Wagons, Willys and Wrenching
Lifestyle November 15, 2020 Kurt Schneider
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the most 2020 wheeling trip of 2020.
Well, that is not exactly what Charles Dickens wrote at the beginning of a Tale of Two Cities, but man is it a fitting start to the tale of our wheeling trip to the Rubicon for my son’s 18th birthday.
For nearly a decade, my close friend Kris and I have been chomping at the bit to take our near-identical Jeep Grand Wagoneers across the Rubicon trail together. While we have done multiple wheeling trips together with our kids over the years, both on the Rubicon and in the eastern Sierra, for one reason or another, either my wagon or Kris’s would be down for the count, and one of us would have to take a different vehicle.
When my son Peyton decided that he wanted to spend his 18th birthday on the trail this past summer, somehow the stars aligned, and both of our wagons were good to go. We should have thought about what year it was before we left.
Sometimes you have a wheeling trip where everything goes right, other times you have a wheeling trip where everything goes wrong. This is a story of the latter.
As we pulled in front of the kiosk at Loon to air down, everything seemed great. I was in my 1990 Jeep Grand Wagoneer with my son Logan as my co-dawg. My eldest son Peyton was in his 1941 Willys MB Slat-grille on propane, with my youngest Brady riding with him. Kris was in his 1989 Grand Wagoneer with his youngest boy Nik.
“Airing down at the kiosk”
My wagon was running extremely well at the time, albeit running a tad rich. We had driven it to the head of the trail from my house, which is three hours away, and the AMC 360 was purring like a kitten. (Well…with a hairball) Despite that, like every trip with that rig, I was still stressed that something would go wrong. She is just not the most reliable rig to be wheeling across the Rubicon. To compound matters, being a full size Jeep, she is a big, fat girl that is not exactly the easiest to extract off the trail if something goes horrendously wrong. With this in mind, I let my son Logan take the wheel. That way, if something went wrong, I could blame him.
“The wagons lumbering”
Peyton’s 41 Willys made short work of Gatekeeper, bombing ahead of us more like a side-by-side than a Jeep, while our huge lumbering behemoths crept slowly over the boulders behind him. All seemed well.
As we approached “whalebones” on the far side of the bowl, I took the wheel back over from Logan. In the past year or so, the bottom of the obstacle has been kind of dug-out, making the boulders larger and the obstacle more formidable. With a massive rock sticking up on the right, I normally take the far left line in my wagon which has you go up a a steep granite slab. I do this in order to make sure my wagon does not heel over to the right into the rock damaging the body of my wagon. Even though my boy is already a fairly experienced wheeler at 16 years of age, I figured it would be safer if I drove the Jeep over this one obstacle.
“At this point, everything seemed great!”
While I have done that line multiple times in my Wagoneer before, for some reason on this day, my Motorcraft 2150 carburetor just was not having it with the angle my rig was at. I had to bust out my rig’s super-weapon: the Klune-V. With the Klune engaged, the rig is geared so low that the brakes will not even stop it. The problem is that the Klune can mutilate the entire insides of my NP-208 transfercase when it’s in 4 low, so I only use it very sparingly and in extreme circumstances. I chunked that bad-boy into gear and walked up the granite no problem. We were back on our way and Logan once again got behind the wheel.
“Going up Whalebones”
Everything was going great! We were all smiles. That is, until Logan blew out my front driveshaft just past the rock garden. Unfortunately, it was more than just a U-joint. A bolt was shorn off and we could not back it out, We would need an angle grinder to cut a groove into it and back the bolt out with a screwdriver. We were screwed. Trip over.
Then suddenly, by the grace of God, there was a faint tinkling of mystical bells, the clouds opened up, and a beam of sunlight came down and bathed a group of rigs headed our way. A group of guys from the Santa Cruz 4×4 club.
“You guys need any help?” they asked. “Not unless you have an angle grinder” replied Kris. “Sure! Got one right here in my rig!”
Unbelievable. What are the odds? Obviously we were in the favor of the Rock Gods. This was an awesome omen. This broken front driveshaft just may be our only challenge brought down upon us by the Rock Gods. We found some new bolts tucked away in my parts bag, Kris fixed it within minutes, and we were once again on our way.
“We are trying to fix a driveshaft, Logan is getting chips”
We eased past Ellis, walked up Walker, sallied by Soup Bowl, and bombed through the Sluice Box, we felt victorious…until we got to the V-notch.
I was once again at the wheel, and for some reason having issues over a few minor boulders that should have been a cakewalk. I could not figure out if I was diffed out or hung up on a rock. Logan walks up, points to the front of my rig and says, “Dad, you are missing your thingy.”
Now, the very LAST thing any red-blooded American male wants to going missing is his “thingy.” So I had to further inquire in order to determine exactly what thingy was missing. “Logan, what thingy?”
“Your hubcap thingy” he replied. “Logan, this is a Jeep Wagoneer, not a 70’s Chevy Caprice. It does not have hubcaps.”
I popped out of the rig and looked at my driver’s side front tire. The hub was gone. I had spun it. No wonder the rig was not moving well. Logan and I hiked back up the trail looking for the hub, and found it a ways farther back in the v-notch. I was actually quite impressed how far my wagon had made it down the trail without it. At the time I was thinking, no problem! I will just find some new bolts in my rig, bolt that sucker back on, and keep rolling!
“Peyton getting jiggy with it. Check out that articulation!”
No such luck. Several of the bolts had sheared off and broken inside. We would need an easy-out, which I did not have. Kris had found a clump of trees a little farther down the trail and off to the side that would make for an ok campsite, so I would just have to limp my big girl another 40 or so yards down the trail, and we would set up camp and figure it out.
The problem was that I ended up high centering on a large boulder right above the campsite with my rig leaning at a perilous angle hard driver, and then my Detroit proceeded to spin the other hub off. More sheared bolts. Wonderful.
We hi-lifted the rig at an even MORE perilous angle, and stacked rocks under the rear passenger tire. I tightened my seatbelt, said three Hail Marys, dripped some blood off my then bleeding knuckles onto a rock as a sacrifice to the Rock Gods, and then with full confidence that I was going to roll my junk, turned hard driver and slammed the skinny pedal. Miraculously the big girl’s AMC 360 roared loudly, the wagon dumped down the drop to my left while spitting rocks out behind the rear tires. My rig righted itself and and I landed with a flourish into camp. We would pitch camp and figure out our next step.
“Peyton’s Willys walks the trail. For now.”
There was no way the wagon could proceed without a trip into town for parts. I needed new bolts for the hubs, maybe some Loctite, and an easy out to extract multiple shorn-off bolts. Peyton and I would have to wheel his Willys out in the morning and find a hardware store. The next day, which would be his 18th birthday, was looking to be a long one. After a quick check in from Tim Green on the Ham radio (Love that guy!) and a hearty dinner, we crashed out.
“Dirty but smiling. For now”
DAY TWO: It gets bad
The next morning we headed out early in Peyton’s Willys back to the Chalet where my truck and trailer was parked. I had the best time with my boy. We just bounced and bopped down the trail with his tunes blasting. Peytons 41 Willys is just made for that trail. We passed a group of newbie wheelers who were being lead in by Barlow Rubicon tours. Their eyes were as big as silver dollars, but the guide was happy as a clam and expertly spotting them through the trail. Knowing that they were in good hands, we proceeded back to the beginning of the trail.
After scouring multiple hardware stores for the right bolts, and having to drive all the way down to Placerville to find them, we bombed back up Icehouse road and got back on the trail.
“COME ON! SERIOUSLY?”
The trip back in was much the same as the one out, with the exception of the Willys developing a minor exhaust leak on Walker hill. Then suddenly it inexplicably stalled out on level ground while near Little Sluice. By the time we got to the V-notch, the exhaust leak was making the engine sound like a tractor. Kris and the other boys were hiking down the trail towards us, so when we met up with them, Peyton cut the engine off. After talking for a few minutes, excited to head back to camp to fix my wagon, Peyton went to start the Willys, and it would not start. Great. <- that is sarcasm.
“There are few things better than wheeling with your boy and blasting tunes to hide that exhaust leak”
For some reason, the engine was just not getting propane. Eventually, after much cranking, it started and Peyton hobbled it into camp.
We figured we should take on one issue at a time. Being much better at stuff like this than I, Kris got to work right way on pulling the bolts out. While Peyton and I were in town, he actually someone managed to get a few out without the easy out, so the rest of the job was easy-peasy and within a short period of time, the wagon was good to go.
“Wheeling with a former Ultra4 crew chief has it’s benefits.”
It was time to get to the issue with Peyton’s Willys. Not knowing much about the Got Propane system, we attempted to fix it with a time-honored tradition: standing in front of the rig with the hood up staring at the engine and drinking beers. After an hour or so, Peyton climbed back into the rig, and it started right up. (albeit with a loud exhaust leak) Issue solved. Off to bed.
DAY THREE: It gets worse
Rising with the sun, I felt like a kid on Christmas morning. But instead of anticipating opening presents under a tree, I was looking forward to relaxing in the river under a waterfall with a cold beer in Rubicon Springs. We broke camp and loaded up as quickly as possible, eager to bomb past Buck and get into the Springs.
Then Peyton’s Jeep wouldn’t start.
Once again, we attempted to fix it by opening the hood and staring at the engine for about a half hour. Alas, this did not fix the issue. In retrospect, the issue may have been that we were not drinking beers, but we were going to be wheeling, so we could not have any.
We made a decision. We would have to cut our trip short and tow him out back to the spillway. Over massive rocks. Behind my not-so reliable Wagoneer. With it’s massive 144 horses and 280 lb-ft pounds of torque. That is, when the engine is brand new. Not when it is a tired 30 year old AMC 360 whose compression I don’t check because I don’t even want to know how bad it is.
We strapped Peyton up and started heading back down the trail. My mind was racing thinking about what I would have to pull him over. My biggest worry at the time, was the climb right before “Merlin’s Office”, which is a picnic table near little Sluice that RTF mans on big weekends.
While not very long, the climb is very steep and littered with massive boulders, and it dog-legs to the right ending on the top into a kind of “channel” of granite. If you want to take the easier bypass around the sluice box, (which we would have to do) you need to take a sharp right out of the channel. Which in my Wagoneeer takes not a three point turn, but like a sixty-four point turn. It is literally easier for me to drive past it, and then back into it and turn my rig around by the picnic table. My junk has enough problems making that obstacle on a good day, especially with the carburetor starving for gas when my Jeep is at such a steep angle. How in the hell was I going to pull Peyton up it?
Preoccupied with my thoughts and thinking of winching him up the hill, I did not hear Peyton yelling at me to stop until it was too late. I cut to close to a tree and drug him into it, blowing the bead on his front driver’s side tire.
As we mounted his spare, we engaged in a friendly conversation of venting our frustrations at each other in loud voices. Peyton spouted out, “Can this get ANY worse?” Spoiler: it does.
“Peyton inspects the tire his dad blew out”
Finally, we got to the bottom of the hill. Kris lumbered his wagon up it, and pulled into the Office, then walked back down to spot us up it. If there is one thing Kris is very good at, it is spotting. He has an eye for picking the perfect line. After staring at the obstacle for half a second, he tells me, “Watch where I walk, and then have your driver’s side front tire follow the same line.” He then proceeded to hop boulder to boulder up the climb. He then said, “Pin it and don’t let it stall”
Once I made sure Peyton was strapped in and good to go, with my heart racing, I bombed up the hill like an over-weight rockbouncer with Peyton’s Willys in tow. The engine roared, my wagon kicked left to right as I flogged it harder than I ever would normally….and pulled Peyton’s junk right up the hill without an issue. (Despite making Peyton’s experience more like he was on a carnival ride put together by methed-out Carnies.)
I could not believe it. I was ecstatic. I did not think my wagon could pull him up that AT ALL. I was proud of my wagon. We actually cheered. With smiles on our faces, we unstrapped the Willys to push it around the tight-right turn to get it into the office.
“Dad, it won’t turn”
“I know Peyton, you don’t have power steering and you are not moving, just crank the wheel hard”
Staring me straight in the eyes, Peyton spun the steering wheel passenger effortlessly and his wheels remained straight. Awesome <- once again, that is sarcasm.
We kicked and pulled on his front Milestar tires until he was lined up enough to make the turn, and pushed him into Merlin’s Office. After spending a few minutes fixing the steering issue, Peyton decided to just try to start his Jeep one more time.
It fired right up. Un-Fric-In-Be-Leave-A-Bull.
We start screaming at him, “Go! Go! Go! Just make it to Ellis! We will meet you there!” We planned to camp at Ellis creek that night since we still had another day planned.
“Big girls are sexy too!”
Thank the Lord, the Rock Gods and the Great Cthulhu. I was beyond relieved Peyton’s rig started. I had been worried about having to pull him up the steep spillway side of the bowl, but if his rig was running again, I had no more reason to stress. It was looking like we would actually make it off the trail.
The ride to Ellis was uneventful and actually quite relaxing. While I was bummed that we were not able to go all the way through the trail on this trip, the wagon was running awesome and for the first time during that trip, my stress level was low.
There is a short climb of an obstacle right before the Soup Bowl that Peyton has some issues with since his wheelbase is so short, but he must have remembered to take the left line on it, because we didn’t catch up to him there. I let Logan take over the wheel at Soup Bowl, grabbed a couple of much needed beers, and figured I would take a leisurely stroll to Ellis from there following the rigs on foot.
“Logan walking down Walker”
Finally we reached Ellis where Peyton was waiting for us. We pitched camp, rinsed off in the creek, ate dinner and had a relaxing night, despite not being able to have a campfire because of the fire restrictions.
“Brady chilling at Ellis. Figuratively now, literally later”
While I was relaxing in my camp chair with a beer, Peyton decided to impart me with some new information. “Dad, I don’t have any brakes”
“Did you check the fluid?” I asked.
“Yeah, I think the brake booster is shot. I have a little bit of braking, but nowhere near what I should.”
“Not a problem son, just make sure when we get to the bowl, you keep it in gear and idle down the hill. Won’t be a problem.”
Later that night a buggy with a family rolled into camp and asked if they could camp next to us. No problem at all, we appreciated their asking.
It got very cold that night, but we slept like babies. So much so that we did not even wake up when the bears came though camp, obliterated a trash bag in Peyton’s Willys and stole a cooler from the family camped next to us. Either we were that tired or they were ninja bears.
DAY FOUR: It gets worser.
(Yes, worser is not a word. But it is very fitting in this case)
On a very cold Ellis morning, we packed up slowly. We were in no rush. The boys and I even took a hike up the hill. Very few people actually explore far off the trail, and the Rubicon has many hidden treasures that many do not know about.
“Thankfully the bears did not eat our sausages”
Once we were all loaded up and ready to go, we hopped into our rigs…..and Peyton’s Jeep would not start. (insert slew of curse words here)
Yet again, the “hood up staring at engine” (sans beers) method did not work. This was not going to be fun. Especially without brakes in the Willys.
Dejectedly, we strapped up Peyton’s rig behind my wagon and headed out. To compound matters, it was a Friday and there would be a lot of traffic coming into the trail.
As we moseyed past the Wentworth turnoff, we came upon our first big group of incoming rigs. The wagons drew a good deal of attention. I am not sure they were impressed or just flabbergasted that we would be dumb enough to be wheeling such huge behemoths on the trail.
As we approached Whalebones, I drove down a short drop-off, and my front right tire hit a boulder, making me come to a sudden complete stop. Behind me, I heard Peyton scream, “Dad! Dad! Dad!” as his rig slammed into the passenger rear quarter panel of my wagon. Without brakes, he tried to steer left to avoid an impact. He would have been better to just slam into my bumper. The Hi-lift mounted on his front bumper tore into my rig and bent the entire jack handle.
When we got out to inspect the damage, we found that his brake linkage had snapped at the booster. There was not way to fix it. He went from barely having brakes to no brakes at all. The pedal was just swinging loose.
We still had to go down Whalebones and then down the massive hill in the bowl. (Insert plethora of curse words here at high volume)
At that point, Kris says, “What are we going to do?”
“All that we can do. Daisy-chain the rigs” I replied.
So that is exactly what we did. I was in front of Peyton pulling him with a tow strap, and Kris was behind him acting as his brakes with a tow strap. We had to wait for several groups to come up Whalebones. As those groups passed us, I felt like a celebrity. Everyone in their mother was taking cell phone pictures of the idiots in two classic Wagoneers daisy-chaining a 41 Willys between each other. Either that, or they considered us hardcore wheelers as they drove by in their high dollar JKs.
“Could be worse”
Going down Whalebones went way smoother than I expected. It was not really an issue at all. It was dropping into the bowl that I was worried about. We stopped at the edge of the decent, and I hiked down in order to find the easiest line. The more I looked at it, the more worried I became. It was not just a decline to go down, there were several obstacles to get through. If the strap from Kris’s rig failed in anyway, it would even very badly for my son. Walking back up, my mind raced. I didn’t want to put my kid into a dangerous situation.
I took the wheel of the Willys instead.
It was a white-knuckle, harrowing descent as Kris slowly dropped me down into the bowl. The entire way down, all I could do was look forward down the granite and imagine what horrors would await me if the strap snapped or slipped on Kris’s tow hook. Thankfully, we made it to the bottom.
Now came the next issue, getting it back up the other side of the bowl. With a crack three quarters the way up the climb where I would have to cut right and then left again while towing Peyton, this was going to be a chore. I was not sure I could line Peyton’s Willys up at a good angle to do it.
The entire time we were going through all of this and debating our next move, Kelley from the Auburn Jeep club was bombing all around the bowl Ultra4 style in his drop-dead gorgeous, built to the hilt Jeep. The grumbling roar of his engine echoed through the bowl as his rig made the multiple climbs and obstacles he took on look like child’s play. Being an old-school Jeeper, he did what any old-school Jeeper would do, he stopped next to our little rag-tag collection of daisy-chained rigs and asked, “Are you guys all good?”
After explaining to him that I was wary about getting around that turn on the climb, Kelley spouts out, “Just take that far left line! Follow me!” and he took off.
I knew the line he was talking about. Problem is, it’s steep. To steep for my wagon’s Motorcraft 2150 carburetor to keep gas flowing down into my engine.
I was tired, covered in dust, hot, sick of all the issues, and way ready to get off the trail…so F-it. I punched the gas and followed him up that line anyway. The wagon motored up the hill, and in keeping with the theme of the weekend, starved for gas and died right at the steepest point of the climb. Go figure.
“Kelley saves us”
Without a second thought, Kelley swung back around and pulled in front of my wagon so I could strap up to him. Within seconds, his beast of a rig pulled both Peyton and I to the top of the hill seemingly effortlessly. With a quick wave, our savior bombed down the trail and into the sunset, and we towed Peyton through Gatekeeper and to our tow-rigs with no issues.
I was never so glad to get off the trail in my life.
So what can we learn from our disastrous Rubicon trip? There are three things to take away from this story:
First and foremost, not every wheeling trip will go as planned. You will break stuff, get stuck and get frustrated. On the flip side of that, you are making memories. None of us will ever forget this disaster. While trips like this are a pain in person, they make for great stories later.
Secondly, know your junk. You should know your vehicle well enough that you can fix it if something were to break on the trail. This is where I failed with Peyton’s Willys. Propane systems are stupid-simple, but I still didn’t know enough about it to figure out what the issue was. I should have educated myself more on the system before we took it on the trail.
Thirdly, while my Willys towing, life-saving Wagoneer is beyond awesome, I need an LS.
If you have had a similar sh!t-show of a trip, please share in the comments!