All posts by Last Great Road Trip (LGRT)

tide pool rocks at sunset

Twists And Turns Of The 1

bixby creek bridge on highway 1With the ubiquitous scent of cypress and eucalyptus wafting through the open car windows, we mounted the 1 in Sausalito just across the Golden Gate Bridge and began our twisting climb toward the southern edge of the northern California coast. It had been a hard six weeks and even after planning this trip for several months, I wasn’t convinced my timing was right. I had already postponed it from the week before after fighting to make it fit into my calendar. As bad as my timing was, I wasn’t going to simply skip it. I just wanted to be in Northern California. Even if it wasn’t convenient for my career.

At 5 a.m. we woke, drove to Detroit metro, caught our flight and flew west. By 11: 30 a.m. we were landing in San Francisco on a perfect California day. At 12:30 p.m. we were in our car and headed north out of the city. By 1:10 p.m. we were making the turn off 101 and onto the 1 on a sunny summer Saturday afternoon in a single file parade of cars, vans, and motorcycles, each with seemingly the same idea in mind. It didn’t matter how many were in our parade. We were here. It was now. For the first time heading north in California, I was the passenger. This never happens. I am always the driver. I’m never the passenger. I’m always the one behind the wheel catching snippets of scenery between darting glances ahead, at the dividing yellow line, the sharp edge of a shoulder-less road, at the oncoming cars. I am never the one with her head on a swivel soaking up the scenery ahead, to the right and to the left noting odd signs, unique buildings, changes in the landscape and terrain, seeing people who don’t see me, a voyeur in a car. From the turn east off the 101 I was instructed to sit back and enjoy the ride and this trip was already amazing.

We climbed. As we climbed, we joked. Can you imagine riding a bike on this? The first biker passed us wheeling in the opposite direction within minutes of our comments. Then a group of three, then a couple. Then a mature woman who’d dropped her husband to attack the winding climb in her own zone. All moving from north to south on the narrow two lane road with no shoulder, no barriers, no promise that the next motorist behind them wouldn’t ‘go wide’ on the next blind curve they’d emerged from, not see them, and not hit them. I caught my breath more than once watching man, bike, car and road co-exist. The stunning determination of the cyclists whom I knew, knew what challenges they faced in the road ahead. How…? How. Again, I was amazed.

“This is incredibly like Ireland,” I murmured out loud, “save driving on the right hand side of the road.” I had once complained that the worst thing about Ireland was that it isn’t attached to the U.S. so we could get to it on the weekends. I realized now that maybe I was wrong. Maybe a piece of Ireland had been here all along and I just hadn’t known it.

As we emerged from around a curve, I sighted the ocean for the first time from the 1. It rose up from the end of a long valley between two mountains in a Vee of gray blue. “There it is!” I pointed and scrambled for my camera to get the shot that disappeared as fast as it had appeared. “Crap! I lost the shot.” I huffed, letting the camera and my hands drop to my lap, only to raise them again around the next curve when the view returned from a slightly different angle. I soon understood that these shots and that phrase would recur over and over for the next four-and-a-half hours. I settled back in my chair, watching. Waiting for the next missed shot and scheming my rebound strikes. We weren’t 20 minutes into this trip and I was captivated.

The road curved due north. At this point in the drive, the road is close, tight on either edge. The terrain is close. The land is steep and falls sharply on the west side of the road down into rocky crags to the ocean and up away from the water on the east side. I wondered if I could live here, thinking of the winding mountain passes in eastern Vermont and New Hampshire where suddenly towns pop up around tight hairpin curves. White church steeples with fresh black tiles topped with bright white crosses penetrate the evergreen blanket of the landscape to indicate that humanity lies ahead. No, I couldn’t live here, even with the expanse of the ocean opening up between each winding detour in the road that dents into the land and then snakes back out to the sea. The trees hover too thick. The walls of the mountains are too close. The absence of unfettered views. I couldn’t do this every day even if today I need it. Today I need the closeness of this place, my companion, and my thoughts. I need to be wrapped in the place that I am. Insulated, and for the first time in a very long time, wholly in the moment that I am. In this place on the 1, that is all that there is. This moment, my companion Stu, our car, this road, this terrain, the ever present scent of eucalyptus, the ocean, and me. There were no other things. There is no other place. There is just here. Just now.

I watch the road. I narrate the scene for Stu and he drives with two hands on the wheel and two eyes riveted to the winding narrow pass of road. I check myself from suddenly pointing and exclaiming, “look at that!” so as not to distract him. As we pass each new road leading to ocean access and beach entry off the 1, the other cars have begun to fall away. Past Muir Beach, Stinson Beach, the outlook at Gull Rock, the marsh and bird watchers at Kent Island, past Five Brooks to our first stop at Olema the traffic in turn reduces. At Olema, we stop as the few cars ahead of us turn inland. Olema is slightly inland too.

We park in the center of town, find our way to a long narrow restaurant and sit in the back garden under a pergola under the sun that is sliced into strips by the white lattice above our heads, tucked into a garden that is neither cool nor hot. The sounds of the road erased by the flora. People around us talk in quiet relaxed tones and we order our lunch. Two fish tacos, a plate of grilled oysters on the half shell with pesto glaze and assorted cheeses and crackers. For me, an iced tea. For Stu, a Laganitas Pale Ale. There we linger. The food is good and we savor it slowly, and when it’s done, we step back out on to the small space between the restaurant and the road. I duck into a deli for some chocolate, Stu waits outside talking to a man in his mid to late 60’s, a cyclist, about biking the 1. When the conversation ends, we mount our trail again toward Point Reyes Station and on along the edge of the beautiful Tamales Bay still nestled into the land and tucked into the road. I dub this section the Killarny section of the trip after the Ring of Kerry area in Ireland south of Tralee.

At the end of Tamales Bay, the world opens into broad pastures and the happy cows of California begin to dot the landscape. I watch as ranches begin to appear. First one or two, or three. Then five or twelve as we continue to move north. Horse farms and riding stables appear. I watch with both awe and jealousy as I realize that these bovine residents have the best views of any of the inhabitants of this land. I could live here where the angle of the land eases into plateaus of long, broad expanses of both ocean and ground. I could live here where the flora starts to change from cypress to thick pine and redwood. I could live here. Through the towns between Marconi and Elk, I think with the whimsy we allow ourselves when we completely let go, I could live here.

As we pass through Elk, I start to recount all of the places I’d found on Google Earth for us to stay the night; recognizing them from their signs and the websites I’d visited. We are nearly half way to our final destination and my driver is feeling the fatigue of a long flight and a challenging drive, a good meal and a delicious beer. I remind him that he’s only done it for three hours. I did it every day for seven days in Ireland. “Buck up mister. We’re almost there.” He bucks up with a smile and grips the wheel with new conviction.

We start talking more and sightseeing less. We talk about our friends that we love. We talk already about our next trip together. We talk about our kids and our work and the U.S. Open and the Tour de France. We talk about the music on the radio and about earthquakes and forest fires as we come upon a group of fire fighters battling a small blaze along the side of our narrow road that was surely not a controlled burn as nervous looking residents look on.

I remember with an “Oh, yeah. There is that here in California too…” The road opens again and we watch the houses on the cliffs in a private community that seems to stretch on for miles and wonder who lives there. We talk about a for sale sign that says, “1.5 miles of ocean front property and weigh the pros and cons of a property of that kind. I settle on the fact that morning walks with the dog would be utterly amazing. Our mid-point destination nears, but before we get to our hotel for the night and the plans we’ve made for the evening I have to take pause. I am glad we came against the odds of our impossible schedules. I am glad we came this specific route instead of driving with only our final destination in mind up the 101. I am glad I am here with Stu and I am content as I have ever been.

We stop at a light on the edge of Fort Bragg where I can’t hold it in anymore. It has been building up in me from the moment we mounted this amazing road 4.5 hours earlier and I just have to say it.

“If we turned around and went home tomorrow,” I say turning to look directly at him. “This trip up the 1 was totally worth it.”

Stu smiles, the light turns and he drives on.

orgiginal photo credits: Creative Commons -Attribution - Johnathan Miske & Dileep Eduri

It’s All Grey

Watching “50 shades of Gay”, I am in awe of IO Tillett Wright’s compassion for others.

Boxes, patterns, profiles… the human brain is hard wired to quickly assess things against a template and make judgements.

This ability to assess and react served us well on the Serengeti when we would scan the grassland and see a golden mane, thrashing tail, whiskers…  lion, run!! We judged things as either predator or pry.  We reacted with fight or flight.

Unfortunately, we continue to use patters to appraise situations and often apply judgements across a wide group of people.

I’m pretty sure you don’t fit neatly into any prefabbed box.  I can promise you I don’t fit into whatever pattern you think I might.  I’m a jock, a princess, a brainiac and the dumbest guy in the room.  I celebrate life with the straight, gay, black, white and brown.  I travel the high moral ground and drive right down into the low places that you don’t speak of in polite society.

We are all the same…  and we are nothing alike.  We are individuals.  We need to celebrate diversity, exercise compassion and avoid putting others in boxes because it is easy.  We need to get comfortable with the shades of grey we are all painted in.

(original cover photo by Ted Eytan licensed under Creative Commons – Attribution, Share Alike)

man talking on CB radio

Cobra 75 wx st CB Radio Install

Installing a CB Radio in a Toyota FJ Cruiser is an easy do it yourself project.  Several years back we installed a Cobra 75 wt CB radio in our truck.  Unfortunately back then we didn’t take the time to create a how to video.  So when Voodoo Brad asked us to help him install his CB radio we jumped at the chance.

If you follow our step by step instruction for installing a Cobra 75 wt CB radio in a Toyota FJ Cruiser you will need a few other components to install a complete CB system.  Below is the parts list we have used on both our Toyota FJ Cruiser CB radio installs:

  • Cobra 75 wt CB Radio
  • Firestik MU8R18 18′ EZ-Install CB Coaxial Cable
  • Firestik II 4′ fiberglass CB antenna
  • All Pro Bandi Mount
  • Firestik K1A CB Antenna Quick Disconnect
  • Firestik K4R CB Antenna Stud Mount
  • Firestik SS3H CB Antenna Spring Heavy Duty
  • SWR meter

And if you need help Tuning Your CB Radio we have help for that.

It really is this easy to install a CB yourself and have professional results.

land rover d90 toyota fj cruiser mt jefferson

Exploring The Cascades

voodoo brad head shotWe love solo off-road adventures but exploring with a team of friends can take it to another level.

We’d put in a day of wheeling, over the historic Naches Wagon Trail, to get to the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains.  A week earlier the weather was hot and dry but now a summer rain storm has cooled everything down and it’s wet.  On a solo adventure the rain would have us crawling into our sleeping bag early but on this adventure Young Turk extended the awning and we are all burning the midnight oil.

I put together this team (Other Paul, Young Turk, Voodoo Brad and his son MJ) knowing each person’s skills and personality to ensure a good match.  On the trail everyone had each others back.  We all rushed to support Young Turk’s experimental physics mishap involving kinetic energy, a Hi-Lift, his rear window and about ten tons of force.  toyota bj60 duct tape rear window repair

We all kept an eye on each other as our trucks crossed over the narrow bridges making sure no one misplaced a wheel as the old wooden beams creaked, clattered and groaned under the weight of the trucks.

Around camp everyone is sharing stories and laughing into the wee hours.  Friendships are being cemented and a group of individuals are forming a bond that will carry them through this off-road adventure and on to the next.

other paul - man making funny faceA team has a different pace.  You can’t control every detail and you must trust what each individual brings to the group. But what you give up in control, you pickup ten fold in support and comradery.  These individuals have come together and are a team I trust on any off-road adventure.

essential off-road equipment

Chasing The Gear Whore

land rover defender 110 camel trophy“He who desires more gear, knows not what he wants from his gear”- unknown source.

Whether you call it car camping, off-road adventures or overlanding, an off-road based adventure requires stuff and as a group, we overlanders do not travel light.  If you search the Interwebs, you would think that in order to start overlanding you must have a Land Rover, preferably a Defender 110 (Camel Trophy insignia optional), capable of carrying months of supplies, sand ladders, roof top tent (RTT), titanium cook sets,  wind sail canvas & teak lounge chairs with matching tables and an engine manifold hot water heater with power shower head.

loaded dual sport motorcycleI have a theory and it holds true for all major activities not just overlanding…  It goes like this:

  1. Looks interesting phase – This (insert activity name here) looks like something you would enjoy.  You have little to no experience but the activity seems interesting so you tag along with a friend or give it a try on a limited basis.
  2. Let me open my wallet phase – You tried it, you like it and you’re hooked.  You surf YouTube videos and hang out on the forums during work taking in everything you can about this life changing activity.  moto vendors nworYou imagine yourself living the dream that allows you to quit your job, take the kids out of school and spend all your days doing “this”.   If the “so called experts” tell you, you need a thing-a-ma-bob, you get a thing-a-ma-bob.  If you see a new whats-it’s that promises to take you to the next level you save up and order a whats-it’s.  You check out whats-you-ma-call-its that others have and compare detailed specs of each new piece of gear to hit the market.  You become a gear whore… and you’re proud of it.  In fact you show off your gear and tell everyone how it makes life much better…  and you are happy.yellow land rover discovery
  3. Attaining Zen phase – If you stick with the activity long enough eventually you know what works for you.  Your gear is not so shinny anymore but it performs well and meets your personal needs. You’ve pared down your gear to the minimum you feel comfortable with.  You use all your equipment regularly and your favorite piece of gear is one of your oldest items.  You have repaired much of your gear yourself.  New guys (those wide eyed newbies entering phase 2) look at you and can’t imagine how you do without the newest most talked about piece of gear they just bought.  You are old school.  off-road trailYou are more interested in experiences than buying your way into the club… and you are at peace.

I have a friend who explores very remote locations in her Forester.  That’s right, a stock Subaru with nothing more than a good set of all terrains.  She sleeps in the back, keeps her creature comforts to a minimum and only brings along the essential gear.  Most of her equipment comes from the backpacking world so it is light and compact.  She eats volvo driving snowy passgranola trail mix, energy bars and PB&J sandwiches.  She is comfortable with her style and she has seen more remote North West destinations than just about anyone else I know.

There is nothing wrong with the gear whore.  In fact it is that willingness to purchase new stuff that fuels the overlanding community.   Gear purchases encourage manufactures to sponsor rallies and shows that bring us all together.  Profitable vendors contribute to the fight for open access to places less known for all of us to explore more.

I84 sunsetWhatever phase you’re in…  don’t let anyone mislead you into feeling that you must have a truck with lockers, 33″ tires, armor or top-of-the-line suspension or other cool stuff before you can start enjoying off-road adventures.  They will of course allow you to go to more difficult locations but  all it takes to start is imagination and a desire to explore. The key to great off-road adventures is that you grab a map, pick a destination and explore the road less traveled.  Over time you will find your own way and discover what gear is right for you.

land rover defender 110 camel trophy

NW Overland Rally 2015

northwest overland rallyThe NW Overland Rally (NWOR) is currently being crushed under the weight of its own success, but don’t let that stop you.

It’s hot. Death Valley, hurts to inhale, no shade to be found, zombie face  melting hot. fj cruiser gauge pod 106 tempAt one point the temp read 106 Fahrenheit.  In the center of a hay field, hundreds of people are shoehorned into 20×20 sqft spaces to park their truck, erect their campsites, arrange their adventure trail and  attempt to manufacture shade. I’ve had more privacy camping in the Walmart parking lot.  The upper 2 fj cruisers nworsection has become tent city where all the dual sport guys are lined up tent to tent with motorcycles stacked one after another.

The NWOR’s premire sponsor is Touratech, a big deal in the dual sport motorcycle world and their marketing budget can be seen in the professionalism of the two wheeled events. nwor dual sport motorcycleThere is an offroad course where PSS Off Road provides hands-on beginner and advanced rider training (for a fee).  Professional led moto sessions addressing everything from bike field repair to readiness inspections.

The four wheeled side of the house is supported by volunteers (we helped with the advanced recovery session).  Outstanding support from the volunteers but hardly comparable to guys who are getting paid to be there and plan out the details.  For example: when 70ish trucks showed up for a morning scenic drive everyone did their toyota fj cruiser voodoo 4x4 trailbest to divide up the convoy into more manageable groups but that is a lot of trucks at once.

The intermediate drive didn’t fair much better.  It took several hours too long when the large group had to be held back while a dozen trucks at a time were lead up andmen in safety vests back down the last half mile.

The campfire MC worked the crowd like an MTV spring break party at Fort Lauderdale. Not the campfire experience we were looking for.

There were numerous interesting sessions packed into two days.  In fact with all the overlap of sessions, it felt like there was too much and no way to see all the sessions I was interested in because of the overlap.dan cronin northwest overland

If you came to wheel or if you came to spread out… you were sorely disappointed. But that is not what NWOR is really all about.

The overlanding world is filled with amazing, friendly, warm, welcoming people and this is why you come to NWOR! NWOR is about community and making connections with those who share a love for exploring the road less toyota fj cruiser cementtraveled.  We reunited with a few old friends we’d not seen in years.  We met several new folks who like us are always looking to see what is around the next bend in the road or over a distant mountain pass.  We shared stories.  We talked travels and exchanged ideas.

We did manage to sneak off on our own to get a little wheeling in.  We escaped the heat, temporarily, down at the river and enjoyed dining out in Levenworth’s air conditioned cruiser jeep 4x4 trail

In just five years NWOR has gone from dozens of attendees to hundreds.  To say the least they are going through some growing pains and like a case of teenage acne they will get past it.  The event will continue to attract fabulous people who want to spend a long NWOR friendsweekend sharing their stories with others who love the road and can’t wait to explore areas unknown.

We’re already planning to go back next year!

blindfolded driver

Driving While Blind – The Off-Road Spotter

4x4 trail spotter d90 bj60Driving off-road can feel like you have your head on a swivel.  You need to see what’s in front of you, behind you and on both sides.  And when things get really though you wish you had an extra set of eyes.  It’s at this point a trail spotter becomes your best friend.

The job of a spotter is to driver the truck “remotely” through the obstacle.  By seeing what the driver cannot, the spotter instructs the driver which way to turn, how fast to go and when to stop in order to get the truck past a difficult obstacle in the trail.

two men fj cruiserIn order to perform this feat, driver and spotter have to trust each other.  The driver will need to follow the instructions to a tee and the spotter needs to know how the truck will behave as she has the driver put a wheel on a rock or come down a ledge step.

Before the driver and spotter get to the driving part, they need to talk and agree on the line and signals as well as honestly discuss driving skills and concerns.  This is no time for ego.

turn driver spotting signalWhen it comes to spotting signals, bigger is better.  It is incredibly hard to tell what the spotter is trying to communicate if they are simply pointing a finger.  The spotter needs to get into it.   She needs to use big gestures when directing the driver and hand signals should be accompanied with loud vocal commands.

Start with the basics:

  • Come Forward – The driver should drive forward with the wheels as they are.
  • Turn Driver – The driver should turn the wheel to their left.  The spotter’s left and the drivers left are different so get into the habit of using “driver”.man spotting fj cruiser on trail
  • Turn Passenger -The driver should turn the wheel to their right.  The spotter’s right and the drivers right are different so get into the habit of using “passenger”.
  • Stop – The driver should stop the truck and maintain control.  “Wow”  can sound a lot like “go” so avoid it and stay away from ambiguous phases like “hold up”, “that’s good” or “wait”.  Let the driver know to “STOP”.
  • Backup – Drive the truck in reverse with the wheels as they are.

There is a common problem that can creep up, when there are several bystanders around the truck as it is being spotted.  A number of folks may start to give suggestions to the driver, distracting her with “turn left, your other left”, “watch out for the rock”, or a dozen of other misguided directions.  They are trying to help but it only makes things worse.  This is where the spotter needs to step in, take control and tell everyone to stop helping.  There can be only one spotter. man 4x4 trail spotter

ADVANCED: The spotter may ask another observer to step in and perform one function for her.  That function is to yell “STOP”.  This is helpful when the spotter is backing the driver up or trying to have the driver make very minor adjustments.  The observer does not provide any directions or advise to the driver, she only shouts out the command “stop” based on what the spotter requested.  The spotter will relay the “stop” voice command with a stop hand signal when she hears the observer shout “stop”.

A good spotter can help a driver get through obstacles  unscathed  that they never could have driven on their own.  Like any valuable skill,  spotting takes practice in order for you to guide the blind down the trail.

metal tech 4x4 100 series slider

Rock Rail (Slider) Maintenance

metal tech box slidersOff-road adventures put a lot of stress on your rock rails as they work to protect your door sills.  Over time your sliders will start to show their age as road grim, rocks and dirt take their tole.  Rocks and road salt eat away the paint and rust attacks any exposed steel.  To keep your slides at their best every year or two you need to show them a little love.

Start by removing your rock rails from the truck.  Scrub them down with soap and water removing all the dirt, loose paint and grime.  Work the nooks and crannies where gunk may have accumulated.   Rinse them off and while they dry wash the truck’s frame and clean it up.

If your rock rails are like ours there is some rust that needs to be knocked it down with a wire brush.  You can also sand (or grind) down to bring back a smooth finish.  After you have them cleaned, spray a rust reformer over any spots showing rust.  A rust reformer will convert the rust to an inert material that can be painted with several costs rust proofing paint.  Don’t forget to perform the same rust proofing on your trucks cruiser frame mounting point for sliders

This is one of those activities that is easy but will take time.  This literally is watching paint dry.  Take advantage of this down time to run to the hardware store and purchase new hardened bolts and washers (grade 10.9).  Your sliders often carry the weight of your truck and the last thing you want are those old bolts to sheer off because you weren’t willing to replace $20.00 worth of hardware.

fj cruiser metal tech slider rub railBefore you bolt your rock rails back on, give the threads in the frame a good spray with WD-40 and chase the bolt through to ensure their is no sand or grit in there.  Finally position your sliders and bolt them up to your frame ensuring they are aligned.

Now your sliders should look almost as good as new and continue to protect your truck on lots of off-road adventure.

2007 Toyota FJ cruiser

3 Quick Off-Road Adventure Tips

These off-road adventure tips have served us well and we hope they help you.

  1.  If you have read “The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande you know how valuable checklist can be to jog your memory and prevent you from forgetting an important step.  We laminate our checklists in clear plastic to protect and keep them clean when using them on an adventure. Make your own personalized checklist or download and use our off-road adventure checklists so that you don’t forget something important on your next big adventure.
  2. Every time you wash your truck or at least once a month exercise your winch. Spool ten or 15 feet of rope out and back in about a dozen times.  This will make sure the gears stay lubed and any moisture that finds it’s way in is evaporated off of the drum and winch motor.  By regularly using your winch you can ensure it is operationally ready if needed on your next off-road adventure.
  3. Look inside of your engine compartment.  You will certainly find a few nooks and crannies perfect for stowing a few quarts of engine oil and gear lube.   Make sure oil bottles are kept snug and avoid any sharp edged areas. This trick will keep a spare quart or two handy where and when you need it.

Do you have a tip that you find extremely useful when exploring the road less traveled?  Let us know.

Blue Bunny the FJ Cruiser Walk Around

2007 voodoo toyota fj cruiserOur 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser has gone through a number of iteration since we first purchased it in late 2006. We thought it was time to record exactly what she has these days.

We’ve discussed why we’ve made some of the off-road modification choices we did with our build.  We’ve also told you why you should not modify your off-road truck.  We obviously didn’t take our own advice so here it is…  the Blue Bunny a Toyota FJ Cruiser walk around:

Trail Armor:

Front Suspension:

Rear Suspension:

  • Metal Tech custom built 3-link
  • Metal Tech long travel progressive rear springs
  • Metal Tech bump stop re-locators
  • Sway-A-Way 2.5″ bypass shocks
  • Custom rear shock hoops


  • ARB air locker front and rear
  • 4.56:1 ring and pinion gears
  •  Custom Curry rear housing (4″ wider to track with front tires)
  • Custom Curry rear axles
  • Ford 9″ third-member
  • Atlas 4 speed: 2.72:1 reduction gear, 3.8:1 low range gear