Turkish: Have you ever crossed the road, and looked the wrong way? A car's nearly on you? So what do you do? Something very silly. You freeze. Your life doesn't flash before you, 'cause you're too fuckin' scared to think - you just freeze and pull a stupid face. But the pikey didn't. Why? Because he had plans of running the car over.
Lutzi is softly insistent on only having vehicles with at least 33-inch tires in the group on the trip to Dusy Ershim.
That puts me into a petulant mood. Fine, be that way. We'll do the Rubicon instead.
Email my friend Matt, a potential (if a little reluctant) candidate for the Dusy. He warmed up to the idea of doing Rubicon - I guess I scared him enough with Dusy horror stories from the Internet. He proceeds to finger the worldwide web for info on Rubicon, and emails back somewhat disappointed. The webz sayz one can do the whole 'Con in eight hours! What's the point of having a nine-hour highway ride to the trailhead?
I am incredulous. A quick Google search brings up this gem from California Jeeper:
Description: The Rubicon Trail is the "granddaddy of trails." Most of 18 miles of trail consists of large boulders and rocky terrain. The other parts of the trail go across huge granite slabs which have steep inclines and sharp drop offs. This trail is not for the faint at heart! It does offer some spectacular scenery if you wait long enough for the dust to settle. You can camp along the way at Spider Lake, Buck Island Lake or about 12 miles in there is the Rubicon Springs Campground. This will take a beginner about 6 to 7 hours, or a seasoned wheeler about 4-5 hours if you drive straight through to the campgrounds at Rubicon Springs. The last leg of the journey is about 6 miles (1-2 hours) to paved road. Recommended equipment: Almost any type of 4x4 vehicle has made it through, but some are easier than others. Stock Jeeps will do the job, but expect body damage. Vehicles with a long wheel base will have a little trouble with some sharp turns. Skid plates, rocker guards, and tow hooks and straps are a must. It is highly recommended that someone in your group have a winch. The less the vehicle is equipped the more work and damage you can expect.
What's the point, indeed? The photos of the obstacles really didn't look scary (do they ever?), besides the crack shot of an overturned Jeep by the trailside.
I did however have some corrections in mind.
The cocky four-to-six-hour Rubicon stories uniformly featured some exoskeleton beast with three feet of suspension travel and forty-inch tires, ram steering assist, lockers and power up the wazoo. Neither of our trucks is anywhere close to this category.
I assure Matt that, should we fly through all 18 miles in a record time, I'd make it up to him by taking the most-circuitous route through the Eastern Sierra Nevada on our way back home. He's convinced.
A few weeks later I retire the 32-inch BFG Mud-Terrains, and enjoy the quiet and balanced ride on dinky 7.50-16 Michelin XZLs mounted on 5.5-inch-wide rims. The Discovery looks awesome with color-coordinated old-school Land Rover rims, but positively funny from the front or the back. I can't remember when was the last time I drove anything with 7.5-inch-wide tires. Time flies; I spend some time assembling a Detroit locker in a spare third member for the rear axle, but Matt (who briefly owned this particular Detroit) dissuades me with a passion. By the time I decide to buy heavy-duty axle shafts, it is already too late. My vehicle preparation is limited to tightening a few bolts and nuts, and removal of the front sway bar. Good riddance...
Out of the blue, Lutzi and Conal tell me that ... Dusy is not going to be open at all this year, and they are going to Rubicon as well. Remembering the 33-inch thing, I promise to hang on close - but not tag along as part of the group. Why do I have to continue being petulant?
Marsellus: The night of the fight, you may feel a slight sting. That's pride fucking with you. Fuck pride. Pride only hurts, it never helps.
Fast forward - the day comes. The truck is - for the first time EVER - fully fuelled, loaded, and ready to go the night before, so I sleep on until 4:30 in the morning, kiss my sleepy wife goodbye, and leave home on time.
Pick up my long-time friend, geologist, tennis coach, and photographer Andrey, meet up with Matt and his lovely wife Thao at a gas station, and we hit the oh-so-hated I-5.
Los Angeles greets us with a forty-minute jam near downtown, but nothing really to bitch about. Soon, we're on the Northern downslope of Grapevine, descending into San Joaquin valley. We split to Highway 99, and the valley towns blast by. We have plenty of time, so we elect the scenic route, leave 99 in Merced, and proceed to a meandering route involving highways 59 and 49. Pull over to a shaded corner near Lake McSwain on Merced River, and have our lunch.
After lunch Andrey takes the helm - his approach to steering a top-heavy truck without sway bars and propensity to alternate between heavy understeer and equal understeer is something like pulse-width modulation. Every turn in the road involves protracted oscillations around the desired trajectory; Matt and Thao behind us get nearly nauseous looking at our Disco swaying side to side. Some particularly nasty, progressively-tighter, turns make me white-knuckle the grab handle. Andrey is unfazed.
We arrive in Placerville late afternoon - perfect time to take a stroll along the main street, and hit all bizarre stores along the way. I have half a mind to buy a saxophone in one of thousand antique junk stores - but bail out for the lack of reeds. Most eateries are closed - some until evening, some - until Winter, - so we get a couple of beers and some grub wherever we can. Nobody's impressed.
We leave for our hotel in Camino - aptly named "Camino Hotel" - a few miles away. Kelly, the hotel's owner, took the pains of driving for three hours from Bay Area to the hotel - we are the only customers, and have the place all to ourselves. The hotel is awesome, and we enjoy the beaty of the dining room after a short trip to a restaurant across the road, with a bottle of Four Roses between us. By the time the Bourbon is exhausted, Matt's working hard trying to elicit all biographical details of Andrey's life meanders (which are plentiful). Finally he gives up, and we turn in for the night.
It is our vacation, after all - no reason to get up all too early. Kelly makes us a wonderful breakfast, European in contents but very American in quantity, and we reluctantly leave the place half past eight. We make our way up Highway 50 to Ice House Road, then spend long forty minutes negotiating tight bends in the road towards the Loon Lake. I have the radio tuned to VHF frequency Lutzi and the gang planned to use, and soon hear some chunky banter. It gets fairly clear when the lake is in sight, and I establish contact - that's the SCLR/NCLR guys all right.
By the way, this is my first trip when I can enjoy it all - I talk to Matt via CB, listen and occasionally chime in to Rover crew banter on VHF, and listen to my tunes - by plugging the phone to Yaesu FTM-10R line input, and its line output - to the car stereo.
Soon, we're at the large staging area by the Rubicon trailhead - time to use the (remarkably clean) restroom, air down, and generally get ourselves oriented on the map. By the time we're ready to go, the lot is full of baby Jeeps sporting a lot of expensive hardware. The whole ordeal all of a sudden looks a little intimidating.
We decide not to wait for the big little Jeeps to move ahead, and drive up to the Gatekeeper.
There's some commotion at the Gatekeeper; it turns out that a couple of local guys, serving as trail maintenance volunteers, are busy winching one giant rock OFF the trail. Earlier, they winched it ON, but were met with too many complaints.
The Gatekeeper looks fine and poses no problems whatsoever. Looking back, I wish the guys kept that big rock smack in the middle of the road - that way, it would be more representative of what's in the store. Matt lands the Disco on the diff, and it is the time for the strap to come out to the surface (where it would remain until the end of the trip - where it still remains, actually). The Placerville guys are friendly and encouraging, and hand us very good and informative maps of the trail. Andrey tries out his homebrewed gimbal for the video camera and quickly discovers the ways to improve it (which would be tried later at the campsite).
We proceed on to the Granite Bowl.
Not even 500 feet into the trail, there's already a big little Jeep with a broken driveshaft. The place is crawling with Jeeps, and the drivers are itching to do something meaningful - exploring the routes around the woudned Jeep, to little avail.
We are relieved that the large group (that the wounded Jeep is part of) is staying behind until the driveline is sorted out, and head on.
A short detour to dwell on our rides: both - Land Rover Discovery Series 1, mine - a 1996 with 281 thousand miles on the clock, Matt's - a 1998 with about half the mileage. Both are built in very similar way - with 31" tires, Eaton/Detroit TrueTrac limited slip differentials, about 15% lower gearing than factory, with front bumpers off Great Divide Edition Range Rovers, decent if slow winches, diff covers, rock sliders, and heavy-duty steering linkages and rear trailing arms. That's about wraps up all the might. Looking back, in three days on the trail we have not seen another vehicle with less than 33" tires, and only three other full-bodies vehicles - Lutzi's Disco 2, Conal's P38A Range Rover, and someone else's FZJ80 Land Cruiser.
Let me take another detour.
Most trails I've driven in my life were reasonably good roads (with rocks less than football size), with an occasional obstacle. The closest in difficulty (that I know of) is Pritchett Canyon in Moab - but it is short. You break your truck quickly and go back to Moab. Rubicon is very different.
The average ride distance not requiring me getting out of the vehicle - about 200 feet, give or take. Keep in mind that I did not need to scout the line on the Gatekeeper. My WAG is that, for every mile of the trail, we walk at least a mile (or more if I have to go back and spot Matt through the obstacle). Some of this distance is walked with rocks in our hands. I vaguely remember the trail etiquette, requiring one stacking rocks to disassemble the man-made ramps - I don't think this is relevant in our case. First, the rocks are already stacked, and in the worst-possible way for us, since our differentials are on the passenger side. Second, every day the trail is travelled by the big or giant little Jeeps with a lot of gearing and horsepower, and the rocks (football to basketball size) go flying every which way.
The friendly trail up-keeper guys catch up with us some time into the trail. Full of sense of accomplishment, I ask them whether we're about to hit the Little Sluice.
They laugh, and show us the map and where we are. We haven't even made it to Ellis Creek!
Soap: A minute ago this was the safest job in the world. Now it's turning into a bad day in Bosnia.
Now, I can pretend I remember the names of the obstacles, but I really don't. By the time we see Ellis Creek Bridge, we feel like we've driven half the trail already. Somehow, we make it up the Walker Hill and Soup Bowl without incidents (although not with ease or grace, by any means). TrailsOffroad has a beautiful comment on the Soup Bowl: "The trick is to be on tires larger than 44 inches, but this doesn't mean people on smaller tires can't make it."
We did make it, on 31 inch tires.
By the time we see the granite block with the words "Little Sluice" carved into it, it is already mid-afternoon. The skies are leaden-gray, and rain squalls and thunderstorms are approaching from all sides. We follow the tracks of the Jeep people, and end up unknowingly on the Little Sluice Bypass. My only hunch was that the Sluice should be somewhere low, and we were headed uphill on the granite slab.
The clouds close in, and it starts to drizzle. We pull over wherever possible to let one or another group of Jeeps pass - they move way faster than us... Until they don't.
I find myself trying to climb a two-foot wet granite ledge in a full-lock left turn, with rear tires in the mish-mash of wet dirt and rocks. I can no longer back off - so I have to winch myself forward. The only place to hook up the winch cable is a kind of flattish rock - I sling a tow strap around it, and winch myself up the ledge... ruining the winch remote control cable in process. By now, the rain is pouring. During my winching ordeal, a crackling sound appears - meaning a close lightning strike is imminent. The crowd behind bolts into their vehicles - I remain outside in ignorance. The lightning does strike, about 1000 feet away but not too close.
I wrap the winch cable around the bumper, spot Matt through the turn, and we continue on. For a while, everything is a blur - I hope for Andrey's photos to restore the sequence of events for me, eventually. Don't know the name of the place - it was not the V-rock - where I can't keep the Disco's tires on a 60-degree slanted granite slab, and the truck slides sideways into the notch, with my left side practically riding on the rock. I try to get the truck off the rock, to a familiar ratcheting sound of a broken front axle CV joint. Now I am really fucked, with a broken front end and no working winch.
Vincent: What happens after that?
Lance: I'm kinda curious about that myself...
Get out through the driver's door window - it is kind of fun, because the rock ledge is even with the window - and walk back to Matt and pass on the scoop.
Matt is terrified. He has to pull me backwards to a point where the group behind can pass us, then pass me, and tow me to the nearest place where I can repair the front axle.
Once we are repositioned, the tow game begins. I find the fundamental flaw in my truck's build - the TrueTracs work well under heavy left-foor braking along with throttle, but now my front end is disabled, and large Defender 110 brake calipers do a great job of stopping the front tires dead on the granite slab.
Fortunately, it happens practically within a short walking distance of Buck Island Lake camp (also aptly named "Mechanics camp"). We have to do another back-and-forth tow dance to let another group pass; while we wait, a couple guys walk up to us - Lutzi Haas from SCLR and Don Happel from NCLR. We finally meet, and chat for a little while. Together, we orchestrate the final 200-foot tow to the next flat spot, and we pull into a gorgeous flat sandy campsite with fir trees around.
The rain stops.
Andrey and Matt start setting up camp - including stringing a tarp between the Land Rovers, so we can have a place for dinner even if it rains cats and dogs. We break out beers from the fridge, chat for a while, and I proceed with dismantling the axle.
Now, this really shows our state of mind at the time.
The process of figuring out which CV joint or axleshaft broke is bone-simple and self-evident - lift one and another front wheel, and test which one spins free.
I don't do it, and rely instead entirely on my sense of where the sound came from. Of course, in a granite-walled gully sounds come not necessarily from the right direction.
I undo five lug nuts, two brake caliper bolts, one giant axle flange cap nut, five flange bolts, two hub nuts, slide off the spindle, undo the six stub axle bolts, and... extract a completely intact CV joint and axle.
Lawrence: Don't worry, man. I won't tell anyone either.
By now it is completely dark.
Time for another beer.
Andrey, Matt, and Thao are busy setting up tents and cooking dinner.
I move on to reassembling the perfectly good axle swivel, having only lost most of the gear lube from the swivel housing.
Can't remember if I have another beer. Conal McKendrick from SCLR comes by, we chat a bit.
Somehow, taking apart the second swivel takes a little less time - I am less keen on saving CO2 and go to town with a big air gun. A broken CV joint and axleshaft with stripped splines emerge - to my great relief that it is not the differential or transfer case that broke. I dig out a spare CV joint and axleshaft, assemble them together, and put back the swivel housing. I feel guilty of having forgotten the swivel grease, gaskets, and sealant - but it would have to do.
The dinner - rack of lamb and sausages, with sweet corn on the side - is ready. I am so spent that I can barely enjoy the food. Matt cracks open 12-year-old Highland Park - a beautiful but a little raspy drink - and we down half a bottle rather in a somber mood. I try to crack jokes about these eight-hour Rubicon trail rides, but they don't have much effect on the morale. Thao gently inquires about a remote possibility of bailing out to some nice road leading to civilization - but there isn't one, and we aren't enjoying the thought of driving back.
Lutzi and the guys are not helpful, either, by remarking that Big Sluice is far more of a bitch than what we've been through.
Tommy: Who took the jam outta your doughnut?
Turkish: You took the fucking jam outta my doughnut, Tommy. You did.
We make and drink some tea, and turn in close to midnight.
We've made about five and a half miles this day.
I wake up with a sense of unfinished business.
The day starts in the state of indecision, with the toothbrush in one hand, and digital multimeter - in another. Multimeter wins, and I am checking voltages and resistances in and across the circuitry feeding into the winch controller relays. The culprit is found - the winch remote cable connector has an internal short - and replaced with the insulated crimp-on blade terminals.
Next order of business - feeding lubricant into the front axle swivel balls. Matt produces a bottle of gear oil and a hand pump - the little bugger takes a while to prime, but finally the oil flows into the swivels. I will have to watch it, since I've assembled the "outers" without any gaskets or sealant.
We consume leftover lamb and sausages for breakfast, Matt makes oatmeal, and we slowly progress to striking the camp. I walk over to the Rover gang, and we chat a little. Our original trip plan assumed taking two days to traverse the Rubicon, but after this conversation I am far less convinced. The guys say that the "nasties" begin right outside the camp, and continue on all the way to the Big Sluice - where the things really turn for worse. Oh glory...
It is already 10 in the morning when we roll out. My front axle and winch are working, which makes me feel elated. We stop to take photos of Buck Island lake - it is beautiful on a clear and crisp morning after yesterday's thunderstorms.
The nasties arrive pronto, with their quality progressing from "I know how to do it, but not sure if I can keep the tires on these rocks" to "what the hell do I do here?"
I don't know the names of the obstacles, but, for the most part, they look more intimidating than they are. Our mood and morale improve along with self-perceived improvement in driving skills.
Andrey is now almost always on foot, walking ahead of us. He assumes the role of a spotter whenever the conditions dictate - which is highly entertaining. I have to remind him that Matt does not necessarily understand Russian, and that his left is not Matt's left. I see that we should have had a short briefing on spotting and hand signals. I have always considered voice commands inferior to hand signals - but the brevity and precision of hand signals while working on deck of a rolling ship just do not translate into four-wheel-drive action all that well. It still baffles me why when I point my index finger in one direction, I see the front wheels turning to the other - as if the driver were a born-and-raised boater.
There are multiple other considerations I should have gone over but didn't - for instance, that it is perfectly okay to softly land a truck on a rock slider, and pivot the truck on the rock or tree using the slider. It isn't a tragedy at all to hit something gently with a bumper, or slide off the rock on the hitch receiver. The weight transfer and ability to stay on desired line is a far more important consideration - something that pitched me into the rock wall more than once, and almost sent me tumbling down the hill off the Big Sluice. The desired lines through wet and muddy rocks are often very different from dry granite or sandstone, and much less obvious.
Speaking of Big Sluice - here it comes. We covered remarkably little distance in three and a half hours of wheeling, between the camp and the granite block with these words carved into its face. It doesn't compare well with the 30-minute drive quoted by the TrailsOffroad website - something's not quite right. The Rover crew is not very far ahead of us, despite having departed a full hour ahead of us - we hear their chatter on VHF, and what we hear is not very inspiring. In contrast with the earlier optimism, here's what TrailsOffroad has to say about it:
Boy are they right... The first look down the Big Sluice makes me laugh out loud - I know that there is zero chance our trucks make it down in their present state. I try to tiptoe around the first big rock and hug the edge of the trail - then the rocks start to crumble, and the truck makes a scary pitch towards the right front corner, getting some major air under the left rear tire. Replaying it in my head, I never considered a possibility of a rollover - but the guys outside had a totally different prospective...
The bitch of a situation is that I have to move far enough to even be able to come back and spot Matt through the giant boulders. The first fifty feet take me about 20 minutes, by which time I hear the rumble of engines and see a group of insanely built Jeeps heading UP the BIg Sluice. These guys are completely unfazed, and climb the walls of the Sluice in a manner unimaginable. Still, they have their plans, and they want us out of their way.
Here comes peer pressure.
I appreciate the spotting help offered to me by one of the Jeepers, but reject the advice out of hand. "Bumping" my way down the Sluice is a sure way to clear the road for the Jeeps, just to have to bum a ride to town for spare parts. I resort to winching my way down, re-rigging the strap around the trees and boulders.
Matt is less fortunate, and takes the advice. I see his truck advancing towards me at a pace far exceeding my comfort zone; he arrives not even twenty minutes later with a smiley rear bumper missing its endcaps (somewhat expected) and a big dent in his right rear quarter (which could have been avoided).
Tyrone: I didn't see it there.
Vinny: It's a four ton truck, Tyrone. Its not as if it's a packet of fucking peanuts, is it?
Tyrone: It was a funny angle.
Vinny: It's behind you Tyrone. Whenever you reverse, things come from behind you.
The speed aspect of Rubicon, as far as I am aware, has not been openly discussed. I don't know what is considered to be trail etiquette on the 'Con; obviously it is fair and proper to yield the way to the faster riders, but it is rarely physically possible on this trail. We are incredibly lucky for taking the trail right after the Labor Day weekend, and the number of vehicles on it is probably one-fifth of what it saw a few days earlier - yet the "go-go-go" feeling started early (right at the Gatekeeper) and never left.
Finally, we're at the bottom of the Big Sluice. Matt walks back to collect the assorted missing body parts (reminding me of a famous bumper sticker - "All parts and pieces falling off this vehicle are of the finest British craftsmanship"), and we use up our last beers. Should have brought more.
The mood is a little somber. It is already half past three, and we planned to drive up Cadillac Hill and on to Tahoma. We cross the Rubicon, and soon find ourselves admiring waterfalls right after Rubicon Springs campground. Talk to the Rover crew on VHF - they arrived to the campground about an hour and a half earlier, and are staying put overnight. Lutzi and Don walk up to us, and we chat a little about our plans. They are somewhat skeptical of the idea to press on - because they know what Cadillac Hill has in store for us. A jeep with a badly-separated rear driveshaft is parked nearby, not inspiring confidence.
I spot a beautiful campsite below the trail and make a decision to stay - even if we have to sacrifice some of the goodies we planned to see on the way back.
Bill Lumbergh: Oh, oh, and I almost forgot. Ahh, I'm also gonna need you to go ahead and come in on Sunday, too...
A while later a groundskeeper of Rubicon Springs campground comes by, in his Mercedes Benz OM-617-powered exoskeleton Toyota pickup, chats a little with us, and collects $30 for two vehicles. We don't mind a tiny bit.
Ten minutes later we're swimming in Rubicon River. What a bliss. It is still not even five o'clock, so we take our time setting up camp and cooking skirt steak and sauerkraut on the grille. We're out of beer, so the rest of the evening is passed with the Highland Park - aptly named for the circumstances. The subject of an eight-hour Rubicon trail traverse is brought up again and again, considering that in six hours of driving we conquered a little under two miles.
The night is crisp and clear, no rain at all.
What a wonderful feeling it is when you don't have to work on the truck in the morning.
We finish off the leftovers of last night's dinner, drink a lot of tea and coffee, and lazily strike the camp and put away stuff. Rover crew leaves earlier, as usual, and we listen on to their conversation on VHF. Sounds like they are having fun already.
Cadillac Hill arrives quickly.
Time for another quote from the TrailsOffroad:
Very nice, Turkish.
The only thing I disagree with, as before, is the time estimate. Somehow it takes us about an hour and a half to make that climb - but, unlike the Big Sluice the day before, I never have a bad feeling about it.
It does require work, all right. We don't stack many rocks on the Hill - because most of them are buried in mud. The trail climbs at a crazy rate, practically corkscrewing uphill - a version of San Francisco's Lombard Street, just one-third as wide and lined with trees and large boulders. It is so narrow in places and the turns are so tight that the choice of the line is practically inexistent - just go however you can. The SCLR/NCLR crew is battling the elements uphill from us, and I enjoy the comments.
We catch up with Lutzi, Don, and Conal at the Observation Point, shake hands, and take group photos (jeeps, rovers, rovers with jeeps, with drivers, without drivers, you name it). From there the trail is pretty tame - although it takes a few miles before it turns into a gravel road.
We completely neglect the beauty of the nature around us, and hammer on to the staging area at the end of the trail.
Somehow, even by noon, we already feel beat up. It is time to survey the damage under the trucks; surprisingly, there's very little. My rear driveshaft has a clear scratch swirling half of its length, and it may be bent (which turns out not to be the case). We air up the tires, and head out to Lake Tahoe.
We made it. We drove the Rubicon.
The rest of the trip is a blur of scenic places, started off by Emerald Bay of Lake Tahoe.
We are lucky to grab the last two rooms at the motel in Lee Vining, and we're too tired to go to a restaurant for dinner - we spend the evening at the motel patio instead, consuming 120-proof Knob at a breakneck pace, chasing it down with hard salami, Baltic sprats, sardines, and whatever else we have left.
A cursory morning check of the underside explains the rattle from underneath - the bent steering stabilizer worked its bracket free off the axle. The bracket is removed, and the stabilizer tied to the tie rod - remarkably, to zero changes in road manners. One remaining bolt (very rare bolt with British Imperial thread holding a completely irrelevant piece of equipment) is used on Matt's diff protector (that lost both of them bolts).
Now it is time for South Tufa Beach on Mono Lake - beatiful on this nearly calm day, with intricate cloud formations over high peaks of Sierra Nevada. The wildlife is out en masse, and we manage to squeeze out a few photos before the tourists start arriving in the vans and finally - on a tour bus.
We continue South on the U.S.395, and spend ridiculously long time trying to find the way to Owens River Gorge. Apple and Google conspire to send us to a closed gate - until the recent Garmin purchase is justified by its proper directions. The trip to the Gorge requires a couple of miles on foot - which we gladly do, and enjoy the scenery.
The skies gradually darken, and we have to abandon our next destination - White Mountain Range is already under a torrential downpour, and Bristlecone Pines would have to wait for another time. We take solace in a lunch at Schatt's in Bishop, followed by the dunk at Keough Hot Springs.
Life assumes its usual boring course as we battle traffic on 395 and all the way home to San Diego.
Rubicon is crossed.
Jimmie: I can't believe this is the same car.
Big Chris: It's been emotional.
P.S. and F.A.Q.: