This weekend I drove our twice-totaled, thrice-bent, 1996 Toyota 4Runner jacked up on bastardized pickup truck suspension from New York to Philly to the Pennsylvania woods. And somehow, back again. All I know is I’m still high on fumes and farts and gas station hot dogs.
The trip started simply enough; “Let’s make a movie about off-roading this weekend. Collins, get a truck and meet these dudes at a gas station off I-78 who will take your picture and put it on the internet.” Actually one of the more straightforward itineraries I’ve been handed since I started working for Jalopnik.
But I quickly realized that the hardest part about off-roading here in the mid-Atlantic is actually getting some place you can off-road. And then getting your truck there. Especially if the truck you have is the kind of a cursed slagmobile you’d actually be willing to take off-road.
Hoping for something a little more comfortable I called our friends at Jeep and sure, they’d be happy to lend us a Wrangler as long as we could pick it up on the other side of the country between yesterday and never.
Land Rover wasn’t interested in letting me scratch up their rolling works of art for some YouTube idiocy.
Mercedes made me spend last week sleeping in a Sprinter, but I still haven’t lived down taking that steaming dump on the G63 last year.
Toyota sure wished they could get involved but they’d never heard of this “Land Cruiser” model I was asking about.
And of course General Motors has become really tightwadded with their loaner cars since I left that Escalade running in the valet line at JFK and flew to San Salvador with the key in my luggage.
So the deadline loomed, I got desperate, and thought of my dear friend Doug. Actually you might know him; tall guy, Polo sweater enthusiast, huge fan of making noise? So much so that he owns a school bus yellow Hummer... which he was happy to let me drive. In Philadelphia. Where the closest thing you get to off-roading is squeezing through Colonial-era cobblestones, and maybe a big puddle if you’re lucky.
Uh, more on that later.
Anyway you’re probably wondering why I haven’t mentioned the Toyota 4Runner that was already living on my lawn. If you’re my neighbor you know it well; it’s loud, it’s proud, it’s Monkey S**t Brown. The obvious choice for an off-road trip, right?
Well friends, the truck and I have been not been getting along great since my other friend Orlove dropped it off at Truck Yeah HQ like a prom night dumpster baby a few months back.
Once I tried to drive it and a power vampire had sucked the battery dry.
“Screw it, I’m gonna go play with my motorcycle.”
Then I tried to drive it and the front tires had gone flat.
“Screw it, I’m gonna go play with my Scout.”
Then I couldn’t figure out how to make the radio work.
“What? Screw this I’m driving my Acura.”
And of course, the fact that I’m only home about three days a month.
“Oh yeah, that Toyota’s still here. I wonder if there’s any gas in it...”
But this time I was really cornered. We had to drive something to the Rausch Creek Off-Road Park or Jalopnik’s J. Jonah Jameson was going to put me back on press release-reading duty for sure.
It was finally time to try to kill that 4Runner we promised we’d try to kill for your amusement, dear reader.
So now I had to prep this Toyota the Taliban wouldn’t take on a suicide mission for a 500 mile overland expedition, then spend about twelve hours stewing in own filth and an exhaust leak actually carrying out said expedition. And thanks to my crippling laziness, I’d have to get it done in, like, an hour.
Fortunately I live in the semi-rural fringe of suburban sprawl, which means ten minutes in any direction from a Wal-Mart. So with the battery charged (jump box!), tires inflated (basketball pump!), and even the radio working (“hey did you try a USB cable that wasn’t frayed?”)
There; prepped and ready. And I couldn’t believe what I putz I’d been putting this off for so long. (Just kidding it’s totally believable.)
Lumbering off-property, on road, and eventually onto the highway, I let the 4Runner stretch its rusty legs. Which I immediately regretted.
The car made enough shrieks and creaks to let me know it was in no mood for full-throttle acceleration so I nudged it up to the speed limit 1 MPH at a time. Over 65, the steering wheel started to shimmy and hanging onto it gave me a headache. This felt like as good a time to get that silver spray paint ready and prepare to ride the highway to Valhalla. Or just regular old Hell, whichever exit we passed first.
With speed set to a steady 62 (“cruise control works!”) I rubbed my eyes, eased the seat back, and pondered the life decisions I’d been making recently.
The Toyota and I jogged down the eastern seaboard and down into the expanse of PA. Forever. Which felt even longer as my confidence in the truck waxed and waned with the noises it started making every time the wind disturbed its stride.
For a while the ABS light was on. Sometimes it would pull hard to the right when I hit the brake, sometimes not, sometimes just a little left.
“I should probably check that out,” I thought and immediately forgot after another swig of NyQuil. Yeah, still working off that cold I caught spending last week in a van... more on that later too.
More importantly, the Toyota’s windows never failed to roll up again, the toxic smells from the undercarriage seemed to be carried off easily enough by highway-speed wind, and at least the mismatched headlights burned bright enough see my way from one Love’s truck stop to the next Flying J.
And really, once you overcome that visceral urge to pass every other car on the highway, settling into a trot 3 MPH below the speed limit is actually rather relaxing.
I’ve been hanging crap on this tired old Toyota because it’s more fun to write that way, but in actuality; this is exactly the kind of rig you want to get into off-roading with. It just sucks when a lot of tedious on-roading stands between you and the mud flingin’.
Our 4Runner has enough lift to get you way further than those stock FX4s at your local mall lot, tires that can claw through some stuff without blowing themselves into rubber chunks on the freeway, 4WD with low range, and most importantly; ugly paint work you don’t mind making worse.
Too bad the reality of owning an off-road vehicle in the northeast is... inconvenient. Even on a trip specifically focused on off-road driving, like this one, I had to sit through 465 miles of miserably repetitive highway and 25 miles of pleasant Pennsylvania backroads just to get an afternoon of wheeling in, over which I might have covered ten miles on dirt had I not spent so much time setting up cameras and sending dumb tweets from the off-road park. At least we got plenty of good puddle splashes and some butt-puckering rock slides.
I should shut up and be thankful there even are off-road parks in the region to travel to. And I am. But unless you’ve got access to private property, legal off-roading almost anywhere on the East Coast is kind of a pain.
As for the Toyota’s performance on dirt; the shocks that give the driving experience a certain “shady carnival-ride” quality on pavement finally come into their own when they have crags and divots to absorb. The 3” lift was plenty to get the clearance for rock gardens, and as long as we kept the speed reasonable we didn’t have any problems bottoming out over fastblast open areas.
Rausch Creek has a lot of pointy rock crags and wild climbs, but almost no soft sand that we could find. The “technical” stuff we got into still had plenty of traction for our all-terrain rubber, and since I was not in the mood to hitchhike home we didn’t bother chasing the bouncer buggies we caught ripping up rock walls.
Power was there when we needed it, low-range had good bite as soon as the lever was thrown, heat stayed under control, and with the exception of the filthy interior and broken center console you’d hardly think this 4Runner had 170,000 miles on it as far as off-roading’s concerned. Partially because you can’t hear the thousands scary squeaks over the sound of rocks being hurled by the wheels, but color me impressed with our old truck’s first big day out.
Now who wants to come convoy with us next time? You know, so I have a ride home when we try to torture this thing just a little bit harder.
Images by the author, Tom Morningstar