Baja ’67

I was reminiscing about the Big Bear trip the other day.  It was some of the most fun I’ve had in a while. Highland’s 4Runner performed flawlessly and comfortably, the weather was perfect, and time spent outside is always a good thing for a guy like me who works in an office every day.

After that trip, I started planning my next one.  I don’t have a trip set in stone yet, but the one I’m ready to tackle an offroad trip down through Baja.  Since reading about Peter Egan’s trip(s) through Baja in Side Glances and Leanings. The idea of camping outside in the desert, maybe next to an old ghost town, drinking unlabeled tequila and figuring out the next day’s route sounds pretty great to me.  The problem is – and here’s the sob story- I don’t’ have the time, money, tequila, or the proper beater to take a trip like this. All I have are really cool Youtube videos of people doing it for me.  My ideal beater for the trip would be an old solid axle Tacoma not too dissimilar from

My ideal beater for the trip would be an old solid axle Tacoma not too dissimilar from Desk To Glory or this one from IndefinitelyWild.  Solid, rugged, and inexpensive are all pluses to picking one up for the trip.  As much as a cool new Chevy Rental Car would be, something about taking an old beaten up and rusty vehicle on the 1200km drive to La Paz sparks nostalgia – it’s just right you know. Besides, rental cars don’t have that vagabond feeling to them.

So, to satiate my cravings for another West Coast trip I’ll have to hop back on the reality bus and watch web videos in the break room. Here’s a fun little documentary I’ve been watching about the original Baja 1k race. I know it’s not short but someone once told me that delayed gratification was a virtue.  The jury is still out on that one.

**If you wish to fund my future Baja trip please forward me your winning lottery ticket**

Big Bear And Highland Off-Road’s New 4Runner



Believe it or not, I am not huddled away in the back of a shop or junkyard somewhere smearing my greasy fingers across an old keyboard when I type these posts out. Believe it or not, I do have friends.  These friends live all over America. Most of them are still mechanics while the other half are teachers (weird I know).

I’d been begging one of these friends to come out to Orlando and visit for about 4yrs until I finally bit the bullet, bought a plane ticket and flew out to see him for a weekend. The second I stepped out of Sand Diego Int. Airport’s sliding doors I got a call from Mike saying he was a bit late.


After a quick lunch in Carlsbad, we grabbed all the extra pizza and headed northbound to Big Bear, CA to test out Mike’s newest build for his venture, Highland Off-Road.  It’s a pretty basic 4Runner build. Nothing too special, just everything that’s functional and not over the top.

Mike hasn’t had this project for too long so it hasn’t had a chance to get crazy yet.  Mike has made a point over his last couple builds not make anything “too shiny.”  His builds are an exercise of function. The vehicles are modified just enough to get the job done. No more, and certainly no less.

The truck was certainly a comfortable commute. The tires weren’t loud on the 2hr trip up to the mountain and despite those 35″ tires and V6 power, it got decent enough gas mileage.

We got to the mountain, found our spot and set up camp. A task made easier due to the sleeping space in the truck and the insta-tent we had. I threw my gear into the tent and turned in for the night.

Nighttime temps had gotten down to the high 30’s, which is cold for a Florida bred guy like myself.  I woke up at first light to find I had burrito’d myself in my sleeping bag (50* rated) with some warm and comfy Patagonia Flannel and an old hoodie I still carry around from the racing days. Breakfast was leftover cold pizza. Normally I wouldn’t have devoured day old pizza that had been sitting out in the open, but with air that dry and refrigerator like temps all through the night I figured we’d be fine.


We hopped in the truck and headed into town to refill on gas for the day and  grab some water before hitting the trails.  We started off at the top of Gold Mountain.  A truly beautiful vista parked next to an old mine shaft that overlooks parts of the Baldwin Dry Lake and the Eastern parts of Big Bear Lake. This also served as the perfect spot for us to air down for the upcoming trails.

We followed the initial trails into the lush brown, yellows and gold mountains.  The pines underbrush that hasn’t been burned out was a drastic but welcome change to the evergreen Florida landscape I’m used to.  Wildlife was scarce but the occasional eagle or hawk was visible floating on the updrafts.

The easy highlight of our day driving the trails was venturing a  new peak. The trail was short but not altogether technical.  There was some crawling over the boulders but nothing that the ‘Yota couldn’t  handle.  Mike and I eventually made it up the short but steep trail to the peak of the mountain and some more incredible views overlooking Lucerne Valley.

The rest of the trip for that day was fairly easy going.  We had planned to attend what was supposed to be a small Oktoberfest celebration in town that evening, but more on that later.  We made a short stop at Holcomb Valley to walk around and explore on foot an old panner’s homestead.  Mike shared a story about how one of the trees easily visible from across the valley was once used fo hangings and various executions back in the day.  The tree stuck right out.  Its scraggly and almost dead look stood out from the others in the valley.


Our break in Holcomb was done. We navigated our way back out of the mountain and into town for the night’s Oktoberfest celebration.  Mind you we weren’t sure what was going to happen at this party of sorts.  It takes place in the middle of nowhere in a small community center and there were loads of elderly people manning the ticket booths and gate.  At best we figured it wouldn’t be much more than a large church picnic. We were sorely mistaken.

Once inside and after our first round of beers, we discovered what can only be described as Beerfest. There were hundreds of people stuffed into this small community center. All of them eating and drinking like the world was going to end.  In the center there was an announcer, what we were told was an “authentic German band,” and various games.  Some of these games involved beer steins and ping-pong balls, others involved logs and saws. It was a madhouse.

Once the beers loosened our spirits up a bit Mike and I decided dancing was a good thing to do.  We found the nearest group of seemingly eligible women, grabbed them by the hand and proceeded to spin around long enough that we couldn’t tell if it was the beer or the women that were making our heads spin. As it turns out The Cupid Shuffle and Chicken Dance are the only dances that everyone, young or old, can do.  They’re universal dances.

Brats, potatoes, good beer, and lots of loud music and singing made for a pretty crazy night inside.  The party had shown us that strange things -good things- happen in strange places.  We stumbled back to the Toyota, Mike handed me the keys and we made our way back into the mountain to sleep off “Jaeger Hour”.  Now, I’m not the most competent off-roader, but the truck made things a breeze in the dark.  The bespoke lights that Mike had equipped this truck with fought back the darkness and gave even a novice like me the confidence to venture into the wilderness at midnight.  Every rock, every twig was illuminated.   I could see everything I was about to crawl over and because of that, I’m sure, we made it back to camp in time to fall onto our sleeping mats and be lulled to sleep by the tinnitus in our heads.


Sun-up. Cotton mouth. Puffy eyes.  We had had fun last night. We had finished off what was left of the old pizza at this point and had to go into town for breakfast.  A little diner in downtown Big Bear called to us as we drove by. It felt every bit the ski resort diner that it was for this ski resort town. Old pictures of the mountain on the walls. Old skis and sleds hung up for decoration. The food on the menu couldn’t escape this theme.  Mike order a coffee and OJ and something called “The Avalanche.” This dish was your basic breakfast staples; eggs, bacon, sausage, home fries, and biscuits all smothered in sawmill gravy.

I had a coffee, black as I usually do, an OJ, and the steak and eggs.  They had apparently run out of steak, so the ver nice waitress put in an order for 2 pork chops instead. Lucky me.  After wolfing down our weight in breakfast food and hot coffee we climbed back in the rig and made for the hills.  This day’s trip would take us up the south side of the lake.  A scenic departure from the dry yellows, golds, and browns from the day before. He was right.  It was alpine!

Tall pine trees and evergreen underbrush made for some picturesque trialing that day.  As the temperature dropped, the fog rolled in and the rain started everything just seemed to get better. We rolled out onto a cliff face with a view of the valley some 1000′ feet or more below; with clouds rolling beneath us took a moment and breathed in the absolute beauty of this place.

The rest of the trip is probably best in pictures, really.  Along with the alpine forests the lower portions of the mountain forests were decked out in reds and yellows rivaling even the Northeast during prime leak peeking season. With the steady drizzle giving a welcome respite to the dust and dampening the roads everything seemed to shimmer in autumnal light.  Cold blue roads and warm colored trees really made for a beautiful backdrop for my last day in the mountains.

The drive back felt every bit as long as 2 hours could be. The sky was overcast and the once enchanting weather from up on the mountain became dismal and gloomy.  Mike and I were tired and worn out from Oktoberfesting and offroading in Big Bear for the weekend. The silence gave time to reflect on the weekend.  The damp atmosphere, always welcomed in parched SoCal, the same that made the orange leave glow was now depressing and cold.  It wasn’t until that evening, reflecting over ice cold beer and tacos on the water that our exhausted spirits had lifted. There really is nothing quite like a cold one after a long weekend eating pizza and driving around hot, dry, and dusty trails.

The weekend was absolutely perfect. The truck handled everything from low speed crawling to high sped interstate cruising like a champ.  Toyota’s are known for their reliability and this one doesn’t disappoint.  It still ran strong without a hiccup or cough. Every morning she started right up with no hesitation. Not every 250k mi build can boast that. Highland’s newest project 4Runner already looks solid.  It is no trailer or show queen. It’s driven every day. It beat on every chance it can get. I can’t wait to see what Highland puts out next.

Specs And Pics:



3.4L V6

Auto Trans

4WD w/ factory E-locker

K&N high flow drop-in filter

Hayden 678 Trans Cooler (Radiator Bypass)


Tundra Front coils sitting on 4Runner Bilstein 5100’s set on lowest notch – 2″ lift

OME 891 Rear coils paired with 4Runner Bilstein 5100’s – 2.5-3″ lift

Custom Sonoran Steel Rear Bump Stops

Wheelers Off-Road Front Super Bumps for 2nd Gen Tacoma

ProComp Wheels – 8″ wide (possibly for sale)

Cooper ST MAXX 315/75/16 (Full set of 5)


Custom Front Bumper

4″ square stock connecting rear frame rails for “custom rear bumper”

3 Highland Off-Road 9″ LED lights ( 2 fog lenses, 1 spot lens)

Trimmed firewall back

Trimmed front fenders up 2″

OEM ground clearance mod ( removed running boards)



The $5K XJ


1KidsA couple weeks ago in our feature about the Sentra That Wouldn’t Die we mentioned that we were proud of some guy.  That guy was Jon.  Jon has had a collection of beaters, not unlike most of us, and seems to prefer the off-road 4X4 genre of beater the most. When we reached out to him we initially were looking for a story about his current workhorse, a Toyota Tacoma, but instead got a pleasant surprise with this lunk of a Jeep instead.  Here is Jon’s $5K XJ:

When did you get your beater?
-I purchased it in February 2010 for $5000 (dubbed the 5KXJ).

What do you like about your beater?
-Everything about it was cheap. It was cheap to fix, cheap to build, and cheap to run. It was simple and fun (when it ran). It was loud, tall, covered in mud most of the time, had tons of wheel travel, and had stickers all over it.

What do you dislike about your beater?
-Like I said, everything about it was cheap. It was an absolute lemon, everything broke at least once, and when you add up a bunch of cheap parts, it gets expensive, as I found out. In short it was a money pit that got single digit gas mileage. I had to staple the headliner to the roof to keep it out of my face when I was driving down the road.

332595_10150416130660939_206603881_oWhat is the funniest thing that has happened in it?
– While wheeling at Hollister Hills SVRA in California, my friends convinced me to drive over an obstacle that was too big for my Jeep. My idle air control sensor was already on the fritz so it wouldn’t idle and I had been power braking the thing all day. So anyways, when trying to get over this rock, my “spotters” said I was clear and I ripped my exhaust clean off. Had to drive home with essentially an open header.

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Have you been on any roadtrips?
-Well, I drove it from Philly to Florida pulling a uHaul trailer when I began my career in racing. Then I drove it from Connecticut to California with no A/C and cutoff exhaust in August.IMG_0081

What is the weirdest thing you’ve had to fix or take it to the mechanic for?
-Days before I was set to move from Connecticut to California, the Jeep broke. It was unloaded from a trailer after being transported from Florida to Connecticut and wouldn’t start. Unfortunately, I was on the road for work during all of this, so needless to say I was less than pleased to return from 3 months on the road to a broken Jeep. After several failed attempts to fix it, a smoked Optima battery and fried electronics, I had it fixed at a dealership due to time constraints. Picked it up, and drove it to California the following day without fault. It wound up being a faulty, shorted out coil pack.312657_10151331994805939_753669113_n

What is the weirdest thing you’ve had to fix or take it to the mechanic for?
-Worst thing that almost happened: The afternoon after I picked my Jeep up from the dealership, I returned to my motel to pack my bag for California. A severe thunderstorm rolled through, flooding the parking lot. Lightning struck the motel, arced through flooded parking lot, and fried all the electronics in the Dodge Magnum parked next to me, totaling the vehicle. My Jeep was spared, due only to the fact that I had larger tires on it, and the puddle never got deep enough to arc the lighting through my wheels, unlike the Dodge. So I got the hell out of there, thanked my lucky starts and continued on my merry way.


-When I first put a lift kit on it, I backed it out of the garage, grinning ear to ear. On my way to the tire shop where I worked at the time (to install my big bad-ass tires that were sure to win the ladies over), the rear driveshaft exploded no less than a mile from the garage, due to a horrendous driveshaft angle. I removed the mangled shaft, slammed it in 4Hi, and kept driving. I drove it like that everyday for over a month while I waited for a custom driveshaft to get shipped to me. I eventually sold it in March 2013 for $6K (Score!)


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