In May of 2017, my friends and I embarked on an overland cheap car challenge road trip. The pitch was simple: fly to Sacramento, buy three cars for less than $3k each, and then take them through California, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada using overland routes as much as possible. Whoever survives, wins.
I wrote about part one previously, where Taylor purchase yet another high-mileage red Japanese manual truck, this time a 1995 Toyota 4Runner, George purchase a trashcan of a Jeep for half the budget, and I was monumentally stupid and purchased a Land Rover Discovery.
I also posted a video of the buying process a while back. I am now happy to report the video of the first couple days of the trip is done and ready for public consumption. But since I don’t really watch videos at work either, below is a text write up too. You’re welcome.
Day 1 – Sacramento to Topaz, via Tahoe
The next two days were spent frantically prepping for the adventure ahead. Taylor and I both needed tires to some extent and set to sorting that out. George needed extensive suspension work, new gas struts for the lift gate, and a few other odds and ends. I also took a stab at fixing my cruise control (failed), rear wipers (succeeded!), and a door locks (failed).
We also hit the hardware, liquor, grocery, and auto parts stores for associated supplies. And Costco, of course.
And then, suddenly, time to go
All too quickly it was time to go. Like really. We were only about halfway out of the AirBnB when the host showed up RIGHT AT checkout. Awkward.
We hastily threw everything into the cars and then move the whole procession across the street to do our morning safety meeting/ fluids check/ route overview. That over, we pulled out of the parking lot and…. Right back in.
“I’ve got a dumb light for oil. I’ve got to… I’ve got to pull back into the church.”
The Jeep’s “CHECK GAUGES” light had come on and his oil pressure read zero. Zip. Nada. Knowing that this constituted an emergency situation, he pulled over immediately so we could assess.
Long story short, his oil pressure sender had chosen the exact moment of the beginning of our trip to fail. Cleaning the connectors caused it to spring back into life, at least temporarily, so we got back on the road with minimal fuss, and soon where in the mountains, headed to South Lake Tahoe.
Paved Road, Other
The plan was for this day to be almost completely on-road so that we could have a chance to get to know our cars a little and not stress them out too much right away. This… didn’t happen.
We did plan a little backcountry detour that took bypassed what looked like a few miles of the main road, but was supposed to be a mostly paved road through a park. Both CalTOPO and George’s atlas claimed this was paved, in the atlas’s case “Paved Road, Other,” this was not to be.
The road gradually degraded into a moderately difficult dirt road. This was the first time any of us had used 4WD in anger. George and I took my Yukon out to pay in the sand a few months before, but that did not adequately prepare us for this. Mostly the road was rocky, steep, moist, and had the occasional obstacle like a fallen tree. Then we started encountering snow.
Then we got stuck in the snow.
To our credit, it was May so all of the snow we encountered was really wet and melty. Also the first obstacle we hit was uphill with rocks on one side. With a lot of effort, we eventually made it though and pressed on.
Then it got worse.
A lot worse.
The entire intersection of our next turn was completely covered with deep, wet snow. Crap.
After making it through the next bank, we traveled a few miles on pavement, eating up the miles, believing we were in the clear. We were not. Sadly I don’t have a lot of pictures of this, but we came around a corner to a view of a long stretch of completely snow covered road. Given our previous experience with such, we knew what must happen.
We bravely turned around.
This turned out to have been a good call, considering the views into Tahoe were totally epic. (No photos of this, but check the video!)
Approximately ten hours after we’d set off that morning, we rolled into our lunch spot in South Lake Tahoe.
We had a tasty dinn- lunch, and proceeded to our overnight accommodations at Topaz Lake.
What transpired next was… a bit odd. The route we’d chosen to take to Topaz actually took us out of California for a few miles. When we crossed back in we were routed through a border checkpoint. Because something something People’s Republic of California. Anyway, either because it was late, we were sober, or all of our cars had California plates, we were waived through without fuss.
We eventually found our cabin for the evening, which was basically an apartment built into what appeared to be a former boat house. The area around it looked like what I assume Dave Tracey’s front (and back) yard looks like: distressed Jeeps as far as the eye can see. It was.... odd, but neat.
Day 2 – Topaz to Big Pine, via Bodie & Mono Lake
The next morning while George tried tightening the steering on his trash can Jeep, I made a little bit of mischief. You see, the day before the 4Runner was bringing up the rear, benefiting from the snow work George and I did to get our cars though and therefore not actually getting stuck. He also had to pull the Disco out a couple of times when I managed to plow myself so deep into a snow bank I actually high centered. Taylor was less than humble about these facts, so I took this opportunity to break his car.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am a firm believer in “never mess with someone else’s car” but making temporary mischief is OK. I settled with disconnecting the primary (low voltage) feed to his ignition coil.
Unfortunately, this plan backfired when we agreed that I should take the 4Runner out for a test drive to see if I could tell why it was so woefully slow. Sadly this meant I was in the driver’s seat when Taylor discovered his beloved 4Runner wouldn’t start.
‘WHAT DID YOU DO?!” He yelled, desperately hoping against hope this problem was man made.
“Unplugged the coil.” I calmly answered to dumfounded silence.
The mixture of anger, joy, and relief seen on his face was well worth the price of admission, and it did do some to keep the “MIGHTY 4RUNNER” talk to a minimum. For at least an hour anyway.
Snow, plow, dig, 4-low, POWER
Our big stop for the day was the ghost town of Bodie. We opted for an off-road adventure to get there, thinking that lightni- snow couldn’t strike twice. I mean… it was MAY. In California!
This time at least we’d learned a little about navigating snow and made it through the first bank with minimal fuss. Also, we’d learned some about walking out an obstacle before proceeding, so when we hit the next major snow covering, we scouted ahead to see what else waited beyond.
Hard to describe, but a little further on was a large, deep drift, on a corner of a switchback. The angle of the snow was such that if we slid, which seemed likely, we would slide off this hill and into a gully.
Once again, we called it, and bravely ran away.
Bodie - Big ass ghost town
We took the normal road into Bodie and made it there in good time. The town of Bodie is pretty neat, being a gigantic ghost town. We wandered around a bit and took some photos, and them moved on.
Despite or possibly because of our problems on the way in, we opted to take backcountry roads on the way out, continuing the route we had to abandon earlier. This turned out to have been a very good call.
The drive out of Bodie was stunning. Well maintained, easy road, beautiful scenery, and brief glimpses of Mono Lake in the distance.
On the map, Mono lake looks like a medium sized like. In person, it was absolutely beautiful. We did not have any plans on stopping, but after admiring it the whole way back to the main road, we felt like we had to.
After dicking around there for a while, we headed back to the highway in an attempt to get dinner and to the AirBnB before nightfall. We didn’t manage much success at any of that, but at this point we’re getting used to finding small cabins in the woods in complete darkness...
The cabin at Big Pine was pretty silly. The power was hydroelectric, the water was somehow taken from the creek out back, and the heat was supplied by a pellet stove. At least in theory.
While our hosts had generously started the heat up before we got there, we arrived just in time to watch the pellet stove smother itself. We had a little luck getting it going again, but sadly it died in the night. As did the water.
Still, the place was awesome and the host spent all morning trying to get everything fixed. We thanked him, but really did need to get back on the road. I did take this opportunity to replace the air filter on the Landy and I must say I was glad I did.
Today was going to be the big one: Death Valley. We were going to drive overland in and spend essentially the next three days there. Good thing too, because Death Valley has more roads than any other national park. If anything was going to kill these cars, we figured this was it.
Wish us luck...