The Final Leg of My $500 Postal Jeep Road Trip Was an 1,800 Mile Test of the Human Spirit

After taking my $500 Postal Jeep 1,800 miles to Moab, Utah and then on a terrifying trail ride, I faced a daunting task: I had to drive 1,800 miles back to Michigan by myself. There was no support car, my cellphone battery was dying, and a large obstacle that some call “The Rocky Mountains” lay ahead. The next few days would test my spirit like never before.

Having miraculously escaped the off-road trail “Fins and Things” after hours of battling a failing transmission and a wonky fuel delivery system, I drove Project POStal—the 1976 Jeep DJ-5D mail Jeep that, with some help from friends, I had resurrected from a pile of iron oxide—into a fuel station to think. I contemplated leaving the vehicle in Utah and flying home, but I had too many tools with me, and ultimately, I was too deeply in love with the rightward-listing cube that had graciously delivered me to the off-road promised land.

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Pulling out of the fuel station, I drove south on U.S. Route 191, and as I gazed at what may as well have been an infinite road ahead, I felt my heart sink. The more I thought about what I had to accomplish over the following few days, the more my spirits plummeted until I found myself engulfed in a dense cloud of melancholy.

I had 1,800 miles ahead of me, and I was alone. Those amazing moments I’d spent with my brothers on the seven day road trip from Michigan to Utah flashed to the forefront of my mind. The reminiscing we’d done in our former hometown in Kansas; the desperate trip Ben, Mike, and I took to New Mexico to fix my Jeep’s brakes; the late-night trail ride we’d done when we arrived in Moab—it all rushed to my mind.

It was probably sheer fatigue that was making me feel emotional, but in that moment, my spirits were in the dumps. I don’t think I was intimidated by the lack of a support car, or even the steep mountain pass ahead, I think I just felt like the two best parts of the trip had flown away across the world, and now it just wasn’t the same. I just felt a deep sense of dread for the long, lonely trek back across America.

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It’s quite easy to get inside your own head when driving through a desert by yourself, especially at 50 mph with no radio, but luckily, I received a morale boost just when I needed it. Out on the road in the middle of nowhere, I heard honking from the lane to my left. I turned to look, and there was my friend Erich from Michigan!

Earlier that day, while I was trying to get unstuck from an off-road trail, he had called to tell me he was heading to Moab as part of a California-to-Michigan road trip with his son, but I didn’t think he’d show up for a while. Even if he did, I didn’t think he’d be coming from the south, so this was a genuine surprise.

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We both pulled over to the side of the road, and Erich told me all about the old Toyota Camry he had just purchased as a college car for his son. I showed him around my postal Jeep, and we just had a great time there on the shoulder of the hot, empty road talking about our shared passion for old beaters.

I don’t know why, but seeing a kind, familiar face gave me a huge boost, and when we exchanged grips and grins to go our separate ways, my mind was reinvigorated with a sharp sense of focus. I was going to crush these next 1,800 miles, and there’s nothing that could stop me. I hopped in the Jeep, fired up the 232 AMC inline-six, and began chipping away at the long road ahead. One mile at a time. Fifty miles every hour.

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In short order, the red, barren desert turned into plush vegetation painting jagged mountainsides, and the glorious state of Colorado slid laterally across my side windows and grew ever larger in my windshield until I was on top of it.

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Of course, climbing Colorado was no small task. Actually, it was a huge risk. On the way to Utah, I had been warned by a Jalopnik reader and Colorado resident about the perils of Wolf Creek Pass. If I couldn’t avoid it on the way there, he told me, I should still definitely avoid it on the way back. “The other side is worse. Don’t go up the other side,” he told me over Instagram.

I went up the other side.

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At this point, I was feeling confident. I had driven from Michigan to Utah and beaten the crap out of my Jeep off-road. This little “mountain,” if that’s what you want to call it, would be no trouble.

“Bring it on!” I yelled to mother nature, foot deep on the throttle, eyes wide but brimming with ferocity as I gave the road my undivided attention. The dread I had felt early in the trip had turned into total determination.

I’ll admit that, in many ways, this decision to drive by myself through the Rockies in a $500 shitbox doesn’t sound wise. But as I’d inspected and tested the machine so thoroughly, it felt as if the little AM General had become an extension of my body—an organ that had grown from my fingers into the shape of a ring, then inward through three spokes and down into a cylindrical steering column. From there, my biological bounds expanded into a steering box, which swelled into a frame that sprouted the large white and brown cubic cage that surrounded me.

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The Jeep and I were one. I knew every smell and sound, every vibration and screech, and I could feel that it was healthy and ready to crush this hike up the Rockies. And that’s what it did.

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The steep 7 percent grade on the west side of the Wolf Creek Pass put a lot of stress on my powertrain, with vehicle speed dipping into the 20s with my foot pressed hard on the pedal. The Chrysler 727 transmission managing my inline-six’s power downshifted until I just yanked the shifter to hold it in second.

In the lower gear, the vehicle climbed most of the grade in the mid 30 mph range, but there were times when cresting 30 was a challenge. There wasn’t a whole lot of power coming from that engine, even if it sounded great as it roared smoothly under-hood. Plus, the vehicle’s tall gearing didn’t help, nor did the inefficient three-speed slushbox.

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The climb was slow, but undramatic. Having spent so much time at the helm, I no longer felt guilty holding the pedal to the floorboard. The Jeep could handle it, and I knew it. I felt it. I drove for over half an hour with the pedal to the floor, glancing every now and then at my coolant and oil pressure gauges, which, throughout the whole trip, confirmed that the Jeep’s mechanical situation was nothing other than copacetic.

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I drove into the night until fatigue took over, and after making it down the east side of Wolf Creek Pass, I pulled into a cafe parking lot in the tiny town of Blanca, Colorado. I slept in the Jeep, draping a sleeping bag over my body to guard against the 35 degree weather. I woke up ice-cold.

Having driven 330 miles the prior day after starting around noon, I was pumped. It had only been a small part of my trip, but, with that blisteringly fast pace, I felt like I was getting somewhere

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I got a great start on day two, since trying to get shut-eye while sitting upright in an ice-cold Jeep wasn’t something I saw any value in doing. So around 7:30, I headed off through central Colorado, gazing at beautiful wildlife as the sun rose over the mountains.

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I still had a small obstacle ahead of me called La Veta Pass, but it was actually quite a lovely, slow climb through breathtaking parts of the Centennial State.

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Once over my final pass, the landscape changed quickly into large, green pastures.

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And it wasn’t long until the green turned to brown:

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Eventually, the sun rose high in the sky, and temperatures climbed to the point where I had to open my doors and cruise with the only A/C I’ve ever known: Ambient Cooling. For hours, I drove on these back roads through eastern Colorado, dripping with sweat, rarely spotting another vehicle, getting lost in the solitude.

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I had no radio, my phone had officially crapped out, and there probably wasn’t another person for five miles in any direction. My brain began to slow from the fatigue and the sheer lack of mental strain associated with driving in a straight line for hours, not listening to anything but wind bounce off the sharp corners and flat windshield of my machine:

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In time, I did find a gas station, which was a blessing, since my fuel tank only held nine gallons of fuel. While there, I captured a tumbleweed, and recorded a video that confirmed the damage all that hot, lonely desert driving had done to my mental state:

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But I just kept moving, reaching western Kansas, where, in Colby, I was awestruck by one of the greatest junkyards I’d ever seen (you can see more of it here):

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I stopped for a few photos, but continued high-tailing it down U.S. Route 24 through America’s breadbasket:

I stopped in towns I’d never even heard of—parts of the “forgotten America” that everyone talked about during the last election. These little villages, with their historic storefronts, court squares, small post offices, and local mom and pops restaurants were something out of a Norman Rockwell painting, and their residents were some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met.

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As the sun began setting, I found myself fueling up in the small town of Stockton, Kansas, where I saw someone walking their pet goat:

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But I didn’t have time to gaze at peculiar pets; I had to get to get to Kansas City by around noon the next day to meet up with my brother Ben. So I kept moving.

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I drove east into the night, fueling up at Casey’s General Stores along the way.

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But after roughly 15 hours on the road, fatigue started wearing me down. I pulled off onto the next road I could find, just east of Manhattan, Kansas, and shut the motor down. Coyotes howled in the night, and the sky lit up with the brightest stars I’d ever seen. It was freezing cold, but I was tired, so I leaned over in the seat that had supported the bottoms of decades worth of government-employed mail carriers, and shut my eyes.

As you can see in the clip above, I woke up quite early to the hoots of owls after a cold, uncomfortable, but also epic night in the middle of a Kansas field. The prior day I had driven a staggering 600 miles—twice what I had driven on some stretches on the way from Michigan to Utah. This was, in part, because on the flat plains of Kansas I let the motor rip, even reaching 70 mph for short (admittedly downhill) sections, but cruising for hours at 60 without issue.

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After being pulled over in my second of three bizarre police encounters during the trip, I met up with a reader named James in Topeka to talk about cars:

Image: James
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From there, I booked it to Kansas City, and had lunch with my brother Ben, after which I drove through Missouri, and landed in Rushville, Illinois. There, I stayed in a $50 Motel to charge up my devices and to prepare for the final slog to Michigan.

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Prior to my trip, a reader named Brian from Peoria, Illinois had reached out to offer a hand, should I need it. During my return trip, I had grown worried about my engine’s severe oil leak, so I took him up on the offer.

I ended up fixing my oil leak well before I made it to Brian’s shop (the issue was a clogged crankcase ventilation system that caused the pressure in the engine to blow oil out past the seals), but I figured I’d say hi anyway. Plus, I’d have a chance to inspect the machine.

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Image: Brian Rogers
Image: Brian Rogers
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Things actually looked good under the Jeep aside from a few small remaining leaks, and Brian even agreed that the Jeep drove fairly well, all things considered.

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The drive through Illinois was fairly uneventful, though I did meet a guy named Daniel from Momence, Illinois. He was pumped to see my Jeep, walking up to me at a fuel station to talk my ears off about it, probably not expecting me to be just as excited to see his V8 1986 Chevy K20 work truck. Daniel was using it to haul scrap from his heating and cooling job. This is what trucks like this are for, really:

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From Illinois, I trudged on through the southern suburbs of Chicago, and into the night until I reached my now-home state of Michigan:

As you can see in the video above, it was fairly dark by the time I got to The Mitten, so it wasn’t long before I pulled over and hit the hay:

Again, it was a cold night, and the poor sleep I got resulted in a strange police encounter after I took a short nap at a fuel pump. The officers were intrigued by the state of my Jeep’s interior which, to their credit, did look like it might have been my living quarters (and indeed, it essentially was):

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After the weird discussion with the cops, I cruised through southeast Michigan, and somehow ran into another Postal Jeep in the Detroit area—one used as a prop in downtown Plymouth.

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As I began recognizing the streets near my home, I felt a sense of calm and relief, and after cruising through the sunny suburban streets of southeast Michigan, I finally arrived home, brimming with pride in my Jeep:

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The $500 junker had not only made it from Michigan to Moab, but it had managed to get through much of an off-road trail, and it even took a completely trouble-free 1,800 mile victory lap.

Project POStal is now my daily driver, and since completing this trip a month ago, has had absolutely no problems. It starts up quickly, runs and drives beautifully, and seems more eager than ever to continue serving the person behind the wheel, even if that person isn’t delivering mail.

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So that’s it; that’s the final chapter of Project POStal (there will be a cost rollup later as well), so this seems like the right time summarize why I did this project in the first place. While in a motel in the middle of my road trip, I responded to a commenter who asked that very question, so I’m just going to paste my response below.

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The first reason why I undertook this rusty project is that I just enjoy learning and solving problems:

Simply, it’s a challenge.

It appeals to the engineer-y/problem solve-y side of my brain. Here’s a vehicle that—if we’re honest—was destined for the junkyard. It had a bad frame, a cracked engine, a horrible suspension, a bad ignition system...the list goes on.

Understanding these problems, laying out a plan to solve them, and ultimately bringing something that far gone back to life (i.e. making it reliable and—most importantly—safe) is a true thrill. To see an underdog back on the road and doing great things—to cheer it on as the dozens of repairs my friends and I made function flawlessly—is an amazing feeling.

The projects are also crash-courses in wrenching, with each year bringing unique challenges/learnings, but all usually yielding some common headaches that come with rustbuckets (seized bolts, mostly). In some ways, wrenching on a junker is the ultimate way to learn how to work on cars; If you can wrench on a crap-can, you can probably wrench on damn near anything. (This is obviously a simplification, but you get the idea).

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But of course, I’m also driven by a love for these incredibly soulful, fascinating machines:

I also love the vehicles I’ve chosen for these endeavors. The XJ the first year, the CJ-2A the next, the Grand Wagoneer last year, and the DJ this year. They’re awesome Jeeps that I’ve always wanted to own, but since I can’t really afford to buy all four of them in good shape (especially the Grand Wagoneer), doing this annual project gives me a chance to justify owning/experiencing Jeeps I’ve always wanted.

I also see soul in cars; I genuinely think that junky ones like my camo-covered CJ-2A and this rust and fungus-covered postal Jeep look awesome. If they were mint, they’d look like other vehicles already out there; as they sit, they are truly unique. I’ve written about this before.

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My love for the challenge and for the cars is what motivates me most, but there’s also the camaraderie between friends all working toward a common goal, the joy of driving through the greatest parts of this fine country and meeting awesome people along the way, and the fact that I genuinely enjoy telling these stories through writing—it all contributes toward making Project POStal worth the agony.

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I learned so much from this old DJ-5. I figured out how to weld a frame thanks to advice from a professional welder, I built an ignition system and set ignition timing, and I tore into a steering box for the first time. I grew closer to my friends and brothers, especially Mike, who flew in from Hong Kong and wowed me with his wrenching skills.

I met folks from all across some of the most rural parts of America, and I experienced true, selfless generosity not just from readers offering help along the way, but also from total strangers in Moab who housed me, fed me, and gave me a helping hand.

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And for these reasons, Project POStal will always be so much more to me than just a rusty old Jeep.

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About the author

David Tracy

Writer, Jalopnik. 1979 Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle, 1985 Jeep J10, 1948 Willys CJ-2A, 1995 Jeep Cherokee, 1992 Jeep Cherokee auto, 1991 Jeep Cherokee 5spd, 1976 Jeep DJ-5D, totaled 2003 Kia Rio