March 5, 2014

The Long Drive




Delivering performance and ride quality has always been the nucleus of our pursuits, and it comes as no surprise that we are always looking for new ways to definitively ascertain our products are meeting the stringent demands we have bestowed upon them. After the dial calipers and wrenches are put away…  after the welding machines and powder coat have cooled down....  the most critical test comes with real-world torture. It’s the same old formula we have followed from day one: engineer a lifetime part.   Abuse it so horrifically that Metalurgists mourn these unfortunate metallic subjects. If it fails expectations, redesign and abuse again. Repeat until the components are unscathed and beyond satisfactory. Our offerings have been put through just about every fathomable ringer in existence, so when we ran across the early planning stages of a cross-country trek by an avid fan of our suspension systems, our curiosity was piqued.  Perhaps it was time for a first-hand story from the end-user: someone who is on the outside looking in and longing to give our word of quality a run for its money.  

Enter Richard Wright, a born adventurist, accomplished Mechanical Engineer and self proclaimed Overlander. He describes “Overlanders” as a group of people who enjoy the challenge of exploring isolated terrain while relying on their preparations for their comfort and survival. Honestly, we can’t think of a better way to test the merits of our claims, so it is with great pleasure we hand the helm over to Richard and let him tell you in his own words how his adventure culminated into a smash summer success and the drive of a lifetime.    
  
So begins the first part of his adventure:



Throughout my time at Cal Poly studying Mechanical Engineering, I made sure to balance work and play—continuing to learn about 4x4s and Overlanding through trial and error while simultaneously taking courses that compounded my hard earned practical knowledge with intellectual understanding. I took “Ground Vehicle Performance Analysis and Design,” an elective course offered by a professor with a background in Formula One race team engineering. The application of what I learned about suspension geometry, spring/damper rate selection, and chassis engineering gave me a critical eye for properly engineered suspension systems and vehicle platforms. The combination of busted knuckles and book learning has provided me with the ability to pursue Overlanding and 4x4s with a new level of zeal.

After graduating with my BSME, I took a field engineer position in the energy sector. I’m on the road working crazy hours during spring and fall, but am given substantial freedom in the time between outage seasons. In the fall of 2012 I found out just how much freedom that meant, and I learned I would be relocating back out west. At this point, I began to hatch a grand scheme. I developed a plan that included many highlights of my father’s stories of national parks and scenic byways while blending in the best dirt roads and off-road trails that connected the dots. Piece by piece, region by region, I incorporated advice from area locals, overland trip diaries, trail reports, backcountry discovery routes, and my some of my personal favorite back roads to form a massive 11,000 mile route. I planned on taking 7 to 10 weeks, covering 2,500 to 3,000 miles of dirt roads and 4x4 trails, and avoiding multi-lane highways as much as possible while exploring the most beautiful and isolated locations North America has to offer.




As I began preparations for the expedition, I decided that the ideal platform would be a Cummins powered, heavy duty 4x4. I stuck with the 2006 Dodge Cummins 2500 quad cab short box 4x4 automatic ST package truck I already owned instead of blowing my budget acquiring a mechanical 12-valve alternative. I was quite happy with the aftermarket and active forum community support of the late model truck. After building rock sliders, installing heavy-duty bumpers, and dropping an electronic locker in my front differential, I found the stock suspension performance to be quite lacking.

I researched what sort of suspension systems were available and found a few standout firms with what appeared to be exceptionally robust and well-engineered designs. After contacting them, describing my plans, and weighing my needs versus the crunch timeline of my preparations, I opted to go with the Carli’s 3-inch lift Dominator suspension system. I needed a well-rounded suspension system, one that could handle every sort of terrain imaginable while providing a comfortable, planted street ride and maintaining the ability to tow as required. From initial contact through installation and into field support, Carli Suspension’s customer service and engineering prowess proved to be outstanding.

The kit was received undamaged, professionally palletized, and promptly shipped. My eye for quality construction was never let down, and the Carli bolt on promise went unbroken with the exception of a stitch weld needed on a limit strap tab. Installation was uneventful and took a weekend with access to air tools, a welder, a “lift”, and a couple friends (coerced with several cases of Coors Original). Fit and finish was excellent and the instructions were spot on. A complete amateur could complete the install with the help of a handy and experienced friend or two, a lift did facilitate things, but jack stands and a floor jack would certainly have sufficed.





I began my trip the day after installation was complete. I drove several long highway days to escape the dripping heat of the gulf coast and head toward the west. The new ride was plush but planted. Speed bumps, pot holes, expansion joints, and roadway debris that had once violently jarred the truck were now soaked up with ease. To say I was excited to hit the dirt and see what the truck could do would be a gross understatement. I was thrilled to beat on this truck through the desert, through the mountains, and everywhere in between. Carli’s Dominator kit has easily been the best performance enhancing and longevity increasing modification I can imagine.

My first planned destinations were to Great Sand Dunes and a revisit at Mesa Verde, but acquiring the 35-inch Toyo M/Ts had set me behind schedule. Instead, I pushed on to Page, AZ, Lake Powell, and explored Grande Staircase – Escalante along the western edge of Lake Powell. The beauty of the lake and the landscape surrounding it was a great first taste of America’s wilderness. The route from Grande Staircase – Escalante along Lake Powell and then south towards the Grande Canyon through the Vermillion Cliffs monument provided views of iconic rock formations and an excellent shakedown of the Dominator kit. After tightening a few bolts, I was quite confident that the truck could tackle any variation of formidable terrain. This was confirmed after reaching the summit of a steep sandy hill climb during my exploration of the Vermillion Cliffs area along a road that led me to a unique rock formation.



I then had to make tracks to the Grand Canyon north rim in order to maintain my schedule; the next day, I was slated to meet up with some old friends who would accompany me through the Utah and Colorado portions of my adventure. I was again very pleased with how well the truck held the road on the steep, corner-filled grades that carried me along my path. The view at the north rim was breathtaking, and the bison along the road were the first of many incredible species that I would encounter.

The geology at Zion left a lasting impression; however, the heat and density of tourists spurred my newly formed party out of the park after just a day and onward toward Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks. The scenery and views at these stops and along UT highway 12 are not to be missed if you are exploring southern Utah. The road condition was fantastic—a low-slung sports car would be ideal—but the Carli-equipped Dodge handled the curves well, despite the flat-towed Jeep YJ as a handicap.


From Capitol Reef we began to take roads far less frequented. We headed into Hanksville, UT to resupply and to fill every ounce of fuel and fresh water capacity before heading into the Maze district of Canyonlands National Park. Rather than enter via the Hans Flats ranger station, we opted to take Poison Springs road. It is a more challenging route that follows a flash flood wash and winds along canyon walls with striking views for 40-some miles and provides a fantastic introduction to the scenery awaiting the visitor to the Maze.

I acquired permits for 3 days of camping within the Maze district, months in advance, and planned to cover a lot of ground each day. The friends that joined me were experienced 4x4 enthusiasts, allowing us to travel at a pace much more rapid than recommended for the novice visitor. I carried enough tools to repair most anything, and each vehicle carried spare parts. A breakdown here could be potentially deadly during the summer heat, and I would not recommend traveling with only a single vehicle. Apparently, other travelers found the summer heat too extreme, so we were left with what seemed the entirety of the Maze district to ourselves. The only other human beings we encountered accessed the area by raft. We spent our first night along Poison Springs Road instead of the Cleopatra’s Chair site, which is along the much more heavily trafficked Hans Flat ranger station park entrance to the north. Poison Springs Road provided a fantastic introduction to both the unfettered and unforgiving Utah wilderness and the utter isolation we were to experience, which contrasted tremendously with the hordes of tourists at the other national parks.


The second day, we took the Maze Overlook trail, set up camp, and decided to head to the Green River at Millard Canyon to escape the heat. The road there was over 20 miles each way of two-track road, often cut into the canyon walls or following along the edge of the rim. I recommend that most people ought to plan to camp at the river, but we had many miles to go and a short schedule. The views along the way and a break from the baking sun along the shores of the Green River were a fantastic reward for the time and effort spent accessing this desolate area. Late in the afternoon, we returned to the Maze overlook camp and tried to appreciate the incredibly complex scenery and the geological forces that shaped the landscape.

The next planned camp was at the Dollhouse in the Land of Standing Rocks region of the Maze district, named due to the pillar-like columns left behind as the rock eroded away. The trail leading to the Dollhouse is a 20-mile-long stretch of rock that winds through and around canyons; often, the only indications of where the “road” leads are gouges left in obstacles by previous travelers. I was able to see why the guidebook recommended that the Land of Standing Rocks trail should be a multi-day excursion for most visitors. This section tested Carli’s slow shaft speed valving of the 3” King reservoir shocks and utilized the progressive spring rates a great deal. I was very pleased with the performance of Carli’s rear leaf pack, and with the travel it afforded. I was equally happy with the controllable and predictable nature of the ride over large obstacles at slow speed with Carli’s sway bar connected. Initially I had planned on disconnecting the sway bar for sections like this, but found it wholly unnecessary with a locking front differential. The Dodge remained so composed and proved so effortlessly capable that my friend who brought his built Jeep YJ along dubbed it “the Juggernaut,” venting his frustration after a breakdown—the first of three broken Jeep leaf spring packs, this time the main leaf on the driver’s side front. We were able to mend it by drilling through the spring steel on the main and secondary leafs and bolting them together! Camp at the Dollhouse was a very unique setting. We camped between a cluster of rock formations, which provided some great bouldering and exploration. When exploring the desolate areas within Canyonlands or in any other desert environment, be sure to carefully study the trail maps for any hikes you set out on. At the Dollhouse camp we decided to take what looked like a short hike to the Colorado River on our non-topographical map. It turned out to be 1.5 miles each way with 1200 feet of elevation change following an ancient Anasazi Indian footpath.

The following day had many miles in store. We returned over the Dollhouse trail to Waterford Flats and took the Flint trail out the southern Maze district access road. Once on pavement, we hitched the Jeep to the Dodge again for the drive to Moab. We elected to head south with a brief detour to Monument Valley and again at the Natural Bridges monument. After an evening and long morning spent in Moab enjoying civilization after the scarcity and desolation of desert dwelling, we set out again into the Islands in the Sky district of Canyonlands to run the famous White Rim trail. We entered from the west and camped at Hardscrabble on the Colorado River. The scenery was incredible once again, with river overlooks, canyon vistas, and the serene feeling of being surrounded by largely undisturbed natural beauty. The next morning we set off early to beat the heat, and around lunch took a more challenging spur down to the Colorado to cool off at Lathrop Canyon. The White Rim trail turned out to be more scenic than challenging, but then again we had just cut our teeth on the Maze District’s famous trails. By the early evening we had climbed the Schaffer Trail switchbacks, briefly visited Arches National Park, resupplied in Moab, and headed into the La Sal Mountains for a chance to camp in a cooler climate. The La Sal Mountains were a glimpse into the next climate, topography, and beauty that we were soon to experience in Colorado.




Stay tuned for Part 2 of Richard's West Coast Expedition happenings.  Click on the thumbnails below for their full-size counterparts.