I've dreamed about owning one for years. I've imagined the wonderful images I could capture if only I had this one piece of equipment that was missing from my bag. I've tried to make do with poor substitutes many times in the past, only to be met with disappointment and frustration. As I stretched and tried to take my photography to another level, I knew I could reach the levels I wanted to reach if only I had this one thing. Yes, I am talking about...a Jeep.
Hehe, I am being quite sincere. I have always been an outdoors person and an explorer at heart, but since moving to California four years ago it's become a passion. The American southwest is so utterly gorgeous and steeped in history. I am constantly researching and have developed an incredibly long list of places to go and things to do, and we fit them in as our busy lives allow. But as my explorations were taking me to more remote places and harsher environments, the personal safety factor began to come into play. I've driven 4WD vehicles since I was 21 because they fit my lifestyle, but always long-wheel-base (Cherokee, Grand Cherokee) and always stock. It has just become increasingly apparent that stock just isn't going to cut it anymore.
I think the first warning sign was in Death Valley. I was trying to get out to the Racetrack Playa to photograph the famous moving rocks. The 27 mile dirt road from Ubehebe Crater out to the playa is normally just a bumpy dirt road that can even be negotiated by passenger cars, but the harsh environment, flash floods and erosion are constantly playing havoc. My attempt was during "The Year of the Rain" - 2005, and the road was developing a well deserved reputation for eating tires and shocks and stranding unprepared people, leaving them with $2000+ tow bills. I was driving a 4WD vehicle (not a Jeep, but I won't name the brand). Two miles into the trip I knew we should've turned around, but I really had my heart set on making it out to the playa so we pushed on. I'm not really sure what we were thinking - 27 miles at two miles an hour?? At mile four we smelled something hot and burning. The temperature gauge was fine so we took a peek under the vehicle and saw that I had blown a shock. OK, time to turn around. A check under the vehicle halfway back showed that another shock had blown, and by the time we made it back out I had blown all four. It was a Sunday and a holiday weekend, and I had no choice but to make the seven hour drive home in a vehicle without shocks. Every time we went over a bump it was like a bucking bronco - picture first the front end smacking the ground, then the back end, then the front end...It could've been worse; we could've been stuck in the middle of nowhere in the desert (Death Valley, of all places!), and the thought of that was eye-opening.
Next we started using Bill's truck for our treks, a huge quad-cab diesel beast of a truck. But I hated it. I hated the ride, it was just a brute. And I couldn't just take it whenever I wanted to; after all, it was his truck. And it was his daily driver, so he babied it (rightly so). It got us to the trail heads, but it just wasn't ideal and it still wasn't the most capable offroad vehicle. So we finally agreed get a Jeep Wrangler and modify it for tougher offroad treks in the desert.
It took us months to decide between a 4DR (yes, Jeep now makes a 4DR wrangler) and 2DR. Although I initially wanted the extra cargo room of the 4DR, Bill thought it was too big and wanted to stick with the traditional (real) Jeep. Since we don't have children and rarely have passengers, we went with the 2DR, knowing that the first thing we would do is pull out the back seat.
Woohoo! I love my new jeep. Here she is strictly stock on the first day she got dirty out on some easy dirt roads:
I've put together my "build plan" and Bill has been working on the modifications. So far we've installed an LOD rear bumper with a swingaway tire carrier, jerry can holders (for gas and water) and expedition rack, and the sidesteps have been replaced with Shrockworks rockrails. We've done some other minor stuff, too, such as grab handles (they have been put to good use already) and seat covers (the trails out here are really dusty). I'm waiting for my Shrockworks stubby front bumper to come in, and we'll install that with a Warn Winch (self-recovery is key if you're going to play the odds and venture out on your own). We still need to do the lift and tires; I lost over an inch of clearance just with the rear bumper. We need to do the CB install. Actually, I have a list a mile long of things I WANT to do to it. Once you get started it becomes addicting.
The one thing I haven't decided on yet is storage for my gear. Several companies make storage trunks for jeeps, but they all seem either too small or too large. I need to be able to at least lock up my backpack with my photography gear and my recovery gear, so the smaller trunk units that are designed to be used with the rear seat in the jeep are too small. The versatile Bestop FlexATrunk, which seemed ideal, won't work with the softtop boot in place, and I want to keep the softtop on the jeep even when I'm not using it because you never know when it might rain and sometimes we put it up without windows just to keep the sun off of us when it's 110 degrees. - Wow, that was a run-on sentence! That leaves the large Tuffy box, but I'm afraid it will take up too much room and limit my ability to just throw stuff in the back (like groceries, or even my backpack). Even though it is considered removable, it's bolted to the bed. Maybe the only option is to get the Tuffy box and just put it in the jeep when we're trekking, and leave it out the rest of the time. Tough decision, and I just haven't found a solution that is 100% perfect yet.
One more shot of a happy camper with her jeep on the trail to Santiago Peak: