and his cousin begged, explaining who we were and how far we’d come. The result was the suggestion that we come in and eat the one thing they could cook for us in a wood fire stove. Pizza. We cheered. It turned out they were not closed because they wanted to be. They were closed because they could only count on electricity for a few hours a day and wanted to use it in the night for their homes. The restaurant owner’s daughter lit candles and they fired up the oven with fresh wood and served us drinks to bide the time. As the night fell on the little restaurant in the mountains of Germany, oh, no, Venezuela, we talked, laughed and relaxed. The world’s most delicious pizza was served and we ate, talked and laughed more. On the drive home, Karon and I slept peacefully, forgetting that we had only one more day before we were scheduled to fly home.

That final day in Caracas was spent at a country club. This was a stark change in environment from the rest of our trip. Our host’s father knew the manager of the country club where the roster of over 3,000 members came from all over the world. They let us in and ushered us to the pool area. From there we could see the golf course, polo fields, and tennis courts. A waiter brought us what we asked for and we sat in white lawn chairs near the pool relaxing in the sun. From different points around the pool one speaking enough languages could eaves drop on conversations in French, German, Japanese, Spanish and perhaps other languages that my untrained ear couldn’t comprehend. It was opulent compared to the country clubs I’d seen in the U.S. and white. Everything was white. We stayed there, and stayed out of trouble in the clean white peacefulness the entire day. Then we slept one more night in the apartment with the prison cell door.

The next morning we were ready to go. We woke early, packed quickly and presented our host’s parents with gifts we’d acquired in our travels. Karon asked more than once how we were getting to the airport and we learned that the entire family was taking us. Knowing this was a relief. We left early for the airport and got our tickets and our bags checked easily. The family went with us to customs to make sure that there were no issues and at that point we said our good byes. I was suddenly gripped by the finality of this endeavor. I would never see these people again after a very long three year relationship. The idea was overwhelming and I began to cry. We walked toward our gate and the tears continued. I cried until the flight took off and the stewardess took pity on me and offered me a good stiff drink. I took it. I couldn’t decide if the tears belonged to a deep seated love for this family or if they were a physical reaction to the relief I felt for knowing that this period of my life had just ended.

Karon and I flew in silent exhaustion until we were almost to Miami. It was late at night and the captain of the plane announced that our landing would be slightly delayed. He would have to navigate us around a tremendous thunder storm to the west of Miami to avoid the turbulence and circle until we could land. We watched out one window of the plane a most spectacular storm and out the other window of the plane a most beautiful star filled night with a brilliant full moon. The striking difference in views was a remarkable parallel to the worlds we had come from and were going to, to the difference between my life before the Venezuelans, during the Venezuelans and what lay after the Venezuelans. I watched in succession between the two windows and smiled. Life was full of calm starry nights and horrendous thunderstorms and each were spectacular.