Johnson Valley – 2002 Thanksgiving Run

The plans for the JV 2002 Thanksgiving Run started back in April.  I knew then that I was going to try to make the trip out to JV if at all possible.  I had not been to CA to see my wheelin’ friends this year and a week’s worth of vacation during the week of Thanksgiving would give me a few days to devote to the trip.

My very good friend, Blaine Johnson, had been answering my questions about JV for quite some time.  To boil everything down to a single statement:  Strip everything I could out of the TJ…..being light on the rocks was the name of the game.  This being the case, I realized that the hard top and full metal doors would be shed once I made JV.  I didn’t want to do the drive from Phoenix with no top and I don’t have a soft top.  Blaine provided a bikini top for me to use but with the weather the way it was, I opted not to take the time to install it.  As it was, I neither cooked in the sun nor got rained on so all was good there.

I left Phoenix a little before noon on Monday and headed west on I-10.  I was in no hurry since I had the rest of the day to make Yucca Valley, CA where I had reserved a room for the night.  I was to meet Garry for dinner.  It was a good thing I was not in much of a hurry as I met up with a nasty head wind about an hour from Phoenix and fought it the remainder of the trip to JV.  Once at JV, I checked in to my motel and discovered Garry had booked a room there as well. We met for dinner, got to know each other a bit, and then called it a night.  We would be heading out to the dry lake bed the following morning to set up camp (he still had some of his gear out there).

Blaine was not able to make the trip (a last minute change of plans) so he sent my parts (my Currie Anti-Rock and Steering system) that he had picked up for me along with Jeff, another local SoCal Jeeper, who met up with us on the lake bed Tuesday morning.

With Jeff’s and Garry’s help, I pulled the top and the doors.  I had already removed the storage box from the back end prior to starting the trip.  We decided to simply disco the front end for now and we would install the Anti-Rock when we got back to camp.  Everyone was ready to head out to Sledge Hammer and get the day started.

Garry asked which trail I wanted to run and I told him Sledge Hammer was to be the first one for me.  It would give me a taste of what JV had to offer.  Jeff was up for this one as well so it was quickly decided that Sledge would be today’s target.  Jeff had not ran the trail either so we were both looking to Garry for some helpful assistance on which lines would be best.  In many cases, there was only one line….the right one.  Anything else would get you hung up, as Jeff and I discovered every now and again. <grin>

Did I mention that Tuesday was “Green Jeep” day at the Hammers?  Garry took the lead and Jeff followed him.  I brought up the rear (look Mom, NO spare tire.)  Jeff was carrying a 35″ MT/R spare in his short bus so I opted to leave mine back at camp.  Yet one more thing to lighten the load on the trail.  Here we are, just getting into the start of Sledge.  (Hey, check out those brand new corner guards from Toys-by-Troy!)

Here is Jeff working his way up the trail.  He picked up a couple of scrapes on his door panels during the two days I wheeled with him….but that didn’t stop him from putting his Cherokee on the right line to get up and over an obstacle.  I always have to give a tip of the hat to the bus drivers.  Heck, I have a hard enough time getting my short TJ through a lot of these places.

Johnson Valley – 2002 Thanksgiving Run

I hopped out at some point and snapped a picture of the TJ.  I am sure that some of the obstacles have names….all I was doing was concentrating on getting through them.  I decided I would learn more about what they were on my second trip through here!

Many times, I was not sure just where the “trail” was. Sledge Hammer, just like the other JV trails, are nothing but rocky washes, bordered by tall canyon walls.  Garry mentioned that the heavy rains can and do roll the boulders around quite often and makes changes in the trail.  Heck, the boulders were constantly shifting under the tires enough that a line that Jeff took became a diff hanger for me. 

Jeff uses the rocker guards to slide over a rock.  Jeff and I used them quite a bit.  I got the hang of pivoting around the rocks as the day rolled on.  With Garry’s Atlas t-case, he could disengage the rear axle and pull himself around with just the front tires doing the work.  Every now and then, I would yell at him and tell him to turn on his D60 rear….after watching him make a few attempts at an obstacle. <grin>

So….we continued to work our way up Sledge.  Every now and then Jeff or I would drop into a hole and a couple of rocks would be rearranged so as to be able to get out of it.  For the most part, the rocks just kept coming…..

and coming……

and coming. 

Johnson Valley – 2002 Thanksgiving Run

We finally reached the Mailbox on Sledge Hammer.  It is a big old mailbox, firmly set on a concrete embedded post.  It has a number of road signs on it depicting just how far it is to places like Moab and such.  In the mailbox was a log book that we all signed (gotta let the BLM know we are using their trails!).   We caught lunch and then made fairly short work of the remainder of the trail.  We exited at the big hill climb and then headed down off the mountain (a good place to use the cell phone, by the way) and back down to the trail that would take us across the lake bed and back to camp.

Jeff wanted to go Yucca Valley and eat at the Rib Company (wow…they have GREAT babyback ribs).  Garry and I had eaten there just the evening before but Jeff insisted on going so we joined him in the short bus and into town.  Jeff also needed to do a bit of shopping at the local WalMart and pick up gloves, hooded sweatshirt, etc.  (I had gotten one there the previous evening myself and Garry had, from what I heard, bought just about every propane cylinder on the shelf so he could satisfy the hungry appetite of his propane space heater.)

On the way out of town, we caught up with Sergey and his brother Steven at the gas station.  Sergey was just heading out to the camp site so we joined up with them and headed back (to hopefully a comfortably warm sleeping bag….it was a little cool out and the wind was still blowing some).

Garry led us to Outer Limits on Wednesday.  Sergey joined Jeff and I in the procession that Garry led across the lake bed.  We had an excellent time running up to the trail head.  Lots of open trail that Garry enjoys speeding across.  With my new Anti-Rock now installed, I set the RS-9000s on 3 and enjoyed the ride.  I found much better control over the usual  completely disconnected sway bar that I’ve ran off-road since getting the TJ.

I apologize for not getting very many pictures on Outer Limits.  That trail is a full step up from Sledge Hammer and I was pretty occupied with keeping myself out of trouble. 

Simply put, Outer Limits had more and bigger rocks than did Sledge Hammer.  The water falls were higher and more challenging.  Sergey took out a Ford 9″ rear shaft and the Detroit locker on his TJ.  He also lost a rear corner panel to a rather large and nasty rock and broke yet another aluminum wheel.  I managed to scrape through the entire trail with just a bent license plate, a broken flare, and a dented rim (but no vibration on the freeway!)  All four flares took some scrapes as well but I managed to keep all the sheet metal in factory condition.  We used the hi-lift jack on my TJ and Sergey’s (especially after he broke the rear axle).  The winch cable was brought out for Jeff on one of the water falls (the bus just wouldn’t stay on the line).  Yes….Outer Limits was a notch up from Sledge.  It was just one big rock after the next, for the most part.  I think there was a 10′ section of bare sand…that was it….the rest of the sand was washed in around the boulders and made from some very slippery conditions at time.  However, the MT/Rs really hooked up on the rocks when running at about 8 psi.  The sidewall abuse was amazing and after a close inspection of mine back at camp, they looked none the worse.

Jeff grabbed my camera and snapped a couple pics for me.  Pivoting around the rocks made for good use of the rocker guards. 

Garry demonstrates for us how to walk his TJ up onto a pair of rocks while keeping just enough weight on the driver’s side to prevent a roll over.  This was not the only place that we were able to see Garry’s precise control of his TJ.  The guy has a knack for putting his rig where most folks would never even attempt it.

Jeff pilots his rig up and over a big ol’ rock.  Garry also launched himself over it (literally).  It was kind of like watching the shuttle take off, except that we didn’t have an official count down!

About 3/4 of the way through the trail, Sergey broke a rear shaft while trying to climb a water fall.  Left with only 3 wheel drive, the winch and strap was put to very good use.  We were able to make the end of the trail without too much trouble.  When the bearing retainer plate started to bend, the rear tire started leaning in towards the frame.  He parked the TJ on the side of the trail and Garry and Jeff returned with Garry’s tow rig to pick it up.

Later that evening, after some dinner, we managed to swap out the axle.  There was a spare Currie axle in Blaine’s trailer.  Even though it was set up for Blaine’s 5 on 5.5″ bolt pattern, it was also drilled for a 5 on 4.5″ setup.  We relocated the wheel studs, got the broken axle stub out of the tube (it had broken about 6″ from the flange), and installed the new one.  Unfortunately, the Detroit had let go when the torqued up shaft unloaded.  Sergey was down for the count.  On Thursday morning, we loaded his TJ on Blaine’s trailer which was being towed behind Jeff’s motor home.  Sergey and Steven drove Jeff’s Cherokee back. 

Robert showed up with his Suburban and trailered TJ while we were working on Sergey’s axle shaft. Robert was pretty shaken up.  While driving on the freeway, a motorhome ahead of him lost a tire/wheel.  Another motorhome hit it and sent it Robert’s way.  Unfortunately, Robert was not able to avoid it and ran over it.  It lodged under his trailer and he safely got off to the side of the road.  Robert believes his driveshaft got a hit (new vibrations) and when I spoke to him just yesterday, he said he also has an exhaust leak near or at his headers.  What a way to start a wheelin’ trip!

Thursday morning, Jack arrived at camp and quickly got ready for the run.  Robert wanted to do Sledge Hammer and I was up for an easier day of riding shotgun in his front seat (yes, I had a pretty good dose of Outer Limits the day before and since the TJ was still in a drivable condition, I thought I would count my blessings and keep it that way for the next day’s 300+ mile trip home).

So….we start on Sledge and work our way through the rocks again.  Here is Robert’s TJ negotiating one of the obstacles (name to be discovered next year!).  He found that his 35″ tire in a size 37″ hole made for some difficult going.  But, the MT/Rs finally dug in and did what was needed to get him going again.

Johnson Valley – 2002 Thanksgiving Run

Jack was sporting a brand new….new as in still had those little rubber whiskers….set of 37″ MT/Rs.  He had cut away most of the sheet metal that might have interfered with them and was just plain having too much fun with them!  Here is Garry telling him where to go (oops…that didn’t quite sound right).

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Robert and I continue along.  Rocker guards are a must have here.  The trails are tight and often times twisty and you have no option but to put the guard against the rocks and pivot around them.

I hid behind some rocks (not exactly hard to do) and snapped a picture of Jack as he as waiting to take a stab at the next obstacle.  I guess you could say that his CJ is not exactly the most eye-catching rig on the trail.  However, the driveline getting it across those rocks is second to none.  They don’t call him Axle Jack for nothing (DUH!).

The Hammers rightly deserve their name.  Jack was not as lucky as I on this one.  While my rim managed to bend, his took a hit and cracked out a nice piece.  Sergey’s came out in two 3″ long pieces. 

Garry works his way towards the end of Sledge.  We are almost done with this and with the ride back to camp still ahead, we’ll have enough time to get our Thanksgiving Day bird cooked up with all the fixings and make for a great day.

Robert watches as Jack works the rocks.  If I remember correctly, Jack said he was going SOA on the CJ in a little bit.  He had just put a nice custom made (by him) flat skid plate on and with the new tires in place, the new lift is next on the to-do list.

Johnson Valley – 2002 Thanksgiving Run

We wrapped up Sledge and headed back to camp to start dinner.  On the way, Robert and I noticed a clunking noise coming from the rear passenger side of the TJ.  Robert decided to slow down (the noise was in sync with the suspension cycling) and check it out once we made camp.  Upon arrival, he pulled the tire and found a little Sledge souvenir wedged in between the disc caliper, the spring, and the shock.  Garry took a look at it and commented that he had not met anyone up here that actually carried their own stacking rocks with them on the trail.  We all got a laugh out of that one. 

Garry fired up the propane turkey cooker and I pour in about 6 gallons of peanut oil.  Once the magic temperature was reached, Robert carefully lowered the turkey into the the pot of boiling oil.  He got volunteered for this job since he had done one more turkey frying episode than the rest of us had done (which was zero!).

Just a mere 40 minutes later, the turkey was pulled from the fryer and Robert carved the bird into manly sized chunks.  We had mashed potatoes, white pepper gravy, yams, and some cranberries to go with it.  Not bad for a few Jeepers celebrating Thanksgiving in the middle of Johnson Valley.

The guys are loading up their plates while I take a few pictures for this write-up.  No one walked away hungry that evening, for sure!  Robert made a trip or two back to the pan that had the turkey in it.  I had never eaten a fried turkey and let me tell you, it was delicious!

To wrap up the evening, Jack brought out the TV/VCR and we watched the 2002 Top Truck Challenge video.  After that, I loaded the week’s trail pictures onto my laptop and we were able to see those (some of which are in this trail report).

Friday morning arrived and Robert and I packed up and headed for home.  Jack and Garry were going to stay another day or two and do some wheelin’.  I heard on the radio, later that day, that they may have gotten some rain.  Not a big problem for them since I was the only one in a tent (you know, those things that rarely stay dry in a good rain storm.)

The drive home was uneventful and I ran in and out of the rain up to the Arizona border.  Later that evening, the rain got to Phoenix and we had a very nice soaking.

A VERY big thanks goes out to Garry for spotting my newbie butt over the trails.  Thanks also to Blaine for getting my parts to me even though he was not able to attend this year’s outing.  It was my first time wheelin’ with Sergey and Jeff and I truly enjoyed the time we spent on the trail together.  As for Axle Jack, I look forward to catching him again (I am sure I will) and Jack, maybe I’ll even break down and pick up a set of those fancy, shmancy u-joints you make!  Robert and I have been wheelin’ together since 2000, when we did our first trip in Death Valley together.  Since then, we have done a couple of memorable trails in Arizona, the Rubicon, and now Johnson Valley.  It is always a pleasure to run a trail with you.

I look forward to next year’s Turkey Day at the Hammers!  Until then…..

Remember to TREADLightly!